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Ca' del Bosco: House of a Perfectionist

May 09, 1991|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

In an encyclopedia on wine written almost a decade ago, wine author Hugh Johnson made reference to the Italian property Ca' del Bosco and its dynamic owner Maurizio Vanilla.

It was a classic typographical error and an ironic twist at the same time. Not only is the owner's name Maurizio Zanella, but his wines are anything but vanilla in character. In fact, his wines are a dramatic testament to vision and drive.

And money. For the project known as Ca' del Bosco is no ordinary winery. Set at the foot of the Alps, in the tiny town of Erbusco, it is a sprawling hillside estate that may have cost $30 million or more to build and includes an incredible network of underground caves for the making and aging of the wine.

Perhaps the early lack of recognition for Zanella and his project derives from the simple fact that Zanella is a perfectionist; although he began re-developing this project in 1972 to create the greatest wines in the world, the quality of the wine didn't show until a decade later.

On a visit to this amazing place the first thing one sees is a huge main building that appears large enough to house the winemaking. Actually, it's a hospitality center, filled with leather couches and arm chairs, sculptures and artworks. Most of the production is done below ground.

When foreign visitors arrive, Zanella, 36, hoists the national flag of his guests from a 40-foot flagpole at the front door and leads them out onto a broad mosaicked piazza that also serves as a helicopter pad. When I visited, we sat on a stone bench and talked about the rebel that did all this.

"I was a radical, a student demonstrator in 1968, in Milan," he says. "My father was so frustrated with me, he sent me here," to the family's summer home in Lombardy, then a mere eight acres. "I was sent into exile," he says nonchalantly.

At school, young Maurizio learned agriculture, but nothing appealed to him until a field trip his class took to the Burgundy district of France to see a winery. This was no ordinary winery; it was Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, one of the greatest of all wine producers in France.

"In Italy at the time, we drank wine to go with spaghetti and meatballs," he said. "We drank a lot of wine, and it was cheap. Very little of it was fine wine, but when I tasted the DRC wines . . . " His eyes began to roll. "I decided I wanted to make that kind of wine."

His father, Albano, had been successful in the trucking industry. Zanella asked him to bankroll his plan to expand the summer home into a major wine-making facility. To appease the rebel, the father consented.

A flood of spending followed. Land was acquired and planted and the winery was built. The result is one of the most astounding winery facilities I have ever seen. To make room for the vines, Zanella removed some of the forest, which gave rise to the name of the property: House of the Woods. ( Ca' is local dialect for casa , house; bosco is woods.)

Today Ca' del Bosco has 125 acres of vines planted tightly--some 2,500 vines per acre, about five times the amount in California vineyards. The theory is that the vines will compete with one another for survival, which will makes for smaller berries and more concentrated flavors. In the underground winery, thousands of square feet of cellar space are laid out so that red wine can be made in one location, white wine in another and sparkling in yet another.

The first wine maker here was Andre Dubois, who had been cellar master at Moet in France before being wooed here by Zanella. In 1985, however, Zanella decided to hire a wine maker from California.

"One day in August, I got a phone call from this guy in Italy and he says if I want to make wine in Italy, a plane ticket is waiting for me," says Brian Larky. "I had never met this guy before, so I asked him what his time frame was, and he said, 'the harvest starts next week.' I thought he was crazy."

Larky, a graduate of the wine program at UC Davis, is adventurous, but not about to jump into something without checking. "so I called Piero Selvaggio at Valentino and asked him what he knew about Ca' del Bosco. And he said, 'Oh, you must go. You must see it.' So I decided to go."

Larky, who looks and acts like comedian Kevin Pollack, has an intensity similar to Zanella's, with eyes that flash and a body that moves even when he's sitting still. But even he was unprepared for the outrageous lifestyle he'd find.

"The day I got there, there was a lunch that lasted till 4 p.m., then a dinner that lasted till midnight, and I was still jet-lagged and I spoke no Italian. But I could tell these guys were serious."

Larky made wine at Ca' del Bosco until 1989, when he left. "Maurizio felt it was time for me to settle down, marry a local girl," says Larky, now 28. "I wasn't ready for that."

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