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Italy's Braveheart: Martin Foradori

Martin Foradori of Hofstätter champions family wineries and defies the big co-ops. Lettie Teague meets the man who calls himself Braveheart.

Of all the romantic winemaking notions, none perhaps is more durable than that of the family joined in pursuit of the same noble goal: producing a wine that will last through the ages and rank among the best in the world. Of course, reality often falls short of most romantic ideals, and not every family works closely together—or, for that matter, together at all. Like the Foradoris, who create some of Italy's most remarkable wines in two different wine regions, Alto Adige and Trentino.

Martin Foradori, 35, is the scion of J. Hofstätter estate, an Alto Adige property that has been making top wines for decades, most notably Barthenau Vigna S. Urbano Pinot Nero (arguably the first great Italian Pinot Noir) and Kolbenhof Gewürztraminer (the only great Italian Gewürztraminer). Foradori's cousin Elisabetta Foradori, 40, turns out two acclaimed reds under the Foradori label in nearby Trentino, from the local Teroldego grape.

Though Alto Adige and Trentino are often linked by a hyphen, the two regions actually have little in common aside from their geography; both are located in the picturesque Alpine region of northern Italy, in the foothills of the Dolomites mountain range. Alto Adige is mostly famous for its white wines (Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau), while Trentino is known almost entirely for its reds. And although Trentino feels more completely Italian and is almost entirely Italian- speaking, Alto Adige is still commonly called by its Austrian name, Südtirol, and its residents mostly speak German. Alto Adige has been part of Italy only since it was taken from Austria after World War I.

How was it one family could dominate two such different places, cultures and types of wines? Did their differences make them closer, or drive them apart? Did they share confidences, philosophies, winemaking tips or even speak the same language at family reunions?

I flew to Bolzano, Alto Adige's capital, hoping to find all this out—and meet as many Foradoris as possible.

Bolzano is one of Italy's most prosperous cities; there's so much money in the town that they built an impressive three-story museum just for the Ice Man, the prehistoric figure found on a nearby glacier some 14 years ago.

Foradori, sporting the sort of stylish eyewear favored by architects, met me at the Bolzano airport, where he'd been waiting for some time. Only one airline flies to Bolzano and it's not too reliable. "I fly out of Innsbruck," Foradori said to me later, naming the Austrian city less than two hours to the north. "The Bolzano airport is cute, but you never know if the plane will fly." Foradori seemed a bit agitated—but not, as I thought, because of the long wait for me to arrive. "A lot of people are mad at me," he said. Apparently, he had been quoted in the local newspaper, questioning the government's preferential treatment of Alto Adige's cooperative wineries. And Alto Adige's family winemakers weren't happy with his remarks. "Even though half of them told me privately that they agree with me," he said. "Do you remember the movie Braveheart?" he asked suddenly, referring to the blockbuster Mel Gibson movie in which the Scottish hero avenges the loss of his loved ones and the honor of his land. "That was me."

Foradori had just entered his third term as president of the family winemaking association (he resigned soon after I left). There aren't many family-owned wineries in Alto Adige—Foradori estimates about 35 belong to the association, of which Hofstätter is one of the largest. That's a lot less than when Hofstätter was founded more than 100 years ago. Today, Alto Adige is dominated almost entirely by the cooperatives. In fact, cooperatives produce about two thirds of Alto Adige's wines, with as many as 200 grape growers belonging to a single cooperative. Several of the operations, such as San Michele Appiano, Cantina Gries and Cantina Santa Maddalena, produce high-quality wines, though perhaps not quite of the caliber Mussolini thought they did. Mussolini is said to have declared a Santa Maddalena wine to be one of the best in Italy, right up with Barolo and Barbaresco—which just goes to show he might have known something about keeping the trains running on time but not much about the proper hierarchies of wine.

The Hofstätter winery has remained competitive with the cooperatives thanks to the unusual size of its vineyard holdings. "We have about 120 acres," Foradori reported to me. "The average Alto Adige vineyard is just over an acre." This advantage, he added dramatically, "is the only reason my company is still alive."

The Hofstätter estate had grown over the years thanks to acquisitions by Foradori's grandfather Konrad Oberhofer (nephew of winery founder Josef Hofstätter) and the marriage of his mother, Sieglinde (Konrad's daughter), to his father, Paolo Foradori. "I grew up speaking to my father in Italian and my mother in German," said Foradori, who talks to his three children in German because, "they don't understand when I speak Italian."

I said I was looking forward to meeting his father. (Foradori's mother died four years ago.) "My father is in Ischia with his girlfriend," he replied. "I don't know when he'll be back." Just then, I noticed that Foradori had left the main road and we were now driving through what looked like an apple orchard. Apples are a big business in Alto Adige, and there are miles of orchards planted along the valley floor. Most of the grapes are grown on the steep hillsides above. According to Foradori, the "apple roads" are the fastest way of traveling between the valley's opposite sides—an important fact for a winemaker like Foradori, whose vineyards are located on both slopes. These roads are also the safest routes, he added, "if you've had too much to drink."

It was hard to picture Foradori in such a condition: He seemed like someone who practiced self-control the way another might do sit-ups. And his powers of recall proved equally rigorous. Foradori, I soon learned, did not like to be asked the same question twice. "As I told you" soon became his most commonly uttered phrase.

he Hofstätter story is rather complex, however, and I found that I needed an occasional repetition of facts to get things straight. For starters, there are a lot of Hofstätter wines to keep track of: a total of 22, under two labels, Classic and Estate. And the mix of varietals is equally prodigious: Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, Lagrein and Pinot Noir—to name just a few. And then there are all the wine estates—seven in total—scattered along both sides of the valley.

The most important of these estates is Barthenau, home of the famous Vigna S. Urbano Pinot Nero. It is also where Paolo lives and where he can be found most often when he's not traveling to Ischia or hunting in Russia. A brief tour of the Barthenau house (a pink Moorish-cum-Tyrolean castle complete with a turret) offered proof of Paolo's prowess with a gun: Every wall of every room was covered with antlers. A nearby portrait showed Ernest Hemingway in a Tyrolean hat. "My father," Foradori said.

The Barthenau estate was named after Ludwig Barth von Barthenau, a Vienna-based scientist and professor who introduced Pinot Noir to South Tyrol in the mid-19th century. The estate has belonged to the Foradoris for decades. It was Paolo who decided in the 1950s to make a single-vineyard Pinot Nero there. "Everyone said he was crazy," said Foradori, sounding pleased.

Foradori brought out five Vigna S. Urbano Pinot Neros for us to taste, beginning with his first vintage, 1993. That wine was a little light and a bit tomatoey ("I've changed my maceration techniques since then," he said), but the 2000 was pretty, with good Pinot character, and the 1997 and 2001 were simply gorgeous—deep, rich and concentrated. The last Pinot that Foradori opened for us to taste was the 1989, which was made by his father. It was aromatically pure, wonderfully fresh and full of life.

"I like the view from Barthenau best," Foradori remarked when we drove out to the vineyards. "I can see all my estates." He pointed out the small town of Tramin directly across the valley, the church steeple just visible above the small half-timbered houses. "My winery is next to the church," he said. "You can see it from here." Foradori's modern winery tower practically abuts the church spire. He and his family live there but I wouldn't be seeing much of his wife or children, according to Foradori. They were headed to the mountains for a two-week vacation. Can't you go with them for a few days? I asked. I have too much work, Foradori replied.

econd in splendor to Barthenau is the Kolbenhof estate, home of the legendary Gewürztraminer vineyard. It's also where Foradori's 90-something-year-old great aunt and her children reside. Foradori hopes to turn their house into an inn someday. The house, a beautiful 15th-century building, would certainly be a lovely hotel. But what would happen to his aunt? "Oh, she knows some day she'll have to go," he replied.

The Kolbenhof vineyard is located just above the town of Tramin (or Termeno, as it's known in Italian). It is not only one of the most important vineyards in Alto Adige, but also one of the oldest; the first mention of Kolbenhof appeared in 1722. In those days, Gewürztraminer was called Traminer after the town. (In fact, it's the chief white grape grown in Tramin/Termeno today.) The Kolbenhof Gewürztraminer is a deeply flavorful, nuanced wine with a penetrating minerality. It may be the most characterful Gewürztraminer I've tasted outside of Alsace, though unlike many Alsace wines, it is dry.

The Kolbenhof Gewürztraminer has won Tre Bicchieri (three glasses) or highest honors, from Gambero Rosso, the influential Italian wine magazine, for many years. But the Barthenau Pinot has only rated two glasses in recent years. "Every year they write that the Barthenau was one half-step from Tre Bicchieri," said Foradori, "But it's the wine that's most important for us." Why was that? Because no one believes there is such a thing as great Italian Pinot Noir? "No, because great Pinot Noir is hard to make anywhere," said Foradori.

As we stood at the top of the vineyard looking east, Foradori pointed to a pinkish castle on a hill. "You can see Barthenau," he said proudly to me. As we turned to head back to the car, Foradori waved to a woman in the garden. "That's my aunt's daughter," he said. She waved back, looking remarkably cheerful, I thought, for a woman who might soon be dispossessed.

Foradori began telling me about the transfer of power from his father to himself, which took place in 1997. Although Paolo relinquished control, he still maintains an office at the winery. "He will come to my office asking 'What's in the barrel in the cellar down there?'" Foradori reported. "And when I tell him I don't know, that he should ask the cellar master, he says to me, 'In my time, I knew everything that was in the winery.'"

It sounded like a familiar enough tale of resistance to change, one that probably every generation can tell about the one that preceded it—even if the preceding generation had made some big changes as well. As Foradori's father certainly had. After all, by the time Paolo took over the Hofstätter estate from Konrad Oberhofer in the early 1980s, he had "changed the business completely," according to his son.

Paolo was the first producer in Alto Adige to put his wines in bottles rather than ship them in tanks, which was a revolutionary idea in the '50s. He was also the first to sell wine to the rest of Italy. At that time, said Foradori, "Italy was considered a foreign country to Alto Adige producers." The winery kept three price lists back then: Export, Alto Adige and Venice. "Now, of course," Foradori laughed, "we only have one."

Yet for all his innovation, Paolo lived in a less complicated time, said his son. He was able to take more vacations (all those hunting trips) and had more time to spend at home. Foradori is on the road more often. "My father will call me and ask 'Where are you?' and I'll say 'I'm in Rome,'" Foradori explained. "Three days later, he'll call me and I'll be in Munich." Foradori shook his head. "There are people in New York I see more than I do in Alto Adige." Why does he have to travel so much? Foradori set his jaw, looking a bit Hemingwayesque too (albeit in architecturally stylish eyewear). "It is what is necessary to maintain what the previous generation has done," he said.

Later that day we stopped for lunch in a lovely but oddly empty restaurant in the mountains. Foradori ordered a bottle of Schiava from a local winemaker, Georg Ramoser. (Schiava, the most-planted grape in Alto Adige, produces a light, simple, slightly bitter red.) Foradori likes to order bottles from private wineries, although he acknowledged that some cooperatives make good wines as well. "Private wineries have to be proud of the cooperatives," he said. "They do make good wines. But family wineries put their heart and soul into their wines. The quality of the cooperative wines depends entirely on the manager."

By now, I had a good grasp of the Foradori family property, but not of the Foradori family itself. I looked forward to visiting Trentino and hearing what Elisabetta had to say.

Although Elisabetta's winery is only a short drive from Tramin, it had been a year or two since Foradori had made the trip there. He was "too busy" to accompany me the day that I visited and sent one of his cellar masters, Marco, instead. As it turned out, Elisabetta was busy too. She was out of the country.

Though Elisabetta had only one estate in Trentino, it didn't look like she was suffering any hardship. Her winery, like her cousin's, was located in a prosperous-looking town (Mezzolombardo), although unlike those of Hofstätter, her vineyards were all on the valley floor. The Foradori estate's showpiece was an early-20th-century villa, tastefully appointed, down to the black-and-white portraits on the walls: Elisabetta, her parents, her children, the winery workers and a winery dog. But none of them was around as far as I could tell. Not even the dog.

Marco and I tasted a few vintages of Elisabetta's wines, in the company of her assistant. The two Foradori reds are both made from the Teroldego grape: Granato, a barrique-aged red, and a simpler red called Foradori. Elisabetta also makes an exotic white blend of mostly Sauvignon Blanc called Myrto that "requires time in the bottle," her assistant said. I loved the soft, fleshy ripeness of the Foradori and found the Granato well made though a bit more austere. Marco declared the wines delicious, and Elisabetta, whom he'd met before, a "rock star." (She did have a commanding presence in the photograph on the wall.) What about her cousin, Martin? I asked. "He's working on it," Marco replied.

Later that evening, over dinner at Foradori's favorite local restaurant, Zur Rose, Foradori mused on his father's many accomplishments, which he said were those of a pioneer "but not a legend." According to Foradori, "We have pioneers but no legendary figures in Alto Adige. The closest we have is Alois Lageder," he said, naming another Alto Adige winemaker. I wondered if Foradori would have felt otherwise had Lageder been his father. Is any father, after all, a legend to his son? Or was it that Foradori hoped to become a legend himself, a hero like Braveheart? (Without, of course, all the bloodshed.)

On the last day of my visit, we went to Barthenau once more. This time, Foradori wanted to show me some photographs. Paolo was apparently the family archivist, and there were albums scattered all over his house, almost as many as there were antlers on the walls. (Accordingly, half a dozen of the photo albums were dedicated to Paolo's hunting exploits.) When Foradori located the right albums, he looked over the pictures almost as avidly as I did. There he was as a handsome youth, there were some family members (long dead) in fancy dress; and there was his cousin Elisabetta, looking like a budding young rock star.

Surrounded by his family, if only in photos, Foradori seemed, for the first time, to relax. I wanted to say to him, forget all about legends. Forget all that travel. Go to the mountains on vacation with your family instead. But I didn't because I knew Foradori would remind me—"As I told you"—that he had to leave for Zurich the next day, and after that Florida, and then Sicily too. There was no time for his family. He had to keep everything going. Right now he had to be Braveheart instead.

Published October 2005
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