Two Tales of Three and a Half Winemakers

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Stefano Farkas bears an uncanny resemblance to a hero of mine, the great French fisherman, Charles Ritz, author of A Flyfisher’s Life and inventor of the high-speed/high line method of casting a trout fly and architect of the beautiful Pezon et Michel CC de France fly rods. More remarkable still, Stefano is also a dedicated fly fisherman, with the usual creel-load of stories of fabulous trout in the Baca, Soca and Idricja rivers in Slovenia, fabourite waters of my own, and of vast salmon in Norway, and the pictures to prove them. Ah well.

But it isn’t as a fisherman that Stefano is best known. It’s for making some of the finest wines on Elba, marketed under the label of Lazarus. Whether this is a reference to the Valle di Lazzaro just outside Portoferraio, where his vineyard is situated, or to the fact that he has brought the vineyard back from the dead I’m not sure.

Stefano is clearly a hands-on winemaker. He’s a lean man with keen eyes, a dashing moustache beneath an elegant nose and dusting of white stubble on his head, habitually dressed in jeans, polo shirt and heavy duty work boots. He speaks with a raid fire delivery, punctuated by ‘I tell you one thing -‘ at regular intervals.

‘I tell you one thing, this is hard word.’ ‘I tell you one thing, we had to clear out all these terraces. It was like a jungle here, a jungle.’ ‘I tell you one thing, the fish, this marmorata, had head like a dog.’

He prunes the vines, sprays the copper sulphate, drives the tractor, picks the grapes, supervises the pressing, the maceration, the bottling, attends the trade fairs, deals with marketing and delivery challenges. Although he has a chap who helps him, the life of the individual wine maker is neither easy nor particularly financially rewarding. It’s a full life, leaving, to his regret, little time for fishing.

Stefano build a reputation as a brilliant wine maker at Villa Carfaggio on mainland Tuscany, before selling up and moving to Elba nine years ago. In that time he’s brought back life to this abandoned, secluded valley just outside Portoferraio, sculpting an immaculate vineyard up its steep sides, rebuilding the terraces, and planting Vermentino, Chardonnay, Aleatico and Sangiovesi.

He has little truck with strict organic wine makers, even less with bio-dynamic theory and practice and is sceptical about ‘natural’ wines. On tIt’s a full life, he other hand, he restricts his own chemical interventions to a minimum, as the wealth of poppies, daisies, and other wild flowers testify. He sprays copper sulphate to keep blight at bay, which is allowed under most organic charters.

And the wines. Well, to be honest, I did not take detailed notes, as we were banging on about flies and fish and rods and rivers. But I remember them to be, as you’d expect with this kind of pedigree, of an exceptional quality, brilliant as gems, with balance and power. The unoaked Chardonnary had an extraordinary richness and depth, which will get greater when the next vintage is kept in oak barrels for a year. The Vermentino also had a roundness and finesse you don’t always associate with that grape. The Sangiovesi is in the early stages of development, but is already a powerful and elegant presence. But it was the Aleatico that provided the greatest surprises for me. The base wine was very fine, but the sweet Passito and Rosato were both full of character, striking and a delight to drink.

‘I tell you one thing, they will get better,’ Stefano said.

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Franco Onetto, Alberto Tonnino and Carlo Eugeni

I am sitting outside in the Cafe Roma in Marciana Marina with Carlo Eugeni. He’s a short, stocky man, dressed for comfort not for show. He must be in his lmid- to late-70s. Once he organised gastronomic tours for Pan Am and Delta Airlines, but he’s retired now, and has returned to the town of his birth. He laughs easily. His eyes beneath his baseball cap have a shrewd , worldly cast to them. He listens carefully. He turns.

‘Oi, Franco,’ he calls at a man with wavy hair and glasses talking earnestly to two others at a table on the other side of the terrace. We are the only people at the place. Marciana Marina is a quiet place out of season. ‘Can you bring me a bottle of your wine?’

Franco looks up. ‘Why?’

‘Because I ask you to.’

‘It’s a bit early to start drinking, even for an old man like you.’

‘Not me. It’s for my guest. A very important English journalist.’

Franco does his best to look impressed. ‘As it’s for him and not you – ‘ and he disappears. I get the feeling that this easy banter is part of a daily routine.

Carlo explains that Franco and his partner, Alberto have an vineyard in the hills above the town where they grow Trebbiano grapes to make wine in small quantities. “It’s about as natural as wine becomes because Franco and Alberto are too lazy to do anything to it. Absolutely nothing. They don’t spray because it’s too much trouble and too expensive. They do a bit of pruning. Not much. They keep the weeds down. They pick the grapes, press them, ferment the juice and bottle it. That’s it.’

Franco returns with the bottle. The label is the model of simplicity. It doesn’t even note the alcohol level. Franco frowns when I ask him. ‘I suppose about 12.5%, 13%. We’ve never really measured it.’ He explains that the name, TO, is simply the first letters of the surname of his winemaking partner, Tonnino, and himself, Onetta.

He pours the wines. It is the colour of dandelions. It has an unusual, peppery, astringent nose. Franco says we have to wait a little to let the wine open a little.

Alberto Tonnino joins us as well. ‘The vines are very old,’ he says,’ 100 years.That helps give the wine its concentration.’

They only make about three hundred bottles a year, says Franco. ‘100 for him, 100 for me and 100 to give away to friends like Carlo.’

‘Ah, so I am a friend now, am I?’ says Carlo.

The conversation turns to fishing. Yes, there are plenty of cernia, dentice, spigola. And tuna.

‘And the best oysters in the Mediterranean,’ says Franco.

‘No there aren’t because you’ve taken them all,’ says Carlo. Franco is a keen diver in his spare time, of which he has quite a lot since he retired from working in a bank. (‘Retired! Hah! They sacked you because you never did any work,’ says Carlo.)

At last we’re allowed to taste the wine. In my experience trebbiano has almost always been a rather non-descript, gulping wines in my experience. This is focussed and structured; spicy, with a touch of resin. It leaves the mouth feeling very clean, almost dry. It’s a wines that needs food, fish in particular. Time for lunch, says Carlo.

‘You must go to La Taverna,’ says Franco. ‘They have anchovies. Very fresh, In today.’

Carlo demurs.Crossing the street we bump into the chef of La Taverna. He confirms that the anchovies have just come in today. Carlo is persuaded.

‘Isn’t it wonderful,’ he says. ‘You come to meet me. I introduce you to two men who make very singular wine. And they tell us where to have lunch. Connections, it’s a kind of magic.’