The vandals came in the night a week ago on December 2nd. They smashed a heavy glass door and then slipped down the stairs, deep below ground, apparently unnoticed into the wine cellar and opened the spigots on 10 large wooden casks of one of the most prized wines in the world, Soldera’s Brunello di Montalcino. In the dark, the precious wine poured forth gallon after gallon, until the casks were emptied. By the time it was discovered over 16,500 gallons (62,600 liters) were on the floor.
Gianfranco Soldera lost 6 years’ of wine worth millions of dollars. Before this incident on December 2nd, a bottle of Soldera’s Brunello cost between $250-$350 per bottle.
There were roughly 9,000 bottles of Brunello in Soldera’s cellars. The vandals didn’t not touch a single bottle. Whoever they were, they opened the spigots and disappeared into the night.
There are no signs for Soldera’s Case Basse vineyards, and we drove up and down the serpentine roads of the Montalcino area of Tuscany yesterday watching a purple-pink sunset and wondering if we would ever reach our destination. Finally a phone call helped us find the bumpy, dirt road winding up and down the hills, several kilometers past vineyards to the gate of the Case Basse company. I was eager to meet the man at the center of the world’s biggest wine mystery, Gianfranco Soldera.
Soldera came to greet us at the door. He is a sprightly, 75-year-old man with plenty of fight left in him.
He explained to me that police from the nearby city of Siena had spent the morning scouring the Case Basse Vineyards and buildings, hunting for footprints, fingerprints and other leads. Soldera said he is constant touch with investigators. But while they are looking for definitive answers, the incident has set the wine world on fire with speculation.
Gianfranco Soldera is known as a cantankerous purist, a man who trusts nature to make his wine the best through rigorous natural methods, a fierce determination, and a trust in his nose. Someone who has seen him at work says Soldera passes through his cellars glass in hand, tasting the wine from the spigot and deciding himself when it is ready. As he explained to me, “The quality of a wine is equal to the quality of the sense of smell of he who produces it.”
And there is no doubt that Soldera has a good nose and a good wine. Back in 2006 The New York Times’ wine critic, Eric Asimov, described Soldera’s Brunello as “an unbelievably pure and delicious wine,” and Soldera, “one of the most unusual and gifted winemakers in the world.” With his rigid methods, Soldera has created one of the best wines in the world. He has also made a lot of enemies.
One theory is that this was a revenge attack for Soldera’s role in the Brunello scandal in 2008 when an investigation revealed that some of Brunello’s biggest name producers were adulterating their wines (mixing a little Merlot in with the Brunello) and thereby not meeting the DOCG (Denomination of Origin Controlled and Guaranteed) standards which require Brunello to be made with 100% San Giovese grapes. Some think Soldera was the whistle-blower who tipped off authorities.
I asked Soldera if indeed he was the whistleblower in 2008. He replied, ” the investigation of the finance police began well before 2008, and then ended up in the public prosecutor’s office in Siena,” he then added, “The battle for 100 percent San Giovese I have done myself in person.”
At the time, the scandal tainted the Consortium of Brunello di Montalcino that seemed to be turning a blind eye to the adulteration. Now the Consortium, made up of some 250 Brunello producers, has been bending over backwards in its support of Soldera, issuing a statement condemning the attack, demonstrating its solidarity and organizing a collection of wine from other Brunello producers to donate it to Soldera.
Vittorio Cambria, a friend of Soldera, and owner of the Villa Ferraia Inn in Tuscany, was unimpressed by the Consortium’s sympathy, saying that in Sicily they say “the one who cries loudest at the funeral and offers the largest wreath of flowers is the perpetrator of the crime.”
There are others who have cast doubt on the theory of vandals suggesting that Soldera might have done it himself in order to get the insurance money. One Italian website dedicated to wine, pointed out that Soldera worked as an insurance broker for decades before starting his vineyard, and that he has plenty of insurance to cover the damages. Soldera’s hackles rose at this suggestion and he said to me, “It is not possible that anyone said that. If anyone wrote that it would be defamation and I would sue immediately.”
Friends of Soldera exclude the possibility that Soldera would have done this to himself, insisting that the accusation is “absurd,” and arguing that Soldera lives for his wine and would never do anything to damage it.
When asked who he thinks are the perpetrators, Soldera says, “It is clear it wasn’t petty criminals, it was professionals, it is an act done by professionals.”
Following my interview, Soldera invited us to go see the building housing the cellar. He hopped into his truck and drove us down a dirt track below his villa past neat rows vines. When we arrived at the square stone building, Soldera told me I could not go in because the police had cordoned it off, so I stared at the building and thought incredulously about the millions of dollars of Brunello spilled below my feet.
When it was time to go, Soldera walked us to the gate, as he opened it he said to me, “I am used to fighting, I have no fear and I will go on.”
It will be 6 years before Soldera can produce another Brunello. Now the price has skyrocketed up to $1300 a bottle on the remaining bottles of Soldera’s Brunello, Soldera suggested this was a form of speculation that he disapproves of.
So, the investigation continues, the culprits have vanished and the great Brunello mystery remains unsolved.