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Barolo giant Aldo Conterno dies at 81

May 31, 2012 |  2:42 pm

ConternoThe great barolista Aldo Conterno is gone. Born in 1931, he was 81 years old. I was alerted by a tweet from Osteria Mozza's Joe Bastianich, who linked to a blog posting by Sergio Miravalle in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

I haven't seen Conterno for maybe 10 years, but at one time I used to see him at least two or three times a year in Monforte d'Alba, the hilltop town in the heart of Barolo country. He was always there at the door of his winery, shaking his head and smiling, ushering us into the tasting room. He brought out glasses, bottles of Barbera and his splendid Barolo. He'd tell stories about his vineyards, about the prolific cherry tree, about how hard it was to find people to harvest this vintage, about the old days, all the gossip. He had a wicked wit and was a world-class storyteller.

Most of the time he insisted on ending the tasting (which went on for hours) with a small glass of his Barolo Chinato. That's an old Barolo dosed with quinine so it becomes a kind of bitters. For me, a waste of a good Barolo, but supposedly good for the digestion. I seem to remember it was slightly illegal and that was probably part of the fun for him.

I loved to listen to his stories told in an English that encapsulated the American spoken in the '50s. He was, the La Stampa article trumpets, the only barolista to fight in the Korean War. True.

This is what I remember of what he told me.

His uncle, who had emigrated to the States and was a butcher in San Francisco, showed up after World War II driving a big yellow Cadillac he'd shipped over from America. The kids were awestruck to see this stupendous vehicle make its way through the narrow streets of the minuscule hill town. Aldo remembered his uncle paid Aldo's future wife $1 to wash the yellow Cadillac.

His uncle wanted to plant a vineyard in Napa Valley and invited Aldo back to San Francisco in the mid-'50s to help with the project. He went and when they arrived in the valley, he said, he couldn't believe it. The vines were all planted on the valley floor, not in the hills! And that was their idea, to plant a vineyard on a steep hillside like the ones in the Piedmont.

I can't remember the exact sequence, but soon after he arrived, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea -- either that or go back home.

But by the time he got out, his uncle was too frail to continue the project and in 1961, Aldo returned to Barolo to work with his brother Giovanni after his father, the famous barolista Giacomo Conterno, ceded the winery to the two of them. Eventually the brothers split because of philosophical differences, and in 1969 Aldo opened his own cellar and winery, Poderi Aldo Conterno, down the road from Giacomo Conterno.

He wanted to do his own thing. I think that's something he picked up from his time in America. And he definitely did, producing Barolo that was both profoundly traditional and new at the same time. He could discuss his single vineyards as if they were his children, each with its peculiar quirks and strengths. Most times when I'd visit, we'd have a look at the cru vineyards, too -- at Colonello, Cicala and Romirasco. His greatest wine, Gran Bussia' Barolo Riserva, is a blend from all three vineyards.

He used to ask me, is that men's store or little grocery or whatever still on the corner of such and such streets in San Francisco? He had the entire map of the 1950s city alive in his mind. He'd never been back, but San Francisco was still so vivid to him, maybe because he didn't travel all that much later.

Once when I visited, he was excited because an old Army buddy, after spotting a magazine article about Aldo Conterno and his wines, had contacted him and was coming to visit. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to hear the stories. I'm sure his wife, Ghemma, made her piatto forte (strong dish) for the guests -- brasato al Barolo, beef braised in Barolo.

I know that every Sunday you could find Aldo in the cafe in town playing cards with his friends. And that once a year, everyone born in the year 1931 in Monforte got together for a big dinner and to drink Barolo from their birth year.

"We're running out of bottles," he complained, laughing, quite a long time ago when he was in his late '50s. By then the 83 born in 1931 had dwindled to 63. "Every year, we're fewer and fewer." 

This year, the genial and beloved Aldo Conterno will be missing.

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-- S. Irene Virbila

Photo: Ghemma and Aldo Conterno; credit: Fred Seidman/Special to the Times

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