Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? The frustration of sitting in front of the computer, waiting for words to come, and they don’t. They won’t. It’s usually a temporary affliction, caused by my immediate circumstances or environment; a wrinkle in my writing plan that ultimately smooths itself out.
This was not that.
My experience has been more like playing a video game in which you try to access a certain level but it’s locked. There’s a voice that scolds, “Sorry! You’re not ready to move on. Maybe next time.”
I have sat down to write this post at least a dozen times – one for each of the past 12 months since my mother died. This Friday, March 8th, will be the anniversary of her passing away. It’s also the commemoration of International Women’s Day. My mom sure knew how to pick her moments. More about that, later . . . .
Women in the Wine Industry: a #winestudio Event
During February 2018, #winestudio (the ground-breaking, online wine education program led by Tina Morey) focused on women who were driving change in the wine industry as vineyard owners, winemakers, industry analysts, or pioneers in wine education. Each week we heard these women describe their challenges, motivations, and successes in the wine world. It was impossible not to come away from the sessions inspired and invigorated. I’ve detailed these experiences in previous posts on Breathless Wines and WOW Sonoma with one exception: the Ca’Marcanda wines made in Tuscany by the famous Gaja family of Piemonte. More about that, later . . . .
Lunch and Seminar with Gaia Gaja at Cipriani Miami
Not long after the #winestudio session, I was invited to attend a lunch and seminar hosted by Gaia Gaja, daughter of Piemonte icon Angelo Gaja, and current head of the Gaja Winery in Barbaresco. It took me exactly one second to RSVP “hell yes” and I blocked my schedule for the whole day.
My husband, who loves Miami, decided we should go down together and take a mini-vacation. He got us a room at the W Hotel, right in the heart of Brickell, Miami’s business district (and conveniently located next to Cipriani.) We walked around, soaking up the electric atmosphere of the Magic City, playing “What If We Lived Here.” (Spoiler Alert: we now call Miami home!) Dinner at Cantina La Veinte was lively and delicious (beautiful crowd, awesome mariachi band, and perfectly cooked octopus) and we returned to the hotel feeling relaxed and happy.
The next day I walked the 100 yards to Cipriani and checked in for the seminar.
A Chance Meeting with a Wine Friend
I walked into Cipriani, a spacious, airy, modern space that also happened to be empty. Yep, we were going to be on Miami Time which, depending on traffic and the parties involved, can mean an hour or more of thumb-twiddling before everyone arrives. As I looked around, I noticed another woman strolling around the restaurant taking pictures. When she turned my way, I recognized her immediately: Stephanie Miskew aka The Glamorous Gourmet, and one of the nicest people in the wine world. We had first become acquainted a few years earlier at a wine dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Café Maxx in Pompano Beach. After a bit of catching-up we sat down to wait for the rest of the gang.
Gaia Gaja on the Importance of Tradition and Culture
Gaia Gaja swept into the room quietly but with a presence that commanded everyone’s attention. Side conversations stopped; folks milling about took their seats. Her energy communicated both confidence and warmth, suggesting that she was serious about her subject but appreciative of a clever joke. I think we all wanted to be the one to make her crack a smile.
She began by explaining the natural farming methods used in her family’s vineyards, literally getting “into the weeds” of the details:
- Allowing the grass between the vines to grow longer (she compared it to a jungle) helps keep the soil cool and protect against water loss.
- Using California red earthworms that eat cow manure adds helpful microbes and yeast to the soil.
- Planting cypress groves around the vines encourages nesting of birds who eat insects and other pests that are harmful to the crop.
- Cultivating rosemary plants, which produce an antibody to oidium, may help shield the vines from possible infection.
Gaia also expressed the importance of building a culture within the company. “We don’t take care only of the vines; our job is to cultivate life,” a reference to her father’s long-standing practice of maintaining a full work force even during economic recessions or poor vintages.
It speaks to what she terms “the idea of biodiversity within a region of monoculture.” A world that appreciates the intelligence of Nature in a small plot of vines. One in which human innovation drives creative solutions to age-old challenges. Gaia’s father Angelo, who labels himself a perpetual student of viticulture, summed up his decades of experience as:
“We know nothing.”
A humble yet expansive view of a winemaker’s role in the grand scheme of things.
So, how did all these unrelated people, places, and things converge into Not Writer’s Block?
. . . And Then This Happened
Gaia Gaja had just concluded her presentation, describing each wine as we tasted it, explaining the reasons behind the food pairings. The wait staff began to serve dessert and she started to make her way around the room, answering questions and posing for photographs. I took this opportunity to head to the ladies’ room, check my messages, and see what my husband was up to.
As I unlocked my phone, I immediately sensed something was wrong. My stomach tightened into a knot and I felt my pulse quicken. I could see there was a voicemail from my sister. In the middle of the day. I half-stood, half-leaned against the wall as I listened to my sister’s voice tell me that my mom had “gone to sleep for good.”
I waited a minute, tried to catch my breath, then called her back, learning that my mom had returned to bed after waking that morning, saying she didn’t feel well. When she didn’t show up for lunch, the nurse went to get her. She had fallen asleep for the last time.
My mom had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for almost a decade, slowly deteriorating to the point where she no longer recognized us. Her 70th birthday in August of 2009 was the last time I saw “her.” You’d think I would have been better prepared for the phone call from my sister. But that’s not how it works.
Aware of the fact that I was about to melt down, I walked slowly back into the dining room to say thank you and excuse myself. Thank goodness the formal presentation was over, and people were chatting and moving about. Maybe I’d be able to get away quietly, before I broke down.
When she saw me, Stephanie jumped up from our table, came over, and offered a hug without knowing what had happened. I blurted out, “My mom passed away,” but I had no other words. They would not come. She hugged me again.
Then I sensed someone standing behind me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Gaia Gaja, looking concerned, knowing that something was wrong. I turned toward her and uttered the few words I could manage: “I’m so sorry; my mother just died, and I have to leave.” She opened her arms wide and hugged me, expressing condolences and exuding comfort.
I mumbled a “thank you” and let Stephanie help me gather my things. She then walked me back to the hotel, where I was meeting my husband. You can probably imagine what the rest of the day was like.
Over the past year, grieving has happened in fits and starts. Memories of my mom creep up on me when I least expect it. Managing our “firsts” without her (Easter, Mother’s Day, her birthday, the holidays) has been brutal and enlightening. Some days bring happy reminiscence; others force a reckoning with the complexity of mother-daughter relationships.
But I’m making progress. I’ve finally written about that day.
Celebrating International Women’s Day: Why It’s Important
If you’ve hung in there this long, I’ve just one more thing to say: women rock! March 8th will forever be linked in my heart with my mom’s passing away. But it will also evoke gratitude for the kindness and generosity of women, in general. Of all the days for her to go, my mom picked one when I was surrounded by strong, beautiful, women who care for each other. Because it’s what women do. When they’re not busy being bad-asses and changing the world.
Thank you, Stephanie, for being there; for looking out for me; for following up the next day to see how I was. Grazie, Gaia, for being one of the most impressive wine professionals I’ve met; for showing the world what female power is really about; for your comforting hug. And thank you to all the women out there, as you fight the good fight every day while caring for those in your path. You are the reason the world goes around.
The Wines We Tasted: Cipriani Miami
2016 Gaja Ca’ Marcanda Vistamare Toscana IGP
60% Vermentino; 40% Viognier, this wine was inspired by the sunny, fresh breezes of the Tuscan coast that blow through the vineyards here. Vistamare was first made in 2009, and Gaia indicated that climate change may ultimately determine which grapes comprise the blend. Future vintages will include a portion of Fiano.
Pale lemon-green in the glass, there are bright aromas of apricot, white flowers, grass, and lemon. On the palate there is a nice tension between the lush roundness brought by the Viognier and the tart, citrus and acidity of the Vermentino. Quite lovely!
2013 Gaja Camarcanda Bolgheri DOC
50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc from the stony, terre bianche (white soil) plots in Castegneto Carducci, known for producing wines of longevity. Each of the varieties is fermented separately and then blended to achieve a style that is rich in fruit yet with a firm tannic structure. The wine is aged in used barriques for 18 months and rests for at least 12 months in bottle before release.
Medium ruby fading to violet-pink at the edge. Initial aromas are of ripe red plum, currant, and berries accentuated by vanilla, caramel, and just a hint of lactones. Lush fruit flavors are checked by medium+ acidity and pronounced yet well-integrated tannins. Drinking well now but can definitely stick around for a few more years.
2014 Gaja Barbaresco DOCG
100% Nebbiolo, this wine is the product of fruit grown in 14 vineyards within the Barbaresco appellation. Grapes from each lot are fermented separately in stainless steel and then racked to barriques for malolactic fermentation. After one year, the lots are blended and racked to large Slavonian oak casks.
This wine is a bright garnet color with a golden edge. Aromas of violets and rose, followed by ripe cherry waft from the glass; over time there are notes of vanilla, tobacco, and forest floor. It is fresh and lively on the palate, with juicy red and black fruit, medium+ acidity, and smooth tannins. Gaia told us they call this wine “the cleanser” because it serves as a perfect palate cleaner for a dish like fatty tuna sashimi. Note to self: try this!
2013 Gaja Costa Russi Barbaresco DOCG
100% Nebbiolo from the 10-acre Costa Russi vineyard acquired by the Gaja family in 1967. It takes its name from a caretaker who tended the vineyards in the early 1900s. This wine marks a departure from single-vineyard wines of the past which, until the 2013 vintage, were always blends. Grapes were grown on clay-based soils giving rise to a substantial wine of structure and longevity; it was aged in oak for 24 months.
Dark purple in color, this wine gives off soft cherry aromas and a distinct herbaceous, leafy note. On the palate it treads lightly, with silky tannins, ripe red fruit flavors, and fine tannins all tied together by tart acidity. Balanced and lovely; I am enchanted by this wine.
2013 Gaja Sorì Tildìn Barbaresco DOCG
100% Nebbiolo and named after Clotilde Rey, matriarch of the Gaja family, the Sorì Tildìn vineyard is considered one of Barbaresco’s most esteemed sites. Its eight acres give rise to expressively spicy wines with a savory quality. The 2013 was aged for 24 months in oak.
Dense purple-red in color, this wine smells like a heavenly mix of cherry and cola, with a shake of baking spice thrown in for good measure. On the palate there is plenty of acidity, along with prominent tannins and lots of ripe berry fruit. The long finish goes savory, with a distinct meaty component.
2013 Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo Barbaresco DOCG
100% Nebbiolo, from one of the region’s original single vineyard designations. Vineyards lie on eroded limestone and sandy soils protected by forests and a river. Grapes hailing from Sorì San Lorenzo develop thicker skins, resulting in wines with stronger tannins. Gaja considers it to be the most tannic of their offerings. It is also the most recognizable and age-worthy of the single-vineyard wines.
Deep ruby in color, this wine is perfumed by a delightful mix of floral, fruit, and earthy notes. I detect black tea, licorice, mint, dirt, and a blend of red and black fruit. Gaia explains why she loves this wine: “It’s a perfectly balanced wine but something gets out. Personally, I identify with that.”
2013 Gaja Sperss Barolo DOCG
This vineyard in Serralunga d’Alba denotes nostalgia for things lost over time – memories, traditions, and relationships. My notes are a little sparse on this one but there is reference to someone in the Gaja realm who, according to Gaia, suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease but never forgot his wife, or the village of Serralunga where he went for 10 days every year as a child, to work in the vineyards and pick grapes.
The grapes were fermented on their skins in stainless steel tanks for three weeks; the wine was aged in oak for 30 months.
Beautiful garnet in the glass, the Sperss offers us blue and black fruit aromas, some cinnamon and nutmeg, and a hint of citrus peel. A sip reveals the power of this wine – big tannins, high acidity, ripe fruit flavors. It is at once fresh and imposing, which I translate into “needs time.” This will be a stunner in 5-10 years.
The Wines We Tasted: #winestudio
2013 Gaja Camarcanda Bolgheri DOC
50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon; 10% Cabernet Franc from the terre brune soils of loam and clay. Grapes are treated to warm, sunny days and cool nights: the perfect recipe for wines with ripe fruit flavors and balancing acidity. Deep ruby in the glass, there are notes of red fruit and herbs which always remind me of Tuscany. On the palate the fruit is ripe and rich, with ample structure provided by smooth tannins. Made a delicious match with Gratineed Shepherd’s Pie (recipe from Somm’s Table.)
2015 Gaja Ca’ Marcanda Magari Bolgheri DOC
60% Cabernet Franc, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot. In keeping with the family philosophy to continue learning from the vines, Gaja has chosen to give more weight to Cabernet Franc’s promise in this part of Tuscany. Beginning with the 2015 vintage, the Magari will be predominantly Cab Franc. This deep purple wine gives off lovely black fruit aromas, along with violets and herbs. I can’t imagine a better pairing with bistecca alla Fiorentina. The palate is equal parts fruit and savory, with well-integrated tannins and medium acidity. An absolute charmer to drink now but will only get better for the next couple of years. I dare you to wait.