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Angiolino Maule: Work in Progress

Angiolino Maule in his vines.

One does not need to travel far from home to find inspiration. Nor does one need the trappings of wealth or a prestigious pedigree to move the world.

What one needs, however, is a clear vision, an indomitable spirit, and an idea whose time has come. VinNatur is such an idea; it is perhaps the most important association of natural winemakers in the world today, changing the way natural wines are seen – and how they are made – for the better. And its genesis can be credited to one man.

Angiolino Maule was born in humble circumstances in the Italian village of Gambellara, meeting his wife, Rosamaria, while they were both taking part in a modelling shoot for the very clothes they were partly responsible for making at the factory in which they worked; he, ironing the cloth and she, cutting it. They were 17.

In a refrain familiar to parents the world over, they wished to provide their family with better circumstances than those in which they themselves were raised. The factory wouldn’t do. And so in 1977 they took on the leasehold for a pizzeria in nearby Monteforte d’Alpone, on the Eastern edge of the Soave DOC. Rosamaria’s pizzas became the stuff of legend, and Angiolino worked the front-of-house – or anywhere else he was required when times were busy, as they often were.

It was an important time for the 23-year-old Angiolino. Winemaking had been on his mind already for years, and he began to gain practical experience of the subject by means of drinking his way through the fruits of the labours of Monteforte’s prestigious sons; the town is home to many of Soave’s most-recognised wine producers. He and his young bride bought La Biancara, the estate in which they now live (and make wine), two years after taking on the pizzeria. The first six hectares of vines (dutifully replanted by Angiolino with Garganega and Trebbiano, the signal white grape varieties of Soave) followed just five months later.

But the wines he drank in the wine bars of Monteforte did not bring him joy. They made him angry. They made him feel unwell. They were all the same. They were too simple. The best wines of the best producers of Soave – and further afield – were not good enough.

He wanted to do better. He wanted to make better wines.

Acquiring vineyards requires investment of money. Working them requires investment of money, time, and sweat. By day Angiolino would work his new vines, by night it was the pizzeria – to pay the bills and finance his burgeoning wine enterprise.

But the wine industry can be a harsh place, particularly for an idealist lacking formal education in winemaking. Within a couple years, Angiolino had drunk his way through the vintages of the region. He was ending up in the wine bars, angry and argumentative and looking for a (verbal) fight. Disillusionment was lurking in the shadows. By the time he was 35, it was no longer lurking; it had taken hold. Doubts about wine, his vision and the future had settled in – he was considering giving up and dedicating himself with heart and mind to the pizzeria.

It was a single, natural wine, a Ribolla Gialla made by a singular producer, that saved him. Angiolino was enlightened, “This. This is what I want to make,” he thought.

That producer was Josko Gravner. In April 1990, two years after beginning to commercialise his own wines, Angiolino was able to meet the man in person. Here was a winemaker living and working fiercely on his own terms – and completely natural, if such a word can adequately be applied to wine. Nothing added, nothing removed. The wines changed Angiolino’s life, contact with their maker sharpened his focus. The relationship that ensued was of signal importance to Angiolino and his stalled vision. The encounter became a working relationship, which blossomed into a lasting friendship that survives to this day. Angiolino praises Gravner as the best viticulturalist he knows, and the path of natural winemaking he continues to follow today has been informed by the friendly competition he entered into with Gravner to make wine with “the least intervention possible.” Angiolino now practices a more extremely natural winemaking philosophy than even his old mentor.

“Nothing added, nothing removed”; that is the “Natural Wine” movement in a nutshell. The wines are gaining in both popularity and recognition, but they are the most difficult wines to get right. Working with little or no sulphur, with its antimicrobial properties, can have disastrous consequences for wine. There is little margin for error; hygiene in the cellar must be uncompromising and, with no recourse to chemicals, vineyards need to be vibrant, balanced and healthy. When the wines work, they can be life-changing. But the natural wine scene is rife with superstition and defective wines. Much of the wine industry looks at it with contempt and ridicule. An open-minded, evidence-based approach has long been sorely needed. Enter Angiolino Maule.

The cutting of the master-apprentice ties that took place in 1997, after the birth of Josko’s son, came as a surprise and sowed dismay among Gravner’s mentees. Suddenly lacking direct input, his students cast about for guidance. Angiolino, now firmly in the nascent (and, in his own words, “never-ending”) research phase with respect to his work in the vineyards and the cellar, sought out intellectual refuge and exchange with friends and colleagues in France – that redoubt of natural winemaking and experimentation. It seemed to him that sharing knowledge, experience and assistance would be faster, more efficient and more effective for all involved, and he craved progress – for himself and for natural wines.

Progress, for Angiolino and his scientific mind, means information. Data. Understanding. He began to come to grips with the necessity of achieving consistent, evidence-based, reliable and – above all – accurate viticulture and winemaking for low-intervention wines, things which the scene was sorely lacking, steeped as it was in pseudoscience and quasi-mystical thinking.  He felt that this could best be achieved through cooperation: sharing best practices, experiences and all kinds of information. Producers working together and helping one another would be able to change and improve winemaking more quickly and more reliably than working apart. The seeds of VinNatur had been sown.

In 2003, this nebulous idea of mutual exchange, assistance and cooperation coalesced in the form of ViniVeri; a new association of producers of low-intervention wines. Angiolino was a founding member and he had high hopes. Before long, however, it became clear that this association was shackled by disagreement, disunity and a lack of impetus. Within a couple of years, it was time to move on.

And move on he did – but with a new conviction and clarity of purpose. Angiolino had invested much and learned more over the preceding 25 years. Methodical, precise, attentive to detail and hungry to learn from his friends, whom he affectionately describes as being “better than him”, Angiolino was both ready for the next steps and well-equipped to take them, thanks to the hard lessons garnered from painstaking work among his vines and in the cellar.

VinNatur was born in 2006 with a membership of over 60 estates, weighted heavily to France. The association was founded with the goal of improving winemaking for all through dedicated research and cooperation. To understand VinNatur is to achieve insight into the workings of Angiolino’s mind; it is here that the great value he puts on three personal qualities – honesty, generosity, and level-headedness – have been demonstrated and validated time and again.

Angiolino is an affable man. Friendly, inquisitive and with a ready smile, it is easy to like him. But he also has strong opinions – particularly about wine and winemaking – and a single-mindedness that could be described as stubbornness. He freely admits that, at the beginning, VinNatur was a dictatorship. He even went so far as to install his elder sons as advisors for the first several years, in order to maintain a pliant majority with which to guide the fledgling association of natural wine producers in the direction that he felt was necessary. But he is also pragmatic and, at heart, remains an idealist who continues to believe that people will do the right thing once they are given the opportunity to see why it is good.

That is one of Angiolino’s strengths as a leader: a driving need to convince, rather than compel. Due in part to his dominant personality, Angiolino has seldom faced competition for executive positions at VinNatur. Nevertheless, he knows the only way to achieve unity and progress in the association is to get all its members to understand and believe in what they were doing, and he has devoted much of his energy to achieving this. “Bringing people together”, he says, “is the greatest challenge”. When new procedural guidelines were voted on in 2015, they passed with just 60% approval from the members – mostly due to issues with uncompromising cellar restrictions. Instead of watering down or compromising on the resolutions, however, Angiolino scrapped the guidelines. He brought in both a microbiologist and an enologist, and held a meeting to quell fears and inform the membership. When the guidelines were voted upon six months later, they achieved 100% approval.

But while compromise may lay at the heart of achieving agreement between parties, Angiolino gives no quarter when it comes to the necessities of making natural wines work: rigorous hygiene in the cellar, healthy and microbiologically balanced vineyards, no pesticide or herbicide use. He has demonstrated that he is neither afraid to remove members from the association if they stray from the requirements laid down in the procedural guidelines, nor does he shy away from letting those who feel the requirements are too strict go, as happened with several members after the newest procedural guidelines were agreed upon.  Herbicide and pesticide use, in particular, are sticking points. In fact, when asked about the possibility of a single, overarching natural wine organisation, he clarified his position by saying he would be in favour of it – provided there was regular testing of the wines for the use of such chemicals, so that fraud could be immediately exposed.

This demonstrates an understanding of one of the greatest challenges both for Angiolino as a leader and for natural wines in general: credibility. It is also one of the reasons he feels so strongly about sound, scientific and proven research into best practices. Far from relying on pseudoscience and anecdotal evidence, VinNatur conducts regular research projects in collaboration with major universities to establish what does and does not work. The very first such project, started in 2006, looked at yeasts, with the goal of resolving the problem of stopped fermentations. So strongly does Angiolino believe in this kind of research and its importance, that he is willing to share it beyond the confines of VinNatur. “If you keep information for yourself,” he remarks, “it will rot within you. If you share it, you have more space to put other information”

Helping to establish such cooperation between small producers and the scientific community is the single most important contribution to winemaking Angiolino feels he has made – and he is convinced that his life’s work is solely the product of fruitful associations with other people and not from any personal genius.

So what does the future hold for this man – officially retired, but still doing everything he has always done? Eventually, leadership of VinNatur must pass to another, even if, at the moment, Angiolino feels there is not anyone with those three qualities to take the helm.

One thing is sure: his work is not done. The goal of all this research and, ultimately, of VinNatur, itself? To understand the workings of the vineyard and cellar so clearly and precisely that good wine can be made using only what is present where the vines are grown: transforming solar energy into chemical energy, using only the Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen and Nitrogen that is available. “Only then can we look the consumer in the face and say we are taking only from the soil and the air.”

Nothing added, nothing removed, indeed.

He is well on his way.

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