It’s not easy to get yourself an invitation to a guided tour of Biondi Santi. We managed it in a curious and unexpected way.
Part 1 – The story of an invitation
Tenuta Greppo is the flagship winery of Montalcino, and Biondi Santi is a benchmark brand in the universe of iconic wines worldwide. Tenuta Greppo is, quite simply, the mothership of Brunello. At the helm since 2016 are the French Descourt family and their EPI group.
Visits are controlled by a strict fixed number and mainly reserved for importers and the sector’s press. We did visit the winery, though, and I’m going to tell you how we managed it.
In February 2012 my wife, Ilaria, asked me to bring a few bottles of Brunello Riserva to be recorked by the only people entitled to do so, Biondi Santi themselves. We had heard about a Recorking and Topping Off announcement – the 19th, to be precise – which would allow those in possession of older vintages of Brunello Riserva to “prolong the wine’s life for many more years”.
We possessed three bottles, all correctly numbered: a Riserva 1955 (serial no. on label 13502), a Riserva’57 (no. 4593) and a Riserva ’61 (no. 6070). We had no idea of their value then, whereas now we know it’s incredibly high: the average price quoted on wine-searcher is respectively €7,771, €562 and €645 (https://www.wine-searcher.com/find/biondi+santi+tenute+greppo+rsrv+docg+brunello+di+montalcino+tuscany+italy/1955/italy).
The three gems we had in the family cellar were all that remained of a larger collection my father-in-law Giacomo had unwittingly helped create over time; his friend Franco Biondi Santi had given them to him as a mark of affection and gratitude – some ‘younger’ readers will remember the famous tasting at Vinitaly 1996 led by Giacomo Tachis himself, and even mentioned in the wonderful book by Aldo Santini published in 1997(2).
A large part of this collection would be auctioned by Bolaffi in November 2017 to raise funds which my wife then donated to charity.
However, to return to that February of 2012, we took our three bottles, put them in a strong, super-shockproof box, and took them to the Il Greppo estate. In the office they made us fill in some forms, we were given a receipt and assured we would be contacted by phone when the “recorking” was complete. So we went back home confident that we had left the wines in good hands, and happy to have spent a lovely day in Montalcino.
Time went by, and as we waited to be informed by Montalcino of the completed recorking procedure, we forgot all about the bottles. Unfortunately we also lost the receipts we were given when we left them.
Some time later, while we were eating with friends, Ilaria said:
“Did we ever hear anything back about those wines?”
I looked at her, puzzled.
“You know, the ones we took to Biondi Santi…”
Right: what had become of those three precious bottles? Were they lost? Drunk? Recorked and then left who knew where? We needed to get back in touch with the noble winery and ask for news, but we would need the receipts, which had disappeared without a trace in the general chaos.
Unfortunately, the office where we work and where we keep most of our documents is more like a farm shed where I – mea culpa – lazily dump all sorts of items: vine clippers, wire for tying vines, and everything else I need in the vineyards. A grim chaos reigns, so the search for any item carelessly left there is never quick and success is by no means guaranteed.
So, with a healthy dose of pessimism, I started to look for the “proof of deposit” in the midst of the mess.
After all this time, the thought of knocking on the door of Biondi Santi (which had, in the meantime, passed into the hands of a French fashion financier) without any kind of document was very embarrassing.
Imagine the scene:
“It’s me, I brought you those bottles of Brunello a few years ago….”
“Who? What bottles?”
No, I really didn’t fancy that.
Anyway, I searched and searched but to no avail. In the end, I shrugged and wrote it off to experience: they’ll turn up, I told myself.
Sooner or later, those receipts will come to light, I said, resigned.
The turning point came in November.
Usually I get ready for Christmas by removing all the old work papers from the office and shelves that inevitably accumulate there. The first bundles to be pulped are all the tax documents from the last ten years. This is a pre-Christmas ritual for us, and a liberation for others. However, before throwing all the papers into the round archive (i.e. the bin) it’s always a good idea to take a quick look at what we’re throwing out, you never know…
“This yes, this no…what’s this stuff? Hey, look what I found!”
“Ilaaa!” I yell from the stairs. “Come and see what I’ve found!”
Unbelievable: I found the receipts.
Now, Montalcino is not exactly round the corner from our farm here in San Casciano, and it takes half a day just to do the 90-kilometre round trip. Also, even with the receipts, it was by no means certain that after nine years and nine months they would still have my three bottles in the cellar, so the risk of drawing a blank was very real. I could have phoned, but it seemed too timid an approach, and not very effective: going in person, showing my face there with the documents in my hand, seemed like a better idea.
I couldn’t decide when to go; after waiting a decade, a few days more didn’t make much difference, so I decided to wait till a good opportunity to go to Montalcino came up, and combine business with pleasure, as they say – or business with other business.
And then came the opportunity.
By a happy coincidence we from Podere La Villa and Mastrojanni, another longstanding Montalcino producer, share the same importer in Slovakia. This importer happened to ask us for some groupage – for those who aren’t in the business, this basically means putting two or more orders together in one load, which is quicker for the truck picking up the wines rather than driving all over Tuscany on all our potholed unmade roads.
This was mid-December 2020, and since I had to take some wine to Mastrojanni for a groupage, I decided to stop by Biondi Santi which is on the way, the same route that goes from Montalcino to Castelnuovo dell’Abate via the jewel that is the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo.
I entered the tree-lined avenue, overtook a tractor (a Fendt, because those are the only ones around there), parked, and got out of the car holding my receipts. I rang the doorbell. A metallic voice answered on the door phone:
“My name is so-and-so, I’d like some information about some bottles I left here for recorking…”
“The person in charge of that is our manager, Sabine C. Give her a call and ask…”
answered the door phone, without clicking open the door.
Now, nobody likes being shut out, least of all me. My mood suddenly went from bad to worse.
“Look, I’ve come to GET MY BOTTLES BACK, which you should have somewhere in your cellar…”
I heard a double click, mental and mechanical. The door was open. Well, of course, who knows how many timewasters knock on that door.
Let’s cut this long story short. I went up the steps, waved from a distance, and told my story to a very polite and formal woman, who took my receipts, photocopied them, and promised to have her colleague call me, specifying however that “We haven’t done any recorking since 2008…”
I drove away, amused. After all, I might have put them in a difficult and embarrassing situation. How would they find those three bottles in a cellar, among hundreds of others, ten years later?
Less than a week later, one sunny morning, my phone rang. An unknown number.
“Hello? Is this Raffaele?”
“Yes, how can I help you?”
“This is Sabine C., from the Tenuta Greppo di Biondi Santi. I’m calling to tell you I have your three bottles in front of me on the table…”
(Noo! I thought)
“In fact, I wanted to tell you we’d be delighted to invite you for a guided tour of our winery. When would suit you?”
- Aldo Santini, “Sei grande Brunello” - Franco Muzio Editore, 1997.