Above: Giorgio Grai (right) with his close friend, winemaker Francesco Bonfio, in Arquà (Padua province) in 2017. Although his work was known to few American wine lovers, he shaped a generation of Italian winemakers whose labels traveled across the Atlantic.
Race car driver and “father of modern winemaking in Italy,” as many called him, Giorgio Grai has died in Bolzano, Italy this week at the age of 89.
According to the one-off personal business card he carried in his wallet, he was a “doctor of everything, knight of good taste, and engineer in the art of getting by.”
He is survived by his companion of many years, Marina Danieli, a winemaker in Friuli.
While his life and career were seemingly culled from a Hollywood movie (as a young man he spent a decade racing for Lamborghini), he will be remembered above all for his winemaking and his mentoring of a generation of Italian winemakers.
Born in Bolzano in German-speaking Italy in 1930, he liked to call himself an “Italian among Germans and a German among Italians.” His father had been forced to change their last name from Krainz following World War I. Although he spent his latter years in Friuli, he always considered Bolzano his home, he said.
He was equally renowned for his stunning Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir — the latter, a variety he called his favorite and the most difficult to vinify. But he also left his mark on the Italian wine world through his consulting with estates that stretched from the Austrian border to Puglia.
To make a great wine, he told an interviewer in 2013, “particular attention needs to be paid to what goes into a wine — from the outset. Nature is perfect. But it has been compromised by humankind’s impudence. There are organic wines that have been made correctly according to a given protocol. But if they were born in vineyards that lie adjacent to a freeway, then they’ll be full of lead. That’s not okay.”
I had the great opportunity to meet and taste with Giorgio on a number of occasions. He was a true cosmopolitan, a ployglot and polymath.
But beyond the many extraordinary wines of his that I had the fortune to taste (including unforgettable bottlings of Pinot Blanc from the 1980s), the thing I will remember most about him is how a legion of young Italian winemakers and enologists have spoken of him as a maestro and teacher.
Francesco Bonfio, winemaker and founder of the Italian Association of Wine Retailers, shared the following remembrance of Giorgio.
Giorgio was an extraordinarily talented enologist, an extremely gifted technical taster, and a highly cultured gastronome. His passing leaves an irreplaceable void in the world of Italian and international wine.
Of the many memories of him, this one stands out: in 1983 he met André Tchelistcheff and had him taste his 1961 Alto Adige Pinot Bianco (Sud Tiroler Weissburgunder). After tasting the wine, the Russian winemaker, creator of fine wine in California, knelt before him.
His technical experience allowed to combine scientific rigor with genius. His humanist culture made it possible for him to judge the quality of a wine or a dish not just in terms of its aroma and flavor but also in terms of its harmony, balance, refinement, and elegance.
Like all persons of “character,” he was a character with a sometimes challenging personality. He never shied from sharing his opinion, even in the face of supposed authority. He never hesitated to point out someone’s flaws, whether a chef’s or a winemaker’s. Acclaimed, beloved, hated, revered, often talked about, at times hard to bear, an unending source of envy — and he enjoyed it all. Going against the tide was his whim but it also veiled his intellectual openness and his multi-faceted ability to approach any problem from all perspectives.
He never arrived on time. And sometimes he didn’t show up at all. He had an unrelenting, insatiable curiosity. In the same breath, he could speak of biotechnology, the elements of taste, of car racing, and Bolzano. He was a Mittel-European who spoke fluent English, French, German, and Italian. Those who knew will always be proud of having enjoyed the privilege. And they will honor him by continuing to follow his teachings.
Those who knew him have lost much with his passing. In the world of enogastronomy, if you don’t know who Giorgio Grai is, you’re clearly missing something. But not being able to know him is a shortcoming for which there is no remedy.
Sit tibi terra levis Georgi. You will be sorely missed.