Perfect rows of vines scallop the surrounding hillsides where Barone Fini grapes are grown in as natural a manner as possible in the Trentino-Alto Adige region that shoulders up against Austria.
Cultivating vineyards has been a family business since 1497 when the two noble Venetian families of Bonmartini and Fini united in marriage. Reports say they made wine for the famed Medici family.
Want more? The family history is haunted by the ghastly killing of Count Francesco Bonmartini of Bologna, a wealthy and titled landowner in 1902. The scandal was the talk of Europe and America for three years. It centered around the role played by Bonmartini’s widow, Linda, known as “The Enchantress.” The story was turned into a political thriller in the memorable 1974 film La Grand Bourgeoise, starring Catherine Deneuve as the murderess wife Linda Murri. Linda is Giovanni’s great-granny.
The son of Greenville’s Francesco and Charlotte Bonmartini-Fini, Giovanni has lived his life with one foot on each side of the Atlantic Ocean. Born in Massachusetts, his formative years were spent on his family’s farm on the shores of Lake Garda, attending various schools in France, Italy, and Belgium. After Francesco’s retirement as an executive with Hercules Corporation, he became heavily involved in the business of the winery. When the family returned to America, Giovanni graduated from the Tatnall School in 1981 then earned a degree in Molecular Biology from Princeton. He speaks French, Italian and English fluently.
Bonmartini-Fini says to understand the Alto Adige region where he grows his grapes you should know that until after World War I, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Culturally, it remains tied to its Austrian roots. German is the main language. Given the Germanic heritage, it’s perhaps not surprising that crisp, clean white wines and light-bodied reds are what the region is known for. Visitors will find plenty of vineyards planted on steep slopes 2,400 feet or more above sea level.
Specializing in just two varietals for the U.S. market, pinot grigio and merlot, Barone Fini practices sustainable agricultural techniques which make for healthier vines. All hand-picked, the grapes are sorted manually, lightly crushed, and fermented in stainless steel tanks under temperature-controlled conditions. The complexity of the aromas and flavors in Barone Fini wines stem from the earth itself.
“Our vines are planted in gravelly dolomite soil,” explains Bonmartini-Fini, who is by birth a count. “You can actually see bits of shell in the soil from ancient sea beds that once covered the ground. The sandy and stony soil gives our pinot grigios an ideal mineral quality soil, one extremely rich in minerals.”
He follows advice once given to him by a wise Italian winemaker: “Don’t let nature take control; you take control.”
Bonmartini-Fini regularly returns to the Brandywine Valley to visit his parents and travel across the country promoting his varietals to wine stores, restaurants and at wine dinners. Wine lovers tend to gravitate toward his pinot grigio. And to Giovanni as well. You can feel his passion for the wine when he speaks.
At wine tastings Bonmartini-Fini regales guests with his stories on the history of Italy, true Roman cuisine and the trials and tribulations of being a dual citizen and running an international winery within the parameters of Italian tax laws.
“Wine is all about culture, history and food,” Bonmartini-Fini observes while swirling a glass of his Valdadige pinot grigio. “In Italy they are seen as a serious agricultural project. I draw a comparison to those Jersey tomatoes that people get so excited about each summer. Our pinot grigio has a crispness. Say you’re dining on salmon, by the third bite you’re losing the taste. Sip on the wine and it wakes up the palate. You taste the food much better.”
Brought by Giovanni and his wife Scilla to dinner at the University & Whist Club, the versatile and crisp pinot grigio brought out the depth of flavor in the steamed PEI mussels with saffron and leek broth and did amazing things for the chipirones (baby squid) flash-fried with lemon-caper remoulade. It got especially high marks for its pairing with the tomato confit salad with crispy potato croutons and lardons of bacon.
“These are food wines, made to be enjoyed with food while young,” Bonmartini-Fini says. “They are meant to be enjoyed with friends or alone, as an aperitif, or with shellfish, fowl, vegetarian dishes or a light meal. I like them best when they are fresh and crisp.”
When Bonmartini-Fini’s Uncle Sebastiano died in 1997, Giovanni took control of the winery. They produce a lovely merlot, but Barone-Fini is especially known for its distinctive pinot grigio Valdadige and pinot grigio Alto Adige. Created from relatively young vines planted about 25 to 30 years ago, the wines are created to be medium-bodied, without harsh tannins or high alcohol content. The vineyard produces 60,000 cases of pinot grigio a year, 100,000 cases overall. Bottles are adorned with the striking Bonmartini-Fini family crest.
Both of the pinot grigios are D.O.C, which means the wines were produced in specific regions according to traditional Italian winemaking standards. Strictly regulated by the government, D.O.C. is a mark of excellence and top quality. The same standard is applied to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
“You know Italians love their genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano,” Bonmartini-Fini says, slipping in and out of his deep Italian accent. “The D.O.C laws require that it be made according to a specific recipe and production methods only within certain provinces. They are meant to preserve the integrity of traditional Italian food products by insuring the flavor and quality.”
Bonmartini-Fini’s main residence is in Rome where he lives with Scilla and their two sons, Francesco and Lorenzo. His larger business in Italy is selling printer ink.
“Nothing is as boring as ink,” he says with a half smile. “Nobody thinks they need it until they need it. People don’t want to talk about it, it’s way down their list of things they want to buy or talk about. Selling pinot grigio and merlot is way sexier than selling ink.”
In his limited off time, Bonmartini-Fini pursues his other passion—kiteboard surfing. He has traveled to Rhodes Island in Greece, the Red Sea, and Stuart, Fla., where the steady winds and shallow warm water are ideal for the sport.
“It’s a spectacular picture of life in the ocean,” he marvels. “I’ve seen six-foot sea turtles with foot-long heads. Tunas jumping away from sharks. Enormous manatees. An osprey dive-bombing a school of little fish darting close to the surface. Takes your breath away.”
Bonmartini-Fini considers himself a lucky guy.
“Things can get really congested in Rome so I look forward to spending time in the Brandywine Valley with all its gorgeous countryside and historic destinations,” he says. “I get to catch up with longtime friends and spend time with my family over here. It’s the best of both worlds.”