What is your earliest memory related to wine?
I was 6 years old when, for the first time, my father poured a teaspoon of Barbaresco into my glass, which I refused because I did not appreciate the acidity and tannins. At 15, I began to be curious about the small quantities of Barbaresco that my father poured into my glass from time to time and to recognize that, unlike water, it improved the taste of meat, chicken, rabbit, cheese, even bread.
Your grandmother studied in Savoie and became a schoolteacher before marrying your grandfather, Angelo Gaja, in 1905. What was her role in both your own development and that of the winery?
Clotilde Rey was a very important woman in the family because after they married my grandfather put on the label, ‘Angelo Gaja, producer of luxury wine,’ so already at that time the family was considering Barbaresco luxury wine. ‘Di Lusso e da Pasto.’ Why? To make a wine to have at a special occasion and to create emotion. She always had vision. I remember when I was eight years old my grandmother asked to see my homework that I was doing in the summertime. She asked me, ‘what are you going to do in your life?’ I was eight years old. I had no idea. I stayed silent, but she insisted and she said to me, ‘you have to become an artisan.’
An artisan’s project is not for the market. Sometimes there are artisans who fail because they are too ambitious or crazy but he thinks of this project twenty-four hours a day and he wants to do it to perfection. If he is successful, he will be recognized as a maestro. Then he has to teach his children and others how to reach this level. And after, he must transmit knowledge to the market and explain to the consumers about his product. My grandmother had an important function in the family and we were very respectful of her. She was able to push my father to be ambitious, to understand about the production of luxury wine and to improve the quality of his wines.
What is your saddest childhood memory?
Fortunately, I don't remember moments of intense pain but when I was sixteen I asked my parents to buy me a medium-high displacement motorcycle like many of my schoolmates had. My parents hesitated, fearing for my safety, and they proposed a bicycle equipped with a small engine but it was very far from my desire. I refused huffily. I have always thought I was wrong. If I had settled for that bicycle, it would have been possible to get a motorcycle later. What did I learn from this? Better to be satisfied with a little in order to aspire to more later.
How did you father, Giovanni Gaja, influence you?
I truly think my father was the greatest wine artisan in the 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s. He always reminded me that the best stage for premium wines is the restaurant table, where wine connects, breaks down barriers, and creates friendship. And that having your own wines on restaurant wine lists is the best advertisement, and one that is free of charge. My father always told me to think differently, to do something different, and to have passion. Sometimes I made mistakes trying to do something different but this was important. Passion is the engine of the artisan and it works like a windshield wiper. It doesn’t stop the rain from falling, but it gives you the chance to keep going on. Passion is indispensable.
Do you encourage your own children to think differently?
Absolutely! I tell them this insistently! Though they have more hesitation. I would like them to sometimes surprise me . . . no, they are probably already doing it in some way, though they have accepted not having a website and not being on social media. I believe in not looking for influencers, as some of my colleagues are. My children understand this. But they are also open to eating more foods that are for me strange foods, for example. What I admire about Gaia is that she can easily relate to people. I have colleagues who say that I am a bear. Not so easy. Maybe sometimes, yes. But Gaia is easy and capable.
Who are some of the important thinkers and writers for you?
One is Camillo Cavour, a politician who in 1861 unified Italy and was one of the fathers of Barolo. He was also a liberal who encouraged the people not only to look for public work but to create companies and opportunities. From 1948 to 1955 we had a president Einaudi whose family is still making Dolcetto di Dogliani. He was again a liberal saying the same thing: try to create your own company and have respect for your workers.
I believe the best way to understand an area is through the writers. During the lockdown I repeatedly read the books by Beppe Fenoglio, a writer born in Alba who told the epic of the partisan war and described masterfully the people of the area. In the first half of the 20th century the people had a kind of terrible fever for gambling that destroyed families. They were looking at gambling as something that would give them another choice in life, and they were dreaming. After they lost everything they were killing themselves in the Tanaro River and Fenoglio described this perfectly. After the second world war a lot of people transferred this risk of gambling into their own activities and some tried to make a fortune in wine. It’s because of that we have one thousand wineries here. The examples given by the liberals Cavour and Einaudi of creating, then after the second world war transferring this spirit of gambling and taking risks into other activities.