Vinfamous: The Brunello “Killer” Who Destroyed $25 Million Worth of Irreplaceable Wine

Vinfamous Episode 5 The Brunello
Getty Images

In 2012, news rocketed around the world about the destruction of Gianfranco Soldera’s wine. More than 16 thousand gallons—or the equivalent of 80,000 bottles—of his world class Brunello di Montalcino was found in puddles at the Case Basse cellar in Montalcino, Italy. Days later, police would make a surprising arrest.

Follow the podcast and join us every other week as we delve into the twists and turns behind the all-time most shocking wine crimes.

Listen Now: Vinfamous: Wine Crimes & Scandals


Episode Transcript

Pod People transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a Pod People contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of Pod People’s programming is the audio record.

ASHLEY SMITH, HOST:

For residents of Montalcino in Italy’s Tuscany region, Gianfranco Soldera was likely a recognizable face, especially if you were at all connected to the wine industry.

Gabriele Gorelli has a clear image of Gianfranco wearing a white shirt, suspenders-

GABRIELE GORELLI, GUEST:

And then a very specific hat, which we call basco.

ASHLEY:

This was Gianfranco Soldera’s winemaker uniform, essentially.

GABRIELE:

But I always saw him on his way in the morning, when I was going to school, and he was stopping by the bakery every day I saw him.

ASHLEY:

Doesn’t that just feel so Italian. From where I’m sitting in Seattle, it certainly does. You’re strolling down cobblestone streets on your way to school, and you just see one of Italy’s most prestigious winemakers casually buying the day’s bread.

GABRIELE:

To me, it is a very clear image. The image of Gianfranco, it has always been a character. You cannot deny that the character of Gianfranco Soldera was very well-known.

ASHLEY:

Well-known, indeed. He had strident opinions on how to make a proper Brunello di Montalcino, and he would perfect every detail at his winery, Case Basse.

He rarely bit his tongue, unless he was talking about the superior quality of his own wine production. A Grub Street article from the time said, “He maybe kind of needed to be put in his place.” So just imagine the shock on his face on December 3rd, 2012, when he opened his cellar door, to discover puddles of blood red wine. Large oak casks had been intentionally opened. More than 16,000 gallons of Italy’s wine rushed down the drain, left to mix with the sewer.

JEFF PORTER, GUEST:

I think within two days, the whole wine world knew about it.

DANIELLE CALLEGARI, GUEST:

When something like this happens, it has this 700 to a thousand year echo.

GABRIELE:

If you want to damage someone, you let him lose what was the most valuable thing that he had.

ASHLEY:

Overnight, Gianfranco Soldera lost six years of vintages from 2007 to 2012. The wine was worth $25 million at the time. $25 million. The result of years of hard work had all disappeared forever.

What would motivate someone to do this? Rumors instantly raced around Italy and the rest of the world, was this connected to the mafia? Was this retaliation against Gianfranco’s hard-nosed opinions on wine, or was this a more personal vendetta?

Well listeners, the answers are Vinfamous. You are listening to Vinfamous, a podcast from Wine Enthusiast. We import tales of envy, greed, and opportunity. I’m your host, Ashley Smith.

This crime, at face value, is quite straightforward. The vats were opened and the wine was poured out. Simple. It just so happened that this wine was some of the most expensive wine in Italy, and oh yeah, it looked like the Case Basse Winery was intentionally targeted.

Police quickly recognized this as vandalism. The perpetrator or perpetrators didn’t steal any of this expensive wine, which at the time was being sold for a range of 250 to 350 US dollars per bottle. Any suggestions of a mafia connection were quickly waved off as unrealistic, and honestly, that’s kind of a stereotypical assumption, don’t you think? There were no signs of extortion or blackmail.

So to understand why someone would destroy more than 16,000 gallons of his fine wine, let’s try and understand Gianfranco Soldera, and let’s start with how he created his legendary winery, Case Basse.

Before wine making, Gianfranco Soldera made his money working in the insurance business in Milan. In 1972, he and his wife Graziella, moved to Montalcino in search of the ideal location for a winery.

If you’ve never heard of Montalcino, just draw a line about 67 miles south of Florence, Italy, and you’ll land on this hilltop town. A 14th century medieval fortress sits in the center of this town. If you climb up the fortress’ watch tower, you’ll see sweeping views of gentle rolling hills. This is a small town, with a population of around 5,000. You could say it’s off the beaten path,

GABRIELE:

So Montalcino, it’s an hilltop town. So it’s rather hilly, but gentle hills, and it’s all olive, cypresses, and vineyards, of course. It’s a very complicated land.

ASHLEY:

This is Gabriele Gorelli. He was born and raised in Montalcino. We heard his voice at the beginning talking about how he saw Gianfranco every day on his way to school.

Actually, way back in the 1970s, Gabriele’s grandparents hosted Gianfranco in their Montalcino home. This was way back when the aspiring winemaker first moved to the region, and was scoping out locations to set up a winery.

GABRIELE:

So Gianfranco had the idea to buy in a very specific place, which is halfway, the hill. Still rather high in altitude. And it was a place that was already known for producing very, very nice wines.

He didn’t want to be, but he was an actual ambassador for Montalcino. He has done so many things in the direction of raising the perception of Montalcino’s image around the world.

ASHLEY:

Gabriele is one of 415 Masters of Wine in the world. On top of that, he’s the only master of wine from Italy. It’s a very significant distinction.

GABRIELE:

It is said that there are more people that went to the outer space, compared to the ones that passed the Master of Wine exam, which is true, actually. You can fact check it on Google.

ASHLEY:

It is true. More than 600 people have been to outer space.

As a Master of Wine, he says he spreads the gospel of Italian wine, doing presentations and tastings and, luckily for us, talking to podcasters interested in understanding why it was such a big deal that someone sabotaged Gianfranco’s wine.

And when we’re talking about the wine in Montalcino, we’re specifically talking about Brunello.

GABRIELE:

Brunello, in Montalcino, is a synonym for Sangiovese.

ASHLEY:

To make Brunello, according to the historic tradition and by Italian law, the wine producer must only use the Sangiovese grape varietal. Gabriele says this grape was selected early on for its color, a deep brownish red, like the color of blood, for use, in particular, in religious ceremonies.

GABRIELE:

One of the things that I call the pillars of Brunello is, having decided to produce this wine, only with Sangiovese, so we’re talking hundred percent. No other variety could go inside a Brunello del Montalcino, and this is historically very strong.

ASHLEY:

Gabriele says, the second pillar of Brunello is that it needs to be aged at least two years. However, Gianfranco would age his wines for at least five years.

GABRIELE:

Sangiovese used to be rather tannic, it’s rather angular in the first phases of its youth, and therefore, they needed to keep it in the barrels for long. And that’s the other pillar of Brunello.

ASHLEY:

Gianfranco Soldera had a clear and exacting vision for Brunello. He saw this wine as being on par with fine wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. However, not everyone saw it this way, and he was not afraid of ruffling feathers of the people who, say, used non-traditional barrels to age their wine.

He told the New York Times, “If a wine producer uses a non-traditional barrel, it’s because he has bad wine without tannins.” Ouch. He also would hold his winemaking neighbors in Montalcino accountable to the standards that he saw for the region.

He was connected to a scandal in 2008 that the Italian press called Brunellopoli. Italian authorities indicted multiple leading Brunello producers for doing none other than blending unauthorized grapes into their wines. He was rumored to have been the whistleblower. And to be clear, these were just rumors, but Gianfranco was a man of strong convictions, to say the least.

GABRIELE:

He not only had high standards, but he had great convictions, so he really had belief. So when you have belief, you are not in a position that you want to change, but you really feel it. From the outside, I could really, really tell that, that he was such a focused, such convinced and committed to producing very high level of wine in his own way, not the, I’d say, textbook way.

ASHLEY:

His own way, not the textbook way.

Back in the 1970s when he was establishing his winery, the trend was to industrialize the winemaking process. The more human intervention, the better. Not at Case Basse. The Case Basse winery to this day, is described as a “botanic park”.

GABRIELE:

And I think in this case, the passion of his wife was paramount, because she wanted to have these things, not only functionally beautiful, but beautiful in the sense of aesthetics.

ASHLEY:

There’s a lush garden filled with roses, that invites bees and other pollinators. Beehives make their home on the estate. He banished the use of cement, instead making walls of stone, held together by mesh wire. All of the natural elements compliment each other in form and function, and there’s no pesticides. It’s a bit of a damned modernity approach.

He only produces 10,000 bottles per year, because his approach is so time and labor-intensive.

GABRIELE:

It is a microcosm, and Franco was very attentive to what was happening, and he was coming from the north of Italy. He was coming from industrialization in the middle of the roaring, I would say, ’70s.

JEFF:

I would put him in the early vanguard in the ’70s and ’80s, of this person of low intervention.

ASHLEY:

That’s Jeff Porter, one of Wine Enthusiasts, Italian wine reviewers and a sommelier.

DANIELLE:

Jeff, you should start first, because your career is longer and more illustrious than mine

JEFF:

Either answer, it’s because I’m older.

DANIELLE:

Well, that was a nice way of saying that.

ASHLEY:

And that’s Danielle Callegari. She also reviews Italian wines for Wine Enthusiast, and is an assistant professor at Dartmouth College, specializing in Italian literature, food and beverage.

JEFF:

He was early on in the ’80s, of pulling leafs to get more sun exposure, shaping the canopy, which today, in a lot of biodynamic practice and a lot of more progressive agriculture, you don’t do that anymore. But again, it’s just every step, every movement in the vineyard, every movement in the winery, had intention and had purpose, and that got to the result. His processes … it’s interesting. It’s not unique among the great producers.

DANIELLE:

He’s neither a traditionalist nor a modernist, right? He is not trying to reject one school in favor of another. He is doing what is right, as though you can use gravity to make wine, let everything fall into place as physics desires it too, and it will naturally be its best self.

JEFF:

From the sommelier perspective and the people that sell the wine, he was ultimately respected. He was at the top of the pyramid of Italian wine. Everybody, there’s no not one person that disagreed, or if I ever met a person that didn’t like their wine … I honestly really genuinely can’t think of a person that didn’t try the wine and sat back and was like, “Wow, that’s really, really good.”

He was very respected by a lot of the producers. And I think a few of the producers just … he maybe came off to them in a certain way because he would be like, “My wine is the best.” In the cultural context, there’s that quiet boasting is okay, but in Italy, if you really go forward, like, “I’m the best shit there is,” Everybody’s like, “Oh, come on, this guy,” and I think that may have pissed off a few people, but he stuck to his guns, and there’s a lot of people that followed his method and then used him as an inspiration to today, so I think that’s the beauty of Soldera.

ASHLEY:

His exacting specificity extended to the tasting room too. He would bring his own wine glasses to restaurants. He wouldn’t allow anyone to spit out the wine after a tasting, because to him, wine was meant to be enjoyed and experienced,

GABRIELE:

And yes, you could not spit. No, that’s not an option, it’s about the value you give to the wine itself.

ASHLEY:

Jeff Porter says he prepared for three years to host a wine dinner with Gianfranco himself.

JEFF:

I had the fortune when I was the wine director of Del Posto, to have Gianfranco Soldera at Del Posto for a wine dinner, where we tried 30 vintages of Soldera. So I put that in the top three wine events of my entire career to be with him side by side, pouring the wines, having him ship his own wine glasses that everybody had to use, and having 20 guests at Del Posto enjoy that experience. It blew my mind. It was amazing.

ASHLEY:

That sounds incredible, and I know that’s part of the lore is you have to drink it out of certain glasses. You said you tried 30. Were you allowed to spit them out or-

JEFF:

Oh, no, no, no, no. He’s like, “You’re going to drink these, right?” I was like, “[foreign language 00:16:14]. Of course I am.”

I was blitzed at the end. I’m surprised I got the wine in the glasses.

ASHLEY:

Jeff was able to see a different side of Gianfranco when he was in the flow of hosting the tasting dinner.

JEFF:

When you go to wineries, you warn guests, “Don’t look them in the eye.” Say, “Yes, sir,” “Yes ma’am.” They need only the green M&M’s, and then he got there, he was a jovial, kind, wanted to ask me questions, interested in me, and with the guests, he engaged in conversation even though he didn’t speak English, we had his translator there. And it was one of those things where I was like, “Wow, he doesn’t seem very acerbic.” Everybody was reverent, but he was super enjoyable to be around.

So that was the beauty of it. What made his wine special, I think, was him, his attention to detail, the uncompromising nature of what his vision was, and I think when you look at the best wines in the entire world, that’s a common thread across all of them. And obviously his terroir was great, but his work and dedication in the vineyard, and from the vineyard into the cellar, from the cellar into the bottle, from the bottle to the market, there was no shortcut ever taken, and I love that. I love that he was so dogged in that approach, and the wines are ethereal.

In old age, they age like any other Sangiovese, but with this life and almost spritely breath to them, at 30 years old.

ASHLEY:

So each bottle of Gianfranco’s Brunello contained hours upon hours upon hours of labor from him and his employees.

Hearing all of this, how Gianfranco would painstakingly cultivate the ideal environment from first grape to final pour, it added another layer of complexity to the blood red wine puddling up in the cellar. Plus, Case Basse only releases 10,000 bottles per year. This is very small compared to other high-end wine producers.

JEFF:

So Mouton Rothchild, so first growth Bordeaux, they make about 40,000 cases of wine, and that’s a four digit figure upon release. And then within Italy, Antonori makes millions of bottles. He is at 10,000 bottles a year. You’re very, very small.

ASHLEY:

So how did the equivalent of 80,000 bottles of this fine wine end up circling the drain, left to mingle with Montalcino sewage?

More after this short break.

The news of the destruction of wine bounced around Montalcino, and quickly, it was the only thing in the international wine world was talking about. Gabriele was in Italy at the time when he heard the news, and he didn’t know what to think of it.

GABRIELE:

So we hadn’t any real idea whether this was true, or was a prank. Mr. Soldera never wanted people to spit his own wine, but only to enjoy and to absorb it in its entirety. He had his own big, beautiful [foreign language 00:20:03] barrels emptied in a few hours’ time, so this is super-difficult to think about to me.

ASHLEY:

This was difficult for the whole community of 6,000 people,

GABRIELE:

And the population here was shocked. You have to imagine that in Montalcino there are 225 estates, so pretty much everyone works for, by, or … it’s an entire system. You cannot avoid working wine in Montalcino, no? Therefore, it was a real shock for the population as a whole.

ASHLEY:

Danielle Callegari was living in Tuscany at the time. She saw the historical echoes of regional identities, and how the story played out in newspapers.

DANIELLE:

The news was not important, just at a level of what it meant to the wine world, but it was very much Tuscan news. It was a piece of a puzzle that was much larger than that, because obviously these areas have very long interrelated histories. And so the personal element of something like that also then had these ripple effects on what it meant to invade someone’s space in this territory that has a long history. And so when something like this happens, it has this 700 to a thousand year echo of where those people, how they interacted, what their products, which represent them, mean to them, and how the idea of somebody taking that away or destroying that is couched in that much deeper context.

JEFF:

I think within two days, the whole wine world knew about it.

ASHLEY:

Jeff Porter, again. At the time, he was the wine director at Del Posto, the restaurant, and he had a much more practical reaction.

JEFF:

I just remember going, “Oh God, the wine’s going to get that much more expensive.” That was my first thing. I was like, “Oh shit, now I can’t drink it,” and my psalms were like, raise the prices today.

ASHLEY:

The local and international wine communities speculated revenge as the motive, but revenge for what?

GABRIELE:

And then, speaking about how Mr. Soldera interacted with his people, and people around, the general idea started to [inaudible 00:22:39] around the fact that he might have been harsh to someone, he might have been sort of an argument and discussion with somebody, and these have resulted in such a incident or sabotage, as you want to call it, which was the actual motivation for that.

ASHLEY:

Myth and gossip made way for facts, when police arrested the vandal on December 20th, 2012. Andrea di Gisi was a 39 year old fed up employee of Case Basse, Soldera’s wine label. Well, former employee, I should say.

Investigators arrested him for breaking a window to get into the cellar. He opened the valves of 10 barrels, destroying the product of more than six years of hard work. Italian newspapers dubbed him the Brunello Killer.

Gabriele Gorelli knew Andrea through life in Montalcino.

GABRIELE:

And oftentimes, as it happens when you hear about these sorts of things and you interview people that knew the guy that did something, they always say, “Oh, the guy was super-peaceful, [inaudible 00:23:52] drunk with him.” I need to say the same thing. I need to say the same thing.

ASHLEY:

Andrea had a few gripes with the Case Basse winery, and with Gianfranco in particular.

GABRIELE:

This guy had this argument with Mr. Soldera about the fact that another guy, a colleague of him, was given the apartment he wanted to live in the Case Basse winery.

JEFF:

He was really pissed off about being fired, and he claims he was fired for mishandling a barrel, which is a giant no-no in this cellar, because he doesn’t have a lot of wines. The barrels are gigantic, so they hold a lot of wine, so if you mis-unclean it, you can induce a bacterial infection. That bacterial infection can spread really rapidly through the winery, and Gianfranco Soldera was very, very strict about care with it. We’re talking about early.

ASHLEY:

Italian investigators reportedly tapped Andrea’s phone, and heard him talking about rinsing wine out of his clothes. Wine particles were then found in his clothing via a lab test. It sounds like this was the only thing Montalcino was talking about.

GABRIELE:

This guy, after having done this sabotage, supposedly early, mid-afternoon, he went, he didn’t change himself. Can you imagine that? Opening all these valves, having this tsunami coming into the floor of the winery, and not changing your clothes after having done that? You have been navigating into a sea of wine. No.

And then he went to the bar, and nothing happened, but people was a bit surprised. And what was the funny thing is that the bar he went to is across the road from the [foreign language 00:25:42], from the police station, so it’s a-

ASHLEY:

Oh my gosh.

GABRIELE:

I think what he wanted is just to do this sabotage. He didn’t care about what the consequence could have been after that. No, it’s just, “I’m doing that,” and it was blinded by this rage.

ASHLEY:

After this incident, Soldera had much less wine to sell. He lost six vintages in the sabotage. Remember, Case Basse only produces 10,000 bottles per year. That is a huge financial loss, not only for Case Basse, but for the larger community as well. In fact, this destruction led to a 10 million Euro commercial loss for the whole region.

The community of winemakers stepped in to help. The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, or the Consortium of Brunello di Montalcino Wine in English, calls themselves a free association of winemakers who produce Brunello di Montalcino. These types of consorzios are common in Italy, and they play a role in regulating the quality of wine. The consorzios shared what seemed to be a generous offering. They offered to share their grape harvest to create a blended wine, but Soldera publicly refused their help.

In one day, two major things happened. First, Andrea, the disgruntled former employee, was sentenced to four years in prison, and second, Soldera issued a statement saying he was resigning from the consorzio.

DANIELLE:

If you think of yourself as an artist, you don’t take somebody else’s art and sign it, and you’re not going to just take somebody else’s version of the thing that you care so much about, and pass it off as your own, because that’s as good as somebody giving him a couple of thousand apples and saying, “Here, sell these instead.”

JEFF:

I think the intention from the consorzio was actually really, really nice, but I think he took it as, “What? You want me to bottle your wine as Soldera? That’s insulting to the people who know Soldera.”

So he took it, from my understanding, kind of like, “How dare you? I have this wine shirt. I don’t need your pity. I don’t need your money.”

ASHLEY:

This perceived insult appeared to be the final straw, after decades of fiery opinions on the proper way to make a world-class Brunello.

JEFF:

He was like, Screw you guys. I’m out. I don’t need you. I don’t need the moniker, Brunello di Montalcino any more. I’m Soldera,” and that’s probably been in his head for a long time, but I think that was probably the kicker.

But it’s interesting, there’s a quote I saw that the president of the consorzio of the time was like, “Well, screw you. How do you have wine all a sudden? What are you … like where Jesus turned water into wine?” He basically said that to Gianfranco, and that cemented Gianfranco giving the consorzio the proverbial middle finger.

ASHLEY:

He continued to produce fine Brunello’s under his Case Basse label, even though he left the consorzio. Since the incident effectively reduced supply of his product, the price jumped even higher.

JEFF:

Gianfranco’s, one of his biggest worries, and this is my biggest worry in the world of wine today, is the access to normal people getting to try the wine, but with this loss of wine, that many fewer people will get to try it, get to understand, have the opportunity. If you see Soldera on a list now, it’s always four digits, and then you see it in an auction, it’s really expensive. It’s out of reach for most people.

ASHLEY:

More than 10 years after this act of vandalism, what is the legacy of this incident? The perpetrator has since been released from prison. Gianfranco passed away in 2019. He was 82. He died after experiencing a heart attack while driving. His family now operates the Case Basse winery.

For Jeff Porter, Gianfranco’s legacy is found in the confidence of traditional Italian winemakers.

JEFF:

So in my experience, with being a sommelier focusing in Italian wine, they’re always mentioning Burgundy or Bordeaux, or, “We want to be like this.” “We want to be like that.” And it truly isn’t until recently, where I feel that the Italian producers are much more confident in their wines and in themselves, to not have to necessarily always look northwest, or over their shoulders, being like, “Oh, what are the French doing?”

And I think Gianfranco Soldera was one of the people who led the way through making great wine, that he didn’t have to look anywhere else. He didn’t have to compare himself to anybody, and he was at the vanguard to teach other producers that if you do this, just be yourself. Make great wine. Show off Sangiovese or whatever your native grape is where you are. Make the best that you can, and show the place, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.

ASHLEY:

Gabriele Gorelli says the incident reminds us why we drink intentionally produced fine wine.

GABRIELE:

This incident really brought to the surface the values that are connected to the brands we drink, not only every day, but the brands we like. What I mean is that we do like Soldera, not only because of what the wine looks and tastes in the glass, but we do like Soldera for the message he gave, and this idea to go against the flow any time, every time. Many people do buy Soldera, because they feel it. They might not be able to drink it on a regular basis, but they really feel it.

ASHLEY:

And perhaps we should savor every sip.

GABRIELE:

So every vintage is unique. Every barrel was unique, and these, we’re not going to get these things back, because these are down the drain.

ASHLEY:

That’s all for this week’s episode of Vinfamous, a podcast by Wine Enthusiast. Join us next time for the final episode of the season, where we unravel the mysteries of a burglary ring in Napa Valley. Find Vinfamous on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen, and follow the show so you never miss a scandal.

Vinfamous is produced by Wine Enthusiast in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team, Dara Kapoor, Samantha Sette and the team at Pod People: Anne Feuss, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Ashton Carter, Danielle Roth, Shaneez Tyndall, and Carter Wogahn.

(Theme Music Fades Out)

Published on April 26, 2023
Topics: Podcast