As an architect in her 30s, Elena Walch married into the family of the largest vineyard owner in Alto Adige, Italy. She's a strong, driven woman, and Werner Walch may not have known what he was in for.
Today, her name is on a wine label, not Werner's. And Elena Walch wines are some of the best known from the region, particularly her delightfully balanced Gewürztraminer, one of the best examples in the world of a difficult wine to do well.
I had the pleasure of sitting next to her at dinner, and I wasn't sure how to address the question, so I just asked it: Why is your name on the bottle? With the subtext being, what did you do with your husband's body?
It turns out that Werner Walch is alive and well and still running his part of the winery in his own way, using the established Wilhelm Walch brand. He and Elena share a facility, his parents' ancestral home, and a staff as well.
Werner makes wine the way he was taught when he took over the family business at age 19 after his father died. He brings in a lot of grapes, some his and some purchased, makes a lot of wine in stainless steel tanks, and sells it at a moderate price.
Elena met Werner through mutual friends in the city of Bolzano, where both were living. It's not a big place, with a population of just 100,000, and Elena already had made herself known by opening her own architectural office, rather than going to work for somebody else.
"This was very unusual for an architect then, especially a woman," she said. "I was building houses for farmers and telling them what to do. Their view was very narrow."
Elena was 35, Wilhelm 34, when they married. It's worth noting that despite his family's huge tracts of land, he wasn't necessarily a catch. The Italian wine industry was not thriving in 1985, particularly in the north where they made mostly indifferent white wines. She was a sophisticated woman born and raised in Milan, now going to live on a farm.
Elena had big ideas from the time she arrived in the Walch home. She loved the building, with its beautifully designed ceilings and ancient heating system that required the windows being thrown open first to let all the smoke out. And she loved the winery, with its huge, intricately carved casks.
She had no history in the wine business, but she had traveled, and she noticed that people in other countries were beginning to take wine more seriously, rather than just buying a carafe of local white from a jug, as was still common in Bolzano. She thought artisanal wines were the future. Her husband, the expert, disagreed.
Here is the limit of writing online vs. reporting with a travel budget. I would love to go to Bolzano and ask Werner what he thought when his new wife told him she had some changes she wanted to make. I don't know. All I know is what happened.
Elena and Werner set up separate winery systems under the same roof. They also divvied up their grape sources. In wine, it was like a divorce, but in life, they are still married and have two daughters who grew up in rooms right above the fermenting grapes. No wonder both daughters are working at the combined winery now.
It's a commonly reported mistake to call Elena the winemaker; she doesn't call herself that. "We have a winemaker who is there every day, but I make decisions and say the things we want to accomplish," she says.
Elena makes 40,000 cases of wine, so she's not a small producer, but her husband makes more, and buys grapes from 100 different farmers as well as using some of his own. Elena has two levels of wine, the cheaper "Seleziones" and the higher-end vineyard-designate wines from Werner's properties, Castel Ringberg and Kastelaz.
One of the biggest differences between her wines and her husband's is that she uses oak barriques on the white wines. She uses just a touch, aging about 15% of the wine in them, to give a rounder, firmer mouthfeel.
She also made big changes in the sections of the vineyards that she uses, and she says these were the hardest to convince her husband to do. She increased the density of planting. "I have 2 1/2 times more vines than before, but less grapes," she says. "Now everybody is doing this, but at the time of transition it was unusual. It took quite a long time for people to understand it was better to be known for the quality than the quantity."
She does wonder what Werner's great-grandfather, who founded the winery in 1869, would think about her running her own show. "Maybe he would be shocked. Maybe he would be proud," she says. "The world is different now."
But in one respect, the male-dominant tradition continues.
The huge carved casks that Elena loved have initials on them for the men who run the company. There's one with a "WW" on it for Werner, but there's no "EW." And Elena says even though their daughters will run both wineries some day?) who knows if they will reunite the operation?) they will not, in her lifetime, get their initials on a cask. Instead, they'll have to produce a male heir.
"I think I must pay some respect to his great-grandfather," Elena says. She's probably making better wines than Wilhelm Walch ever imagined.
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Elena Walch Kastelaz Alto Adige Gewürztraminer 2012 ($32): This wine has won a "Tre Bicchieri" (Three Glass, the top award) designation from Gambero Rosso three vintages in a row, and it's easy to see why. It's wonderfully balanced, with the rose petal aromas expected from this variety, and without the heaviness that plagues so much Gewurz. "I like to have a second glass, so I don't want it baroque," Elena says. "I like the freshness, the minerality in the glass." Workers make two passes through the vineyard to harvest the grapes before they become overripe. One of the best Gewürztraminers you can buy anywhere, great because it's merely trying to be good.
Elena Walch Castel Ringberg Alto Adige Sauvignon 2012 ($24): You can't taste the barriques that some of this wine ages in, but you can tell from the nice texture, rounded but with some nice grip, unlike today's more common, angular stainless steel versions. There's good minerality on the nose and restrained green mango flavor in this elegant wine.
Elena Walch Kastelaz Alto Adige Pinot Bianco 2012 ($25): A restrained version of this food-friendly variety, with nice texture from the use of barriques on about 15% of the wine. Clean, straightforward wine that's not fruit-driven and will go with just about any kind of food.
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W. Blake Gray won the Roederer Award for World's Best Online Wine
Writer in 2013. You can read his blog at blog.wblakegray.com, and
follow him on Twitter at @wblakegray.