A life lived for his land: the story of Luigi Gregoletto, one of the great elder statesmen of Conegliano Valdobbiadene
Heroism comes in many forms. The best-known definition when speaking about the tradition of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene hills refers to the challenging cultivation of vineyards perched on slopes whose gradient sometimes exceeds 30%. Working such hillsides is so arduous that it can rightly be defined as ‘heroic viticulture’. But there is another type of heroism which is deeper and more human. “I grew up in the tiny hamlet of Premaor, near Miane. The population was just 250 souls. Immediately after World War II almost half of the townsfolk was forced to emigrate due to lack of work. The situation was so dire I considered going to look for work in Germany, as so many of my friends were doing. So I asked a friend for his advice, and he said to me: “Listen Luigi, if you go abroad you can build an occupation, but if you stay here you’ll build a future …”. Put in these terms, I was left in no doubt: in spite of everything, I decided to stay.”
Thus 93-year-old Luigi Gregoletto – one of the last great elder statesmen of viticulture in Conegliano Valdobbiadene – defines his particular form of heroism. This is a heroism which comes from a deep affinity with one’s roots, so typical of traditional farming communities. Not surprising, since the Gregoletto family has been tending vines on these lands for four centuries, as testified by a document dated 9 January 1600. In the document, one of his ancestors entered into a contract with the local Abbey to cultivate vineyards and land, and his ancestors are still tending the very same land to this day.
Luigi was born into a family of tenant farmers 1927 in Premaor; his father was a peasant farmer and his mother a seamstress. He’s one of those rare examples of an individual whose very essence is inseparable from the land that created him. He represents one of the last remaining voices capable of describing the history of these lands over the course of the last century, from its humble origins to the great successes of recent years. It is clear that the fame Prosecco Superiore enjoys today is owed to those men who made the same choices as Luigi.
He was brought up in a world in which toil and hard work were the norm. “I’d start work at the crack of dawn every day, first off following my grandfather up the steep hillsides where we owned two hectares of vineyards, then after that with my dad. All the work was carried out by hand, with no mechanical assistance at all. I did all the different types of work required of a tenant farmer, from tending and milking the livestock, ploughing and above all everything that needed doing on the hillsides. In the winery, since I was the eldest of the grandchildren, I was given the job of cleaning the inside of the barrels, because back then vinification was carried out directly in the vats.”
Real schooling took place in the vineyard and everything was learned out in the fields. “In Premaor I attended primary school, but only until the third grade. In fact, almost everyone in my class left school and started work after the third grade. I was lucky, though, because my mother understood the importance of education and sent me to Follina, to what we ironically referred to as the ‘university’, where I attended the fourth and fifth grades.”
Such efforts have rewarded him a lifetime of success. These include being awarded the title of winemaker of the year in 2016 in Piacenza by FIVI, the Italian Federation of Independent Winegrowers. Along with this, his wines have received numerous accolades from such famous personalities as the gourmet Luigi Veronelli and even the great Alberto Sordi, who, while a guest in Conegliano in 1991, mentioned Gregoletto during a speech, confusing the name of the winery with a particular type of wine. More recently still he can even count Bono, the lead singer of U2, as one of his admirers.
Today, despite being over ninety years old, Luigi Gregoletto continues to be an important figure and living history of this area. This role still remains relevant to him, given that until a couple of years ago he continued to work in the family business, delivering wine to personally to a few long-time clients. Yet another form of heroism, perhaps the most difficult, is the one against the march of time. “What did my grandfather and father leave me? Well, a great passion for work but above all the deep love I have for this land: if you love the land of your birth, then it’s the best thing in the world. But it’s also a great responsibility, because being a farmer is an art that cannot be learned overnight, no matter how many schools you attend”.
[This article was originally published in the Visit Conegliano Valdobbiadene magazine, issue Spring Summer 2020. The magazine is available here]