Gabrio Bini

Gabrio Bini

Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini

The following interview was originally published in Apartamento magazine issue #25, out now! Click here to get your copy.


I first met Geneviève and Gabrio Bini at dinner in Pantelleria two years ago. They arrived at home with their dog, Agung, and a few bottles of their wine. I didn’t care much about natural wine then, and I still do not care about it much now. Unless when I remember what Gabrio Bini, who is originally an architect from Milan, told me one day: ‘People call this kind of wine ‘nature’, but just think of it as ‘natural’. It’s as simple as that’. As simple as that: such is the way I like to think of Serragghia wines, made by the three Gs: Gabrio, Geneviève, and their son, Giotto. Every time I thought of them, I remembered the deliciousness of their company as much as the deliciousness of their wines. The first time I took a sip of the Geneviève cuvée, I remember thinking something at least as stupid as, ‘This is so much more than wine’, when I also knew I couldn’t say a word or do anything, except maybe smile, to show Geneviève and Gabrio just how exceptional I thought their wine was.
I arrived on the island this year with friends who, unlike me, know their wine and who asked me if we could pay a little visit to the Binis. I had never been to their property and was happy to ask Gabrio, whose answer was simply, Y<3 OK <3Y. So on we went, driving up the hill from my house to theirs, with a feeling in our guts similar to that of visiting sweet yet distant relatives. Geneviève wanted to show us the garden, where we admired a 400-year-old bonsai tree. Gabrio had looked for a pot as old as the tree to replant it in. As he explained this to us, he also said that ‘all trees can be bonsais’. A sentence I’ve learnt to appreciate more and more as I spend more and more time with the Binis. Just as I’ve found myself using a word Gabrio Bini uses in every other sentence: ‘Fantastico!’

Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini

It is close to 5pm, the sirocco is blowing intensely for this time in August, and we are walking towards the two horses to feed them carob fruits, passing through the entire property. From the main house to the horses, it takes about seven minutes.

What led you to acquire a vineyard on the island of Pantelleria?

We bought this place here in 1994. The story goes that Geneviève—who is an art director; she works in advertising—had met a great photographer on a job in Miami. His name was Fabrizio Ferri, and he invited her to spend some days in Pantelleria. We came for a few years, Giotto really liked it, and then we bought this property. At first there was only one hectare of vines; we’re passing it now actually. And a few caper plants. I didn’t want to do wine myself, so we started with the capers. I had some salt in my suitcase and the capers were there; that’s how it started. The product was really beautifully made, and I somehow made my way into the best restaurants in the world with these capers. A mundane element, so to speak. We knew a few chefs, who spoke about our capers to other chefs, and so it goes. We’ll try some with the wine later. Geneviève always advises people to have one caper with one almond. They go really well together. You’ll see.

What about wine, then? How did you learn to make wine?

I did a lot of research, not so much experimentation. I enquired with friends of mine who were making wine, notably a friend who is very important in viticulture. He’s a professor at the agricultural school in Milan, teaching viticulture. His friendship and advice were very useful to me. Then I also researched quite thoroughly the way they make wine in Georgia, in the Caucasus. This is where wine was born, so to speak. I have analysed extremely thoroughly the amphoras in Georgia. And, in my opinion, it didn’t quite work with my own procedure. So I kept on looking for the right amphoras and I ended up finding amphoras in Spain as I was analysing their argil and their terracotta. This research phase was quite long, because I started in 1995 and the first harvest, the first production, took place in 2005. It lasted 10 years! And in 10 years, even the most stupid person can graduate twice—I mean, have two diplomas. I graduated in wine after 10 years of research! In 2005, the first production was the first experimentation and the result was very positive, so I simply kept on going. In a way, I was born in 2005 with the first harvest.

Has your team changed a lot since 2005?

For the past five years now, we have a new agronomist working with us. Otherwise, it’s simply always me; my son, Giotto; the agronomist; and the farmworker, who comes from Romania. Once I asked him if the work was not too hard here, and he explained what he used to do for a living before in Romania. Let’s just say that his work now is paradise compared to the previous one.

What about your son, Giotto? Has he been here from the very beginning as well?

It came gradually and naturally. He started by overseeing the domain with me. Now he lives here on Pantelleria all year round and deals with the harvest and everything. He also chooses and takes the risk of doing certain productions on his own. There’s the Heritage, and the other is a wine made with a 19-month-long maceration. And maybe he’ll do something else, too.

So he learnt just like you did?

In a way we didn’t learn, or we learnt on our own. Let’s say that making wine—if we’re talking in biological terms, for this you need a biologist. But we don’t know anything about biology. But that’s OK, because when we encounter biology-related problems, I simply contact a biologist. Just the same as if we have mechanical issues with our machinery, then I need a mechanic or an electrician. That’s not our business. But making wine—I mean, making wine with our procedure—it’s as simple as it gets. We take risks, that’s true. Because the people who make conventional wine today don’t know how to make wine. When you use that many chemicals, it’s easy. There’s no risk-taking. Making conventional wine—you couldn’t even learn it, it’s so easy. You take the grapes, add sulphites, in case the sulphites kill the leaven you add industrial leaven, and that’s it. Les jeux sont faits. Us, on the other hand, we take risks; we have to be careful about the procedure, we have to be more mindful of the vine itself. That’s what I meant when I said we didn’t learn it, because nobody does things the way we do. We took some risks to come up with a process that gave a positive result. We own that; we didn’t learn it. However, we could teach it! From students, we became teachers.

Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini

And over the years, you started acquiring more land that already had vines?

First, there was this hectare, then we bought the houses over here, all this land here, and the last thing we bought was this house here. So we also have the olive trees you can see over there, all the way down to the road.

I like how the olive trees stay small here on Pantelleria because of the wind.

They are like big bonsai trees. They grow like this to defend themselves from the wind. Our olive trees are between 200 and 300 years old. Grosso modo, it all adds up to seven hectares. Up till a few years ago, I used to run up to this hill, and go back down running also. I don’t do it anymore. This parcel here is very particular; it’s fantastic because the vines are between 100 and 120 years old. We acquired it two years ago. This is where we make the wine we call Heritage; we only make 600 bottles of it. Une grande cuvée, voilà. People here would have taken these vines out to plant new ones, because their produce rate is very low, but we kept them as the quality is fantastic.

Gabrio sometimes opens his eyes widely to emphasise certain words; however, it is mostly to make us laugh. We have now entered a new section of the vines.

Are those zibibbo grapes as well?

The island mainly produces zibibbo, usually used for sweet wines, which we don’t do. Look here, this is a very particular vine we planted almost six years ago. This is pinot noir. It’s very unusual because pinot noir is a cold-country grape, usually used for champagne in Nordic countries. This is why I believe it’s the southernmost pinot noir in the northern hemisphere. It’s fantastic! It will be perfect in about 10 days.

We start hearing neighs from Uma Uda, the small horse who gives company to Flora, the horse who helps with the harvest.

Uma means horse in Japanese, while Uda also means horse in Indonesian, so her name is actually Horse Horse. They sometimes eat the grapes, like on this portion, as you can see. But they will be replanted as early as February. It will be OK. The horses have an understanding between them. Flora is the dominant one.

Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini
Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini

What about this dammuso hut behind us, Gabrio?

I consider this to be the most beautiful dammuso on the whole island! It’s very ancient and has ideal proportions. Giotto will build his new house here.

Will you take care of designing it personally?

Of course!

Geneviève chooses this moment to join us, and we all make our way back to the house. Gabrio stops by a caper plant to give us a full lesson on the capers, their flowers, why sometimes there are no flowers because of a fly, and the fruits that contain the grains.

Geneviève: And Agung pees on them.

We keep on walking, but before we enter the house, we take a turn to have a look at the amphoras, where the magic happens.

When were all the amphoras installed?

Well, there were different times! The place was born several times; we started with these six here and there was a wall there. We took down the wall and kept going until the other wall that was here. And we kept on going until what we have now. And now, finito! So, let me show you, these hold 250 litres, and that’s what we use for white wine. Those ones are a little bit bigger, for red wine. We don’t have control over the temperature, but with a small quantity of grapes, we get a fresh fermentation. If we were to put the white grapes in those bigger amphoras, the fermentation would be too hot. However, the red needs a rather hot fermentation. It’s our way of controlling the heat. Then we have much larger amphoras: this one in the back, for instance, holds 7,000 litres! It’s four metres high. It’s basically a duplex apartment. Big enough for a rendezvous. And, mind you, we don’t dig holes to put the amphoras in; we build walls to surround the amphoras before filling in the holes. It’s simpler this way. These terracotta amphoras are very special because the oxygen goes in, but the wine never goes out! They’re from Spain, and after trying many different versions, these are the only ones that suit me. After we’re done here, we bring the wine down the road for it to be bottled. Five hundred metres away, or maybe one kilometre.

Would you say there’s a political dimension to what you do? Making the wine the way you do?

Well, when we bought this small vineyard, we had 7,000 square metres of vines. We started cultivating it, and it certainly was an experiment and it was a risk. Because we cultivated the vines in a clean way and discovered that the grapes are magnificent as they are. It’s the result of chance! But then me and politics—these are two very different things! I don’t think we do anything political or polemical. I have spent all my life trying to be anonymous, and, despite myself, wine has made me enter the legend, in a way.

How do you envision the future of natural wines? Is it going to remain a niche, or do you think it will take the path of democratisation?

I certainly think so! But do keep in mind that not all natural wines are completely natural. But the path is here now; it cannot go backwards. Although it’s true that the stakes for conventional wines are so very huge, so we couldn’t really fight that. And I don’t want to fight that at all! On the contrary! All I want is to make a difference. Offer an alternative.

What do you mean when you say that not all natural wines are completely natural?

Even if you use very few chemicals in a very controlled and minimal way, you’re still using chemicals. But I think the problem is elsewhere. And this I realised with the help of a woman, a great chemist, to whom I asked the question: what is the difference between using 120mg or 50mg of sulphites? And she told me there is no difference at all. Whether you need 120mg to make a wine sterile, or only 50mg because it was more clean to begin with, the result is the same because they will both be sterile at the end. That is what everybody needs to understand. This is when our health comes into the picture.

Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini

Before 1995, when you bought the land here—or let’s say before 2005, when you opened the first bottles of your own wine—what kind of wine were you drinking?

I started getting interested in natural wines because I enjoyed wine so much. And I had a friend who distributed natural wines in Italy. I told him when we were about to do our first harvest, and he said, as a bet, ‘I will buy all of your wine even if it’s bad’. So that’s how he bought the first 700 bottles. And the wine was magnificent!

But in the ‘90s, hardly anybody was making natural wine the way we speak of it now.

No, from what I know, there were very few people. I was drinking wine by Pierre Overnoy, who was already making wine with no chemicals. He was the first that I heard of. Before him, there was somebody I didn’t know, called Jules Chauvet who was both a biologist and a winegrower. He was Pierre Overnoy’s model. That’s where it starts, then maybe there are others I am not aware of. Pierre Overnoy is a wonderful man; I call him the wine pope. He’s still working today with his son and daughter.

Giotto arrives as Gabrio is showing us fennel flowers, and the conversation continues on towards the upper terrace.

Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini
Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini

How did you transform the three magazzini into your house?

They used to be small agricultural warehouses, three different rooms of different proportions. I decided to make them communicate in order to build this small house, which is 45 square metres.

What about this table, did you design it?

Gabrio: Yes, I did. The top part is from Brazil, as it only exists there. One day, the wind was blowing so hard it fell, so now it’s broken. But I don’t care; the focus is somewhere else for me. The table is made to take part in the evening. Listen.

Gabrio gently strikes the table with his foot. Indeed, it makes a sound, a gong of sorts, supposably bound to happen whenever a guest makes a move.

Geneviève: It’s a musical table.
Gabrio: When I make a table, I always make it like that. No matter the size, no matter the colour, it has to be musical. Even if the sound isn’t great, this bottom part is always moving. These pieces of furniture here, I brought them back from Bali and I’m just waiting for them to get old and fall into pieces. I won’t renovate it or anything. I consider them human beings. I personally don’t do any touch-ups to my face, I don’t do any renovations, I want to get old normally, and my objects will do just the same.

How long were you in Bali for?

Two years. I had a construction site over there. But we would go back to Milan a lot. These chairs come from Bali as well. Remember, Bali was under Dutch rule at some point, so these chairs are quite Dutch in their original design. And the extensions here are to help you take off your boots.

It’s now time to take a little tour of the house, as it’s still so hot outside. After having a few glasses of water, we start talking again, first in the kitchen, then making our way down to the bedroom.

Can you tell us more about this lighting system?

I didn’t want to touch the ceiling by adding a lamp, so I thought of this lighting system—that tube coming out of the table. Both the table and the floor are made from Carrara marble.

How about your bed? It’s made in the same colours as some of the kitchen cabinets.

I designed the bed here, too. And look at the marble on the floor; in each room, the marble plates reproduce the proportions of the room. Because each room has a different shape: here in the bedroom it is quite square, up there it is rectangular, and in the kitchen it’s slightly more square.

Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini

I’m curious about this, up there on the ceiling, this sort of rock. What is it?

When they were building the roofs at the time, they placed this rock here as a hook to be able to put tree branches in and then to hang food there, so that mice wouldn’t eat the food. Every dammuso has these. If it’s old, it’s a rock like here, but it can be a metal hook as well. This way of building dammusi is very ancient, because the ceiling is not simply an arch; it’s what we call a barrel arch. And look at this piece of furniture from Bali as well; it was made specially to hold food because mice don’t eat bamboo! Two different ways of preventing the mice from eating your food.

Now gathered all around the table under the carob tree, we cheers to encounters, bottles of Serragghia wines surrounding us.

Could you tell us more about how you came to design the label on your wine bottles?

It’s actually taken from a lamp I designed, an arrow-shaped marble figure as tall as me, with a neon light behind it. The original lamp is designed in such a way that it has to rely on a wall to stand, and the arrow has to fit in a corner for the lamp to stand.

Is your apartment in Milan very different from the house here?

Gabriel: We live in a building from the ‘30s in the centre of Milan. I haven’t done much work there, since we arrived four years ago, but I have decorated it in a personal way. It’s a beautiful house.
Geneviève: It’s full of collections!
Gabrio: A house is just like a box, and through it passes life, travels; there are a lot of things, all moving.
Geneviève: Accumulating. The house in Milan is very different, it has nothing to do with this one.

After a small pause, Gabrio points to the carob tree.

Gabrio: Look here. This caper fell in love with a big girl, the carob! It’s a very presumptuous caper! And I’m the grandfather of them all. There are a few of these types of stories, no? The elephant who’s in love with the ant. Wait, there’s a surrealist saying that goes, ‘The elephant is in love with the millimetre’. You know, there is always an occasion, or a situation, to speak about something other than the situation itself. This is really fantastic!
Geneviève: It’s better to be slightly surreal, to not be too grounded in reality.
Gabrio: It’s better to be very ignorant in life rather than knowledgeable. Because if you’re very knowledgeable, you end up speaking about the same stuff all the time.

Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini
Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini

While if you actually ask questions and accept your ignorance, you end up speaking about different subjects all the time.

Gabrio: Exactly! People with a lot of imagination are never sure about anything, while I’ve found that imbeciles are always very sure, no?
Geneviève: Imbeciles are always happy with themselves. Maybe you have to be an imbecile to be truly happy with yourself.

Because we are all chewing on carob fruits, Gabrio holds a seed in his hand.

Gabrio: Do you know that carob seeds were used to measure carats? They would serve as the balance on a scale when measuring the weight and value of diamonds. So, somehow, you could say that the poorest material is equal to the richest.

Apartamento Magazine - Gabrio Bini
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