A Dispatch from Cormons, Italy

By · Photography Courtesy of Matt Haimovitz · Date 09/08/2016

Around his rustic country table in Cormons, Italy, Kristian Keber, a 28-year-old winemaker, poured his family’s 2013 Collio. Perhaps Kristian could sense that my mind was racing for adjectives and metaphors to describe the chilled white wine swirling in the glass. He began to recount a story about Luigi Veronelli, one of Italy’s most respected wine connoisseurs and writers from the last 40 years. A reporter asked him, “I have the feeling that if you are really knowledgeable about it, there are just four ways to classify a wine: white, red, good, or not good.” The wine expert, with a smirk, responded, “Ah, you are so young! There are only two: it is good… or not good.” On music, Duke Ellington would have agreed. When asked which genres of music he liked, he stated simply, “Well there are only two: there is great music, and then there is the other kind.”

Like the vast majority of sons and daughters of winemaking families from this region situated at the crossroads of Italy and Slovenia, Kristian dedicated six years of high school studies to oenology and viticulture. I asked him about his relationship to music. These days he listens mostly to rock ‘n’ roll and house music, but he remembers a time when he was more drawn to the music of Bach. “I don’t know why. During high school, from 16 to 18 years old. I liked to listen to Bach during my study time. Not piano, mostly harpsichord music. Pling, pling, pling. I always liked this pling.”

After another pour, I asked Kristian why he decided to become a winemaker. “I had the freedom to do whatever. But I cannot do anything else. It was an easy decision.” Kristian speaks of family, heritage, history, as easily and naturally as he pours the wine. As a musician whose passions span hundreds of years, I can relate. The trajectory of time is almost two dimensional, centuries folded into the present. Kristian’s family has owned and run the farm for 350 years, acquiring the land two decades before the birth of J. S. Bach.

Kristian’s surname, Keber, is Austrian. He communicates with his family in his first language, Slovenian, and his farm sits predominantly on the Italian side of the border. I ask, “So what nationality are you?” Without hesitation, he answers, “I don’t believe in nationalities. I believe in the populations, the cultures. Nationalities are only trouble. The Slovenian population has been here for a thousand years and never had a nationality. Until now, from 20 years ago, Slovenia exists again. Italy is the exact opposite. Italy has many local populations and these are strong, but not so the national identity. When Italy warred with Austria, it was the governments who were at war, not the people. Here the populations never warred. Look at the Middle East, what are the nationalities of the Arabic people? How can you draw borders? How can you make a nation with lines? Nations are created to make conflicts.”

Kristian Keber in his wine cellar.
Kristian Keber in his wine cellar.

Kristian continues, “Here we are on the border. Cormons was part of the Roman Empire around 2000 years ago. And here too was the Slavic world. And the two populations lived side by side in peace. My friends are of Roman heritage, as well as Slavic; we live as neighbors. The war was between Austria and Italy. And most of the time the Slovenian population is blended into both of these countries. Talk of nationalities is a modern phenomenon, of no importance. Conflicts come and go.”

I just experienced this openness first hand in Berlin, Germany, at the European launch of my own new vintage, “Overtures to Bach.” The Christophori Piano Salon, an old warehouse building bulging with half-built pianos, and decorated up to the ceiling with filigreed piano desks and disembodied pedal assemblies, has been turned into a lively arts center. Around 250 people packed into the space to hear a solo cellist bring together a melting pot of six composers as they engaged with the music of J.S. Bach, composed 300 years ago, less than 100 miles from where we were congregated.

It had been 25 years since my last performance in Berlin. Then, at age 19, making my debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, playing Schumann’s Cello Concerto, I was facing the ghosts of all the legendary cellists who had appeared before me on the Philharmonie stage, and wrestling with my own ancestral ghosts, as a Jew in post-war Germany. Now, through composers Philip Glass, Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Roberto Sierra, David Sanford, and Luna Pearl Woolf, I was reaching further back in time but looking forward, embracing the richness of our many cultures in a moment of common purpose.

Kristian too spoke of embracing his ghosts. “In our world, it is very important the experience of the fathers, one’s heritage. You make wine just one time per year. One generation can make only 50 harvests and not one of the harvests is the same. I am young, so I need to experiment and try out my ideas, but I often come back to what my ancestors decided.” I have experienced that very progression in the study of a musical work, first wandering far afield, and finally embracing the teachings of my mentors. Either way, our time is finite and fragile and the tradition must be passed on, even as we strive for progress. As Kristian says, “It is a responsibility that our generation pass on knowledge to the next generation.”

Today the Keber family makes only one wine, their Collio. Kristian is an advocate for an intimate, creative approach: “You are the farmer. You know your soil, only you can make decisions. I sell my area, my culture. If you want red wine, too bad. My culture is white wine. To make good wines, you have to be honest.” Allowing the market to dictate decisions, he warns, causes farmers to manipulate the natural properties of the climate and soil, resulting in shallow roots and a deterioration of the long-term health of the land, and, ultimately, the livelihood of the farmers.

So it is too often in the world of music. In 2000, when Luna Pearl Woolf and I started our record label, Oxingale, we were the first artist-run indie classical label with the audacity to put our faith in the public and seek wide distribution. At the time, it must have looked like career suicide to make A&R decisions based not on what the market demanded, but on what was artistically significant to us. How many times do major labels put out recordings whose raison d’être begins and ends with a marketing plan or as catalogue filler? The industry has suffered as a result, while a cornucopia of independent labels and now online-only artists has all but eclipsed the market-driven machine.

Later in this far-flung summer, commuting between Nürnberg and Bayreuth, amidst rehearsals for another album-release concert, this one of soprano Lisa Delan’s recording, “Out of the Shadows,” I had the rare opportunity to take in Wagner’s Ring cycle at the source. For days, my mind was filled with director Frank Castorf’s provocative, and as evidenced by the vociferous booing, controversial, take on this epic operatic work. To accompany a midnight snack—miniature, Trump-finger-sized Nuremberg sausages on a bed of sweet sauerkraut—I uncorked another Keber bottle, again the 2013 Collio. Even more vividly now, I could taste the rich minerals and fruit of the Collio earth, nurtured by the Keber family for 350 years, layered with history going back 2000 years and beyond. With each mouthful, the wine grew in intensity, unfolding into three dimensions. Was I hallucinating? Back in the Festpielhaus, crocodiles copulated on a replica of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. The lush textures of Wagner’s love duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde touched my soul, even as the wooden folding chair stabbed me in the back. And the two supposed lovers, albeit aunt and nephew, fed the crocodiles like pigeons in Central Park. A sip of the Collio illuminates a path; maybe this ancestral juice is the true liquid gold, the answer to Castorf’s black tar and oil.

Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, on the Bayreuth stage.
Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, on the Bayreuth stage.

Surely this cacophony is what Kristian expected when he left the serene, gently undulating landscape of his family farm in Cormons for a gap year in America. He was temporarily rebelling against the natural course of his family trajectory. He expected a psychedelic, drug-filled romp in the New World. Instead, he arrived to New York City and burned through three jobs in two weeks, nothing but work, work, work in the city that never sleeps, more work than on the farm. He immediately felt alienated, out-of-place in such a big city, and returned home after only two months. He insists, though, that the brief time in New York had a profoundly positive effect. “It was my first time in a big city. I was really fascinated with the subways. Really. Late in the night, listening to music, I studied the people in the subway. The opposite from here. So many people in the subways.” But perhaps, after all, the subway evoked a nostalgia for home, an amphora of histories and cultures living side by side. One thing is certain, whether it is New York’s subway, Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, or the winding roads through the hills of Collio: nations do not exist, only a place and its people. ¶