By Jesse Nash
Dr. Francesco Bellini, passionate winemaker of Domodimonti Natural Wine, married an Italian and relocated to French Canada, but he never forgot his Italian homeland. In 2003, while Francesco and his wife Marisa were visiting Italy, an opportunity came their way to purchase a despaired “antique cantina” with over 98 acres of vineyards along with almost 20 acres of olive groves. The idea of producing their own natural wine in the region where he grew up was the realization of a dream, and they promptly bought the property. But that’s just the beginning of a remarkable story. You see, Dr. Bellini is not just a winemaker. He is also an organic chemist, and the driving force behind the realization of one the greatest discoveries of the 21st Century – a drug that seems to cure the dreaded Hepatitis C virus.
It was the first week of August when, unexpectedly, I received an email from my Sicilian colleague, Marco Scapagnini, and the Italian Government Tourist Board inviting me to Montefiore dell’Aso for the grand opening of Domodimonti’s state-of-the-art facility, as well as the grand opening of Albergo Magnolia, their new hotel and spa located on the vineyard.
As a journalist, I’ve met and interviewed all types of people in my life – heads of state, presidents, rock ‘n roll legends, movie icons, and, to get close to my passion of wine, some of the greatest names in this hedonistic field (hedonism is a school of thought which argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good) from the great Robert Mondavi to the powerful Rothschild’s.
On this trip, I thought the story would be about innovation in winemaking, as Domodimonti makes a “natural wine,” using only minimal sulfites and taking a “this is a living organism” approach to ensure the very best product. This approach is the brainchild of Dr. Francesco Bellini.
If you were to meet Dr. Bellini at a local restaurant in Marches (the region where the winery is located), you might assume him to be, simply, just one of many Italian businessmen on holiday, maybe from Rome or Milan, instead of the man behind what could arguably be one of the greatest scientific discoveries in the last hundred years, a highly effective cure to the Hepatitis C virus.
Bellini is a very unassuming man. From my vantage point, I think deep in his heart, he’s a “passionata” lover of wine, a man who loves his land and takes pride in where he comes from. But he’s complex. He is certainly a successful businessman. But unlike most businessmen, Bellini has done real good for the world. Incredible good. Some people have called him a philanthropist. I think he’s a modern-day Renaissance man.
Starting with Science
Dr. Bellini’s first major successes came in the pharmaceutical world. Biochem Pharma, the company Dr. Bellini founded and helmed, discovered and produced two key drugs. They were Zeffix, for the treatment of Hepatitis B, and Lamivudine (3TC), commercially known as Epivir, an anti-AIDS drug. Although there had been other antiviral drugs on the market designed to stave off AIDS, the game changer was when Epivir was created. Used to combat the AIDS virus, it forced the virus to change into a less toxic form, thereby making it more vulnerable to other antivirals such as AZT.
Biochem Pharma would eventually grow to be the largest biotech company in Canada, and it was big business – it eventually merged with Shire PLC in a staggering $12-billion dollar deal in 2000.
In 2001, in conjunction with Power Technologies of Canada, Dr. Bellini created Picchio Pharma (PP), which was a 50/50 joint venture. Picchio Pharma would specialize in investing in small companies within the Biotech field, often taking control of the company. One of those investments was in a company called Virochem.
Scientists at Virochem eventually discovered VX-222, a drug that showed promise in curing Hepatitis C. Virochem would play a pivotal roll in progressing the idea of combination therapy, the simultaneous use of two drugs together in order to treat a single disease. It also became a takeover target by Vertex because of VX-222, and was acquired in 2009 for close to half a billion dollars (Canadian). Today, VX-222 is undergoing clinical trials, combined with Teleprevir, to try to demonstrate that the Hepatitis C disease can be treated by a combination of those two drugs, effectively eliminating treatment by Interferon, which has serious side effects.
As of early September 2010, results of the VX-222 and Teleprevir trials were released, showing a remarkable 78 percent cure rate of Hepatitis C, even with the most severe cases. In the world of medicine, that’s considered practically a full-blown cure. Merck – Vertex’s main competitor – also has their own unique combination drug therapy in the market, but their tests revealed only a 66 percent success rate, and notably was NOT tested with any severe Hepatitis C cases. It seems that Dr. Bellini and his staff really have found a cure!
Next Came Wine: Domodimonti Wine
Okay. Enough pharma-speak. Let’s talk wine. Specifically Domodimonti Wine. Bellini’s cutting-edge, modern winery is located only two-and-a-half hours east of Rome, in the Le Marche region between Umbria and Tuscany. The winery has a spectacular landscape of narrow coastal plains that rise sharply into the peaks of the Sibillini Mountains, with a view of Ancona and the Adriatic Sea seen in the distance on a clear day. Yes, Domodimonti is in harmony with nature.
As a youth, Dr. Bellini grew up in Ascoli Piceno. Owning a vineyard was a dream of Dr. Bellini’s, and with Domodimonti that dream came true. A boutique winery that has a maximum production capacity of 400,000 bottles, Bellini purchased the property’s 140 acres of land, located right in the heart of his home region. It was a return to his roots, with a specific plan of creating a “natural wine vineyard,” using the least amount of additives. As a chemist and research scientist, it’s not surprising that Dr. Bellini, who now resides in both Montreal and Le Marche, approaches the science of winemaking from a scientific point of view.
In every region in Italy (and throughout the world), there are rules and regulations to be followed when you make wine, especially when it comes to organic farming. Dr. Bellini typically exceeds those regulations, focusing on specific aspects of sustainable wine growth, including water conservation, soil improvement, erosion control and the latest in integrated pest-management techniques.
His vines are sustainably grown, using primarily organic matter. The grapes are hand picked, with low yields and no sugar added. The wine has no acid adjustments, strict selection of yeasts and no other additives for mouth feel or color. Temperature-controlled vats with external jackets allow strict control of the very important stage of fermentation. By cooling each individual vat, Domodimonti is able to almost avoid the use of sulfites during the fermentation process.
With minimal sulfites added, there is less of chance of allergic reactions and other side effects from the wine produced. You know how I know this? I drank a lot of Domodimonti and never woke up the next morning with a hangover. With the copious quantities of Domodimonti wine that I drank on my visit, I should have had a terrible hangover. It never happened.
Domodimonti: A Place with a Classic Microclimate
The vineyard is spread across the backdrop of Montefiore dell’Aso. It occupies several parcels of land made of clay soil with the vines facing south. The soil was originally covered by the Adriatic Sea. The vicinity of the sea to the east and the protection by the Sibillini Mountains play a role in the 1200-foot high vineyards, creating an ideal microclimate for healthy and natural ripening of the grapes.
There is a lot of history in this winery. Despite Domodimonti’s release of its first vintage in 2004, the vineyard has actually been in existence since the 1950’s. It’s taken quite a bit of time and work to restructure the original vines and to plant new ones. But the result has, obviously, been more than worth it.
Throughout the growing season the vines are monitored for growth. During the summer months, the vines are pruned, reducing the fruit by 50 percent. This strengthens the remaining grapes. They receive the maximum amount of nutrients and achieve their full potential. Carlo Ferrini, the winery’s internationally acclaimed winemaker, adds his guidance and inspiration to the wines he produces at Domodimonti. The entire winemaking process is performed under nitrogen, which is generated by ionic exchange, allowing Domodimonti to handle and later bottle the wine in the absence of oxygen. This is where Dr. Bellini’s talents as a biochemist are used most effectively.
The wine is aged in French oak barrels in the wine cellar. Depending on the wine, the duration in the barrels may range from 3 to14 months. Afterwards, the wine is bottled and stored for a minimum of three months before being shipped.
Domodimonti makes seven wines in all: a rose (“rosato” in Italian) called Piccolo Principe; a vino di tavola white wine called Deja made of Passerina, a grape varietal only found in Italy; a mineral-laced and golden honey-colored white wine called LiCoste, with, again, a grape varietal only found in Italy called Pecorino (like the cheese); a red entry-level classic Sangiovese wine called Monte Fiore; a delicious and elegant red blend consisting of Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon grape varietal named Picens (my favorite), with delicious velvet tannins; a sophisticated blend of Montepulciano and Merlot named Il Messia; and, finally, their high-end red, Solo Per Te, a masterful 100-percent Montepulciano wine that stands ahead of the class.
At this point, pricing for each wine in the United States market has not been completely finalized, but a quick click to Domodimonti’s website, www.domodimonti.com/wines, and can find all the information you need, from how to buy the wines to finding who soon will be carrying the wines in your area. Domodimonti is in the process of establishing importer-distributors in each state in the U. S.
With the same passion for research and entrepreneurship in biotechnology, Dr. Bellini weaves tradition and innovation in the wines of Domodimonti. It’s obvious that his love for the native soil and special attention given to the land is rewarded with fruit produced of a quality and value that creates exceptional wines. In the future, we can only hope that other winemakers might follow Dr. Bellini’s lead.
Photos by Jesse Nash.