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Dr. Francesco Bellini -- passionate winemaker of Domodimonti Natural Wine -- married an Italian and relocated to French Canada but he did not forget his Italian homeland. In 2003, while he and his wife Marisa were in Italy, an opportunity came their way to purchase a distressed “antique cantina” with over 40 hectares of vineyards along with eight hectares of olive groves.
The idea of producing their own natural wine in the region where he grew up was the realization of a dream. But that is just the beginning of a remarkable story for Dr. Bellini is not just a winemaker, he is also the driving force behind one the great discoveries of the 21st century -- a virtual cure for the dreaded Hepatitis C virus.
It was the first week of August, I unexpectedly received an email from my Sicilian colleague Marco Scapagnini and the Italian Tourism Board inviting me to Montefiore dell'Aso for the grand opening of Domodimonti's state-of-the-art facility and of their vineyard-based new hotel and spa, Albergo Magnolia. It was a quite a nice surprise -- it always is when someone invites you to Italy.
I thought this trip would be about innovation in wine-making -- Domodimonti makes a "natural wine" using only minimal sulfites and he takes a "this is a living organism" approach to ensure the very best product. So who is Dr. Bellini, you might ask? Well, he is many things and... quite complex.If you met Dr. Bellini at a local restaurant in Marches (the region where the winery is located), you might think him to be just one of many Italian businessmen, maybe from Rome or Milan. A unassuming man, he's a passionata, a lover of wine, a man who loves his land and takes pride in where he comes from. But, he's complex. He is a businessman. But unlike most -- Bellini has done good for the world. Incredible good. Some people have called him a philanthropist. I think he's a modern day Renaissance Man. Dr. Bellini's first major success in the pharmaceutical world came in the form of the drug Lamivudine (3TC), commercially known as Epivir, an anti-AIDS drug, and Zeffix, used to treat Hepatitis B. Although there had been other antiviral drugs on the market, the game changer was when Epivir was 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. Combination therapy was born in the anti-AIDS field, eventually making Epivir the cornerstone of any anti-AIDS therapy. Ironically, Epivir seems to attack the AIDS virus in the same way the AIDS virus attacks humans -- by weakening its immune system. The company Dr. Bellini founded that is behind the discovery and making of the drugs, Biochem Pharma, would grow to be the largest biotech company in Canada. Biochem Pharma is big business and 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): A 50/50 joint venture. Picchio Pharma invested in small companies within the Biotech field, often taking control of the company; one of those investments was in a company called Virochem. Virochem eventually discovered VX-222 and it would play a pivotal role in developing combination therapy. It also became a takeover target by Vertex for their V-222 drug, which they acquired in 2009 for close to 1/2 billion dollars Canadian. Today, VX-222, is undergoing clinical trials with Teleprevir to try to demonstrate that the Hepatitis C disease can be treated by a combination of two drugs, effectively eliminating treatment by Interferon, which has serious side effects. As of early September 2010, results of VX-222 and Teleprevir were released showing a remarkable 78 percent cure rate of Hepatitis C, even with the most severe cases.
Enough pharma-speak. Lets talk wine. Specifically Domodimonti.
This cutting edge, modern winery is located only two and a half hours East of Rome in the Le Marche region between Umbria and Tuscany. With a spectacular landscape of narrow coastal plains that rise sharply into the peaks of the Sibillini Mountains, Ancona and the Adriatic Sea can be seen in the distance on a clear day. Yes, Domodimonti is is harmony with nature. Dr. Bellini grew up in Ascoli Piceno. Owning a vineyard was a dream of his, and with Domodimonti -- a boutique winery that has a maximum production capacity of 400,000 bottles -- purchasing 140 acres of land in his home region would be the realization of that dream. A return to his roots, so-to-speak, to create a "natural wine vineyard," with the least amount of additives. As a chemist and research scientist, it's not surprising that Dr. Bellini -- who resides in both Montreal, Canada, and Le Marche -- approaches winemaking from a scientific point of view.In every region in Italy and the world at large, there are rules and regulations to follow when making wine, especially when it comes to organic farming. Dr. Bellini focuses on specific aspects of sustainable wine growth including water conservation, soil improvement, erosion control and the latest in integrated pest management techniques.The vines are sustainably grown, using primarily organic matter. The grapes are hand-picked, low-yielding with 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 substitute the use of sulfites during the fermentation process. With minimal sulfites added, there is less of chance of allergic reactions and other side effects. With the copious quantities of Domodimonti wine that I drank on my visit -- I should have had a terrible hangover. It never happened. I never woke up the next morning with a hangover -- and that's how i know this.
The vineyard is spread across the backdrop of Montefiore dell'Aso. The vineyard 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 creating the 1200 foot high vineyards' microclimate, ideal for healthy and natural ripening of the grapes.There is a lot of history in this winery. Despite Domodimonti's first vintage in 2004, the vineyard has actually been in existence since the 1950s. 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%. This strengthens the remaining grapes. They receive the maximum amount of nutrients and achieve their full potential.The internationally acclaimed winemaker, Carlo Ferrini, 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 3-14 months. Afterwards, the wine is bottled and stored for a minimum of three months, before being shipped. 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 quality and value which creates exceptional wines. In the future, we can only hope that other winemakers might follow Dr. Bellini's lead.
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