Manu Fiorentini standing next to an amphora he imported from Tuscany in his showroom at ITEK wines
Manu Fiorentini moved to Paso Robles with his wife Jordan, winemaker at Epoch Estate Wines, in 2010. He brings a variety of experiences and areas of expertise which have profoundly influenced winemaking in San Luis Obispo County.
Manu was born in the city of Rome in Italy and grew up outside Milan. He spent most summers with his grandfather in Tuscany. He studied in France and speaks both Italian and French fluently. He founded the first local business to offer both technical services and a complete range of supplies and equipment for winemaking. He imports French Oak barrels, Italian-made concrete tanks, Italian-made winemaking equipment (including filters, crush equipment, tanks and bottling lines), Tuscan anfore and provides wine treatment services (including filtration and wine adjustments).
His knowledge of ancient and contemporary winemaking techniques from Georgia and Italy in hand-made clay vessels known specifically as “qvevri” or “anfore” have provided support and inspiration for a generation of winemakers who are focusing on and experimenting with natural wines which express the fruit grown in local vineyards. Sixteen winemakers in San Luis Obispo County are using these vessels to make their wines. This is the largest group of winemakers documented in any county in the United States. The Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County is chronicling this group and their wines and will release a documentary on 6,000 Years of Winemaking in Clay Vessels in 2022. Manu contributed his expertise to the current exhibit designed by the Wine History Project on display at the Paso Robles History Museum in Paso Robles.
Impact on Wine History of San Luis Obispo County
Established his company, ITEK Wine, to provide technical services, supplies, French Oak Barrels, and Italian winemaking equipment in 2010. This is the first business located in San Luis Obispo County to provide a full range of services to the wine industry.
Research on ancient and contemporary winemaking in clay vessels in Italy which has been shared with local winemakers and the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County.
Interviewed multiple Italian winemakers and anfore makers in Tuscany to source the best clay vessels for use in San Luis Obispo County.
Purchased and analyzed anfora-made wines from France, Spain, Italy and Chile to share with and educate local winemakers. Itek Wines continues to build a large collection of anfore made wines made in San Luis Obispo County.
Began Importing handmade clay anfore from Tuscany to Paso Robles in 2013.
Expanded education on winemaking techniques in clay anfore beyond San Luis Obispo County to winemakers on the Pacific Coast from Canada to San Diego.
Purchased the first Crossflow filter and offered filtration services to winemakers in San Luis Obispo County in 2014. Manu has continued to provide winemaking services employing the latest technology available.
Inspired The Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County to develop The Amphorae Project to document the wines and techniques of sixteen local winemakers using anfore.
Supported the current exhibition, 6,000 Years of Winemaking in Clay Vessels, produced by the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County at the Paso Robles History Museum, on display from November 2021 to June 2022.
Interviewed in the documentary film 6,000 Years of Winemaking in Clay Vessels to be released in 2022 by the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo.
Amphora with stainless steel lid made in Tuscany
Manu Fiorentini’s logo
Manu Fiorentini at amphorae maker’s workshop in Tuscany
Manu Fiorentini in the amphorae maker’s wine shop with the object he has crafted drying out before being fired in the kiln
Painted Clay Amphora at Manu Fiorentini’s ITEK Wine Showroom
Manu Fiorentini was born in Rome. As his name indicates, his family is originally from Florence (Firenze). He spent his youth visiting his grandfather in Tuscany and today his father lives in Sienna. He visited many of the areas in and around Chianti with his father, particularly the families and artisans who made and sold clay vessels for garden plants, fountains, and sculptures. Seventeen years later Manu returned to Italy to learn about another type of clay vessel, the “Amphora” or “Anfore” as it is known in Italy. He visited artisans and winemakers to learn about the winemaking traditions developed in Italy thousands of years ago.
Although Manu was educated in Italy, he also studied and worked in France for four years in his early twenties before returning to Italy to start his own career. He speaks both Italian and French fluently.
After returning to Italy in 2002, he met a young American winemaker, Jordan, who was working as a harvest intern with the famous Antinori family who have been making wines for twenty-six generations. The Antinori family traces their history back through the centuries to the Antinori Wine Company, founded by Giovanni di Pietro who joined the Guild of Winemakers in 1385 A.D. Today it is located in the Chianti Classico Appellation. Antinori is one of the largest wineries in Italy and is known for many winemaking innovations. They have been experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon since the 1920s and were among the first to introduce Super Tuscan wines in the 1970s. Jordan had graduated from UC Davis before traveling to Italy to work with the Antinori family.
The Love Story
They soon fell in love and that is a lovely story. But as they planned their future, they decided to marry and move to the United States. Manu reminisces, “First of all, I moved, with the idea of following my heart with the woman I love, to go to the ‘Land of Opportunity’ where you can follow your passions in business.” When they returned to the United States, they originally settled in Northern Georgia, near Jordan’s family.
After 25 years of practicing law, Jordan’s father decided to plant a vineyard in the North Georgia mountains, and Jordan became interested in the winemaking process watching her father embark on this journey. At the time she was completing her engineering degree at Dartmouth College, and she decided to have her first job post-college be a winemaking internship at Markham Vineyards in Napa Valley. She knew she had found her dream career and applied to University of California at Davis and earned a Masters in Enology and Viticulture.
In 2007 Jordan received a job offer from a prestigious Sonoma winery. She became the head winemaker at Chalk Hill. It was a perfect opportunity for her so they made the move to Northern California. Manu found employment in sales with an Italian importer of bottling and winemaking equipment. Manu enjoys learning in depth about the equipment used on the technical side of winemaking. He describes his education as one of actually following the trail of the technicians who service the winemaking equipment to learn exactly how the equipment is designed, assembled, and functions. He engaged with the technicians making repairs and evaluating the equipment that he was selling. He also spent time studying competitive brands of winemaking equipment to determine the features and differences to enhance his sales presentations.
In 2010, Jordan was hired by Bill and Liz Armstrong, geologists, owners and founders of Epoch Estate Wines. Epoch started as the rebirth of a historic vineyard site in San Luis Obispo County. The vineyard was planted by the famous Polish musician, composer and diplomat, Ignace Paderewski in the 1920s. Paderewski was the first celebrity grape grower in Paso Robles. After his death, the land laid fallow until the Armstrongs rediscovered the potential of “those beautiful calcareous formations” especially as they relate to creating premium wine. In 2010, Epoch also found a home for its tasting room and winery located on one of the most historical properties in San Luis Obispo County, York Mountain, with a winery and vineyards that had been established in the 1870s. The Armstrongs built a state-of-the-art new winery with the goal of producing fine wine with grapes sourced from their estate vineyards. They have preserved the history of the iconic York Mountain Winery by designing a new tasting room with elements of the past incorporated in materials, including historic photos and old equipment. They also replanted the vineyards on York Mountain. It was a perfect place for Jordan to make premium wines in her style which expresses the soul of the vineyard.
The Itek Wine Story
The move to San Luis Obispo County presented Manu with an opportunity to start his own business, Itek Wine, in Paso Robles. His vision was to sell the supplies, equipment and technology for brewing and winemaking. He started with supplies that were not available locally, French oak barrels. He traveled to France to meet with the owner of the iconic cooperage, Tonnellerie Sylvain, well known for their French oak barrels. This was just the beginning of building connections with other cooperages including Tonnellerie Meyrieux and Marc Grenier, the manufacturer of oak tanks in Beune.
Manu’s next trip was to Italy where he agreed to represent the manufacturer of winemaking equipment, Della Toffola. A few years later, he decided to include a range of vessels for fermentation and aging including concrete wine tanks by Nico Velo. Manu’s business grew rapidly as Paso Robles expanded both in wine production and as a tourist destination. New employees were hired at ITEK but more space was needed to showcase and store his inventory. In 2018, he bought land in downtown Paso Robles, designed and built his own offices, showroom and warehouse. One of the most interesting displays is a wall of wines encased in glass. Manu had built a collection of wines made in clay anfore around the world including France, Spain, Italy and Chile. His wine collection continues to grow with each new vintage of wines produced by local winemakers with equipment purchased from ITEK wines.
However, it was the search for hand-crafted amphorae in Italy, similar to those used in many ancient Mediterranean cultures, that created an interest in both old and new winemaking techniques on the Pacific Coast, from British Columbia to the southern coast of California. Manu’s wife, winemaker Jordan was the first to express an interest in using a large clay amphora for fermentation and aging of EPOCH Wines. She asked Manu to research the art and crafting of the amphorae in Italy.
Tuscany – Anfore e Giare
Manu returned to Italy to meet with winemakers and artisans in Tuscany who were rediscovering ancient techniques to handcraft amphorae. There was a desire to try new and old winemaking techniques in both America and Europe to produce a new type of wine, often referred to as “natural wine”. Winemakers were experimenting with grapes grown organically or biodynamically. As winemakers studied wine history they became interested in the large vessels made of materials and shapes that had been used for thousands of years in the Middle East, the Republic of Georgia, Greece, and Egypt.
Decades earlier the iconic Italian winemaker Josko Gravner had produced excellent traditional wines in casks. He continued his quest to make the highest quality wines possible. He experimented with stainless steel and then settled on barriques, the casks or barrels which originated in Bordeaux, to make quality wines which received high acclaim.
However, Gravner was never satisfied. He continued to look for the next “best” method for making quality wines. He traveled to California for inspiration in 1987 but was disappointed by what he saw at the wineries. He found traditional winemaking techniques were alive and well in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Nonetheless, intuitively, he felt that conventional winemaking was moving in the wrong direction. At the time, Gravner was one of the few winemakers searching for new possibilities. He wanted to make authentic wines that expressed the terroir of his vineyards. He said that “grapes are born of the earth.”
Gravner decided to look at the history of European winemaking and explore the ancient techniques used in Italy and other countries. He discovered a tradition still in use after 8000 years in the Republic of Georgia. He had to wait a few years, until the Russians withdrew from their occupation of the country, to visit Georgian winemakers and sample their wines. He was eager to travel to the Republic of Georgia where their wines were being made in large clay vessels, known as Qvevri or Kvevri. The vessels are very large, handcrafted in specific regions because of the structure of the clay traditionally used to make the Qvevri. The Qvevri are handmade in a traditional elongated rounded shape with a flat bottom. The handmade vessels are fired in giant kilns at around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. After they are aged, the Qvevri are transported to the village or winery to be lined with beeswax and buried in the ground up to the neck of the vessel. Traditionally the grapes and stems were placed in the large opening of the Qvevri. The vessel was sealed so fermentation and aging took place with a minimum of human intervention. Nine or ten months later, the Qvevri was opened and the wine shared among friends and family, accompanied by specific foods. The men sing traditional songs written hundreds of years ago by their Georgian ancestors.
After tasting his first sip of Georgian wine, Gravner was convinced “that amphorae amplify the good and bad in wine, so it is essential to have perfect grapes.” Gravner imported several Qvevri and started making wine with no additives. The amber-colored wines created a sensation. He inspired a number of other winemakers to ferment their wines in amphorae. As he said earlier, “grapes are born of the earth. When they are introduced into an earthen vessel, the cycle is complete.” Manu mentioned in our interview that the cycle would truly be complete if the winemaker could take the process one step further and bottle the wine in a clay bottle. But of course, that would be a nightmare for shipping wine to customers.
Manu continued his research in Italy, interviewing winemakers, tasting their wines and determining how the amphorae were selected. He had many questions. How does the clay amphora react during fermentation? Aging? Differ from oak barrels, concrete or stainless steel vessels? What is the process of making an amphora? How does the clay material impact the wine characteristics? Who are the best amphora makers? What are the costs for producing and shipping them to the United States?
It was a challenging learning curve. There are about 100 clay production houses in Tuscany alone, but only a handful of them made amphorae for winemaking. Although Manu also found manufacturers located in Spain and Portugal, Italy seemed to be the key to understanding this ancient art which dates back to the Etruscans. It is important to note that clay is a unique material that varies greatly according to its location. Composition of clay found around the world can produce different results in fermentation, aroma, color and taste of the wine made in clay vessels in these regions.
Manu traveled to the small town of Impruneta near Florence in Tuscany. The name, Impruneta, is derived from the word imprunetis meaning “within pine woods. The town is known for its fine production of terracotta, made from the local clay. The history reaches back to the clay tiles made for the roofs of buildings during the Renaissance. It has been the center of production of small clay tiles, large garden vases and fountains, statues and amphorae for generations.
Historically when one looks at drawings of ancient amphorae, one sees the image of a relatively small elongated vessel with handles attached. The vessel weighed around 10 pounds and was used by the Greeks and Romans to transport wine, oil and milk by land or by ship to a destination. However, in Italy the terracotta vessels used in winemaking are much larger and have a different shape. In Italian, they are known as an anfore, orci or giare.
Unique Methods of Anfore Construction
The local clay in Tuscany has a red-colored hue and has specific characteristics which are necessary for constructing successful wine making vessels. The clay in this area is composed of molecules that prevent terracotta vessels from cracking or breaking in cold weather. It has an inherent “antifreeze” quality. It is a natural material that is not infused with chemicals that you find in plastic and stainless steel containers.
Winemakers value these vessels because they feel the “amphorae or anfore wines” produce the purest expressions of the grapes and the vineyards with little intervention because of the absence of chemicals in the vineyards. Most importantly, an amphora allows for slow micro-oxygenation and the release of heat from fermentation to the surroundings without imparting any flavors to the wine.
The construction is the traditional coil technique, called colombino. It is a complex and time-consuming craft. Each vessel is handcrafted so no two will be alike. The process begins when the ground clay material in tiny granules are shoveled into a mixer with addition of water to form the heavy clay. The mixture must reach a certain consistency before small amounts are removed and pounded and turned, pounded and turned by the artisan to reach the consistency and plasticity he desires. The Italian artisan wears leather sandals, a t-shirt and shorts, covered by a heavy cotton apron. He often works in a small stone building with a stationery square wooden platform about one feet high in the room. The anfore will be built on this platform which the artist will circle to the right and to the left hundreds of times.
First, the round base of the amphora is created at a depth of 2 ½ inches. Once that has dried, the walls of the vessel are slowly built up and around from the base shaped by hand with small sausage-shaped pieces of clay that have been pounded multiple times. The artisan moves in circles building his vessel five to six inches at a time, using a tool to smooth the clay both on the inside and the outside. The layer must dry before the next layer is added so the artisan returns to sculpting his anfore a few hours each day until the shape and size have been achieved. The walls are approximately one inch thick. The process takes approximately two weeks, depending on the size of the anfore.
The shape of the anfore is round and somewhat egg-shaped. This shape and the clay material move the wine uniformly throughout the vessel to enhance a uniform fermentation. There are no corners or dramatic temperature changes or gravity changes that might interfere with the fermentation process. The natural movement inside the vessel translates to a healthier environment for natural yeast, sugar and alcohol fermentation. Less intervention is required by the winemakers
Decorations to the anfore are added from pieces of clay placed in molds designed as flowers or handles. The last step is the firing of the vessel. The final vessel will be placed in a kiln with a variety of other artifacts such as roof tiles, garden pots or sculptures. It is baked at approximately 1800 degrees Fahrenheit to reach the porosity and hardness desired.
Upon completion, the vessel will cool very slowly before it is filled with water to purge any salts or minerals and to test its integrity. Other features may be added such as stainless steel tops or drains and spouts. The anfore can easily be moved around on a pallet in a winery. It must be cleaned by hand after each vintage.
Winemakers tend to designate separate anfore for white wines and red wines. You often hear the phrase “orange wines” when referring to wines made in anfore. The wines are not orange because the clay contains reddish-colored elements. The orange color comes from the white grapes that are fermented on their skins. The winemaker may allow the skins of the grapes to stay in contact with the fermenting juice within the vessel for the entire period of fermentation and aging or any other length of time.
Ultimately the anfore will be shipped from Italy directly to ITEK Wine; from the customer’s order to delivery is about six to seven months. The three sizes made for ITEK Wines are 300, 500 and 800 liters.
Manu looks forward to visiting and talking with the winemakers who are using his anfore. Many are experimenting with new techniques and grape varieties. There is a sense of excitement and also suspense, Winemakers are excited about the complexity of the organic wines they are producing. Many feel that their wines are expressing the land and soul of the vineyard. Manu had a large collection of each vintage in his transparent and elegant wine cellar. And we are fortunate that he continues to share the research and the results with all of us.