Exploring Substance and Style with Marco Simonit

By | 20 February 2024

A vintage piece on the charismatic viticultural revolutionary who has transformed the way the wine world looks at pruning.


Robin Lee

In the first piece in a week-long series devoted to viticulture and viticulturists on worldoffinewine.com, we have dug into the archives to publish Robin Lee’s inspiring profile of the charismatic viticultural revolutionary, Marco Simonit (WFW55, 2016), online for the first time.

Simonit’s close study of vines has given rise to radical new perspectives and techniques, many of which have been adopted by leading producers worldwide, restoring dignity to the crucial task of pruning, as well as extending the life of vines and improving the quality of the wines.

Not everything is as it seems. As Ruskin insightfully wrote, “Science is tasked with replacing appearances with facts, impressions with reliable evidence.” Nestled within a non-descript shopping complex in Corno di Rosazzo, you will locate the main quarters of Simonit & Sirch Preparatoriuva, inconspicuously only identifiable by a humble metal signpost. Its outwardly mundane presentation belies the viticultural revolution brewing within.

My meeting with Marco Simonit was scheduled for 9am. Not too long after, he arrived, clad in his distinctive plaid shirt, well-fitted jeans, and a chic leather jacket. In Italy, Simonit is a widely-recognised figure. His claim to fame is effectively making the mundane activity of pruning trendy. He has been featured in the Italian edition of Vogue, made appearances on RAI television, and has developed a range of engaging YouTube videos that not only showcase his innovative pruning methods but also capture his unique charisma and personal appeal. He exudes an enigmatic aura, reminiscent of the iconic Andy Warhol, but with an unexpected fusion of imaginative artistry, creative genius, insight, and competence, that he reserves solely for pruning, a laborious manual labour that typically lacks any trace of glamour.


Simonit possesses a fashionably lean frame and is of average height. His face, framed by a dusting of white stubble, boasts a striking head of white hair that adds a stylish edge to his look. It’s quite possible to mistake him for a trendsetter. Simonit is not one to mask his feelings. During our initial meet, he explicitly expressed the pain he endured due to his recent divorce and the ensuing legal dispute for his three young children’s custody. He received multiple calls from his mother during our conversation. While he may often appear timid and reserved, potentially interpreted as intentional and restrained, his smile radiates a rare level of innocence and honesty.

On a visit to Valpolicella during the later part of winter, I first came across Marco Simonit. The introduction came from Andrea Lonardi, Simonit’s friend and a long-time client who is the managing director at Bertani. In the magnificent neo-classical Villa Novare, an assistant of Simonit who appeared to be filled with infectious enthusiasm introduced me to Simonit’s techniques. The explanation included more than words; I was shown a collection of split apart vines that revealed the theoretical underpinnings of Simonit’s methodology with resounding clarity.

I toured the vineyards of Schiopetto in Friuli with Simonit where it all began for him. Simonit uses these as a practical classroom to instruct his workforce and illustrate the long-term outcomes of his pruning approaches. The vineyard we explored was strikingly consistent in terms of vine age and vine shape despite being 40 years old, indicating more even ripening. Simonit’s pruning technique also led to a slower decline in the vine’s vitality, meaning it “ages” much later compared to traditional pruning methods.

Simonit grew up in the rustic ambiance of Gradisca d’Isonzo, situated in the province of Gorizia. His life took a tragic turn when his father succumbed to an unusual blood disease at the young age of 27, and Simonit was only a little above one at that time. His mother couldn’t support him, and Simonit ended up living with his grandparents who were farmers. Though his initial career dreams were to become a veterinarian, he had to study agriculture in the local Cividale college in Friuli due to monetary constraints. He later found work at the Consortium of the Collio DOC where he served as the technical adviser from 1988 to 1998, providing comprehensive guidance on all aspects of viticulture to the local growers.

“This was a brand-new experience for me,” Simonit recalled. “Back in my younger days, working in the vineyard held no appeal, as I enjoyed more helping my grandmother with the farm animals. I also had no interest in cellar work or other agronomy-related tasks. However, I always had a knack for drawing, especially trees. It was during this time that I found myself sketching vines, particularly older vines, and observing their structure… studying them intently. I developed a fascination for vine morphology, its growth patterns, domestication and how it adapted to such domestication.”

“I was always fascinated about why some vines aged so well,” Simonit expands. “Whenever I had some spare cash, I would rent a car and travel to areas rich in viticulture heritage: Portugal, Spain, Croatia, the Italian islands, Greece, as well as Alsace and, particularity, the south of France. There I’d spend considerable time working with the ancient gobelet vines, and in Priorat, with vines up to 80 years old. Should I come across an old vineyard, with someone caring for it, I’d offer assistance. Sometimes, this led to me staying for a week, eating with the vine grower and gaining invaluable knowledge on how he treated his vines. Always a thrill.”

Being part of the Collio consorzio, Schiopetto provided Simonit with the opportunity to experiment on a portion of his vineyard. Simonit recalls, “Mario Schiopetto asked me to instruct the workers, but I replied I couldn’t explain things I didn’t fully grasp myself. I truly needed to reconcile my theoretical ideas with real-world experience, and he gave me the space to achieve that.”

Simonit pressed on, collecting vines—specifically those he noticed were parched, weak, or dying. “I would slice them in half to inspect their insides, akin to an autopsy, revealing internal wounds hindering sap flow. An astonishing discovery was the majority of the wood was deceased. This perplexed me greatly. Further, I dissected vines I found in other places to analyse how pruning impacted them. However, this complex subject was never broached in my education—never. When I’d approach my former teachers for answers, I would be met with vague responses. Most exhibited no interest and even considered my dedication to understanding this niche vein of viticulture obsessive.”

However, professor Attilio Scienza, viticulture educator at Milan University, proved to be the exception. Scienza characterized by his warm humor and keen gastronomical and viticulture curiosity, has influenced countless vine growers and actively works on linking the producers and the consumers of Italy’s abundant gastronomical heritage. “We largely overlooked pruning in university courses,” admits Scienza, “It wasn’t until Marco Simonit brought it into the limelight.” Scienza met Simonit while working at the consorzio. “Initially, he lacked scientific credibility, people dismissed him as just a talker. I assisted him in producing technical materials.”

The essence of Simonit’s pruning approach, which is applicable to any vine-training system and grape type, lies in the significance of maintaining the sap flow. Choosing canes with a sustained sap flow from the roots is vital because when a vine limb gets pruned or chopped, a dried cone of dead wood forms inside, stretching inwards to a distance at least equal to the cut’s circumference. This internal scar or “desiccation cone” hinders the sap flow within the vine trunk. Although the sap can navigate around this cone, numerous haphazard big cuts especially causes these dry cones to intersect and eventually obstruct the sap flow entirely, disrupting the vine’s nourishment. However, Simonit’s method ensures cuts are made only on one side of the vine, facilitating the sap flow on the other side.

Another crucial principle is that the pruning cuts are not made flush against the vine trunk for aesthetics; instead, they’re made some distance away. This is particularly crucial when making substantial cuts on wood older than two years, where the “dessiccation cone” carries a substantial size and serves as a gateway for fungal diseases like esca. Simonit’s method only trims wood less than two years old, thus avoiding large cuts mostly. In situations where large cuts are inescapable, the cuts on the wood are distanced proportionally to the cut’s size, thus protecting the vine’s permanent wood.

Simonit hypothesizes that dense planting coupled with incorrect pruning techniques cause widespread vine-wood diseases, premature vine death, and vineyards with short life spans of just 25–30 years before the vines die or become uneconomically viable. Simonit observed this common factor in his travels and experiments that the old vines, the healthy ones, were highly evolved in their growth and lacked amputated limbs. He realized that the modern trend for dense planting does not generally grant the vine enough room to mature. A vine needs to grow, and such growth has to be managed, not curtailed, by pruning. The modern planting mentality is based on geometry, not physiology, suitable for machines but not accommodating the vine’s aging process.

After a decade on the job, Simonit left the consorzio and founded his company with a childhood friend, Pierpaolo Sirch, who then made wine at his modest family estate. “It seems obvious now, like discovering hot water,” comments Sirch, “but we learned the hard way.” Sirch contrasts Simonit; he’s less sophisticated and more attached to the rural traditions. They asked, “Which vines live the longest?” Alberello or gobelet allows the vine to mature healthily. The branches grow upward from below. When pruning alberello, the cuts are minor and never from beneath the vine. The challenge is introducing these principles to contemporary forms due to the complete transformation of viticulture. With people’s changing ways and transforming vines—varieties, training systems—old methods and knowledge have largely disappeared.

Simonit & Sirch’s first client, Josko Gravner, reached out to Simonit on the day he stopped working at the consorzio. Gravner strictly wanted to collaborate with Simonit when there was a financial commitment involved and he was familiar with Simonit’s work from a conference with Professor Scienza. Gravner praised Simonit’s clarity and understanding of plant life, even at a young age. Gravner’s Ribolla vines, planted 31.5in (80cm) apart, required a specialized approach to provide ample growth space, which led Simonit to invent a new training system named ventaglio (“fan”). Gravner continues to be a client after 20 years. Gravner’s Ribolla vines.

When Simonit and Sirch’s venture was in the early stages, Scienza, a great supporter, made various introductions. According to Simonit, on numerous occasions, estate managers who were once Scienza’s students protested the new methods, only to be met with Scienza’s acceptance that they needed to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes and change their methods. Scienza stressed the importance of individual treatment for every plant, while lamenting the modern agriculture’s inability to understand the plant.

Alessio Planeta, another early client, explained how Sicily, unlike other parts of Italy, retains its rural tradition. Pruning has been a craft practiced by many generations here. Planeta humorously pointed out Simonit’s unique way of selection for his assistants and the contrast that creates, but admitted that their knowledge and charisma sparked change and made pruning seem fashionable.

Angelo Gaja, who employed Simonit and Sirch in 2004, endorsed Simonit’s ability to generate enthusiasm and unity among a team, while highlighting important why’s and how’s. According to Gaja, they continue to follow the pruning method set by Simonit and Sirch, which substantially benefits the vine health and longevity. Angelo Gaja.

As Sirch articulates, there’s an unanticipated effect of their endeavors that was not initially considered: it imparts a sense of significance to the workers – often for the first time – merely because monetary investments are made into them and their work. In most estates, particularly in Italy, critiques can be made about their usual practice. While they have made substantial investments in cellar technology, communication and commercial facets, investments in vineyard tools like tractors and machines far outpace the financial commitment made towards people and their training. Pruning, being a critical factor affecting the life and well-being of the vines, needs attention and recognition. It’s crucial that the pruners, the workers, understand their significance to the estate.

What still remains uncertain is whether these changes have positive impacts on the taste of the wine – a query that most wine cultivators consider the utmost importance. Gaja opines cautiously, “We produce wines that mature to their peak only after 30 or 40 years. Therefore, it’s too soon to assert anything.”

Regardless, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, cellar master at Champagne Louis Roederer, after having worked with S&S for four years is convinced, “I believe that this will enhance the wine, but what’s currently more important is the impact it has on my team. I told them that this is not the standard Italian pruning anymore – it’s now the Roederer pruning. For control tests, I now need to get external folks for the old pruning style as our team can’t perform that anymore. They now recognize the value of their skills and their role in the wine story, which was previously just centered around putting in the hours. Now, they take pride in their craft, they observe things they previously overlooked, they tell me about details that I myself wouldn’t have kept an eye out for. They have a sense of responsibility, not just to the vintner but also for the vines’ long-term future. This recognition is an excellent managerial tool.”

Roederer has engaged S&S not just for temporary consultation and learning but is also working collaboratively on significant long-term goals. One of them includes consistent ripening to get rid of the costly and complicated requirements of multiple harvest rounds brought about by the need to replace individual vines over the years that subsequently grow at different maturity rates. As pruning according to sap flow maintains and improves the viticulture health and vitality, the vines become more resilient against diseases, thereby reducing dead vines and the frequency of treatments. This not only improves worker conditions but also brings down expenses. Longer-living vines also contribute to enhanced quality. “Our vines presently have productivity up to 50 or 60 years of age, after which the yield drops significantly due to the number of dead vines,” states Lécaillon. “If I can increase this to an average lifespan of 60 to 70 years, it would make a huge financial difference to us, especially if you consider that the quality of the wine (since the best wines come from old vines, other things being equal) will also improve in tandem.”

Simonit has explored the traditional training techniques used in Champagne. Guided by his suggestions, Roederer has implemented major changes. Taking cues from unique vine samples found in old vineyards, Simonit has tweaked the customary taille Chablis, the Champenois training method for Chardonnay. This alteration allows the permanent wood to grow lengthier, deviating from its usual round head. In the conventional method, cuts are made across the head. However, Simonit’s approach involves making cuts only one side of the permanent wood, improving sap flow and preventing dry and dead wood in the trunk. This method enhances the vine’s health and longevity, better preparing it for winter freezes as the vine’s reserves are stored in living wood, not dry, dead one.

For the cordon de Royat, the conventional training manual for Champagne’s Pinot Noir, Simonit has inserted a semi-permanent cordon, inspired by vine samples found in vineyards. Standard pruning involves removing the old cordon approximately every five years, resulting in significant pruning wounds. These wounds disrupt the sap flow in the vine’s trunk, increase the vine’s vulnerability to esca and affect the vitality of the cordon due to the emerging cordon taking space from the original cordon’s first few spurs. Simonit’s semi-permanent cordon, lasting longer than its traditional counterpart, significantly reduces large cuts during the vine’s life.

These changes to the standard training systems are designed to accommodate the vines’ growth, thus reducing stress and enhancing their health and life expectancy. As per Simonit, the improvements these modifications bring to the grapes, juice, and eventually the wine, are considerable. “The delicate flavors and ethereal finesse that we seek in Champagne cannot be derived from stressed and dying vines,” he asserts. Similar modifications have been implemented at Domaine Ott in Provence, partly owned by Roederer, where Simonit has subtly changed the estate’s signature palmette training system. Wire height is adjusted as the vines grow to prevent the need for sawing down arms when they grow too high.

“Great wines are made in the vineyard,” proclaims Nicolas Glumineau, general manager at Château Pichon Lalande. Since Roederer took over in 2007, radical changes have been introduced. Pruners are now paid a monthly salary instead of by the number of vines pruned, encouraging quality over quantity. Simonit has inserted another modification to tackle acrotonie which leads to overcrowding of the leaves and grapes on the ends of canes while leaving a gap over each trunk. This existing arrangement increases risk of mildew and rot while inhibiting ripening.

Up till now, the only method to manage the overpopulated bunches has been green-harvesting. However, when yield is already dangerously low, this method leads to fruit wastage and doesn’t necessarily enhance quality. Further, the canes eventually grow too long, colliding with the neighboring vine necessitating cutting them off. This creates large injuries which obstruct sap flow and become entry points for esca, a condition that Cabernet Sauvignon is extremely susceptible to. Simonit believes the widespread pruning techniques are largely due to dedication to geometrical aesthetics and a significant part of his work involves altering what is traditionally considered aesthetically pleasing. According to Glumineau, the results of such alterations can already be seen in his 2014 vintage. The unique velvet smoothness of the tannins, he observes, arrives when the seeds are perfectly ripe, without the fruit becoming overripe. This, he explains, is the wine he aspires to produce every year. Moreover, because the grapes aren’t piled on top of each other, less green-harvesting is required, leading to more wine.

Recently, S&S began working with Château Latour, which aims to boost yields and simultaneously reduce esca, responsible for the death of 5 percent of their vines every year. These vine deaths, unfortunately, are not uniformly spread across the estate but are disproportionately centered in the old vineyards. During a visit to Latour with Massimo Giudici, who is Simonit’s trusted associate and a partner handling their growing Bordeaux client base, we sauntered through the oldest part of the Latour vineyard counting the old vines. It was disheartening to see those that had survived had their arms chopped off. By midsummer, the yellow-brown speckled leaves, telltale signs of esca, were quite noticeable. Up until recent times, esca was managed with arsenic, which is now banned. At Château Ausone in St-Emilion, another client of S&S, esca results in annual death of 15 percent of the vines in some areas. A surgical method to treat vines affected by esca has been developed by Simonit. It’s akin to the process a dentist would use to clean, fill or seal a cavity. However, the new technique is labour intensive and hence costly. Prevention, therefore, is the best strategy.

<p As Lécaillon sums up, "Marco showed me something that was always there but that I never saw. What he teaches is the opposite of everything we learned and did before. Marco observed, he read books, and he realized that something was wrong. What Marco teaches is respect for the vines and respect for what nature gives us. You cannot just twist nature to suit your own ends. This is about respecting life."

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