Friends, colleagues, and followers know I get irked by “Best of…” or “Top (pick a number) Wines/Restaurants.” The other thing that irks me is a heavily reliance on scores that goes something like this from my community newsletter regarding a Christmas wine tasting:
“_______ Liquors will present wines that have SCORED OVER 90 POINTS and are under $30 per bottle.” (Emphasis added)
Ok, I get the “under $30” part, but why oh why do I so often see “over 90 points” in advertisements? It’s a tasting, so can’t the liquor store curate some delicious wines that aren’t necessarily rated?
Now, before I get in trouble (again) with a certain executive editor, let me clarify that I am not dissing ratings…well, not exactly. All I am saying is that there is much more to discovering new wines than by relying solely on big scores. And let’s face it, wine is all about the experience, so why not begin that experience with your search for new vinous excitement in your life?
Back to the community newsletter invitation to taste.
Needless to say, whose ratings are we talking about in the first place? What about Italian wines that received Tre Bicchieri or 5 Grappoli from highly regarded Italian wine guides? Three glasses and five bunches of grapes carry a great deal of weight in Italy. Or what about wines like Nadia Curto‘s family’s Barolo Arborina 2014 that was just cited by Jancis Robinson in the Financial Times as one of her recommended wines for Christmas. I challenge journalists not to wait for a cold day in the Netherworld before you taste the Curto family’s wines, and those of other wineries — many of them run by women — flying below the radar.
Some producers may nail down well-deserved high scores for their top wines, but their entries further down the price list are often not scored. Don’t miss out on those! This is particularly so for Langhe Nebbiolo, Nebbiolo d’Alba, and Roero Nebbiolo, and Barbera, particularly in favorable vintages. And those are just some reds. Don’t miss the previously obscure Langhe Riesling or the incredible metodo classico bubbles coming from the region, particularly Alta Langa, I wrote about recently.
Ah, but the secrets that Piemonte holds for those who do not live by numbers alone.
Looking Beyond the Numbers
There are many up and coming producers who remain — for now — well under the radar. Wineries, like the Curto family of Annunziata in Barolo I mentioned above, never get rated because of some journalistic prejudices against the small wineries. I’ll let you in on a secret. Nadia Curto’s mamma is Adele Altare. Ring a bell? It should. The guiding hands of Nadia’s uncle up the hill and his charismatic, talented daughter can be found in these precious wines. If you check out the genealogy of Chapter 5 in my book, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, you’ll find Adele’s name on the same generational line as Elio Altare, her little brother, and above her niece Silvia. Get my point?
My rule of thumb and advice I give to clients and readers: If you are unfamiliar with a region or wine, use ratings as a guidepost, but not as the end-all. Most of all, do some research on importers and find out which ones and are known for having a well balanced and high quality portfolio. Do they offer entry level wines of great producers like Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli in Barolo and Marchesi Di Gresy or only their superstars? Chances are you will be very happy with whatever wines these sorts of importers choose to fill precious shipping space in a container.
Treasure Trove of Resources
Not sure how to find out that information? Ask for guidance from your favorite search engine (which could be DuckDuckGo.com) and from the other reputable wine professionals in your life: your favorite bottle shop staff. In Colorado, my list of go-to importers includes (this is not an exhaustive list, only the ones I’ve dealt with and have a very high regard for): Dalla Terra (Brian Larky), Giuliana Imports (Steve Lewis), Old World Wine Company (Zach Locke), Vias Imports Limited (Chris Blacklidge), Winebow, Elite Brands, and Southern Wine and Spirits (Damon Ornowski).
In the Vail area, Jarrett Osborn, owner of Riverwalk Wine and Spirits has been a very good friend of Piemonte and has a great selection from across the world, and Cary Hogan at Avon Liquors, and Beverly DeMoss at Boone’s Wine and Spirits in Eagle are all very reliable sources. Again, not an exhaustive list as our valley has a great wine culture.
And then there’s John Rittmaster in Walnut Creek, CA. No, you don’t have to travel to the San Francisco Bay Area to take advantage of John’s vast wine knowledge that he so generously shares. All you have to do is seek him out at Prima Vini Wine Merchants and Restaurant and ask the oracle to help you find, source, and ship delicious wines from across the world. Easy peasy.
Want to go even further afield? There’s Davide Pasquero of Terroir Selection in the tiny Barbaresco denomination village of Treiso. Davide is a full-service resource and he can find you hard-to-get vintages as well as easy ones, too. Don’t let shipping costs scare you off from going straight to the source with someone like Davide.
Final tip (almost there folks). Restaurants with creative wine lists can be a great source of wines that will wow friends and family around your table anytime of year. Again, in the Vail area my two favorites for always having a great selection of wines that aren’t on everyone’s lists are vin48 Restaurant Wine Bar and Zino Ristorante (Italian wines, especially). Greg Eynon has a knack for finding the most obscure, delicious wines for his tome of a wine list. Giuseppe Bosco at Zino provides a wine list filled with great choices of Italian (and American wines) that are not the usual suspects. If the wines are on their list, they are obtainable in the state…provided they or their savvy guests haven’t bought all the importers’ stock.
The bottom line is you might want to use scores as a roadmap when you’re in new vinous territory, but it pays to get off the interstate highways and drive along the backroads and talk to some of the people along the way to find some treasures.
Ok, enough with the metaphors.
Whatever you end up with, enjoy it and raise a glass to all who toil in the vineyards, cellars, and retail establishments to get these wines to you.
Buon Natale, tutti!
Now my question:
HAVE YOUR OWN TIPS YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE, PARTICULARLY YOUR FAVORITE WINERIES OR SUPPLIERS WHEREVER YOU ARE ON THE PLANET? PLEASE SHARE IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.
I’m now in the heart of the Langhe until the beginning of my 20th year of over 30 visits to Piemonte that included one successfully published book on the region’s wine families.
Thanksgiving morning, while sipping my morning cappuccino and visiting cyberspace, I came upon several articles about Thanksgiving wine advice. Although the holiday has come and gone, there is still a lot of merry to be made before the clock strikes midnight on December 31st. Being in Piemonte, I couldn’t help but share some of my own suggestions and some shopping tips for your vinous companions this holiday season.
Wine is an experience, not merely a beverage, so my tip for any meal is to serve wines with stories behind them (of course I would say that). Make the wine producers and their terroir part of the meal conversation by telling their stories. There are lots of them out there in cyberspace (and in my book, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte). Or, even better, you could visit their wineries with me and meet the wine families on a Labor of Love tour. Talking about them and their labor of love certainly beats the heck out talking politics at the table (or anywhere else).
In our Colorado high country home, we don’t pair wine with food. The opposite. First we choose the wines we want to drink and then figure out what to cook. More often than not, those wines are from Piemonte, Sicily, or Valais Switzerland. Since I’m in Piemonte for the holidays, let’s go with some of my thoughts on those wines.
Twinkle Twinkle, Little Sparkler
My go-to sparklers I love are Metodo Classico bubbles from Piemonte (aka classical style…think Champagne, not Prosecco…please). I particularly like Ettore Germano Alta Langa, Deltetto Spumante Brut or Extra Brut (try the Brut Rosé – 50/50 Nebbiolo/Pinot Noir), and Contratto For England Pas Dose. Can’t go wrong with any of those. If you can find it in the States, Marchesi Alfieri Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir) is an excellent choice for your holiday bubbles.
Whatever you choose, please don’t think the word “spumante” is not associated with quality wines. Far from it. Spumante merely means “sparkling wines” in Italian. Personally, I believe the Asti Spumante commercials of Christmases past put a damper on today’s efforts to market spumante in America. Sad because there is some excellent Asti Spumanti out there.
Bottom line, each type of bubbles has its place.
Not all Rieslings Are Created Sweet
Regarding Riesling. Nails on a chalkboard when people say to me “Riesling is too sweet for my taste.” Trocken (dry) Riesling is NOT sweet. So please, taste one from Piemonte because as far as I’ve experienced, they are all dry. My particular favorites are Ettore Germano “Herzu,” G. D. Vajra “Petracine,” and Cà del Baio Riesling Langhe Bianco DOC.
For a great primer on Riesling (and all other varietals), visit Wine Folly or buy the book by the same name. Sidebar: this book makes a great Christmas present for the oenophile in your life. I look forward to the day when Madeline adds Piemonte to the list of regions where one can find dry Riesling. Hint.
The Little Rascal
Arneis is more than a white wine. It’s also the name of my dog who, like the meaning of his name, is a rascal. When I began spending more time back in the States in the early part of the millennium, Arneis — the wine — was hard to find. It is now readily available across the U.S. At the risk of upsetting my Langhe producer friends, I am partial to the Roero Arneis. To my palate, sand makes for a better Arneis and there is much of it to be found in the soil of the Roero north of Langhe across the Tanaro River.
Fortunately there is a wide range of Arneis producers exporting to America. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say there are many importers in the States who got wise to the grape’s appeal and are importing it. Whichever way you look at it, there are some great Roero Arneis choices of different styles to be found in the U.S., such as Deltetto, Matteo Correggia, Monchiero-Carbone, Negro, Malvirà, and Vietti.
The Next Big Thing
Paola Grasso of Cà del Baio said to me today, “Timorasso is the next big thing in Piemonte.” She’s savvy, with a keen eye for developments in the market and judging from the growing interest in the grape from journalists and importers, she is no doubt onto something.
This past week I visited Elisa Semino of La Colombera in Colli Tortonesi in the far southeastern corner of Piemonte. It was love at first sip for me. I dream of her Timorasso! Hard to imagine that before the 1980s, many Timorasso vineyards fell victim to the popularity of Cortese. Vintners ripped out Timorasso vines and replaced them with the high demand grape from which Gavi is made. Now, vintners like Elisa and her brilliant mentor, Walter Massa, are ushering in the renaissance of the Colli Tortonesi’s signature wine. Sadly, it’s what’s happening today with Dolcetto, so the rebirth of this superstar gives me hope that the trend of ripping out the Dolcetto vines in favor of Nebbiolo and hazelnuts will end.
Lots of great articles can be found online about Timorasso. I can’t wait to add this precious white wine to my cellar back in Colorado.
A Red for All Tables
A great go to red for nearly every meal is Barbera. Whether bearing the names of Alba, Asti, or Monferrato, Barbera is a versatile red and high quality bottles at great prices from a myriad of producers can be found everywhere. Some of my favorite wineries for Barbera d’Alba are Chiara Boschis – E. Pira e Figli, Elio Altare (now in the hands of his charismatic daughter Silvia), Punset, Cigliuti, Mauro Molino, Paolo Scavino, Matteo Correggia, Monchiero-Carbone, and Albino Rocca (the Gepin is a particular favorite of mine). For Barbera d’Asti, look for Marchesi Alfieri’s queen of their portfolio, Alfiera, and their La Tota named for the last Marchesa of Alfieri, Adele.
This list is far from exhaustive! Check out the Table of Contents of Labor of Lovesince producers like Cantina Marsaglia make a delicious Barbera, but you’ll have to visit them in Castellinaldo d’Alba since their wines are not available in the States.
King of the Table
Of course, the big daddy of Piemonte’s vineyards is Nebbiolo and the two wines consisting of 100% of the noble grape: Barolo and Barbaresco. A wonderful selection of these wines is available in the States, but since I live in Colorado I’ll list some of the producers well represented there: Ca’ del Baio (Barbaresco), Chiara Boschis (Barolo), Elio Altare (Barolo), Paolo Scavino (Barolo), Oddero (Barolo), Albino Rocca (Barbaresco), Cigliuti (Barbaresco), Mauro Molino (Barolo), Marchesi di Grésy (Barbaresco), GD Vajra (Barolo), Cantina Gigi Rosso (Barolo), Punset (Barbaresco), Cascina delle Rose (Barbaresco), Cantina del Pino (Barbaresco), Gaja, (Barolo and Barbaresco), Marchesi di Barolo (Barolo and Barbaresco), and Sottimano (Barbaresco). This is NOT an exhaustive list and there are many more that I enjoy, but these are readily available in Colorado, except for Cascina delle Rose…sadly so…but their USA presence is growing.
As an aside, each one of these wineries produces fabulous Barbera as well.
The Nebbiolo of Langhe is the best known, but the grape also flourishes in Roero and in Alto Piemonte. Each of the Arneis producers listed above makes excellent Roero Nebbiolo, including Matteo Correggia, the winery bearing the name of the late Roero visionary who believed in the grape’s potential in the terroir of Roero. His belief in Roero Nebbiolo was well-founded. Gattinerra in Alto Piemonte is home to Lorella Antoniollo and her family’s winery. If you haven’t tried the Alto Piemonte Nebbioli, treat yourself to some from this excellent winery.
Not in the market for the higher prices of Barolo and Barbaresco, but love Nebbiolo? Look for declassified versions of the grape, such as Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba from any the producers I’m mentioned and in my table of contents. You will not be disappointed with the gems coming out of Piemonte’s Nebbiolo vineyards whether they sport the DOCG label or not. If a producer is known for her or his Barolo or Barbaresco, their other Nebbiolo wines deserve a place on your table. Currently, our house red is Albino Rocca “Rosso di Rocca” Langhe Nebbiolo 2017. Excellent wine and a particularly good value for money.
Hint, can’t find these wines at your favorite bottle shop? See below at the end of the post two names of great wine sleuths who can source just about anything.
Now for dessert. Amongst the “sweet” choices there are the sweeter versions such Passito made from grapes dried before vinification and there are the light (5.5% alcohol), bubbly ones such as Moscato d’Asti. There was a time when Moscato d’Asti was the wine the Savoy royals sought and Monferrato eclipsed Barolo as the epicenter of Piemonte wine. Before there was the King of Wines (Barolo, according to many), there was the Queen of Wines. Those from the Monferrato region are very special. My two favorites are Cà d’Gal (not available in Colorado – yet), particularly Alessandro Boido’s old vine Moscato, and Marenco Scrapona (available in Colorado from Vias). Passito Bric du Liun from Deltetto is 100% Arneis and is equally comfortable as a pairing for foie gras at the beginning of a festive meal as it is at the end with dolce. I’m a fan of Brachetto d’Acqui from Marenco and their two passiti – Moscato and Brachetto. Save a bottle of Moscato for your “day after” breakfast. Marenco’s Scrapona is often on our table for summer Sunday brunch.
And for the Tummy
We can’t forget my favorite digestivo, Barolo Chinato. The much-loved end to a great meal is gaining popularity in the States…finally…but still hard to find. My May 2018 Labor of Love tour guests of wine educators from Sheral Schowe’s Wasatch Academy of Wine finished most every meal with Chinato. The experts know about the delights of this prized digestivo.
Wine Searcher says it best in their concise description of this complex digestive with pharmacological roots:
“[An] aromatic beverage differs to the ‘classic’ Barolo through its production method, which involves the infusion of Barolo wine with China Calissaya bark (quinine bark, translated in Italian as china, hence the wine’s name chinato). Up to 21 other herbs and spices, including rhubarb roots, gentian, orange peels, cloves and cardamom seeds, are also added to the mix. This process is a slow maceration at room temperature for around eight weeks. The aromatized wine is then fortified to 16% alcohol and matured in small barrels for up to one year.
This Barolo wine is generally characterized by its bittersweet aromas and lingering, smooth aftertaste. It is usually consumed as an after-dinner drink, either as a dessert wine or a digestif. It is also considered an excellent accompaniment to dark chocolate, or it can be served as an aperitif with soda and ice (similar to sweet vermouth).”
So if that tickles your fancy — and it should — go forth and seek out brands such as Cocchi, G.D. Vajra, and, of course, Cappellano, the family of the 19th century creator of this unusually delicious drink, pharmacist Giuseppe Cappellano.
But That’s Not All
I’ve only touched on most commonly known varietals of the Piemonte vinous landscape, and one up-and-coming superstar, Timorasso. There is a long list on other varietals you should try this holiday season, such as Pelaverga, Ruché, Freisa, and Erbaluce, to name but a few. Exploration is fun, especially when it comes to a region like Piemonte with such an expansive choice of varietals.
Remember, it’s all about the experience. Discovery is a wonderful experience!
Colorado: Here are a few of the importers working in Colorado that I can highly recommend: Giuliana Imports, Old World Wines, Dalla Terra, Indigenous, and Vias. All have some great choices. Don’t just read the front label on the wine bottle. The back label tells you a great deal about the wine and who’s behind, including the importer. Importers like these take great care in choosing the producers they represent. You can’t go wrong with any of their names on the bottle.
Beyond (and in) Colorado: One of the best sources I’ve found for wine from Piemonte (and most anywhere else) is John Rittmaster at Prima Vini Wine Merchants in Walnut Creek, CA. Not only does John do dynamite wine events in his shop and next door restaurant Prima, he can find just about anything at competitive prices. Do yourself a favor and get on his mailing list so you don’t miss any great deals and events.
Straight from the Source: This tip is for oenophiles across the globe. If you want a gastronome’s dream bike tour, join Davide Pasquero of Terroir Selection in wine countries across Europe, particularly in his home region of Piemonte. If you want Piemonte wines straight from the source — particularly up-and-coming producers — Davide is the expert for you. His personal relationships with producers, passion, and great depth of wine knowledge makes him a perfect source for discerning oenophiles looking for just the right wines. Piemonte is not his only region of expertise. Checkout his website for more regions he covers. Pretty much everywhere. Like John Rittmaster, Davide is a wine sleuth. If he can’t find it, it’s probably not available anywhere.
What started out as a quick Facebook post morphed into something bigger. It always does when I start talking about my beloved second home, Piemonte. I hope I’ve given you some helpful, not too technical, tips for wine choices this holiday season…and beyond.
Whatever you choose, you really can’t go wrong if you invite the wine producers into your home vis-à-vis their wines and the stories behind their labels. Vinous companions for your holiday celebrations should not be limited to those you know. It’s a great time to meet new vintners through their labor of love.
Now, onward to the Christmas Holidays. Buon Natale!
But despite not having the photo, I did get to write the story the photo tells thanks to Chiara’s generosity with her time and memories.
Here’s an excerpt about the connection between the Franco Boschis and the historic Borgogno families, and how it came to be, from Chapter 2 — Boschis — of Labor of Love. (Note: WordPress has it’s own mind about hyphenation. Not as it was originally in the book).
But first, to provide readers with a roadmap of the family — an idea of my editor, Elatia Harris, and something lovers of the stories repeatedly thank me for — the genealogy of the Boschis family.
I had already discovered it was impossible to talk about recent history in Piemonte without World War II figuring large. In 1943, before the German occupation of Piemonte, Chiara’s mother, Ida Chiavassa, bicycled from her home in Bra, south across the Tanaro River, to Barolo to visit her paternal aunt, Maria Chiavassa Borgogno, the wife of the winemaker Cesare Borgogno. As she proceeded along the journey, with steep inclines and twisting roads, the closer she got to her aunt and uncle’s estate, the angrier she became. It was common in those days for young girls to help wealthy relatives in their homes. The 16-year-old was not at all happy about the prospects of leaving her home, her sisters, her friends, and, most of all, her first love. Little did Ida know, the long bike ride led to something much more enduring than long hours of work and loneliness.
After the Germans occupied Piemonte, the Allies began to bomb the region. Travel across the Tanaro River became dangerous, so Ida remained in Barolo. And she never returned to Bra, not for good. Shortly after Ida arrived, a young man who had experienced his own disappoint-ments in life began working for the Borgognos. The times were tough economically and had dashed Franco Boschis’s dream of oenological school. He had to go to work. Fate took him to Borgogno.
Franco was delighted to see someone his age at the winery, particularly a pretty young woman. Ida, still fuming about her fate, paid no attention to the handsome young man. But as time passed, and more men left for war, then to the cities afterward, they became friends. In time, a romance blossomed and Ida and Franco married. Chiara told me, “My football-playing father claims it was his ‘nice legs’ that she first noticed.” Whatever it was, as soon as Ida turned her back on Bra, a future in Barolo materialized. That future involved wine and a daughter who would become world-renowned for her oenological prowess.
Ida’s uncle Cesare was the seventh generation of the Borgogno family to own and operate the historic winery, founded in 1761, on the outskirts of Barolo. Cesare’s acquisition of the winery deviated from the usual patriarchal inheritance, with the firstborn male inheriting the family’s property. Born in 1900, Cesare was the youngest child and third son of Giacomo and Giulia Borgogno. In Cesare’s 11th year of life, his father died. His elder brothers lacked interest in the wine business, but one of them helped his mother run the winery until Cesare assumed its management nine years later. His wife, Ida’s aunt, and Chiara’s great aunt, Maria Chiavassa Borgogno, took the traditional women’s task of working behind the scenes in the winery.
Chiara then told me a story that defined her uncle. I was riveted to learn about Cesare Borgogno and his 1935 vintage Barolo. In 1944, during the occupation, the Germans and their equally brutal Fascist allies terrorized — I use the word advisedly — the population of Piemonte. On June 30, 1944, three trucks filled with German soldiers lost their way to Bra. They mistakenly took the road to Barolo and stopped near the Borgogno estate. A group of partisan resistance fighters spotted the trucks, shot at and wounded several German soldiers, and vanished into the countryside. The Germans retreated, but only after driving into Barolo to open fire on the castle and on homes throughout the village. Fortunately, the locals had run for cover.
Two days later in a convoy of trucks and armored cars, the Germans returned and charged the Borgogno family with complicity in the partisans’ attack. It took them very little time to root out the entire 1935 vintage — 240 large wooden crates of 50 bottles each, cached mostly at Cantina Canonica. Only one crate was hidden at the Borgogno estate.
It was well known that throughout occupied wine regions across Europe, German soldiers would plant evidence in cellars as a pretext for confiscating wine as spoils of war. The Germans claimed to have found a gun in the cellar of the Borgogno winery and helped them-selves to copious amount of Barolo, breaking everyone’s heart at the mistreatment of so precious a wine. The entire vintage went to Turin with the Germans.
Accompanied by the pastor of the Catholic Church in Barolo, Cesare left for Turin, the German headquarters, in hopes of retrieving his wine. On the way to the city, Cesare and the priest stopped at the Lancia automobile factory in Chivasso to enlist the help of a former client of Cesare’s. Wine lover Giorgio Eggstein was no Nazi, but he held a position of authority in the German army. Eggstein accompanied the priest and winemaker to Turin. While there, Cesare encountered young male prisoners from Barolo accused of being partisans and destined for German work camps. It was a fate tanta-mount to a death sentence. Believing Cesare had come to their rescue, the prisoners rejoiced. But Cesare had come to save wine, not people. The commandant declared the wines were confiscated as spoils of war, not stolen booty as Cesare claimed. He offered Cesare a solution.
He would impose a tax on all of Barolo’s inhabitants in exchange for the wines. Cesare refused. Instead, rising to the full implications of the crisis, he bargained for the prisoners in exchange for the wine. The commandant agreed. An entire vintage in return for a few young lives — Cesare saw the right thing to do, and did it.
Cancer robbed Barolo of Cesare Borgogno in 1968. His marriage to Maria Chiavassa produced no male heirs, so Maria and Cesare’s niece Ida, and her husband, Franco Boschis, assumed control of the winery, continuing the Borgogno family ownership. Over time, Franco and Ida’s sons Cesare and Giorgio joined their parents at Borgogno. The Boschis family eventually bought out the other ownership interests in the winery and began much-needed improvements to compete with the burgeoning number of new Barolo wineries. In 2008, Franco and Ida sold Borgogno to the epicurean entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti and his son, Francesco, ending generations of family ownership. The famed winery would endure, but in the hands of another family.
Meanwhile, Chiara Boschis had come of age.
Personally inscribed and signed copies of my award-winning book, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, that explores the life and times of 22 Piemontese wine families can be found on this website. The book is also available on Amazon.
Nonna Fiorentina of Cà del Baio’s Grasso family lost her soulmate in early 2014 when her husband Ernesto died peacefully at the age of 92. As I watched her in the four years that followed the passing of “Supernonno,” as his granddaughters refer to him, Fiorentina’s heart never seemed to mend. I believe it is true that one can die of a broken heart. Finally, on April 8, 2018, nonna Grasso joined her beloved Ernesto in peaceful slumber.
I loved her very much. We didn’t speak the same language of the tongue, but our hearts connected and spoke to one another over our shared loved of her family and her land. I shall miss her very much.
In honor of nonna Fiorentina, and all the wonderful women of her generation, I would like to share excerpts from my book taken from her stories she told to me through her granddaughters, Paola, Valentina, and the youngest, Federica, who, for me, played the role of the family historian and conveyed stories and emotions that came from deep inside her soul. Federica brought to life for me the childhood she shared with her sisters at Cà del Baio, showered in love, but with the discipline of a strong work ethic that is clearly evident today in all that the sisters do as they work alongside their parents, Giulio and Luciana. The value of the “nonna factor” in the lives of Piemonte’s wine families can never be overstated, and, God-willing, will never cease to exist.
Building the House of the Bay Horse
Ernesto and Fiorentina Grasso
One half of the land of Cà del Baio came from Giuseppe “Pinin”
Grasso’s initial Barbaresco acquisition in 1870. The other half of the Cà del Baio patrimonial equation came from Fiorentina Grasso, neé Cortese, Federica’s paternal grandmother, wife of Ernesto.
Fiorentina’s family was originally from Mango, a village about six miles east from Treiso. Her grandfather Luigi Sterpone purchased a farm and the Asili vineyards on the outskirts of Barbaresco in 1903. Luigi chose Barbaresco over the larger village of Neive because of the farm’s close proximity to Asili’s prime southwest-facing
Knowing a little history of Barbaresco’s awakening in the late 19th century is helpful in understanding the life and times of the early Grasso farmers. Until the middle of the 20th century, with exceptions, Barbaresco farmers commonly sold their grapes to negotiants, brokers who in turn sold to the few large wineries. The farmers only made enough wine for family consumption. Often, farmers found themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous negotiants who were known to bide their time on market days in the Piazza Savona in Alba while farmers sat helplessly as their grapes cooked in the hot sun. Only when the negotiants were certain the farmers were desperate would they make an offer to buy the crops. Quality was not an issue in those days. Only quantity.
The first attempt to change this unfair business model came in 1894. Domizio Cavazza, Piemonte’s oenological icon and founder of the prestigious Scuola Enologica di Alba, envisioned a way for
Barbaresco to compete with the more advanced Barolo denomination while improving the lot for local farmers. Cavazza, with nine
Barbaresco vintners, founded the Cantina Sociale di Barbaresco, the first Barbaresco cooperative. Cavazza’s ingenious cooperative produced wine and provided a fair market for farmers throughout the Barbaresco denomination. The Fascists closed the struggling cooperative in 1925. In 1958, a revered local priest, Don Fiorino
Marengo, created the second Barbaresco cooperative in a church basement with 19 family grape growers. Five decades later, with 52 members, Produttori del Barbaresco remains Italy’s largest wine cooperative, producing extraordinary Nebbiolo wines.
Cà del Baio’s current patriarch is Giulio Grasso. His maternal great-grandfather, Francesco “Cichin” Cortese, a founding member of the Cantina Sociale, married Ernesta Sterpone. Francesco went to work in the Sterpone family’s Asili vineyard in the early 1900s. Their daughter Fiorentina, Giulio’s mother, would carry the prized Asili vineyard into the Grasso family through her dowry.
Although the practice of paying dowries faded into history in the mid-20th century, it was in earlier times a common vehicle by which property passed to another family. In those days, there was no such thing as dating, so matchmakers, known as bacialé in Piemontese, were an important part of society. Bacialé not only found brides for grooms, but they often mediated the transfer of property, transactions fraught with deep emotion, particularly for brides’ families as they surrendered control of parcels of land.
In 1953, Luigi Grasso died. His only son, Ernesto, the youngest of five children, inherited the patrimony. Soon after, Ernesto married. The 1955 marriage between Fiorentina Cortese and Ernesto Grasso was a love match, but it was also a formidable real estate transaction. The union of the Cortese family’s grand Asili vineyards and the Grassos’ extensive holdings in Treiso formed the viticultural foundation of the house of the bay horse, Cà del Baio.
In the difficult post–World War II years in a wine region yet to make its name, the couple forged a bond that remained strong until Ernesto’s death at the age of 92 in 2014. Fiorentina and Ernesto had two children, Giulio and Franca. Giulio followed his father into the wine industry where he worked at the Produttori del Barbaresco until 1987, when he joined his father at the family’s winery.
Revered Ernesto Grasso — known as “Super Nonno” to his grand-daughters — was a kind, sweet, and very quiet man, much like his mother, Lina, according to Federica. His son Giulio inherited those special qualities from his father. I was privileged to have known Ernesto, albeit our communications were through smiles and warm handshakes. We didn’t speak the same language, but we loved the same things — Cà del Baio, its wine, and most of all its family.
In honor of Albino, I wanted to share a few excerpts from the book that intersected my life with his and his family’s. I cherish the memories made in the short time I spent with him and his granddaughters in their tasting room of the winery bearing his name.
Excerpt from Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte
When I first visited the Rocca sisters in 2014, I interviewed their grandfather Albino, then 90 years young. Although he had lost his wife, daughter, and son in the previous 10 years, he appeared at peace, comforted by the love that his three granddaughters showered upon him. In a mixture of Piemontese dialect and Italian, Albino spoke with me through Daniela and Monica. We chatted a bit about his boyhood growing up in the vineyards, a boyhood spent in the dark years before and during World War II. When I asked him about the German occupation and life in the vineyards of Barbaresco during that dark time, a shadow passed across Albino’s craggy face punctuated by laugh lines and wrinkles from his long life under the Langhe sun. “It was a very hard life,” he said with a heavy sigh. “It was difficult to get food.” Germans, Fascists, and partisans alike helped themselves to food and animals that provided sustenance to farming families.
Various factions of partisan resistance fighters fought Germans and the Fascist Black Brigade in the vineyards and forests of Barbaresco. Civilians often were caught in the crossfire, executed for aiding partisans or targeted for collective punishment for the resistance fighters’ attacks. Albino recalled one such retaliation for the partisans’ capture of several German soldiers. Smoke billowed across the landscape as several large homes and barns the Germans and Fascists had torched burned to the ground. It wasn’t enough for the brutal occupiers to destroy property. They needed blood to be shed to further terrorize the populace into submission. I also had heard this story from Fiorentina Grasso of Cà del Baio, who is a few years younger than Albino. According to Albino, as the Germans prepared to shoot as many as 20 men and boys, the Bishop of Alba came to the rescue. Miraculously, the holy man was able to talk the partisans into releasing the Germans in exchange for the release of the villagers. Sadly, such attempts were rarely successful.
After Piemonte was freed from the shackles of war and occupation, the region awoke to a new wave in viticulture. Tsunamis start small, as did the tsunami of change that washed over the region in the second half of the 20th century. Little by little, the momentum of transformation built. In the mid-1940s, Giacomo began his wine business. First, he sold grapes to wineries through negotiants (grape brokers). Soon after, Giacomo began producing wine he sold in demijohns. The round, long-neck vessels held several gallons of wine and were the common wine vessel before bottles were mass-produced.
In 1960, Albino built his cantina and the house in which he raised his family and still lives. From their home at the top of the hill near the village of Barbaresco, Albino and his wife, Vittoria, and their two children Angelo and Giuditta had a commanding view of the amphitheater of vineyard-carpeted slopes below and of the Castello di Neive to the east. It’s the same view visitors to the winery enjoy today. Between 1960 and 1970, when his father, Giacomo, died, Albino sold most of his wine in bulk. Upon Giacomo’s death, Albino and his brother
Alphonso divided the ownership of the estate as was customary among farmers’ sons, and split the vineyards. Because Albino had already built his own house nearby, Alphonso took the family home where they were both born. In 1970, the year his father died, Albino began to put his own label on his wines, although the family considers 1960 as the winery’s founding, the same year Albino built the house and cantina.
Much has happened in Piemonte in the two intervening years since I sent the last edits of Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonteinto cyberspace to Verona in April 2016. Over 720 sun-
rises and sunsets. The designation of the vineyard landscape of Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 helped stimulate growth of the region’s already robust wine tourism. An iconic winery changed hands and Barolo’s Nebbiolo vineyard prices continued on a flight path to the stratosphere. And there were changes within the wine families that were intersections of joy and grief.
Several Labor of Love families, such as Oddero (Barolo) and Marenco (Monferrato), gave life to new generations. Others, such as Sophie and Giuseppe Vaira of G. D. Vajra (Barolo), continued to add to the generation that began with the birth of their first child in spring 2013.
Sadly, some families had to say good-bye to remaining members of the generation that I call “Piemonte’s Greatest Generation,” the one that bridged the painful past of poverty, fascism, and Nazi occupation with the current era of great success and prosperity. These passings in Piemonte were painful.
In summer 2017, we lost one of Barolo’s most beloved and revered vintners — an authentic Barolo Boy — Domenico Clerico. Unlike his older brethren who left us recently, he was a post-war child. Domenico, who always reminded me a bit of Shakespeare’s Puck, inspired and taught many younger producers who are now a part of Barolo’s great success story. The new year was only a few weeks old when Langhe legend Bruno Giacosa passed away. Grief touched three of my Labor of Love families with the passing of Roero pioneer Carlo “Carlin” Deltetto in August 2017 (see earlier post), Albino
Rocca in September 2017, and most recently, Fiorentina Grasso of Cà del Baio.
Albino Rocca (1924-2017)
In 2017, in the midst of one of the most challenging harvests in memory, the three sisters of the Albino Rocca winery – Daniela, Monica, and Paola – bade a sad farewell to their beloved nonno Albino. In his 93 years he had witnessed the violence that engulfed the region in between 1943 and early 1945. He had felt the heartbreak of untimely loss of a young brother during World War II, then in the span of three years, his wife, his daugher, and, in October 2012, his son, Angelo. But in his final years, he also witnessed with pride and joy his three granddaughters and Paola’s husband, Carlo Castellengo, following ably in Angelo’s footsteps following his untimely death. Albino was there for them through four vintages without their iconic vintner father. He saw them awarded the Gambero Rosso’s coveted Tre Bicchieri for their 2013 Barbaresco Angelo from their first vintage without any earthly guidance from the wine’s namesake. Albino gave them love and provided guidance as they assumed control of the winery bearing his name that he had created decades before.
Fiorentina Cortese Grasso (1933-2018)
Further down the road on the outskirts of another Barbaresco village, Treiso, on April 15, 2018, grief descended upon Giulio Grasso, his sister Franca, and their families. Fiorentina Cortese Grasso, beloved wife of the late Ernesto Grasso and final member of the oldest of four generations at Cà del Baio, passed away peacefully at home after a painful struggle with ill health. It would be just like nonna Fiorentina to wait for the return from a business trip abroad of her oldest child’s oldest child, Paola, before she closed her eyes for the last time. Such was her grit and determination. What a gift to Paola to be able to say “good-bye.” The melancholy expression on Giulio’s face in a photo with his three daughters at Vinitaly days after her passing told the story of the deep sadness that has blanketed the family. But life goes on at Cà del Baio, as it always has. And that’s how nonna Fiorentina would want it to be. The product of Fiorentina and Ernesto’s labor of love is in good hands with Giulio, his wife Luciana, and their three daughters, Paola, Valentina, and Federica. I will certainly miss seeing her at lunch in Cà del Baio, but like all Piemonte wine family matriarchs, her presence will be felt for a long time to come.
I know in coming years there will be more end-dates — more sunsets on long, productive lives — that will have to be added to the 22
genealogies in Labor of Love. Although I will grieve over having to note more departures, I will take heart that these wonderful matriarchs and patriarchs trusted me with their stories so that those whose names I will add to the genealogies will always feel a connection with their deep roots in the Piemontese soil. Each sunset shall be followed by a new dawn and new life on the land.
In honor of Albino Rocca and Fiorentina Grasso, in the coming posts I will share excerpts of their stories from Labor of Love.
No doubt I’m not alone in my frustration of trying at home, often with little or no success, what seemed so easy in a cooking class. Compounding the frustration is when that cooking class was half a world away and doesn’t translate well to a high country Colorado kitchen. Earlier this year I found a solution to that problem when I was leading a group on a gastronomic and cultural adventure in the iconic Italian wine region of Piemonte. I discovered Chef Enrico Trova of La Scuola di Cucina di Asti and cucina piemontese came home to Colorado with me.
Chef Trova’s 15 years in California, during which time the affable Italian chef owned and operated Amici of Beverly Hills, enabled him to understand the limitations that his American clients face when they return home and try to recreate the dishes he taught them. His Gnocchi al Ragu Piemontese – sausage (salsiccia) ragu on gnocchi – is one of his recipes at home in any kitchen anywhere.
This dish has become a new favorite of mine to cook in my Rocky Mountain high country kitchen. My Labor of Love tour guests enjoy learning to make this with Chef Trova and my guests around my table love it, too, particularly when paired with Barbera, one of Piemonte’s signature quintessential wines. I don’t have the patience or the time to make gnocchi always, so polenta, another staple of the cucina piemontese, makes a delicious accompaniment for this sauce. Keep in mind, however, that the starch from gnocchi adds a richness to the ragu that you can’t duplicate with polenta.
Just like the saying that great wine can only come from great grapes, delicious culinary results can only be achieved with fine ingredients. Of course, the Italians have us beaten on that one, even in their supermarkets. Chef Trova uses the king of Piemontese sausage, salsiccia di Bra, a bovine (usually veal) sausage.
Salsiccia di Bra resulted from an exception in the Albertine Statutes of 1848 – the precursor to unified Italy’s first constitution – that all sausage must contain pork. You have to love the Italian’s reverence for food to the extent they codified sausage-making requirements in their first constitution. This was Charles Albert of Sardinia’s way of providing an alternative to pork sausage for the Jews of Cherasco, a bustling hilltop town nearby Bra. Today, pork finds its way into salsiccia di Bra, but the classic sausage is pure bovine.
Colorado Meat Company
Trying to find the prized sausage in ski country Colorado, or to pry the recipe out of a Piemontese, is impossible. Fortunately for meat lovers here in central Colorado we have a great resource for the sausage used in the ragu: Colorado Meat Company in Avon. Husband and wife team of Chris and Brittany Hudgens own the Colorado artisanal butchery they opened in August 2015.
It’s a risky business, but thanks to their dedication to high quality Colorado products and, equally important, excellent personalized customer service, Chris and Brittany have succeeded in carving out a niche for preserving the butchery craft in a high country region with a rich ranching history.
Each week Chris and his assistant Jake Lebowitz prepare several different types of sausage from over 40 recipes in Chris’ repertoire. My favorite for salsiccia ragu is their Italian sausage. I use 2/3 hot to one-third sweet sausage for a perfect balance of heat, herbs Chris picks himself, and spices. Made from 100% Colorado sourced meat, this sausage is a perfect substitute for the salsiccia di Bra Chef Trova uses in his Asti kitchen. It’s best to call ahead and ask Brittany to reserve the sausage for you since it’s not made every week.
So time to learn how to make it.
Chef Enrico Trova’s Salsiccia Ragu
Ingredients for six (6) main course servings:
2 pounds of bulk fresh sausage (avoid store bought!)
1 carrot, chopped
1 onion (purple or yellow), chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped,
1 clove of garlic, chopped
2/3 bottle of red wine (I like to use a good quality Barbera – either d’Asti or d’Alba – since it is a great pairing for this dish).
2 cups of tomato purée (passatarustica – Chef Trova describes this as “uncooked sauce”)
In a heavy 5-quart Dutch oven, sauté the sausage on medium-high heat until it begins to brown. Next, add the chopped vegetables (mirepoix) to the sausage. Sauté the sausage and vegetables until all the liquid has evaporated from the meat. This is an important step, so be patient. Lower the heat to medium. Pour the red wine to cover the meat and then add the tomato puree. Stir then simmer gently to boil off the alcohol. If the mixture is too dry, add a little water. Chef Trova warns not to add stock or more wine since that will alter the flavors at this point. Simmer covered for another 60 minutes to let the flavors meld. Add salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste.
For a traditional Piemontese dish, serve over polenta or gnocchi. But this is equally tasty over pasta, such as penne or rigatoni. You can top with grated Reggiano Parmigiano or Pecorino, or a dollop of fresh ricotta, or it’s simply delicious as is.
Variations: Colorado Meat Company’s Italian sausage is a perfect blend of seasonings, so I don’t have to add any other herbs or spices. But depending on the sausage you use and your own taste, you might have to get creative with herbs (e.g., thyme and oregano) and spices.
Suggested wine pairing: Barbera d’Alba from producers such as E. Pira e Figli (Chiara Boschis), Paolo Scavino, Sottimano, and Mauro Molino, all of which are readily available in Colorado through Giuliana Imports. Or just pop into Riverwalk Wine and Spirits in Edwards and ask owner Jarrett Osborne for guidance.
If you’d like more of Chef Enrico Trova’s traditional Piemontese recipes, including his gnocchi recipe and technique, please email me at email@example.com.
Winter is here (well, sort of in the Colorado Rockies) and it’s never too early to start planning your summer escape in the Alps. I highly recommend a retreat from the world — digital and otherwise — with a trip to Des Martin’s Rifugio Valliera in Castelmagno.
In 2007, Barolo wine producer Chiara Boschis, her brother Cesare, and her fellow group members of the Des Martin consortium turned their attention to Castelmagno to renovate buildings and revive the area’s cheese-making traditions. At the timberline in the commune are abandoned hamlets where families once lived off the land year-round. The group purchased half of Valliera, a hamlet nearly 5,000 feet above sea level at timberline. They named their consortium “Des Martin,” after the hamlet’s last inhabitants. Yet another group that shared the vision purchased the remaining Valliera property, and the hamlet’s renaissance was under way.
That same year, Des Martin hired an experienced casara (cheese maker) who began experimenting with various forms at a nearby dairy during the construction of Des Martin’s casei-ficio (creamery). By 2015, the Des Martin cowherd exceeded 40 head. Chiara often quips that while other women buy great cars and take exotic vacations, she buys cows.
Chiara and the other members of the consortium dream of more groups coming to the mountains to transform the remaining hamlets. Already her fellow Barolo producer Elio Altare has rejuvenated mountain life in the hamlet of Campo Fei above Rifugio Valliera. Life begins anew above timberline.
In June 2015, Agriturismo Des Martin opened. The nine (9) apartments provide warm, homey lodgings for visitors seeking the peace and tranquility that communing with nature and the past provide. Chiara envisions the rebirth of a vibrant mountain culture through her passionate nurturing of agricultural restoration.
Book soon for this unique mountain experience!
Piemonte is calling!
For more information on visiting Agriturismo Des Martin or to book an exclusive, customized Labor of Love tour of Piemonte, contact Suzanne Hoffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday evening, August 26th, Carlo Deltetto (senior), the beloved patriarch of Azienda Agricola Deltetto in Canale (Roero), slipped away from our earthly presence. Despite his advanced age,nonno Carlo’s passing was unexpected.
Since Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemontewas published on June 2, 2016, I have had the delight of adding boxes and in some cases generations to many of the 22 genealogies in my book. This is the first time I’ve had to write an end date and it saddens me so.
Dani and I chose to spend Christmas with the Deltetto and Grasso families last year. We were so honored to be included in this wonderful family celebration and it was the most precious gift of love I’ve ever received. Nonno Carlo’s wife, Catterina, had been in hospital in the weeks leading up to the holiday, so we went with the family on Christmas Eve to give Natale greetings to Carlo and Catterina in their apartment at the family’s winery and residence in Canale. He was so cute and so happy to have the family around him, particularly his great granddaughters Lidia and Anna. Later in April, I caught a glimpse of nonno Carlo at the winery and a gave him a quick hello, somehow feeling he was frailer than he had been at Christmas. But his big smile was still there and I’ll always remember that moment.
I would like to share some of the Deltetto chapter of Labor of Love in honor of this gentle, kind man with whom I did not share a language of the tongue, only one of the heart through our mutual love of Roero and his family. It was because of what happened on the 26th of August, when one of the older generation of pioneers of the modern Piemontese wine industry passed away, that I so feverishly wrote Labor of Love. The stories of these wonderful people must be preserved. No one can destroy memories and rewrite history if enough of us know the stories.
Excerpt from Chapter 9, Deltetto, of Labor of Love
Roots of a Winery
Azienda Agricola Deltetto is located on the outskirts of Canale, the center of Roero. It’s only a few miles north from Alba across the Tanaro River, but geologically and thus viticulturally, Roero is quite different from the Langhe. Roero’s sandy soil provides a perfect environment in which Arneis, the wine that drew us to the area, can flourish.
Carlo Deltetto, grandfather to Carlo, one of the current proprietors, founded the family owned and operated winery in 1953. Nonno Carlo was born in 1922 in Rabini, approximately three miles northeast of Canale in the Province of Asti. His childhood on a farm in Piemonte mirrored that of many other agrarian families in the first half of the 20th century. Hard work. Long days. Trials and tribulations.
World War II — whether the decimation of the Italian troops on the Eastern Front, in Russia, or at home during the German occupation — touched nearly all families in Piemonte. The Deltetto family was no exception. Following the July 1943 ouster of dictator Benito Mussolini, the new Italian government signed the “Armistizio Badoglio,” a truce named after the newly installed prime minister, Pietro Badoglio. Sadly, the armistice signed on September 8, 1943, did not bring peace. The 20-months-long German occupation that followed — and the partisan resistance it triggered — made peace an illusory aspiration for war-weary Italians.
In an attempt to block the Allied armies advancing from the south, German forces flooded into Central and Northwest Italy, including Piemonte. During the Nazi and Fascist Black Shirts’ reign of terror, Roero was a hotbed of partisan resistance fighter activity. Italian soldiers who did not side with the Fascists became enemies of the occupation. Carlo Deltetto was one of many soldiers who, after the Italian Army’s surrender to the Allies, left their posts and walked home.
Carlo had been a member of the 34th fanteria (infantry) in Fossano, 28 miles to the southwest of Canale. He was tired of war. He only wanted to return home, to work and not to fight Italian brothers. Carlo and his three comrades, still dressed in their Italian Army uniforms, walked through woodlands to avoid capture by the Germans or Fascists. Suddenly, a German patrol confronted them. As the Germans approached the four former Italian soldiers, Carlo believed the death he had eluded during his military service was near. The German soldiers spoke among themselves as Carlo stood trembling, wondering what they were saying. Finally, he understood the gestures the Germans added to their incomprehensible words. They were free to continue home. How many such stories were there where a family’s future rested on the capricious decisions of wartime enemies? I shudder to think of what we would have missed had Carlo Deltetto met a different fate that day.
In 1956, Carlo married Catterina Occhetti. No, I didn’t misspell her name. Toni said the additional “t” made its way into her first name as the result of widespread illiteracy at that time. Carlo had founded his winery in a rented cellar in Canale in 1953. The early years were difficult for them, particularly for Catterina. In the tradition of the times, newly married couples lived with the husband’s family. Young brides took on many responsibilities of housekeeping in their new homes. In Catterina’s case, before she had children of her own, she cared for her husband’s four unmarried brothers. Like so many of Catterina’s contemporaries, she worked both at home and in the office. At the winery, Catterina attended to administrative matters and, since it was long before labeling machines, hand labeled each bottle of wine they produced. At home, she fed the Deltetto men and washed their clothes. Catterina had studied to be a teacher, but her career aspirations would have to wait.
Carlo and Catterina had two children, Antonio, known as Toni to family and friends, who was born in 1957, and Silvia, who sadly died in 1993 at the age of 31.
In 1960, Carlo moved from his rented cellar to the winery he had built and that Toni would one day run with his own son Carlo. Without the burdens of caring for so many people, Catterina could finally begin her career. In 1965, she began teaching in the primary school in Canale and continued into the 1990s.
The Legacy Continues
The harvest, an early one this year, is well underway, so the family will say their tearful good-byes and resume their work in the vineyards of the winery their beloved late patriarch established.
In his Facebook posting announcing the passing of his grandfather, nonno Carlo’s grandson and namesake, Carlo, thanked him profusely for his love, guidance, and joy of life. Carlo and his two sisters, Cristina and Claudia, now bear the heavy weight of carrying on their grandfather’s legacy their father, Toni, recently passed to them in an inter vivos (living) transfer. It is this continuity and dedication to preserving their heritage that I’ve grown to love so much about the Piemontesi.
God bless you, nonno Carlo, as He has blessed us with your presence in our lives and the wonderful winery and family you have left behind. Thank you for giving us such a beautiful family that we have come to know and love as our own.