Beloved Nonna of Cà del Baio
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.