Reading Jill Barth’s delightful post about G. D. Vajra in Barolo made me home-away-from-home-sick for Piemonte. It’s a common experience for me, particularly when I recall the vivid image of Francesca Vaira bathed in the ethereal blue light the stained glass windows create as she describes to visitors the alchemy of fermentation that occurs in the room each autumn. Franciscan priest Fr. Costantino Ruggeri’s spectacular stained glass windows at G. D. Vajra complement the art that is the Vaira family’s wine.
No visit to the Vairas’ winery is complete without a walk through the tank room, with its towering stainless steel tanks where fermentation occurs, and the 26-foot-high stained glass windows the late Catholic priest and renowned artist, Father Costantino Ruggeri(1925-2007) created for his close friends, the Vairas. The tall, narrow windows with glass of varying shades of blue and splashes of other bright colors create a spiritual feeling inside the otherwise utilitarian space. The room is bathed in an azure blue light during the day, leaving no question that spirituality, faith, and a respect for nature and its Creator dominate the philosophy of this family in all they do. Everyone who works inside the room values the natural light from outside that creates the soothing blue hue reminiscent of bluebird skies on a clear autumn day. I’m told Aldo and Milena began dreaming of the stained glass windows in 1985. When asked why they installed these precious works of art in the winery, Aldo’s answer summed up the family’s philosophy of life and work. He said, “We always felt deeply that wine is a message of beauty and we would like all details, all actions, and all spaces of our work to resonate this beauty.” Aldo said that during the harvest, when so much work is done in the room through the night, the light from inside floods the exterior area in the same blue light workers inside enjoy during the day. In a later conversation, Francesca Vaira said, “The windows show a connection between the vineyards where the grapes grow and the room where they are transformed into wine.” I love that room and visit it often, albeit usually in my mind.
A visit to G. D. Vajra in Vergne, a tiny frazione of Barolo perched above the iconic wine village, provides nourishment for the soul as well as the senses thanks in large part to Padre Costantino’s magnificant windows. Come for the wine, stay for the art.
It has certainly been a momentus year for Barolo with the sale of a historic winery in Castiglione Falletto to an American businessman. Yes, it was definitely their choice to sell and no doubt a painful decision to make. For the good of the region and the selling family, we wish them all well.
But as the year winds down and rumors of a more painful sale of another Barolo family-owned winery — one not in my book! — fly everywhere, I opened Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonteto read again, and find reassurance in, the passionate words of Elisa Scavino of Azienda Viticola Paolo Scavino when I asked her about the possibility of the “Tuscanization” of Piemonte. Hers was not a unique answer to this question I asked of many families.
So, will iconic Barolo wineries remain in the hands of the Piemontese or end up owned by faceless, souless foreign corporations? No one really knows. The economy and financial considerations may be what dictate the future. What I do know is that I am even more dedicated to hearing the wine families’ stories and committing them to paper for all to read in years to come. Their history must not be forgotten.
Post Script (12/5/16): As the rumors of a seismic sale swirl around the hills of Barolo, it has become painfully apparent that the low birth rate in Italy (and all of Europe) could be the catalyst for sales now and in the future. If readers look at the genealogies of each of the 22 families in my book, they will see an unmistakeable thinning of generations over time, the reasons for which are many.
Of course, it only takes one to carry the estate forward into the next generation. However, when there are so few offspring — as we’ve seen in so many of wine families across Italy — the future of the estate as a family owned and operated entity relies on a near 100% occurance of the same passion to perpetuate the patrimony in future generations.
I’m optimistic that will be the case with the current generation of wine family women of Piemonte. Beyond the horizon, it’s anyone’s guess.
Friday, September 16, 2016, is the 90th birthday of one the wine world’s most precious gems, Giacomo Oddero, beloved patriarch of Barolo’s Poderi e Cantine Oddero. He served as a great inspiration for me as wrote Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte. No doubt in his many years as a revered wine industry leader he has inspired many others.
I will be forever grateful to Giacomo Oddero, his daughters Maria Vittoria and Mariacristina, and granddaughter, Isabella, for the more than three hours they spent with me in May 2015, as they wove the story of the Oddero family through the centuries, and the many months of follow-up that lead to their chapter.
It was for Giacomo and his family, and all the other families who made Piemonte’s wine culture one of the greatest in the world that I wrote Labor of Love. Therefore, in honor of Giacomo and of his late wife, Carla, I am posting an excerpt from Chapter 7 of my book. Those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him will gain some knowledge of the man, his region, and the women in his life. Those of you who do know Giacomo will no doubt smile and thank God such a man has walked the planet for so long.
Here’s to many more wonderful years of life to Giacomo Oddero!
Carla Scanavino Oddero (1927–2003)
In the early 20th century, education was still not commonplace in the countryside, but Maria insisted her sons Giacomo and Luigi attend school in Alba. Luigi chose oenology at the famous Scuola di Enologica. Giacomo chose a classical education at the Liceo Classico, then studied chemistry and pharmacology at the University of Turin. To this day, Giacomo is known fondly for frequently quoting Shakespeare and the classics. His favorite writer is Alessandro Manzoni, the beloved 19th-century author of I Promessi Sposi, the most famous Italian novel of all time.
Cancer took Giovanni Oddero in 1951. Maria and her two sons continued to run the winery as Europe entered into a postwar era for the second time in less than 50 years. This time, unlike the decades when the Fascists ruled after World War I, the economy prospered. Giacomo remained heavily involved with the family business, marketing the wines and beginning his political activities. Luigi ran the vineyards and cellar. Together, they expanded their land holdings primarily in La Morra as they acquired coveted vineyards in the Barolo villages of Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba with help from yet another strong Oddero woman.
During their high school studies at the Liceo Classico of Alba, Giacomo met Carla Scanavino. Their shared interests brought them together and on the 19th of April 1953, they married. Carla, who died in 2003, was a determined woman with a brilliant mind, one of the first women of Alba to graduate from university. Carla had become a pharmacist in Alba, eventually buying the pharmacy where she worked. That clever acquisition led to many more crucial land acquisitions for the family when, through Carla’s hard work, the pharmacy became the funding mechanism of Oddero’s expansion. Her earnings funded an expanded cellar and acquisitions of more important crus that positioned the company for greatness.
Giacomo called the purchases of the most historically important and prestigious vineyards in the region Carla helped secure, “the greatest satisfaction I had in my life as a wine grower.” A particularly fond memory was their acquisition of the Vigna Rionda in Serralunga and Rocche di Castiglione vineyards. “I remember I went into the vineyards at night, all alone, to admire the land I had just bought, with no other light than the moonlight,” he recalled. “I was full of gratitude for the efforts we all made to put aside the money to buy these amazing pieces of land.”
Despite financing the real estate expansion, Carla’s name does not appear on any official ownership documents. It just wasn’t done in those days. The end of patriarchal inheritance, giving women full rights, did not occur until 1975. She is, however, very much a part of the winery’s story. “Our holdings today are only possible because of my grandmother,” Isabella explained. “Our riches happened after World War II as the result of Carla, Giacomo, and Luigi,” she said. Isabella is frustrated that despite her grandmother’s significant contributions in the expansion of Oddero winery, no one outside the family knows it. It’s the unsung heroines — like Luigia, Maria, and Carla — who inspired me to be their families’ scribe. It’s a pity the three women didn’t live to see their granddaughters, Cristina and Isabella, become internationally acclaimed winemakers. One thing is certain — their granddaughters and other wine women of the present generation know that without the courage, financial savvy, and wisdom of these long-departed women, their lives would be quite different today. Here in the Langhe, the women of the past will never be forgotten.
Giacomo Oddero (1926)
The Oddero story is not only one of strong women whose boldness and wisdom made their families prosper, but one of its male heroes, too. Giacomo Oddero is among them. Everyone familiar with Italian wine is familiar with the classification system, particularly the acronyms “DOC” and “DOCG.” What isn’t as well known is Giacomo Oddero’s contribution to this system created to protect the integrity and quality of Italian wines. His intimate involvement in the landmark legislation was a moment of great personal satisfaction for him and great pride for the family.
In explaining to me the need for the classification system, Giacomo divided Piemonte’s post–World War II years into two phases. In the first phase, immediately after the war, people fled the countryside’s poverty for cities where industrialization took hold. Fiat, the car manufacturer in Turin, and Ferrero, the producer of heavenly chocolate confections in Alba, were two of the industrial magnets that drew many from the agrarian life their families had lived for generations. Giacomo Oddero and his younger brother Luigi were among the Piemontesi who possessed foresight about the area’s potential and remained in the Langhe.
At the time, wine production was mostly unregulated, leading to a crisis of confidence in the region’s most precious commodity, one that held the key to its economic viability. As the postwar economy improved, focus shifted to quality for both producers and consumers. From the implementation of a system that assured quality standards, farmers finally could benefit more from the results of their work. Slowly, step-by-step, they built a better life.
Giacomo Oddero and other “historical producers” including Giovanni Gaja from Barbaresco and Giovan Battista Rinaldi from Barolo were champions of quality and the integrity of their denomination’s wines. Before Giacomo began his five-year tenure as mayor of La Morra in 1965, he advocated for the adoption of laws to protect the Italian wine industry’s integrity, specifically Barolo. For nearly two years, Giacomo met with farmers most nights to explain the system’s importance to their industry. The farmers were concerned that it meant only more bureaucracy, but Giacomo convinced them that the proposed quality assurance laws meant protection for themselves and their consumers.
In 1963, Law 930 was enacted, creating the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC, or controlled designation of origin) system of strict rules governing the production of classified wines. That was a significant milestone in the history of the Italian wine industry, but it took several decades for the specific regulations for each DOC wine to be written. As the Cuneo and Asti regions’ vintner representative, Giacomo made frequent trips to Rome to meet with the Ministry of Agriculture, helping to craft the language of the new classification law as it pertained to Barolo.
By the early 1980s, industry leaders and government officials recognized the need for another, higher level of classification, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG, or controlled and guaranteed designation of origin). After producing a wine as a DOC wine for 10 years, producers could now apply for the DOCG, elevating the status of the wine with that one additional word “guaranteed.” Although some believe there are now too many DOCG wines, the philosophy is sound and its implementation was crucial in cementing Piemonte’s place on the world stage. From 1976 until 1992, Giacomo was president of the Cuneo Chamber of Commerce. During that time, he continued to help write specific regulations for other DOC wines of the region while continuing to champion quality and integrity in Barolo.
Giacomo is very proud of the system he helped create, ushering in what he calls the second postwar phase. He believes that the system built trust and halted the exodus of families and workers from the land. Farmers began returning to the hills, and the tide turned. Farmers who used to sell their grapes to negotiants, who in turn sold them to wineries, began producing wine under their own labels. This enabled them to send their kids to oenology school and travel the world to market their wines. “It was extremely important to the success of the region,” Giacomo said.
In 1985, Giacomo and other Langhe producers presented their wines for the first time at a wine expo in New York City. Giacomo laughed at how the French producers arrived with the French Minister of Agriculture on the Concorde, with the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” playing as they deplaned, while the Barolo producers had to scramble for posters of Verdi’s Aida to decorate their exposition. Although none of them spoke English, they succeeded in orchestrating a successful introduction of Barolo to the wine world, with Giacomo Oddero as a conductor. Beautiful wine like Barolo transcends language barriers. For Giacomo and many of his fellow Barolo vintners, it would be daughters, not sons, who would follow in their footsteps.
Oddero Women Crafting the Future
Cristina sees a bright future for Oddero and for the region. Looking back on the difficult years, the much-loved and respected Cristina Oddero reflected, “I feel good when I think about what I achieved after so many years of disagreements and difficulties I encountered on my way when I first approached business.” And her father is also happy to see his family strong, thanks to the indomitable spirit of its women. The winery will no doubt prosper under Cristina’s stewardship. She has the blood of Luigia, Maria, and Carla coursing through her veins.
Giacomo shared his thoughts about the ascendance of women in the wine industry. His wise, soulful words beautifully captured all that I witnessed over my years in Piemonte, watching the transition from a male-dominated wine culture to one inclusive of Piemonte’s strong women. Giacomo is happy to see so many talented women working together with their fathers as they prepare to one day inherit their family’s wineries. “The relationship between women and the Langhe wine industry is a brand-new typology of relations. This is a more deliberate way of working, with greater sensitivity and better attention to details. And small details make huge differences when talking about wine. Wine needs to be treated gently and with patience. These are characteristics inside women’s nature.” Long before Giacomo Oddero was born, women helped secure the future of his family. The inspiration and guidance born of his own mother’s character that he gave his daughters and grandchildren created a strong bridge to the future for the women and men who now follow him.
With 16 days left in myKICKSTARTER project, I thought today would be a great time for a sneak peek at this blessed vintner who is just a miracle or two away from sainthood.
The Last Marchesa of Barolo GIULIA COLBERT FALLETTI
With the reluctant permission of her husband and father, Giulia began to visit the prison frequently. The abuse she endured transformed into trust as Giulia befriended many women prisoners and led them to Christianity. Giulia traveled to England and across Europe to study the prison reforms that were under way. But it was not enough for Giulia to improve the hygiene and living conditions of the incarcerated women. She saw a dire need to provide the women with skills they needed to be able to contribute to society upon their release.
Giulia believed the cycle of poverty and sin these women endured had to be broken. She established a school for girls and women of all means to learn to sew and keep house. Giulia and Tancredi converted part of the ground floor of their grand Turin home into a kindergarten where working poor parents could leave their children in a safe environment to learn while they worked. Both within Turin and outside its gates, Giulia spread the love and money she could not lavish on her own children to those in need. By day, the ground floor of the Palazzo Barolo was a refuge and a place of hope for the needy, but when night fell, minds met above in Giulia’s salon.
In 1825, King Carlo Felice named Tancredi, who was then a state counselor, mayor of Turin. Tancredi’s piety and compassion for the poor and dispossessed that he shared with Giulia influenced his four-year tenure as mayor, during which time he pursued groundbreaking changes in Piemonte’s capital city. During the frigid winter of 1825 – 1826, Tancredi distributed bread and firewood to the poor. He established a bank for small savings and a free school for arts and artisanal crafts, paved roads, beautified the city with gardens and fountains, and pursued other projects to improve public hygiene and the well-being of Turin’s citizens.
Tancredi, like Giulia, was not content to provide the means for their charitable works. They were hands-on philanthropists. During the cholera outbreak of 1835, Tancredi fell seriously ill while caring for patients housed on the ground floor of the Palazzo Barolo. Three years later, upon the advice of her husband’s doctors, Giulia took Tancredi to the Veneto, where they believed the alpine air would aid his recovery. Tancredi fell seriously ill in Verona, so Giulia began the long trip home to Turin to arrange treatment for her husband. Alas, Tancredi never saw his beloved Turin again. On September 4, 1838, in Chiara, near Brescia in Lombardy, the last Marchese of the noble Falletti family of Barolo died in his wife’s arms.
Author’s note: I have Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli to thank for the “introduction” to Giulia Falletti and Pierangelo Vacchetto for sharing his vast knowledge of Barolo’s history and the village’s beloved last Marchesa. Their contributions to my book – and my life – are precious to me.
Many winery doors in Europe are thick, wooden barriers to domains through which centuries of winemakers have passed. On the edge of Barolo’s central district, on Via Vittorio Veneto just below sprawling Nebbiolo vineyards, there is one such door.
A black plaque with four large white letters affixed on the right of the door prominently displaying the name of the legendary wine family “PIRA” alerts visitors they’ve arrived. Press the button on the brass plaque to ring the bell that could easily wake the dead of centuries past. You’ll hear hurried steps – albeit maybe not immediately – lock turning, a bolt scraping open and finally the centuries-old door creaks open.
If your timing is right – the probability of which is improved dramatically if you’ve cleverly booked an appointment – Chiara Boschis’ bright, welcoming smile will be the first thing you see on the other side of the door to E. Pira e Figli.
On a cold March day shrouded in a light mist more akin to November than Easter, I met Chiara Boschis, E. Pira’s proprietor and winemaker. The door burst open and before me was a petite, smiling woman in leggings and a flowing skirt, bundled up in a puffy coat she clutched around her neck. I stood before her in jeans and a light, powder blue sweater and tee shirt, freezing. For some reason – as I stood there, slightly shivering – admitting it seemed out of the question. I live in the Rockies after all. We’re tough and rarely admit we’re cold.
Chiara greeted me as she would a long lost friend. Here before me was a much-loved woman who had successfully staked out her territory in Barolo’s male-dominated world and who was the subject of many laudatory articles in wine journals and blogs. But immediately I could see, despite her fame, she was no wine diva.
There was no period of uncomfortable formalities, only a warm two-handed handshake, a deep sincere look into my eyes and concern over my lightweight attire. Here was a woman in love with her craft and grateful for my interest in the women of Piemonte. I was humbled.
The conversation flowed effortlessly as we descended steep, concrete stairs, through another heavy wooden door into the maze of subterranean rooms of the centuries old winery. I was thrilled when we entered the warm barrel room where a humidifier bellowing steam transformed the space into a mild sauna. Low level lights shining up through the fog at the vaulted ceiling created an ethereal affect, giving the musty space a timeless feeling. I could see through the fog a small forest of large wooden barrels and smaller barriques where nature, guided by Chiara, was finishing its work aging and imparting aromas into her precious wines.
On later visits, I thought the cantina seemed the sort of place the ghost of sainted Giulia Colbert Falletti, Marchesa di Barolo – the 19th century mother of modern Barolo – would be comfortable. I believe she would have enjoyed Chiara, the woman who burst through gender barriers to become Barolo’s first woman winery proprietor and winemaker. Chiara draws inspiration from the Marchesa. Perhaps Giulia’s spirit guides Chiara and all the women who are her oenological legatees. I like to think so. But I digress.
A woman to the rescue
Once a rarity, women winemakers are taking their place in the Piemonte wine industry, particularly in the Langhe and Roero regions. Famous last names previously associated with men are now brands belonging to women winemakers and proprietors such as Chiara.
In 1980, following the death of Luigi Pira, Chiara emerged as the first of her gender in her family’s nine generations in Barolo to tend the vines and vinify the noble Nebbiolo grape. Luigi was the last male heir of the renowned centuries-old E. Pira e Figli winery in Barolo.
At Chiara’s behest, her father, Franco for whom she had worked at Giacomo Borgogno e Figli, bought the winery from Pira’s two sisters. The vineyards, including parcels in the prized Cannubi, and the winery would become the launching pad of Chiara’s meteoric career.
Chiara possess an innate talent for growing high quality grapes and making luscious wines from her vines’ bounty. A combination of swimming in the right gene pool and on-the-job experiences spanning a lifetime prepared her to successfully assume control of the operation in 1990.
New generation, new philosophy
On that first visit, Chiara poetically described her winemaking philosophy with words like “joy,” “passion” and “love” garnishing her language. The biggest change in her generation was not only women entering winemaking, but also giving more attention to the vineyards. “You cannot abandon the fruit in the vineyard during the growing season,” she warns. The work in the vineyards is 80% of the process. The other 20% is in the cellar. It’s logical that without the best fruit possible, nothing in the cellar will change mediocre grapes into stellar wines.
Chiara was one of the first to conduct a green harvest – crop thinning – in Barolo. If done correctly, as she does, the process of cutting shoots and bunches during the growing season produces quality over yield. Chiara strongly believes quality cannot be achieved when the vine is preoccupied and stressed with too much growth. It’s a delicate process, however, that is sometimes done three or four times as she monitors the vines’ development and the weather between June and harvest.
Her first green harvest, however, brought calls to her father from locals saying, “Chiara is crazy! She is cutting the vines!” She admits her father was also skeptical, but the proof of her logic rests in the high quality of her elegant wines.
Meteoric Rise to Fame
The splendid 1990 vintage was Chiara’s first on her own. She downplays somewhat the significance of the Tre Biccheri the Gambero Rosso awarded her her maiden vintage declaring, “It was a fabulous vintage.” True, it was, but she need not be humble about her achievement with that vintage. Four years later, with the release of the 1994 vintage, Chiara proved she was no flash in the pan.
In Europe, rain and mud were the hallmarks of the second half of 1994. Long before vines surrendered their grapes, the vintage was branded as poor. Although it gave only two out of five stars to the 1994 Piemontese vintage, Britain’s Decanter magazine noted, “Prolonged rain caused serious problems, although a few producers still made good wines.” One of those wines was Chiara’s cru from the legendary Cannubi vineyard.
As the winner of the sole Tre Bicchieri awarded for Barolo that year, her 1994 Barolo Cannubi proved she could make great wines even when Mother Nature was cranky. “Consistency is most important to success,” Chiara asserts. Weather can be changeable, but winemakers must always be at the top of their game to achieve consistently high quality wines. Since 1994, Chiara garnered numerous accolades for her Baroli that exhibit power, but with a Burgundian-like elegance, finesse and soft tannins, the signature of her wines.
In its 2013 Duemilavini wine guide, the Italian Sommelier Association awarded its highest honor, “Cinque Grapoli” (five bunches), to Chiara’s 2008 and 2010 Barolo Cannubi. So I’d say that now, as she brings in her 24th vintage as the head of Pira, Chiara Boschis has proven herself worthy of her winemaking heritage.
Chiara’s wines continue to garner praise across the globe. Her personality, devotion and talent emerge from each bottle of wine opened in lands far from the humble Piemonte village of its origins. No doubt, most days someone meets Chiara for the first time by merely sipping her vinous creations.
Looking To The Future
Chiara bridges the past and future through her devotion to preserving Piemonte’s cultural heritage, insuring future generations remain connected to region’s land and the culture surrounding all it produces.
Chiara is married to the land and protects it as she would her own offspring. As a certified organic wine producer who never exposes her vines to pesticides, she guards the environment and the health of her clients and neighbors. Her ardent belief – a view many of her peers share – is vineyards can survive without chemicals. A healthy future and continuation of centuries of Piemontese viticulture depend on farmers such as Chiara to protect the terroir.
With brother Giorgio who left Borgogno and joined her at Pira in 2010, she’s well into her third decade of creating beautiful, award-winning wines. Brother Cesare also left Borogono and now works with his sister and eight others in the “ethical” project to preserve the culture and production of Castelmagno in Rifugio Valliera. Together, the close-knit siblings are working to insure the region’s traditions remain a part of its fabric, leaving generations to come a bright future in Piemonte.
In 2002, in only my third year of visiting Piemonte, I discovered the English translation of the recently published, “Barolo: Personaggi e Mito” (“The Mystique of Barolo”). It was a rare find in the under-discovered northwest Italian wine region: a book about the region’s people, in English no less!
What a beauty I unearthed! A book filled with bewitching photographs, rich history and, most notably, captivating stories about Barolo producers told in their own words.
For author Maurizio Rosso of Cantina Gigi Rosso on Via Alba Barolo in Castiglione Falletto, it was a labor of love. Rosso, whose own roots are buried deep in Barolo’s clay soil, gives us a unique opportunity to read the personal accounts of Barolo producers he lovingly chronicled.
Although born into a rich winemaking tradition in the heart of the Barolo appellation, Rosso pursued an education in foreign languages and literature at Università di Venezia Cà Foscari and Anglo-American literature at University of California Santa Cruz.
Rosso penned many historical novels, including the award winning “Il Castello dei Catari” (The Cathar Castle). His is a fictional account of the burning in Milan of over 1,000 Cathars from Monforte d’Alba in 1028, nearly 200 years before the much studied, frenzied annihilation of heretics in France.
Labor of Love
So why did this journalist-author turn from history and captivating tales he wove from it to a wine book? Rosso provided an answer in own words, “In those days [late 1990s] most press on Barolo was about the wines and hardly about the people.I wanted to stress the human factor and I gave the producers a chance to speak for themselves.”
During a two-year period from 1998, Rosso conducted extensive research and interviews, compiling what is more than a “mere” wine book. It’s akin to a compendium of love letters from vintners to the noble grape they collectively popularized across the globe and the land in which its vines are anchored.
Not only does Rosso capture the essence of the Barolo men, but also provides one of the few (if not only) English language accounts of Juliette (Giulia) Colbert Falletti, Marchesa di Barolo. Because of her vision, this aristocratic French saint-on-earth made it possible for today’s Barolo producers to provide the world with a noble wine from a humble land.
Given some of those whose stories Rosso captured and visages Chris Meier photographed belong to men who sadly left us in the years since the book’s release, it will be treasured for generations as an historically valuable tribute to the hard work, dedication and unfailing love for the appellation by those whose families for centuries made Barolo their home.
When I first read the book, I thought perhaps it was written in English. It was not despite Rosso incredible language skills. Josephine Taylor’s translation perfectly captures the essence of Rosso’s introduction of the land and its wines that spans the first 73 pages of the book and makes accessible to Anglophones the winemakers’ words.
Stuttgart-born photographer, Chris Meier shot his beautiful photos in each season of the year. Meier, a gifted photographer specializing in gastronomy and still-life, is also a gastronome fond of Italian food and wine. He has a penned several books about his travels including books featuring the cuisine of Sicily and Piemonte.
The product of Meier’s magical work behind his camera is intertwined with historical documents and photographs, many of which the producers provided from their family archives.
“The Human Factor”
The “human factor” is crucial to the viability of this land and its greats wines. Yet, scores and vintages are often discussed in near sterile terms, devoid of recognition of the humanity behind the labels.
Yes, many oenophiles and journalists know producers, but do they know the stories of their families’ triumphs, tribulations and aspirations? Do they know the sacrifices made to acquire and retain their precious crus? What about the family schisms that divided centuries’ old wineries?
With Rosso’s help, we can all discover the rich human spirit needed to create these luscious wines. “The Mystique of Barolo” has been an invaluable research resource for my own book on Piemonte and the women of its wine families. It’s a must-read for every lover of food, wine and the indominable spirits of these Piemontese winemakers.
Sidebar: Where to find the book? Unfortunately, in the U.S. it is a pricey proposition on Amazon. My best suggestion is to jump on a plane to Malpensa (or the European gateway of your choice), hightail it to Barolo and purchase your own copy at Cantina Gigi Rosso on the main Alba-Barolo road in Castiglione Falletto. Not only will you have the opportunity to purchase this treasure, but also to taste the lovely wines of the estate and have the author sign your precious possession.
Piemonte – the land where Nebbiolo not only grows best, but the alchemy of grapes to wine would delight Bacchus himself. One of the region’s rising alchemists is 31 year-old Elisa Scavino. Her family name should be familiar to any Barolo-phile since she is the granddaughter of Paolo Scavino, founder of the venerable Castiglione Falletto winery bearing his name.
Although famous for its 7 Baroli produced from grapes of 19 single crus in 6 of the 11 Barolo appellation villages, Paolo Scavino’s portfolio also includes other lovely wines of distinction. What I love most about Piemonte – what’s missing from Tuscany, in my opinion – is the broad range of different interesting varietals, both red and white, the Langhe and Roero offer. That’s certainly not missing at Scavino. Six other wines grace the winery’s portfolio, all beautiful expressions of the region’s varietals.
This month I visited Piemonte to continue research for my book, “Under Discovered: Le Donne di Piemonte.” One of the women of Piemonte who will grace my book’s pages, Paola Grasso of Ca’ del Baio, introduced me to Elisa. Since I restrict my writing to family owned wineries where the “family business speaks to the culture of wine,” in Paola’s words, I delighted in the opportunity to meet someone from the famous Scavino family.
Discovering a Barolo Treasure
On my last full day in Piemonte, I drove to the Scavino winery, spitting distance from our agriturismo, Gioco dell’Oca, on the outskirts of Barolo. The winery’s buildings reflect its owners: non-pretentious, but distinctive. Setback from the busy Barolo – Alba highway, the winery lies behind a lovely iron gate with a simple “S” on each panel. Other than the obscure sign I barely saw from the highway, it was the only clue I was in the right spot.
The familiar tinkling sound of bottles moving along a bottling machine’s conveyor belt greeted me when I walked through the massive wooden doors into the courtyard. It seems like everywhere I went, something delicious was going into bottles, some for sale now, some to age for a few more years.
After a few short minutes alone in the tasting room, the door opened. In trotted a large, somewhat smiling yellow lab, Lino (short for Ercolino), and Elisa Scavino. The first thing I noticed about Elisa was her smile. Unlike many people whose smiles are restricted to the muscles around their mouths, Elisa’s smile sparkled in her dark, half-moon eyes as well. My intuition is usually spot-on. It was screaming, “This is going to be a wonderful experience.” It certainly was.
No more “Due di Picchi”
Elisa has plenty to smile about. Like Paola Grasso, Elisa was born in a time when women are no longer relegated to the shadows. “Women’s work” no longer excludes making wine. Elisa is a member of a growing demographic of talented, rising stars of Piemonte: young women.
Since the 1980s, Piemontese women now possess career choices. However, for Elisa, there was no “choice” to make, only opportunity to grasp. She was born into a wine producing family. To her, like Grasso, there was never any doubt she would be a winemaker. Since early in her life, Elisa worked hard to join her father Enrico’s profession. To her, to be a successful winemaker is to honor her father.
It’s a good thing women are now accepted in the wine industry since so many of the prominent Piemonte houses will pass into women’s hands in coming decades. This was not always possible. For generations, the birth of daughters and no sons doomed estates. Given the culture of the times, having girls was akin to being dealt a “due di picchi” (bad hand) at cards. Those times have changed.
In the 1980s, women like Chiara Boschis and Livia Fontana graduated from the “school of hard knocks” after learning viticulture and oenology from their fathers. These pioneering women emerged as Barolo’s first women wine producers. When Barolo master, Bartolo Mascarello, passed away in 2005, daughter Maria Teresa assumed control of the family winery, continuing in her father’s footsteps. Now, Elisa and sister Enrica, Marta Rinaldi, the three Grasso sisters – Paola, Valentina and Federica – and many other women are in line to inherit generations old wineries. The future of great estates is no longer at risk to the whims of genetics.
Cracking the Educational Glass Ceiling
Although daughters of wine families could learn winemaking from the time they first walked, formal wine industry training was not possible. Only in recent decades did the famous Wine School of Alba (formerly the Royal Enological School) Domizio Cavazza founded in the late 19th century accept women students. Elisa and two other women, including Rosanna Gaja, comprised one of the earliest classes of women oenologists the famous school graduated.
For Elisa, however, the only education she wanted was the one she got in the vineyards and cellar with her father. Her parents encouraged her to consider other studies, such as science or classical studies, but only wine school’s six-year program would do for Elisa.
Next, Elisa graduated with an oenology degree from the University of Torino’s three-year program. Since long before her first awareness of Barolo’s special nature with the release of 1985 vintage in 1989, Elisa knew what she wanted to do in life. She now had the tools to do it. In January 2005, Elisa returned to Castiglione Falletto and took up her position in the family business.
Finding Her Place
Family businesses often are daunting places to launch careers. Pressures to contribute and learn all aspects of the business, including marketing and competition, created new challenges for Elisa. No longer were her days in the vineyards part of crafting career aspirations. This was reality, not dreams and longing. Her career took flight as she accepted the heavy responsibility that comes with being a member of a wine producing family. Elisa considers that time to have been a “big moment for her” in her “changing life.”
Shortly after graduating, with older sister Enrica, Elisa made her first marketing trip to America. Enrica, who studied languages and now handles marketing and sales for the winery, wanted Elisa to experience firsthand the their wines’ American market. It was an eye opening experience. Following the birth of Enrica’s first child in 2011, Elisa assumed more responsibility for traveling the world to show the wines.
Elisa enjoys tasting their wines with clients in different countries, but home definitely is where her heart lies. Although Elisa cherishes her earliest childhood memories of her father playing the harmonica while he drained casks in the cellar, she loves her work in the vineyards most of all. She explained to me how liberating she finds the lack of control one has when growing grapes.
Elisa finds “playing and interacting with nature” and following “nature’s philosophy” less intimidating than working in the cellar where she must confront the alchemy of the wine. Control is crucial in the cellar. I envy Elisa’s ability to eschew control and let nature take its course. It’s a gift.
No doubt, Paolo Scavino would be proud to see his granddaughters, members of an evolving generation, walking the path he laid for them when he started his winery in 1921. No more shadows for the women of Piemonte.
After a week of travel and back-to-back fascinating interviews of le donne di Piemonte (women of Piemonte), I was ready for a break to process all that I had learned. Spending my Saturday morning strolling through the Alba mercato and through the ancient city’s old town was just what I needed. But now it was time for lunch!
I’m such a creature of habit. Fortunately, some are good habits, like never missing an opportunity to have lunch at La Cantinetta in Barolo.
As I drove to the western side of the Langhe, the skies were darkening and curtains of rain fell in the distance. Monte Viso and its neighbors in the Cottian Alps had been so prominent below the azure blue skies two days ago, but now were hidden in the clouds. The autumn-like chill in the damp air made me feel as though I should be in search of tartufi bianci. But looking out over the barren, pruned vineyards, there was no mistaking the season. It was spring and the vines were merely waiting for the sun’s signal that it was safe for the swelling buds to break. The locals were a bit worried about the never-ending cold, damp weather. But there was still time for Mother Nature to help the vines along before flowering in the waning days of spring.
When I walked into La Cantinetta, with its walls covered with shelves of wine in the front room and simple larger dining room to the back, I was disappointed not to find co-owner and manager Maurilio Chiappetto running about the restaurant. Everything was the same as it had been since we first ate there with 16 year-old Giuseppe Vaira nearly 14 years ago, except there was no Maurilio, dressed in an apron – usually a blue Deltetto one – bustling about.
But I was assured he would be in the afternoon. Good. It wasn’t just the food I was after. I wanted to interview Maurilio and to finally have a chance to learn more about him, his brother and chef Paolo, their 89 year old “agnolotti-loving” father, Giovanni, and their fascinating traditional Piemontese restaurant they had been running since 1981, first in Alba then in Barolo since 1995.
Somethings must change and since I was on my own at the restaurant for the first time, I opted for a small table in the front room, next to shelves of some of the most noble names in Piemontese wines. I also figured I had a better chance of catching Maurilio in the front near the cash register.
La Cantinetta is one of those marvelous restaurants that has a menu, I think, but offers you whatever chef is cooking for the day. All you have to do is say “yes” or “no” to the courses as they come out. That day I was determined to keep the calorie count below 5,000 and only have the small plates of uber-traditional antipasti.
I could write a 1,200 word column on antipasto (singular of antipasti – but let’s face it, when have you ever had just one antipasto?). I’m not doing that now.The word, derived from Latin and meaning “before the meal,” dates to the 1500’s, according to one dictionary source. For the most part, Americans equate antipasti with a plate of salumi, olives and the like. But the Piemontese concept of dishes “before the meal” in fact can be a meal!
At La Cantinetta, it is more than a meal! Can’t believe I usually have Paolo’s antipasti (which is about five different plates, cold then hot) and primi piatti (usually two different different pastas and one risotto) and seconde (usually brasato, roasted lamb or chinghiale – wild boar). Of course, let’s not forget the incredibly delicious, crispy grissini that grace every table in Piemonte. Grissini are basically Piemontese bread sticks, but not like the skinny massed produced, pre-packaged kind. A glass of Dolcetto and grissini would probably have sufficed, but what a waste of a gustatory opportunity!
Where was I? Sorry, I fade into a culinary stupor just thinking about Piemontese food!
First up was Insalata Russa, or Russian Salad. I wonder if the Russians call it Italian Salad when served in Moscow. It is to Piemonte (and the rest of Italy) what potato salad is to a Texas barbecue. Actually, it’s an Italian version of potato salad, with lots of extras like eggs, pickles, carrots, capers, peas and even tuna thrown in. Everyone has their own recipe, just like potato salad. Quite honestly, it’s a meal in itself. Grissini, Insalata Russa and a glass of Dolcetto. Nope. There’s more.
Maurilio came in, as usual in a bit of a hurry, and greeted me warmly as he had on so many previous occasions. He was moving and had planned on taking the day off given it was quiet. But here he was and it wasn’t long before he was lending a hand. First, he poured me a glass of the house Dolcetto. Forgive me, I forgot to get the name of it, but it was lovely.
I spooned a bit of the Insalata Russa on my plate, savored it – yup, delicious as always – and then began snapping photos of it. Italians have a God-given talent of transforming simple, pedestrian ingredients into delicious taste sensations. My server brought the next dish. Thinking I was finished, she picked up the small gratin plate still filled with the golden concoction. I grew up in a household with three older brothers and had learned at a tender age to stop someone from taking my food. And I did. It wasn’t greed; it would have been insane not to have just a wee bit more!
I’ve never had the same antipasti choices twice. Sometimes it includes carne cruda – another dish for another post – and sometimes sweet bell peppers stuffed with tuna and capers. But always the Insalata Russa, Vitello Tonnato and, Chef Paolo’s sought-after chicken liver pate with sweet onion relish and brioche. That was next.
This time the 2″ size ball of liver pate had a slice of terrine with pistachio nuts as a sidekick on the plate. This was not a time to be counting calories or fat grams. And certainly I didn’t want to hurt Maurilio’s feelings, so I ate is all. Just remember, it’s all from scratch and no preservatives!
Not finished yet.
Vitello tonnato is a dish that screams “Piemonte!” Chef Nick Haley of Zino Ristorante in Edwards, CO studied at the prestigious Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’Asti and is a huge fan of this simple dish of veal rump – usually poached or braised – and tuna sauce. But he marvels at how Americans are so turned off at the thought of combination of veal and tuna. What a pity because he would like to serve it more often in his restaurant. When properly prepared and yellowfin tuna in olive oil is used, it’s a marvelous dish.
Like every other dish you’ll find in Italy, everyone has their own variations of the creamy sauce. Chef Paolo’s preparation of chilled paper-thin slices of rare veal with a dollop of sauce is never anything less than delicious.
Vitello tonnato makes an excellent summer main course and holiday celebration antipasto. It’s also a popular dish in Argentina, no doubt brought there by Piemontese immigrants similar to Papa Francesco’s ancestors.
Not sure why, perhaps I was protecting my plate, but I didn’t get a picture of the vitello tonnato at La Cantinetta. So here’s a snapshot of one I had at Profumo di Vino in Treiso with winemaker Renato Vacca of Cantina del Pino earlier in the week.
Still not finished. And don’t forget, this is “merely” the antipasti.
Although made with pasta, Chef Paolo’s tender raviolo is a popular item amongst the antipasti choices. The presentation changes a bit with the seasons, but it always stuffed with a deep golden, runny egg yolk and pureed spinach and topped with grated Parmigiani-Reggiano. In keeping with the season – despite what the weather was saying – tender green, pencil-thin asparagus were cut and sprinkled on top.
Any one of the preceding dishes would have qualified as a meal, not merely something “before the meal.” But there was more to come. The cardi (thistle) flan with fonduta is another Piemontese specialty. Although slightly bitter, the flavorful vegetable flan is a perfect companion to the creamy sauce made from fontina cheese, egg yolks – and theirs are such a deep golden color! – and milk. Maurilio was adamant in telling me no flour is used in their fonduta as it gives the sauce a slight grainy texture with a taste of flour.
This was nothing short of sublime decadence and a great ending to my meal although Maurilio was trying to convince me to have some pasta. Willpower prevailed, helped along by the knowledge I was going to have a lovely four-course dinner back at Agriturismo Il Bricco that evening! And I didn’t even have a second glass of Dolcetto knowing how strict the drink driving laws are now.
Discovering Chiara Boschis
Finally, without the distraction of food, I had Maurilio all to myself for an interview, except for the occasional break to say “Grazie” and “Ciao” to departing guests. We spent an hour talking and you’ll have to wait until my Vail Daily article on that, but it was the discussion of my book project that finally turned the conversation onto the path of the serendipitous discovery of Chiara Boschis.
In my journal, I simply wrote “Chiara Boschis, owner E. Pira e Figli.” Her family’s name was of course familiar, but this women who was one of the first of her gender to run a winery in Barolo was new to me.
Maurilio said “I’ll take you to meet her.” So into the misty rain we went up the street and across the main road that skirts town to the winery on the corner. Beside the thick, imposing wooden door was a plaque that read simply, “Pira.” The loud bell brought to the door a smiling man I later discovered was Chiara’s younger brother, Giorgio, who has been with her in the winery since 2010. Chiara was away, but he gave me her card. I would have to wait, perhaps until June, to meet her.
Then again, not. The coming week would bring me back to Barolo to finally have an opportunity to interview this incredibly passionate, poetic winemaker who just so happened to be a woman. One of le donne di Piemonte.
You’ll have to wait for my book, “Under Discovered: Piemonte through the eyes of its women” to get the full story. In the meantime, I thought I’d introduce you to some of the wonderful women and their families who will populate the pages of my book. Many I’ve known for nearly 14 years, but a few I’ve only just met through the process of researching my book. One of those women is the effervescent and immensely talented Chiara Boschis, winemaker and owner of E. Pira e Figli in Barolo.
On Monday, I introduced my Vail Daily readers near and far to Chiara. You can read more about her at:
What I didn’t tell you was how I discovered this well-known, under-discovered maven of Barolo. Serendipity is wonderful and often its surprises can yield incredible fruit.
After a grueling month of first getting my husband Dani off on his long trip to Israel, I was off on my odyssey in Piemonte. I arrived in Treiso at Agriturismo Il Bricco evening of March 19th. The journey had taken nearly 27 hours, but I was excited to be back in the land of the noble grape.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday took me back and forth between Treiso, Barbaresco and Barolo interviewing fascinating women and men from the winemaking families of Cantina del Pino, Marchesi di Gresy, Gaja, G. D. Vajra, Livia Fontana and Cascina delle Rose. Although I still had interviews to conduct at Deltetto, Ca’ del Baio and Matteo Correggia the following week, the weekend gave me a much-needed break to process all that I had learned in the hours of interviews. Most of all, the weekend meant market day in Alba.
The Alba mercato is located on the fringes of the old city. During the week the area under and around the massive roof is a parking lot. But on Saturdays it becomes an expansive gastronomic venue. Everything one needs to make prepare a stunning Piemontese feast – including the utensils, gadgets, pots and pans – can be found at the market. Ok, so you have to shop elsewhere for the treasured tartufo bianci in autumn, but even the clothes and shoes to wear for the occasion can be purchased here. Nothing like an hour walking around, envying the availability of beautiful vegetables, cheese, meat and seafood to remind me of what I miss most about living in Europe. Why can’t we have markets like that in Colorado instead of the over-priced weekend farmers’ markets?
WIth that obligatory stroll through the mercato complete, I drove back to Il Bricco, deposited my goodies – chestnut honey, roasted hazelnuts, lace scarves and the Parmigiano-Reggiano given to me as a gift from the cheese couple I wrote about last year – and headed west to Barolo (see below).
I was on a mission. Ristorante La Cantinetta was my destination.