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Labor of Love:
Wine Family Women of Piemonte
By Suzanne Hoffman
By Suzanne Hoffman
Piemontephile, Tom Hyland, reviewed Suzanne Hoffman’s Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte on his excellent Italian wine-centric blog, Learn Italian Wines.
I’ve read dozens of wine books over the past few decades. Most of these works are meant as reference guides, filled with facts and figures about vineyards, cellars, grape types and other such data. A few have been exceptional, but all have added to my education regarding wines from around the world.
Now though, a new book has come along that is just as valuable as those others, but instead of information on clones or how vineyards are planted, the focus of this book is on people, specifically women in the region of Piemonte, in Italy’s northwest. The book, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, authored by Suzanne Hoffman, is not only a well-written, fascinating journey into this region’s history over the past hundred years or so, it’s also an engaging work that is quite refreshing, as it gives us a look at the individuals that make wine.
Hoffman, an attorney by trade, has been traveling to Piemonte with her husband for many years and slowly but surely, thanks in large part to the friendship of a Barbaresco producer, has been introduced to several local winemaking families. She tells the story of multiple generations of these families, with the focus on the women. One of the principal tenets of this book is that these women now have more visible duties as far as winemaking, sales and marketing, but the author points out that the women that made these wineries great along with their husbands, uncles and sons, had tremendous responsibilities in the past as well. Perhaps they weren’t doing any cellar work, but their behind the scenes labors were just as important some forty, fifty and seventy years ago.
A great example of how important women were to these firms can be found in the chapter on Cascina delle Rose, a small, traditional producer of stellar quality in Barbaresco. The current owner is Giovanna Rizzolio, an opinionated woman of fierce convictions (Hoffman labels her as “gregarious.”). In the family history that the author explores, it is Giovanna’s grandmother Beatrice Rizzolio that emerges as a strong influence, not only with her immediate family, but also with the community, as she would do others favors, such as lending money. As Hoffman points out, Beatrice did this with not with a written contract, but merely with “a handshake and meeting of eyes.” That was sufficient for Beatrice.
But there is more to this woman that simple favors for locals. Hoffman details her activities from 1943 to 1945, when the German army settled in the area. Beatrice stood up to these invaders, at one point putting herself in bodily harm, in order to protect a group of teenage boys. Stories such as these help give the reader insight into Beatrice and other strong women of Piemonte, which in turn help us understand the moral fiber of these people. Is it any wonder then why the local wines are so distinctive?
There are numerous stories of how local women stayed strong, as their decisions were needed. An example of this can be found in the chapter on the Poderi Oddero estate of Santa Maria, below the town of La Morra. The author notes that the Mariacristina Oddero, who learned about winemaking and terroir from her father as well as in her studies in Alba (she has a degree in vineyard management and taught classes on soil chemistry for several years), had to confront her uncle Luigi about the direction the winery would take – would it be bulk wine or improved quality through stricter work? The story is a fascinating one.
Hoffman writes about 22 wineries in Piemonte, ranging from famous Barolo producers , such as Giuseppe Rinaldi and Elio Altare, to lesser-known, but equally quality-minded firms such as Monchiero Carbone and Deltetto, both located in the Roero district. She has done a remarkable amount of research for this book, with most of it being sit-down interviews with the current generation of women, who took the time to narrate their family’s history to Hoffman. One telling remark comes from Gaia Gaja, daughter of Angelo Gaja, one of Piemonte’s and the world’s most famous vintners. The younger Gaja tells Hoffman that there is not a competition between fathers and daughters, as there might be with fathers and sons. “It is about open love, sharing knowledge and passing it on to the next generation,” she remarks.
There are more than two hundred, full-color photos in the book, along with a few dozen vintage black and white images. The photos are excellent and how gracious of the author to take the space at the end of the book to credit the local photographers.
All in all, here is a book that was written by an outsider, an outsider in name only. After reading Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, you would swear that Suzanne Hoffman is someone that has been living in Piemonte for years. In reality then, she has become an insider. All of us who love the wines of Piemonte should read this book, if only to understand that these singular wines are great not only because of decades of work in the vineyards, but also the determination of these people as they present wines that represent their traditions, their heritage and their anima – their soul.
Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte / USD $55 / Euro 50
For further information or to order, please send an email to Suzanne Hoffman at:
I am a freelance wine writer and photographer specializing in the wines of Italy. I live in Chicago and recently completed my 65th trip to Italy. I have visited virtually every region in the country and am constantly amazed at the wonderful variety of wines produced from indigenous grapes (I am never amazed at the quality of the wines!). I have been in the wine business for 35 years, have been writing for 17 years and have been a professional photographer for the past eight years. I currently contribute to publications such as Decanter and wine-searcher.com. I am a freelance photographer for Cephas Picture Library in England and have had my photos published in the publications above plus several more. View all posts by tom hyland
Hyland, Tom. The Wines and Foods of Piemonte. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016
Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte
A groundbreaking book about generations of inspiring
women in 22 Piemontese wine families coming
into their own as vintners and leaders
I am Suzanne Hoffman, the author Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, a book unlike any ever written about wine families. I tell the hidden stories of the women of 22 wine families rooted for generations in the Italian wine region of Piemonte. Whether famous the world over or known only within Italy, each family is rich in history. Wine family women in Piemonte are stepping out of the shadows as owners and vintners, undreamt of a generation ago. And how that came to be is a story I have held in sacred trust…until now.
I love food. I adore wine. I am Sicilian on my mother’s side. I was born and raised in the rich gastronomic culture of south Louisiana as a member of the third generation of a vibrant, loving Sicilian family of immigrants. Being Sicilian means knowing and craving tradition – in wine, in food, and in anything to do with the family. From the moment I first set foot in Italy in 1975, I’ve been on a very natural path to becoming a wine family expert. It has taken many years.
“With her sensibility and passion, Suzanne has slowly come ever closer to our culture and has absorbed its intimate values. Only the completion of this wonderful book will contribute to the legacy of female culture in the millennia-long history of Italian civilization.”
~ Maurizio Rosso, author, historian, and owner, Cantina Gigi Rosso (Barolo)
I lived and worked in Switzerland for 20 years. Traveling the short distance to the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato regions of Piemonte pulled me into another world that I instinctively understood and felt as though I belonged to. I heard stories drawing me into an immense 19th century novel of sacrifice, joy, loss, and triumph.
The lives of these families – some aristocratic, some rising from abject poverty – were worthy of great Italian opera plots. All the while I was witnessing a tremendously moving process – an agrarian society coping with seismic change.
The shedding of societal norms that kept women in the shadows – queens in their houses, but serfs in the wineries and vineyards – meant that wine family women could now share control of their families’ patrimonies, and take a firm hand in shaping their own destinies. Daughters began to take the reins of some of the most famous wine brands in the region, unimaginable only a few decades ago. To see an entire generation of women rapidly striding into the forecourt of the region’s lifeblood industry awed me.
Oh, my – I felt such urgency to tell the story of this transformation, and to tell it as the wine families themselves experienced it. Time was of the essence. Many patriarchs and matriarchs were approaching their 90th year. Would I tell their stories in time for them to read the book?
I chose 22 diverse wine families for my book, plus the most famous wine family woman of all, the blessed 19th-century vintner, Giulia Colbert Falletti, Marchesa di Barolo.
The first wine family women to inspire me to write Labor of Love were Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose in Barbaresco, and her late grandmother Beatrice Rizzolio. The stories of many other women and their families soon captivated me. You can see why they are special.
Isabella Oddero of Poderi e Cantine Oddero originally chose a career in international marketing, far away from her family’s generations-old winery in Barolo.
But the deep instinct that keeps Piemontese families together brought her back to help save and contribute to the patrimony that generations of her grandmothers had helped to create. Family, wine, land: the youngest, like Isabella, hear the call as plainly as their ancestors did.
These women, their Piemontese sisters — and the men and children in their lives — are real people who want you to know where they came from and who they are. What began as a modest effort to write about the families I knew best exploded into an odyssey of over 200 hours of interviews and countless email exchanges with members of 22 families. I was given access to private histories, family photos, and I was given trust – most precious of all.
“This book IS a labor of love, for the author and her subjects. You can sense it on every page. But most of all, this book records the spirit of what fuels wine. It’s an essential contribution that helps to fill the gaps in the history of wine. It’s essential, especially, for those of us who love what wine brings to our lives.”
~ Cathy Huyghe, wine industry journalist and author of “Hungry for Wine: Seeing the World Through the Lens of a Wine Glass”
“Thank you for your incredible work. I can really feel your love for the story of our region. We could not ask for more.”
~ Isabella Boffa Oddero, Poderi e Cantine Oddero
My determination to share these stories with the world before more of the wine family elders died drove me to create my own publishing company. The slow machinations of traditional publishing were not for me. Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte is the flagship publication of Under Discovered Publishing LLC in Vail, Colorado. The stories of wine families across the world are still to be told and Under Discovered will produce them.
Labor of Love will be a beautiful 9-1/4” x 11-1/2” (23.5 cm x 29 cm), 320-page hardcover, jacketed book containing 22 chapters about the wine families, plus an introductory chapter on Giulia Colbert Falletti, the Marchesa di Barolo, considered to be the mother of modern day Barolo wine. It will look like a coffee table book, but read like a novel. The chapters were written to be read independently, but will captivate readers such that they may find it hard to put down this treasure.
Each chapter begins with a genealogy of the family to provide a generational roadmap for the reader, particularly useful for those families with more than eight generations on the land they now farm.
The chapters, based on interviews I conducted with families and individuals, are beautifully designed to draw readers into this special world – a centuries-old agrarian life committed to family and land and wine.
The book is filled with vibrant, captivating color photographs of landscapes and family members…
…and family photos from generations past
Each chapter ends with an overview of the family’s winery to give readers a feel for the size, age, and location of each winery.
Independently publishing a book of this magnitude and superb quality – worthy of the families who placed their sacred trust in me – required that I assemble a team of high-caliber editorial and design professionals.
Do you know families who live far, far away, making their living from the land in a remote and beautiful place? Making one of civilization’s highest gifts, vintage after vintage, for hundreds of years? Have you listened to the voices of women reared in tradition as they assume leadership and experience their power for the very first time? Labor of Love delivers these behind-the-label stories, in the words of wine family members who have lived the life up to now known to so few. There is harsh labor, there is a far-seeing vision, and there is splendor in stories like these.
You can see the unique and characteristic stories emerging from my labor of love. You can feel my sense of mission. As I write this very day, Piemonte wine families are taking the night watch to keep the caterpillars from destroying the tender buds on their vines. Their labor never ends.
Printing and binding, the next step in bringing Labor of Love to life, is now in the hands of VeronaLibri, a leading printer of art and museum books based in Verona, Italy, a city where books were first published over 500 years ago. The first printing is 2,000 copies. An additional 1,000 copies may be ordered shortly after publication.
The publication date of Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte is set for June 2, 2016, in Barbaresco, Italy.
Want to support the next step of bringing these wonderful stories to a wider audience across the globe? Go to my Kickstarter project page and check out the great rewards available to supporters, including books (free shipping and reduced prices available in US and Italy, respectively), unique items featuring the copyrighted cover art, and exclusive Piemontese wine family experiences.
The final stages of the birth of Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte began at VeronaLibri early Monday morning, April 18th. The presses began rolling to bring the product of my three-year adventure in Piemonte to life. Soon I will be able to hold this precious book in my hands and share it with the world.
When we first began shopping printers for my book, we looked first at China for quotes to print 3,000 copies of the 320 page book. We could not find the quality we believed this important book and the wine families who shared their stories with me deserved. So we looked into Old World printers and found a leader in the production of art and photo books in Italy: Verona Libri.
VeronaLibri is a the choice of such luminary organizations as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the White House Historical Society. Seeing their beautiful work confirmed that they were the perfect choice to print Labor of Love.
Not suprisingly, we discovered the prices in Italy were much higher. Well worth the added cost. The comprise we needed make to print in Italy was to reduce the first print run from 3,000, to 2,000 books.
Now that we’re seeing the initial excitement about this groundbreaking, unique book about the women of 22 Piemonte wine families, we want to print the additional 1,000 books we initially intended for the first print run.
For that, I’ve turned to Kickstarter to crowdfund the $13,000 needed for the additional copies.
Please take a look at my Kickstarter program and consider one of the many delightful rewards, such as:
Supporting my book project on Kickstarter is not a donation. By pledging the purchase of a reward, you pledge support to the project – and the wine families whose stories must be told to a wider audience. If I fall short of my $13,000 goal by May 19th, 2016, you owe nothing. If I succeed, which I am confident I will, your credit card will be charged and you will receive your chosen reward(s) this summer.
So please check out my Kickstarter campaign and learn more about me, my labor of love, and the people I’ve grown to know and love.
CLICK HERE TO KICKSTART TODAY MY NEW BOOK:
LABOR OF LOVE: WINE FAMILY WOMEN OF PIEMONTE
In November 1999, my Piemontese odyssey in Italy’s Northwest began. Over 20 trips and 14 years later, on March 19, 2013, I arrived for a different reason. Now my purpose wasn’t to drink and eat as though Bacchus himself was my guide. This time it was to travel a road not taken. I was writing a book. This was the first of many trips to interview wine families I had known for years and many I met because of this project.
Writing was not a foreign experience for me – not as an attorney, nor as a journalist – but this was my first book. It was one I was driven to write as the desire to commit to paper the images and words of Piemonte’s wine family women – and their men – burned in my soul.
Life planted the seeds for this venture shortly after the summer of 2005 when I lost my mother, my companion along with Otis, my Miniature Schnauzer who traveled with us on that first trip to Piemonte in 1999.
These were difficult days for me. I yearned for a closer bond with the wine families we had come to know, particularly the women who nurtured those lives. My grandmother, Frances Castrogiovanni Manale, had been my family’s strong connection and, although she had been gone for over 30 years, I felt her presence when I listened to stories the wine families shared with me.
The wine families are linked to one another through their traditions, their land and the labor of love they share. The generational links are the women, particularly the grandmothers. In the words of Nuto Revelli, revered Italian author, they are “l’anello forte” (the strong ring). They keep traditions and stories alive. They nurture the future of the family.
To me, the wine families represented constancy, familial love and a strong connection to place. To hear their stories about their grandmothers – many of whom lived centuries ago – was once again to be in my own grandmother’s kitchen in New Orleans. To smell her Sicilian cooking. To feel her soft, peaches and cream skin as she hugged me. I needed that, and more. Perhaps deepening my connections with them through my own labor of love could help me heal my wounds of loss. Grandmothers, even if they are someone else’s, always make us feel better.
Now, after nearly three years of countless emails and over 100 hours of interviews over wine tastings, delicious meals and walks through vineyards and cellars, my book containing the personal stories 22 wine families of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato regions of Piemonte shared, we with are moving to the next phase – production.
In celebration of completing months of intense work writing and editing with my editor Elatia Harris, I would like to share today the beautiful cover design created for my book soon to be printed in Italy.
Pierangelo Vacchetto and his daughter Elisabetta Vacchetto of Alba, Italy, took the two photographs on the cover. They are two of the three Vacchettos who are capturing the images of the wine families for “Labor of Love.” Eugenio, Pierangeli’s son, is the third. Cindi Yaklich of Epicenter Creative in Boulder merged their two photographs to create this beautiful cover design. You’ll have to guess who the subject is!
Elatia Harris is finishing the editing. Cindi is now working on the interior book design while Jody Berman of Berman Editorial is copyediting and proofreading. It’s all coming together.
Check back next week for the answer to the question, “Which Italian printer will transform Labor of Love into a treasured keepsake?”
Trivia question: Where in Piemonte is this and whose hands are those? Answer next week!
My Piemonte labor of love is progressing beautifully.
In seven months – God willing – I will introduce you to the women with whom I’ve spent so much of the last 30 months. Many of them are delightful ghosts who have been with me day and night as I labored to learn more about them, their families and the times in which they lived.
You will meet strong, brilliant women like Luigia Oddero, her daughter-in-law Maria and granddaughter-in-law Carla, all of whom played crucial roles in the success of their family’s winery in Santa Maria La Morra. I doubt, however, you would find their names in wine publications, something that saddens Luigia’s great-great-granddaughter Isabella Boffa Oddero. She knows how significant those women were to the patrimony of the Giacomo Oddero family.
After you read “Labor of Love,” I know you’ll be inspired to visit Monchiero Carbone in Canale in Roero. As you sit in the tasting room sipping their luscious wines, you’ll notice on the wall the black and white photo of Clotilde Valente Raimondo, known as Tilde, the woman who created the legacy of the wine you will enjoy there possible. The black, kind eyes of the petite woman will enchant you. You’ll want to ask about her daughter Francesca (Cesca). If you meet Cesca’s great-granddaughter Lucia Monchiero, you’ll be meeting the future of the winery.
In Barbaresco, you’ll discover a woman you may of heard of before – Clotilde Rey – because her name and that of her great-granddaughter Gaia were merged to create the brand name of the legendary winery’s Langhe Chardonnay – Gaia & Rey. But did you know about her crucial roll in her father-in-law Giovanni Gaja’s legacy? Clotilde died long before I set foot in Piemonte, but I can’t help but believe that to meet Gaia Gaja is to meet Clotilde Rey such is her great-granddaughter’s brilliance and drive.
On the ridge in Tre Stelle in Barbaresco you’ll find Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose. There’s a strong, formidable woman in her family whose story is known to so few, but whose life touched so many, particularly during the dark, brutal days of the German Occupation between September 1943 and May 1945. You can find the name of Beatrice Rizzolio inscribed on the wall of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
These are but a few of the women from the 23 different families that you’ll meet if you follow me on my labor of love. Sadly, these grandmothers across the generations are no longer here for me to interview, but their families have brought them alive for me and by extension for you. What a delight and an honor it has been to get to know them and have the opportunity to be their storyteller.
“Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte” anticipated release date is June 2016.
I was delighted to read Will Lyon’s article in the Wall Street Journal – “Why Piemonte is the new Burgundy.” I’m always thrilled to see Piemonte get such positive, enthusiastic ink, particularly in the Journal. I’m even more delighted to see Punset amongst the list of recommended wines since it’s long overdue for feisty organic pioneer Marina Marcarino and her wines to receive such accolades!
So my hat is off to Mr. Lyons for such a nice article; I must respectfully demur, however, and note that Piemonte is not the new Burgundy. Nor the old. Piemonte is Piemonte. And, as Barbaresco producer Giovanna Rizzolio pointed out, it is Italian.
Piemonte has its own heart and soul that is reflected in its wines. And its heart and soul emanate from the cornerstone of the region – the wine families.
It’s a little sad – at least to me – that Piemonte’s wine families were not mentioned. Without their indomitable spirit and unyielding drive, the incredible oenological delights wine lovers are finally recognizing would not be possible.
The wine families of Piemonte are the source of the charisma and individualism of the region’s wines. Some prime examples include Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli whose noble red wines reflect her spirit and passion;
Ornella Correggia whose courage in the face of unfathomable grief made it possible for her children Giovanni and Brigitta to be one with their late father’s vision of Roero at the winery that bears his name – Azienda Agricola Matteo Correggia.
Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco who fought a tsunami of opposition to be the first woman in Barbaresco to own and operate her own winery;
the Rocca sisters – Daniela, Paola and Monica – of Albino Rocca in Barbaresco whose own beautiful oenological signature was written on their 2013 Barbaresco, their first vintage to emerge on their own without their late father, Angelo Rocca.
…..and so on (it will all be in my book “A Labor of Love – Wine Family Women of Piemonte.”)
Incidentally, I don’t believe Piemonte is the “new Burgundy.” Piemonte is AND ALWAYS WILL BE Piemonte. I kind of feel passionate about that if you haven’t noticed!
Please never forget that the soul of Piemonte’s wines are forever tied to the families who create them. Their’s truly is a labor of love!
Because I’m such an avid surfer – of the internet, that is – I caught Ian D’Agata’s beautiful article about Barbaresco on Decanter magazine’s website. Reading the third page – Barbaresco’s best sites – made me think a bit about the recognition women are getting in Piemonte, especially in the rough and tumble, male-dominated denomination of Barbaresco. Long overdue.
Women are now as important to the lifeblood of many Barbaresco wineries as the juice they extract from their grapes. Once in the shadows, societal changes broke the shackles that kept women out the family business and hereditary fortunes in patriarchal Italy.
Think about the changing face (actually, gender) of the heirs of Barbaresco’s wine families – women. Two wineries he praised – Cà del Baio and Albino Rocca – have three sisters who have or who will inherit the winery, carrying it on to future generations.
Not so long ago, Luigi, Ernesto and Giulio Grasso’s Cà del Baio, borne of hard work and determination, would not have stayed in the family given Giulio’s heirs are only women – Paola, Valentina and Federica.
And the three Rocca sisters, Daniela, Monica and Paola. What courage and talent they have displayed since the tragic death of their father! Mr. D’Agata has rightfully given their incredible work at Albino Rocca the credit they deserve.
Needless to say, Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose had to swim upstream against a very strong current to create her beautiful, successful winery on her family’s land.
And there are some dynamos! Elisa Scavino, Francesca Vaira, Isabella Boffa Oddero, Maria Teresa Mascarello, Gaia and Rossana Gaja, and Marta and Carlotta Rinaldi, just to name a few.
This is not to take away from the guys. Just to note the changes afoot in the vineyards and cantine of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato. Otherwise, why would I spend two years to date researching and writing about them? Still many wonderful stories to uncover and share in the hills of Piemonte.
Sommeliers are gastronomic matchmakers, helping diners discover the perfect match for a chef’s creation from candidates presented on a restaurant’s wine list. Digging into their gustatory toolboxes of aromas and tastes accumulated from years of tasting repetition and a vast wine knowledge, sommeliers can create happy marriages between wine and food, transforming an otherwise mundane process of eating into joyful gastronomic adventures. Add to that an intriguing story or two about the wine’s origins or its producer, sommeliers can work magic converting liquid in a glass from a mere drink into to something to savor and remember. The wine comes alive as its tastes and aromas become part of the diner’s own catalogue of dining memories.
The seeds of the profession sprouted in 14th century England. Sommeliers had humble beginnings as wine procurers for royalty and the aristocracy. Although the job description of a sommelier has evolved over time, sommeliers are still humble servants. At least that’s philosophy of one of the world’s most respected wine education organizations, the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Personally – and I’m stepping out on Captain Hook’s plank here – I find the mystique, pop culture and wealth that’s part of the wine industry increasingly breeds an attitude that isn’t always synergistic with the concept of service. Ok, let’s just say it as it is. Some of the industry’s newer members – sommeliers, bottle shop employees and wine reps included – are wine snobs. I said “some,” not all, so don’t get frazzled. I venture to say that I doubt I’m alone in my observation. I even hear it from winemakers whose wines grace the upper echelons of many top restaurants’ wine lists. It baffles them that some of those on the far end of the chain of commerce don’t share their own humility. Many with lesser knowledge – most notably the ones buying the product – often feel intimidated. Certainly not a way to cultivate wine appreciation.
But through the expanding popularity and reach of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ certification program, the humble, agrarian beginnings of wine increasingly are reflected in the service demeanor of sommeliers responsible for connecting the last link in the chain between producer and consumer. If Mensa had a wine and spirits subgroup, it would count amongst its members Master Sommeliers whose years of grueling studies and training helped them reach the rarefied air of the world’s top wine professionals.
If I haven’t gone off the end of the plank yet and you’re still with me, I’d like to introduce you to a wine genius with whom I’ve also had the pleasure of working with on a wonderful epicurean fundraising event for the Roundup River Ranch camp for seriously ill children. Master Sommelier Sean Razee.
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing this tall, quiet humblest of humble sommeliers who resides in Vail Valley. I’m working on my certification – Level II – to enhance my ability to tell winemakers’ and wine professionals’ stories, so I decided to write about the experience in the certification program. Sean helped me round the corners and smooth the edges of my article.
I interviewed Sean about his own journey to the pinnacle of the wine industry. The interview unearthed some fascinating insights and raised my level of appreciation of sommeliers’ role in connecting vintners with consumers.
As of November 2014, 220 professionals earned the title Master Sommelier since the first exam in London in 1969. One hundred forty of those Masters earned their title in North America. In case you’re a statistics geek, 119 are men and 21 are women. Colorado is home to 12 Master Sommeliers. Sean Razee is one of those 12.
In his first words of his intriguing article in Aspen Peak Magazine, journalist Douglas Brown states, “Aspen boasts more master sommeliers per capita than any other city in the US.” Not a surprising statistic based on Aspen’s prowess as the Rocky Mountain culinary capital which hosts one of the nation’s best food and wine festivals each June. Another reason is Aspen is home to a temple of epicurean pleasures – The Little Nell – and home to an oracle of wine that professionals from all over the world seek. More about him in a minute. For several decades, Colorado has been a Mecca for aspiring sommeliers and where Sean reached a fork in his career path that lead him to the Court of Master Sommeliers’ program.
Like so many who follow the same path Sean discovered in Colorado, wine culture was not a part of his upbringing in California. In the mid-1990s, Sean finished his studies in food science at Long Beach State University. Many believe – myself included – that wine is bottled poetry, art, literature and spirituality. So it’s no surprise Sean relished studying language, art and religion in university and continues expanding his knowledge today. Soon after receiving his degree, however, serendipity directed Sean’s career steps to the wine world.
Sean’s interest in wine blossomed during wine country adventures with friends. Sean admitted, “I didn’t know what I was drinking, but I loved the experience and wanted to learn more.” His quest for knowledge took Sean to Colorado for the winter of 1996-1997 when he worked at Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek. It was there his discovery of the “all-encompassing aspect of wine in the restaurant setting” nudged him closer to the wine industry.
One season turned into another and soon Sean’s expanding experience and responsibilities at Beano’s led him to explore wine career options. Using his background in food science as a springboard, it made sense to apply to UC Davis’ graduate oenology program. Fate, however, had different plans for him.
In 2002, Sean became wine director at Spago’s in the newly opened Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. The job prompted him to defer his oenology studies a few years. Not surprisingly, Sean never made it to UC Davis. He discovered another wine industry career path existed. Although he already had many years of experience under his belt, Sean wanted formal training and certification. Enter Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher.
Many who now hold the esteemed title “Master Sommelier” and the two levels of certification below it owe their success to Jay Fletcher. Like Sean, Jay didn’t make a beeline to sommelier training. However, in London in 1996, after nearly 15 years of working his way up the restaurant industry ladder in Aspen and arduous studies, Jay received his Master Sommelier Certification, becoming the 30th American to achieve the distinctive title. The Madison, Wisconsin native who once hitchhiked his way to Colorado – as friend Ilan Baril recently wrote in The Juice, “to ski, hang out with a good-looking woman and have a drink or two” – then became a sought-after sage who drew aspiring sommeliers from across the globe to Aspen.
The timing was perfect. Sean wanted to pursue certification with the Court and Jay’s work educating candidates was beginning. Sean told me he chose the Court’s program because of its international recognition as the fastest growing wine certification program in America and that a service component comprises one-third of the exam. “You need to be able to talk about the wine and serve it properly,” Sean said.
Sean began making frequent trips to Aspen to taste wines with Jay and absorb the knowledge he graciously shared. The experience brought him in contact with other masters’ candidates. By 2006, Sean took the grueling, three-part masters’ exam.
Given this is one of the most demanding exams in the wine world with a meager passage rate of 8%, candidates have three years from the first attempt to successfully complete all three sections. For Sean, he passed service in his first attempt. Mind you, this isn’t “open a bottle and pour some wine” sort of service exam. It’s even more difficult than that on the Level II exam. To give you an idea, take the most difficult service scenarios imaginable, make them even worse, and you might have the degree of herculean service difficulty that candidates have to master to be Masters.
Two years later, Sean passed the remaining two sections – theory and blind tasting – in Healdsburg, California. With his wife Jennifer and daughter Noelle present, in 2008 Sean proudly received his well-deserved title, Master Sommelier.
It didn’t take long before Sean, like Jay before him, became immersed in the opportunity to educate certification aspirants. Today, as director of Vail Resorts’ Mountain Dining beverage program, Sean no longer has many opportunities to “work the floor” and be that last link between winemaker and consumer, but he does stay active in his mentoring of certification candidates.
In conclusion, I asked Sean to share with me some of his insights he conveys to his protégés.
The Court’s mission, in Sean’s opinion, is to (1) educate sommeliers, (2) create standards of service and (3) “impart humility.” There’s that humility component again, something no doubt difficult to maintain in the heady world of wine. But Sean credits his own humble roots to keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.
The program requires candidates to learn a wide breath of information that often goes far beyond one’s focus and interests. Perhaps amassing knowledge of little known wine regions isn’t as sexy as zeroing in on Bordeaux and Bourgogne, but it’s what makes Masters’ expertise so special. Sean sees this as a way to achieve a high level of broad wine knowledge thereby creating well-rounded wine and spirits professionals.
Sean’s own personal mission is to mentor candidates, “impart humility” and help them develop their own skills.
One of the most interesting insights I gleaned from Sean was his perspective on wine as part of everyday life. Yes, there are “icon wines” that are rare treasures, but he respects wine as an agricultural product that in so many cultures is “a grocery that sits on the table during meals and becomes part of daily life.”
Like Sean, I admire the farmer-winemakers who toil in the vineyards, bring the grapes home safely and then perform alchemical magic in their cellars. They bear the greatest risk, but have the lowest margins in the chain of commerce between their vines and consumers’ glasses. In the northern hemisphere, theirs are stories of hailstorms in August, of frost in early May, of rain on the grapes in October. Disproportionately more than anyone else in the chain of vinous commerce, wine producers bear the burden of volatile currency markets, energy cost spikes and economic crashes.
It’s that final link where Sean Razee speaks for the producers, adding a heightened level of appreciation and understanding of the precious liquid he pours. Whether he’s serving a humble bottle of a lower priced wine on his list or a treasure from Vosne-Romanée, Sean cherishes the vintners’ stories he happily shares with clients. He’s a golden link, a humble representative of the producers in that long chain between vineyard and glass as he makes happy marriages between food and wine.
I have no idea how far I’ll get in my quest for Level II certification. There are huge challenges awaiting my 57-year-old nose in the blind tasting and my arthritic hands when confronted with opening and serving a bottle of champagne in the service exam. But I have to admit, the trip down the path to the exam has already brought me a greater understanding of and appreciation for the men and women who insure winemakers do not toil in vain to create vinous magic. Sommeliers, I’ve discovered through knowing Sean and learning from Jay in my Level I class, are great historians. Every time they pour a glass of wine and tell its back story, they honor the winemakers and keep the magic alive. Yes, sommeliers are gastronomic matchmakers and theirs is a labor of love.
Fifteen years ago this November I discovered Piemonte. With the companionship and help of locals I came to know and love like family, I was able to experience the region in all her glory.
Now, over 20 visits later (I stopped counting) and taking up my pen to write about Piemonte, it’s a delight to see the joy of a novice Piemonte visitor, as shown in this vignette.
Of course, many vendemmia have passed since I’ve been out until 4:30 a.m., but it at least I now start my days earlier so I have the same amount of time to immerse my senses in the joys of Piemonte.
Ci vediamo lì presto!