When I first drove into Barbaresco two decades ago this autumn, the village was cloaked in thick, bone-chilling fog. I soon learned the mantle covering the village was emblematic of Langhe in November.
Barbaresco was a ghost town. In the Piazza del Municipio in the village’s heart, only the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco and the Antica Torre, then around the corner from the Enoteca, seemed to have signs of life. Not much happening in that late afternoon period between coffee and aperitivo. At the other end of Barbaresco’s singular street, via Torino, the air was heavy with that intoxicating post-harvest smell of fermenting grapes in the Produttori del Barbaresco. In between the two ends of the village, the mysterious alchemy that is winemaking was no doubt going on behind the thick, green iron gate that hid the inner sanctum of the renowned Gaja winery from view. That was it. Not a creature was stirring.
Wait a minute! That was it? Barbaresco? So famous, but so small and quiet.
That was then.
Fast forward twenty years and on most days Barbaresco is anything but quiet. Between her awakening and long past the sun’s descent behind the Alps to the west the village buzzes. No longer is the tiny village only alive with tourists in the sunny months of September and October when tractors laden with precious, ripe grapes lumber along the cobblestones to the wineries, or in late March and April when Europeans north of the Alps seek Langhe’s early springtime warmth. Today, Barbaresco is alive with locals and visitors for most of the year.
Fame from Piemonte’s rising star as a popular wine tourism destination drew people to the village from which the famous wine takes its name. But it took a young man from Japan and a wine bar sporting his name to help transform Barbaresco into the energetic village it is today. Anyone who has found themselves under the plane trees in the piazza sipping a glass of wine on a hot summer day knows I’m speaking of Koki Sato.
The hissing sound of an espresso machine, wine glasses clinking, and laughter amid chatter now fill the tiny piazza from 9:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays, when the wine bar is shuttered for its mandated weekly closing, the village is quieter. Koki Wine Bar has become a gathering spot of locals and visitors and has played a large role in energizing the village.
Japan to Barbaresco thanks to Barolo
Koki began his odyssey from Japan to Barbaresco in 1998 with a job in an Italian restaurant in hometown of Sapporo. Here Koki experienced cucina italiana and soon tasted the wine that sealed his destiny – Barolo.
One night a customer offered Koki a taste of Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino from the stellar 1990 vintage. I suppose if one is to experience Barolo for the first time, it’s quite special to start with one of the best. To say it was love at first sip is an understatement. The wine captivated Koki with its elegance as it filled his mouth with rich fruit, lingering for a long finish, providing gustatory sensations that inspired him to learn more about wine.
A senior sommelier in the restaurant initiated Koki’s vinous education with a virtual tour of the world of wine. Koki tasted wines from many different regions and began to expand his wine horizons and appreciation. In 2005, the year after his first trip to Piemonte, Koki became a sommelier in his own right.
Wine was not the only education Koki pursued in the two intervening years between Piemonte trips. He studied Italian, preparing him for a longer stay in Piemonte that began in 2006 when he moved to the region to master his favorite grape, Nebbiolo.
In 2009, Koki began working at La Ciau del Tornavento, the celebrated restaurant just behind the church in the tiny Barbaresco village of Treiso. Again, nothing like starting at the top as he did with Barolo. Michelin-star chef Maurilio Garola and his restaurant co-owner, Nadia Benech, gave Koki the opportunity to broaden his wine knowledge and service skills in one of Italy’s greatest restaurants. With an expansive, labyrinthine wine cellar of over 60,000 bottles, Koki was able to serve some of the finest wines ever produced. This further deepened his love of wine, particularly Nebbiolo. Through the years, Maurilio and Nadia have become Koki’s cherished mentors and sources of inspiration. “They are special to me,” he emphatically said.
After four years working at the pinnacle of the Italian restaurant industry, Koki returned to Japan. He pondered opening a wine bar in his hometown. In those heady, exciting first years of the new millennium, the Far East was fast becoming an important, emerging market for Piemonte wines. Koki was not alone in Japan in his love of the region, its food, and, of course, its wine, so demand was certainly in his favor.
Before Koki could take the plunge in Sapporo, Maurilio offered him the opportunity to open a wine bar in a small space in the center of Barbaresco. For about two weeks Koki thought deeply about the chance to work in Italy rather than remain in Japan. Six months later, in March 2013, Maurilio’s Prima e Poi del Tornavento opened with Koki at the helm.
Koki later purchased the bar and in April 2017 it was renamed “Koki Wine Bar.”
In the short time since Koki dove headfirst into the world of business ownership, Koki Wine Bar has become a favorite of local wine producers who enjoy ending their days with an aperitivo on the patio in summer or inside the warm, cozy bar as the night chill of autumn chases everyone indoors. Koki and his peers across the Langhe in Barolo at such places as Barolo Friends and La Vite Turchese, and More e Macine in La Morra, have filled a need for a place to have a quick bite between winery visits, a light dinner after a long day of food and wine, or just a place to sit, sip, and watch the wine world go by. Venues that are part wine bar, part osteria were sorely needed in the wine villages of the Langhe. Koki certainly made an important contribution with his little oasis.
Thriving Part of the Langhe Dining Culture
One of the attractions of the Langhe restaurant culture for many, including myself, is the tradition of multicourse, slow lunches. A large lunch and a small evening meal of salumi, cheese, bread, and, on occasion, wine, was always my preferred way to tackle the region on short visits. But for people wanting to visit several wineries a day, it can prove to be an insurmountable gastronomic challenge to have a long lunch. The evolution of wine bars such as Koki Wine Bar in Langhe and Roero have solved that pleasant dilemma for visitors and locals.
Now, in Barbaresco, oenophiles can enjoy a short, relaxing snack between winery appointments. A favorite of my tour guests at the end of a week of Bacchanalian adventures is to have a light lunch on Koki’s patio. His salumi and cheese board and Piemontese salad along with a glass or two of wine is the perfect entre-winery fuel.
Ask Koki for a wine recommendation and watch as his smiling demeanor changes into evidence of deep, serious contemplation. Then out comes a suggestion you should not ignore. This is serious business for Koki. Pairing the right wine with a guest is as important to him as pairing the right wine with food. To Koki, it isn’t about the most expensive wine or most famous producers. It’s about taking his guests on an adventure through his wine list. It is also about providing the growing number of up-and-coming Piemonte producers a stage for their wines in this incredibly competitive market. Koki knows most of the producers on his list of Piemonte wines so you will probably get a story or two along with the wine. As it should be.
Like so many young entrepreneurs in the Langhe, Koki is not afraid to venture outside the norm and create unexpected experiences for his guests. Last December – a time when the pace in the cellars slows down a bit and wine producers get to relax and enjoy quiet evenings out – Koki and Chef Masaki created Friday night Japanese dinners that quickly became popular sellouts. Each Friday featured a different style of Japanese cuisine, culminating with seafood night featuring a large plate of sushi rolls and sashimi. Tuna carpaccio topped with white truffles, a favorite of Koki’s, was one of the most unusual uses of the precious fungus I’ve ever had. Superb. Koki, no stranger to high quality, had gone to Milano himself to choose seafood for Chef Masaki. Those fun evenings proved to be the best deal around at 35 euros for the three courses and were a huge hit with the locals. Koki tells me that his Japanese Fridays are making a return to Barbaresco this December.
The Future for Koki
No one, including Koki, knows what the future holds for him. He just celebrated his 40th birthday and already he has fostered a following on several of the Continents. Koki’s dedication to the local vintners and to providing a fun venue for their wines to be tasted and sold has earned Koki their loyalty and support. Koki’s fans, myself included, would love for him to remain forever in his little wine bar in Barbaresco. As long as his parents are healthy, he told me, he’d like stay in Piemonte, but his vision is to one-day own two wine bars – one in Japan and one in Italy – and travel between the two countries.
Koki will succeed wherever in the world he lands. His passion for quality, knowledge of food and wine, his talent for creating a warm, inviting environment, and, most importantly, his ability to foster loyalty will always be in demand. And no doubt, Nebbiolo will be the star of any wine bar he opens.
Important things to know about Koki Wine Bar
- Location: Piazza del Municipio 30, Barbaresco (across from the Municipio)
- Opening Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. (closed on Wednesdays).
- Retail wine purchases available.
- Small menu. Try the agnolotti in a jar and the anchovies with bread and butter.
- Delicious cugnà from Cà d’Gal available for sale.
- Best patio in the area thanks to Koki and his team.
- Best Barbaresco t-shirts and biking jerseys for sale!
- Headquarters of the Labor of Love Society, a group of vintners and wine professionals dedicated to camaraderie and preservation of the region’s familial wine industry culture.
What the local wine producers have to say about Koki
I asked some of the local producers for their insights about Koki and his place in Barbaresco’s culture. The responses were so warm and filled with admiration and love for Koki that I struggled to dissect them and include them in the article. So I decided to add an “in their own words” section to this post. Think of it as one of the most valuable, honest reviews of Koki and his wine bar you’ll ever read. These days, we need to hear more such words to drown out all the acrimony.
Alberto di Gresy, Marchesi di Grésy (Barbaresco)
“Koki is a great guy, simply! When is bar is open, the village is also open, alive.
That’s apparently because of its location, at the very entrance of the major street Via Torino, but many do not love to [go to] Barbaresco on Wednesday because Koki is closed.
[Koki] has always been very well accepted for his professionalism and kindness as a former maître of la Ciau del Tornavento, and Maurilio was the one to believe in Koki…
This place [Koki Wine Bar], I repeat, is able to give to anyone arriving in the village a SIGNAL, and when is closed (on Wednesday) the little village seems like the desert.
Koki is always allegro, charming guy. Every conversation is brilliant with him, very interested [in] any news, positive, always smiling…also he was able to select [experienced] helpers for the service, and by summer (with the patio open) they make a big job in numbers of guests. Not that easy to reach with that quality!!
If I can, I go there even more than one time a day. Formidable!”
Jeffrey Chilcott, Marchesi di Grésy (Barbaresco)
“Always good to pass by Koki’s after work for a refreshing birretta, also some vino too! [Koki Wine Bar] is a good meeting point for sure, and a chance to catch up with what’s happening in the village and who’s in the village. Koki has become a great local figure and his solid team are quick and efficient. [He is] a key figure in helping the village as it continues to grow. Barbaresco is a central point of reference now, travelling the world by words, glasses and bottles. KAMPAI KOKI!”
Daniela Rocca, Albino Rocca (Barbaresco)
“Koki is a great person who had great courage to leave his country. For that we have a big respect for him. He has a great passion for wines and a very good knowledge. He is the kind of guy who is always smiling. We like him also because he always has new ideas about food and he has enlarged the wine list, making a big investment. All the people from Barbaresco love him.”
Silvia Altare, Elio Altare (Annunziata, Barolo)
“Koki’s place in Barbaresco is the place to go. Whether you need a coffee, a good glass of wine, or a nice dinner, Koki will guide you through his deep wine list and share his knowledge gained from years of experience in Piemonte. We need more Kokis around the region!
Chiara Boschis, E. Pira e Figli (Barolo); sentiments shared by Claudia Cigliuti, Az. Ag. F.illi Cigliuti (Barbaresco)
“Koki has great professionalism, dedication and kindness in what he does. You can feel the deep passion and respect for our land, people, wines and culture. I can tell you that he is such a good person that we all love him a lot. He [has fought] through many difficulties of his work, but he never complains and never asks [for] anything. He always just smiles warmly and make you feel special’ He is amazing!”
Carlo Deltetto, Deltetto 1953 (Canale, Roero)
“Koki is a great friend and [his wine bar] is one of my favorite places in Langhe. I’m from Roero, but when I have the chance with Paola or simply when I’m in the area just for wine deliveries, or riding my motorbike through the hills of Barbaresco, I always stop to Koki. For a quick lunch or just for a glass of wine. Why? Not just because of the quality of the food, the wine, and the beautiful location, but because of Koki. He always welcomes us with a smile, ready to share a glass of wine. I often like to ask him: give me something new, something that you like and that maybe I don’t know… and it is always a great tasting experience. I also like to share with him a new Deltetto label or vintage. His opinion is always very important for me. He has a great experience in wine tasting and, because of lots of tourist passing through Barbaresco, he knows what the people of all the world likes.
Simply, Koki is a very special guy.”
Paola Grasso, Cà del Baio (Treiso, Barbaresco)
“Koki is first a good friend of our family, second, he is one of the best ambassadors of the Barbaresco area. [Koki] is a hard worker, professional with clients and smiling and funny with children. My daughters, Lidia e Anna, love him! I think there is not one person that can talk badly of him. Sometimes I think about is culture and how it was for him before and I can definitely say his is now a true piemontese guy!”
Valentina Grasso, Cà del Baio (Treiso, Barbaresco)
“Koki is a great person and believer of our area and the Nebbiolo grape. He is always happy to welcome every person coming into his bar.”
Isabella Boffa Oddero, Poderi e Cantine Oddero (Santa Maria-La Morra, Barolo)
“Koki is a person that immediately inspires positivity, happiness, and professionalism. When you talk with him you understand that he really cares for his job, he is so respectful of the wines, and of the work of the producers of the area. He is simply the best genuine ambassador for our region! He welcomes you with a smile and knows what hospitality really means. His honesty and serenity are so special to me!”
And finally, something in Italian.
Alessandro Boido, Cà d’Gal (Santo Stefano Belbo, Monferrato)
“Io ho sempre ammirato i ragazzi come Koki sono venuti qui nelle Langhe da 10000 km per conoscere meglio la nostra terra, imparare un mestiere, oggi lui ha fatto di più e diventato un punto di riferimento per tanti momenti, e gente, che amano il vino il cibo ecc.
E un ragazzo ingamba che ha dato a Barbaresco una cosa in più che un Wine Bar, un bel posto dove trascorrere ore in compagnia in ogni momento dell’anno.
In più si è rivelato un grande amico dal cuore buono !
As Jeffrey Chilcott likes to say, “Forza Koki!”