But despite not having the photo, I did get to write the story the photo tells thanks to Chiara’s generosity with her time and memories.
Here’s an excerpt about the connection between the Franco Boschis and the historic Borgogno families, and how it came to be, from Chapter 2 — Boschis — of Labor of Love. (Note: WordPress has it’s own mind about hyphenation. Not as it was originally in the book).
But first, to provide readers with a roadmap of the family — an idea of my editor, Elatia Harris, and something lovers of the stories repeatedly thank me for — the genealogy of the Boschis family.
I had already discovered it was impossible to talk about recent history in Piemonte without World War II figuring large. In 1943, before the German occupation of Piemonte, Chiara’s mother, Ida Chiavassa, bicycled from her home in Bra, south across the Tanaro River, to Barolo to visit her paternal aunt, Maria Chiavassa Borgogno, the wife of the winemaker Cesare Borgogno. As she proceeded along the journey, with steep inclines and twisting roads, the closer she got to her aunt and uncle’s estate, the angrier she became. It was common in those days for young girls to help wealthy relatives in their homes. The 16-year-old was not at all happy about the prospects of leaving her home, her sisters, her friends, and, most of all, her first love. Little did Ida know, the long bike ride led to something much more enduring than long hours of work and loneliness.
After the Germans occupied Piemonte, the Allies began to bomb the region. Travel across the Tanaro River became dangerous, so Ida remained in Barolo. And she never returned to Bra, not for good. Shortly after Ida arrived, a young man who had experienced his own disappoint-ments in life began working for the Borgognos. The times were tough economically and had dashed Franco Boschis’s dream of oenological school. He had to go to work. Fate took him to Borgogno.
Franco was delighted to see someone his age at the winery, particularly a pretty young woman. Ida, still fuming about her fate, paid no attention to the handsome young man. But as time passed, and more men left for war, then to the cities afterward, they became friends. In time, a romance blossomed and Ida and Franco married. Chiara told me, “My football-playing father claims it was his ‘nice legs’ that she first noticed.” Whatever it was, as soon as Ida turned her back on Bra, a future in Barolo materialized. That future involved wine and a daughter who would become world-renowned for her oenological prowess.
Ida’s uncle Cesare was the seventh generation of the Borgogno family to own and operate the historic winery, founded in 1761, on the outskirts of Barolo. Cesare’s acquisition of the winery deviated from the usual patriarchal inheritance, with the firstborn male inheriting the family’s property. Born in 1900, Cesare was the youngest child and third son of Giacomo and Giulia Borgogno. In Cesare’s 11th year of life, his father died. His elder brothers lacked interest in the wine business, but one of them helped his mother run the winery until Cesare assumed its management nine years later. His wife, Ida’s aunt, and Chiara’s great aunt, Maria Chiavassa Borgogno, took the traditional women’s task of working behind the scenes in the winery.
Chiara then told me a story that defined her uncle. I was riveted to learn about Cesare Borgogno and his 1935 vintage Barolo. In 1944, during the occupation, the Germans and their equally brutal Fascist allies terrorized — I use the word advisedly — the population of Piemonte. On June 30, 1944, three trucks filled with German soldiers lost their way to Bra. They mistakenly took the road to Barolo and stopped near the Borgogno estate. A group of partisan resistance fighters spotted the trucks, shot at and wounded several German soldiers, and vanished into the countryside. The Germans retreated, but only after driving into Barolo to open fire on the castle and on homes throughout the village. Fortunately, the locals had run for cover.
Two days later in a convoy of trucks and armored cars, the Germans returned and charged the Borgogno family with complicity in the partisans’ attack. It took them very little time to root out the entire 1935 vintage — 240 large wooden crates of 50 bottles each, cached mostly at Cantina Canonica. Only one crate was hidden at the Borgogno estate.
It was well known that throughout occupied wine regions across Europe, German soldiers would plant evidence in cellars as a pretext for confiscating wine as spoils of war. The Germans claimed to have found a gun in the cellar of the Borgogno winery and helped them-selves to copious amount of Barolo, breaking everyone’s heart at the mistreatment of so precious a wine. The entire vintage went to Turin with the Germans.
Accompanied by the pastor of the Catholic Church in Barolo, Cesare left for Turin, the German headquarters, in hopes of retrieving his wine. On the way to the city, Cesare and the priest stopped at the Lancia automobile factory in Chivasso to enlist the help of a former client of Cesare’s. Wine lover Giorgio Eggstein was no Nazi, but he held a position of authority in the German army. Eggstein accompanied the priest and winemaker to Turin. While there, Cesare encountered young male prisoners from Barolo accused of being partisans and destined for German work camps. It was a fate tanta-mount to a death sentence. Believing Cesare had come to their rescue, the prisoners rejoiced. But Cesare had come to save wine, not people. The commandant declared the wines were confiscated as spoils of war, not stolen booty as Cesare claimed. He offered Cesare a solution.
He would impose a tax on all of Barolo’s inhabitants in exchange for the wines. Cesare refused. Instead, rising to the full implications of the crisis, he bargained for the prisoners in exchange for the wine. The commandant agreed. An entire vintage in return for a few young lives — Cesare saw the right thing to do, and did it.
Cancer robbed Barolo of Cesare Borgogno in 1968. His marriage to Maria Chiavassa produced no male heirs, so Maria and Cesare’s niece Ida, and her husband, Franco Boschis, assumed control of the winery, continuing the Borgogno family ownership. Over time, Franco and Ida’s sons Cesare and Giorgio joined their parents at Borgogno. The Boschis family eventually bought out the other ownership interests in the winery and began much-needed improvements to compete with the burgeoning number of new Barolo wineries. In 2008, Franco and Ida sold Borgogno to the epicurean entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti and his son, Francesco, ending generations of family ownership. The famed winery would endure, but in the hands of another family.
Meanwhile, Chiara Boschis had come of age.
Personally inscribed and signed copies of my award-winning book, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, that explores the life and times of 22 Piemontese wine families can be found on this website. The book is also available on Amazon.
Vail Symposium goes beyond the bottle
with the Chiara Boschis
Suzanne Hoffman, author of award-winning “Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte,” will moderate the event
VAIL, Colo. – June 30, 2017 – There are few liquids more complex than wine. Each bottle of wine is unique, reflecting the terroir in which it was grown, the process in which it was made and the people who watched over it every step of the way. On Tuesday, July 11, guests will be able to go beyond the story that is told on the wine label and hear, firsthand, from Chiara Boschis, one of the Piemonte’s region’s most fascinating winemakers.
Barolo winemaker Chiara Boschis’ family history is as deep and rich as the soil in which her grapes grow. It includes a riveting story involving the German occupation of Piemonte, Italy during World War II and, later, the exchange of young prisoners from Barolo for an entire vintage of a precious wine.
Suzanne Hoffman, author of award-winning Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, has come to know Boschis well through the writing of her book and her visits to the region. As Hoffman leads the conversation, Boschis will talk about the deep history of her family, her winery and her own growth as a farmer, a defender of nature, a winemaker and a daughter. This is a rare opportunity to have a very personalized interaction with one of the leading vintners in the world.
“Personally, I want people to see a real winemaker, a farmer as she delights in saying, not a pop culture version that we see on TV and in magazines,” Hoffman said. “I want people to hear directly from this vibrant, passionate woman what it takes to balance the demands of the global wine market, which means traveling frequently and also welcoming clients to Barolo; the day-to-day operations of the winery cellar and the vineyards and the job she loves the most, caring for her 90-year-old father, revered Barolo vintner, Franco Boschis.”
Boschis is widely recognized as one of the first women producers in Barolo, although she comes from eight generations of winemakers. In 1981, the Boschis family acquired the E. Pira e Figli estate, occupying some of the most prestigious land in Barolo. In 1990, Chiara Boschis took over the operation on her own, bringing dedication, charm, patience and determination to every aspect of production in order to raise the quality and image of the winery to that which it enjoys today. In 2010, her younger brother Giorgio joined her, contributing a wealth of experience both in the vineyards as well as in the cellar.
“My goal is to introduce Chiara through my Q&A with her, but then to open up the floor for questions from the audience,” Hoffman said. “She can talk the legs off a coffee table — people hang on to every word she says — and she will love interacting with the audience. People will not want this to end. I also want people to leave with a deep appreciation of the hard work and manual labor that goes into producing a bottle of wine.”
As a winemaker, Boschis is a master of balance, crafting finessed and sophisticated wines that are some of the most aromatically dynamic expressions of Barolo today. But she is a farmer first, dedicating herself to the philosophy that quality begins in the vineyard where her impact on the environment is greatest.
“This program provides a wonderful opportunity for our community to get up close and personal with Chiara and hear her story,” said Kris Sabel, executive director of the Vail Symposium. “So often these events are wine tasting dinners which, while satisfying, can be quite expensive and focus more on the individual wines and food pairings than on the personal story of the winemaker, her love of the land and history of the people who have been creating amazing wine for centuries.”
The doors will open at 6:30 p.m. and feature a reception where attendees can purchase and sample Boschis’s wine. After the program, Boschis and Hoffman will be signing copies of Hoffman’s award-winning book, “Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte” will be on sale at a special price of $48 (regular retail price is $55) plus tax with $5 of every purchase benefitting the Vail Symposium.
If you go…
What: Beyond the Bottle
With: Barolo winemaker Chiara Boschis; moderated by Suzanne Hoffman, author of “Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte”
Cost: $25 online before 2 p.m. on the day of the event, $35 at the door, $10 students and teachers
More info: Visit www.VailSymposium.orgor call 970.476.0954 to register. Attendees should utilize public parking structures. Summer parking is free in the Vail and Lionshead parking structures.
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About Vail Symposium
Over the past 45 years, the Vail Symposium has touched thousands of lives with its rich and varied history. Created in 1971, the Symposium was conceived by community leaders to create ideas and goals, attracting not only the majority of townsfolk but also policy shapers from across the state and nation. Throughout the years we have diversified and expanded our scope with a dedication to education and cultural programs which provide lifelong learning opportunities for everyone who lives in or visits our community. The Vail Symposium is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Media Contact: Katie Coakley
Gastronome Extra is the seasonal online magazine of the United States bailliage (chapter) of the international gastronomic society Chaine des Rotisseurs. The centuries old organization that King Louis IX — St. Louis — founded in 1248 as a guild of goose roasters is a premiere gastronomic organization that promotes culinary and oenological education and camaraderie at the table, something much-needed these days. From its inception, the Chaine served as a vehicle to develop and preserve culinary techniques.
The Chaine was resurrected in Paris in 1950 after two world wars that decimated the French food and wine industries, and a 200-year hiatus due to the French Revolution when guilds fell out of favor — an understatement. Today, the modern Chaine consists of over 25,000 passionate supporters of fine dining and protectors of the culinary arts in over 80 countries, including the United States.
The cover of Gastronome Extra’s summer issue features Elisabetta Vacchetto’s beautiful photo of Barolo living legend Chiara Boschis. Open up the magazine and on page 11 you’ll find a glowing review of my book, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, the cover of which Chiara’s hands grace.
Note — one correction in the Gastronome Extra! article — we did not sell out the first printing. We had to reduce the first run by 1,000 books when we chose to print in Italy, so we ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund that 1,000. In less than three months since publication, we sold well over half of the first edition, a large number of books considering our constraints as an indie publisher, but it is incorrect to say we sold out the first edition. See the Labor of Love Kickstarter campaign for further details.
The book and Labor of Love’s wine families will be the focus of several upcoming wine-book pairing events in California, Colorado, and Louisiana. These events will feature wines from the wine families in the book, foods of the region, and book reading and signing with a healthy dose of spirited conversation about this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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.
I met Barolo winemaker and nature lover, Chiara Boschis, on a research trip to Piemonte in March 2013. One of the first woman wine producers in the Langhe, Chiara is the proprietor and winemaker of E. Pira e Figli, a 30,000 bottle annual production winery in Barolo.
In that first interview, she told me the intriguing story of the Des Martin ethical project in Castelmagno, a commune high in the Valle Grana in western Piemonte.
In 2007, Chiara and nine others, including her brother, Cesare Boschis, embarked on a mission to procure and renovate a portion of Valliera, an abandoned timberline hamlet in the commune. Their goal: resurrect Valliera to preserve a dying cheese making tradition.
The project embodies Chiara’s passionate dedication to honoring nature and preserving tradition. The intersection of her enthusiasm for the project and my love of the cheese prompted me to ask her to take my husband and me to Valliera for a firsthand experience. Chiara promised to do so. Chiara makes no empty promises. Early in the morning on the last day of June 2013, our exploration of this bit of history began.
Not really a day of rest
Three months of relentless rain and cold nights stymied Piemonte’s vines in the early growing season. However, two weeks of warm sunshine in early June coaxed tendrils to reach for the sky and begin their summer grape-making chore. Developing vines demand attention and already Chiara had her own chores in the vineyards. Nevertheless, she willingly dedicated her Sunday to guide us on a unique mountain adventure few visitors – and locals – have experienced.
It certainly wasn’t a “day off” for Chiara. Truth is I’m not certain if such a thing exists for someone easily described as “The Energizer Bunny of Wine.” She volunteered to drive to Valliera, nearly two hours to the west of Barolo. Given her pickup was more suited for the rough mountain roads to the alpeggio than our low-to-the-ground rental car, I ceded driving responsibilities to her.
Chiara’s longtime Belgian friends, Willy and Marie Therese Van Riel, joined us at her winery in Barolo early that morning. For the past 17 years, the Van Riels have returned to Piemonte at least twice a year. This was their first trip into the Occitane valleys that lie along Italy’s western, alpine border. Together, we piled into the double cab pickup like excited kids on a field trip.
Traversing Varying Landscapes
Piemonte consists of three geographically distinct areas – mountains, plains and hills. Our drive west at Chiara’s leisurely pace – unusual for a Piemontese under the age of 80 – took us through all three. First, we drove along winding roads through rolling, vineyard carpeted hills in the southern reaches of the Barolo appellation. The lush, green canopies were in stark contrast to the barren vines of winter and spring, and vibrant gold and yellow leaves of autumn I’m used to seeing.
Soon, the hills were behind us as we reached the flatland between the Langhe and mountains. Here, instead of grapevines, the earth nourishes crops such as fruits, particularly apples and kiwis, vegetables and Cuneo’s famous climbing beans. Chiara gave us a lesson in all the crops, the increasing climate change issues, particularly hail, and the history of the region’s many frescoed churches and chapels. This really was a school field trip! Like sponges, we absorbed Chiara’s wisdom and knowledge.
Earlier, as we drove across the plain, Chiara pointed out churches and chapels that house frescoes painted by 15th century artists who roamed from town to town. The wealthy House of Savoy ruled the region from the 11th century until the end of the Italian monarchy in June 1946. The noble family commissioned artists from Italy, France and beyond creating what today is a fresco museum of sorts spread across Piemonte. The chapel of S. Sebastiano is one of those hidden-in-plain-sight gems.
Located steps away from the busy road, adjacent to a cemetery, the chapel’s nondescript exterior belies the art treasure that adorns its ceiling. Only a simple sign on a tilting post provided hints of the chapel’s significance.
Pietro da Saluzzo was one of the prolific traveling Renaissance artists. We peeked through the large viewing window cut into the exterior wall and marveled at his incredibly detailed and well-preserved fresco, described by some as “remarkable and witty.” It was a bit surrealistic viewing this five century-old painting while standing beside a road, with cows grazing nearby. This is what I love about Italy. Not all its treasures are locked away in traditional museums. Had Chiara not stopped there, my ignorance of Piemonte’s Renaissance fresco painters would still exist.
The field trip continued as we piled back into the truck and continued our drive along the Grana River. Chiara was now on a mission. Next stop, a small bakery where sought-after baguettes are baked daily.
Two Baguettes, Cheese and a Smile
This bakery – sorry, didn’t get the name – is legendary for its crusty baguettes, an unusual bread in Italy, no doubt a result of French influence in the valley under the Savoys. Buying one, however, is challenging.
As we approached, people leaving the shop clutched their treasured baguettes and glanced sideways as though suspicious we would snatch their bread.
Chiara was not only determined to buy baguettes for a late morning snack at our destination, but to coax a smile from the aged, rotund and rather grumpy woman who ran the shop. Smiling is something Chiara has mastered. Her throaty laugh combined with her broad smile that easily spreads across her face, could make anyone grin. Except this woman.
Chiara pleaded with her to sell us two baguettes. It wasn’t an easy task since the day’s allotment of this caviar of bread was dwindling fast. I couldn’t quite understand the exchange between Chiara and the guardian of the bread, but whatever she said worked. We scored two loaves, but no smile.
Delicious, crispy bread with a somewhat salty crust deserves something very special to go with it. Since we were in the land of one of the most revered cheeses in Italy, Castelmagno was a no-brainer choice for Chiara to add to her bread purchase.
As we climbed back into the truck, Chiara offered a loaf to us to try. It was still warm. Had we turned around and driven back to Barolo, the drive for the bread and cheese would have been worth it. However, waiting up the valley were more delights to tickle our senses.
Walk, Don’t Drive
In late autumn 2008, Dani and I explored Castelmagno’s villages. Therefore, when we began climbing the excruciatingly narrow and steep road to Colletto, the tight 180-degree switchbacks didn’t worry me. Well, at first that is.
The truck’s poor turning radius and difficult gearbox weren’t suited for the road. Chiara had to turn, shift gears, roll backward, shift, and turn again to navigate the tight switchbacks. The flimsy metal-pipe guardrail offered no solace to the terrified. Remember, I told you the road’s steep. Little did I know, this was child’s play compared to what awaited us between Colletto and Valliera.
As we reached the tiny, cliff-side village of Colletto, I finally exhaled. My easy breathing and lowering heart rate lasted all of 10 seconds. We began the final climb up the rocky, even narrower and steeper road – if that was possible – through the forest to Valliera. Cows and herders walk this road twice a year. Now we were driving it. I vowed to walk down, if we made it up.
Taking the metaphorical high road is often fraught with perils. The real ones can be risky, too. The steep gravel road with sharp turns and switchbacks was just that, risky. I trusted Chiara with her dogged determination and experience with the road, but my fear of heights plagued me.
Although I sat in the front passenger seat, I thought perhaps the back of the pickup may have suited me better, preferably under a blanket with my eyes squeezed shut. The lovely view ahead through the thick forest captivated us, but it was the absence of any road to my right and the sheer drop down the tree-lined mountainside that opened the door for fear to creep in.
“Don’t look,” I kept telling myself. Unfortunately, the plunging landscape mesmerized me. Chiara tried reassuring us that we weren’t really high up. Given the valley floor was 1,500 feet below, down the near vertical mountainside, I found no solace in her words. The chicken in me would not rest.
Finally, we were out of the forest. Valliera appeared like the Emerald City. As we parked in a clearing above Valliera, I released my death grip on the door handle and took my first easy breath since we left the valley floor.
In the distance, we could see tiny Colletto far below. Through breaks in the forest, I could see the steep road we traveled. Chiara jumped out and quickly set up an aperativo of Italy’s holy trinity – bread, cheese and wine.
The scrumptious late morning snack consisted of the crispy, slightly salty baguettes from the frowning lady’s shop, soft, flaky Castelmagno cheese and a bottle of Chiara’s own exquisite Dolcetto d’Alba. It beat any tailgate party I’d experienced.
Torino’s Siren Song
As we stood savoring Chiara’s treats, I felt haunted as I looked down at the ghostly hamlet Des Martin is bringing to life and thought of the centuries-old mountain culture that came to an abrupt halt in the 1950s and 60s.
For countless generations, the inhabitants of these high mountain hamlets tended their cows, sheep, goats and gardens in the summer and, with the animals, retreated indoors when the snows arrived. They made good use of the long, solitary winters. While barricaded in the hamlet until the spring thaw, they whiled away the hours repairing tools and making furniture. It wasn’t an easy life.
In the 1950s and 60s, the lure of jobs at Fiat and promises of the good life prompted mountain dwellers to abandon their villages and head for Piemonte’s capital, Torino. People simply took what little they needed, left the rest and fled their alpeggio life for the unknown – but promised – riches of the city. Valliera, like other hamlets in the Castelmagno commune, was abandoned.
For five decades, the abandoned hamlet endured Mother Nature’s high country winter wrath on its own. When the members of the Des Martin consortium arrived, the hamlet, though decaying, was mountain life frozen in time.
Tattered, moth-eaten clothes still hung in closets. Empty plates lay on tables. Stained, musty mattresses were on rickety beds. Chiara likens the exodus to the California Gold Rush when people abandoned lives they knew for promises of riches in a different world. They simply vanished, blending into Torino’s population.
For an hour, we explored the dwellings before arriving at Des Martin’s renovated buildings – modern on the inside, rustic on the outside – that housed the consortium’s living and cheese production quarters.
Cheesemaker Ilaria Tomatis was busy draining forms of wet cheese.
We popped our heads into the two refrigerated rooms where 5-kilogram blocks of precious alpeggio cheese were aging. The short, five-month season yields 500 forms of Castelmagno. Obviously, much more is needed for economic viability. However, for now, the owners are content with saving the hamlet and starting up the operation.
By 1:00, Chiara ended her intriguing guided tour of the Des Martin project. It was lunchtime!
Finding Refuge at the Table
Huts of all sorts dot the high mountain landscape throughout the Alps. In Italy, rifugi alpini (Alpine shelters) provide resting spots for trekkers across the mountains. Rifugio Valliera provided us a place to sit and enjoy a typical Occitania lunch al fresco.
At the long picnic table, we joined Flavia Arneodo, manager of the Rifugio, Ilaria, Flavia’s father Piero, workers and Des Martin’s cow herder. It was a feast!
As with every Italian meal, antipasti were set out on wooden boards – frittata, lardo, and salami with the obligatory grissini. Travel in Piemonte is not a time to watch your cholesterol. Besides, this was fresh food, free of chemicals.
Small pitchers of house Dolcetto were set out, but Chiara produced another bottle from her cellar – Barbera d’Alba. What can I say about her wines other than each one, even those from the humblest grapes, is stellar?
First course was salsiccia with fresh tomato sauce over polenta, the starch of choice for meat in Piemonte. On the table were plates heaped with Gorgonzola and creamy, fresh butter to add to the dish, as though additions were needed. What the heck? Cheese is one of my favorite food sins so I happily sinned on the region’s famous soft blue cheese.
Flavia then offered gnocchi with a rich, creamy fonduta of Castelmagno. This was an epicurean no-brainer. Despite having gorged myself on salsiccia, a meal in Castelmagno is incomplete without the most typical of dishes – gnocchi with a silky sauce of melted Casltemagno. It’s really a splendid dish that, despite what you may think, is not heavy. It was as though we’d come upon the pot of culinary gold at the end of the rainbow.
Dessert of crostada and panna cotta perfectly punctuated the meal. Cost of this feast? A whopping $15 per person. Just the view and the delightful ambience of sharing a meal with the locals were worth far more.
It was now time to say our good-byes and head down the road. The wine had done nothing to assuage my fears, so my husband Dani and Marie Therese Van Riel joined me for the steep hike down to Colletto. Chiara tried, but failed to convince Marie Therese’s husband, Willy, to drive the truck down so she could walk. Hiking gave me a chance to safely view the steep drop from the narrow road. Just as scary walking as driving, but the awe I felt gazing at the splendid vistas quickly replaced my fears.
Marie Therese perfectly stated the experience of visiting Valliera with Chiara and those dedicated to preserving this cultural gem, “It was an exclusive experience money could not buy.” Chiara mentioned we were probably the last to see the buildings as they were left decades ago. Renovation continued all summer during which time the ghostly remains of clothes, furniture and bedding were removed.
The high road we had taken lead us back to Chiara’s cellar. Sipping her beautiful wines while she wove stories about their production was the perfect finish to an intriguing day.
Chiara and her brother, Cesare Boschis, who is director of Des Martin, possess an infectious passion for the project. Their vision is for Des Martin to have both cheese-making and lodging facilities, making it an agriturismo experience connecting old with new. I can’t wait to check in, but I think I’ll walk up next time.
Note: Des Martin’s agriturismo at Rifugio Valliera is scheduled to open in August 2014. Stay tuned for more details on these lodgings in the sky.
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.
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.