Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado

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March 3, 2013
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Behind the Scenes: Hard work, great meals at a Piemontese wine estate

Piemonte is a well-known Italian wine region fast becoming a popular destination for traveling oenophiles. This oenophile returned to the region more than 20 times in the past 14 years. Throughout those years, I formed special friendships with several Piemontese winemaking families and forged a bond with many of the women in those families.

Following a global trend, in many of the region's wineries, women are increasingly assuming traditionally male-dominated roles. Even at the 154-year-old Gaja estate in Barbaresco, sisters Gaia and Rossana Gaja have stepped into their father Angelo's shoes in the day-to-day operations of the family business. And those are huge shoes to fill!

Eighty percent of the Italian economy is composed of small business. In turn, 90 percent of those businesses are family owned. Therefore, family dynamics impact a large segment of the country's economy. And within Italian families, the women have a strong influence over those dynamics. Hence, women have a natural place in business in Italy, particularly in the familial wine industry.

Women are the keepers of traditions in every culture. They are the nurturers. And nowhere is that more obvious than in Piemonte wine families. Unlike family-owned Napa and Sonoma wineries that continue to fall into the black hole of corporate America, most of Piemonte's wineries remain solidly in family hands. And the hands that cradle the winery families belong to its women. Women work alongside grandfathers, fathers, husbands and brothers both in the wineries and the vineyards, taking on important roles in the family business.

In some wineries, women work as managers, winemakers, chemists, vineyard workers and marketers. In others, women are behind the scenes, looking after the well-being of the entire family unit that often spans several generations. But there are those where the women do both.

One of those multigenerational families with multitasking women is the Grasso family, of Azienda Agricola Ca' del Baio in Treiso. The family's wine-industry roots were planted in the rich soil of the Barbaresco appellation in 1880. Today, four generations of Grassos rely on the winery for their subsistence.

One hundred years ago, winemaker and proprietor Giulio Grasso would have seen the birth of three daughters - and no sons - as a heavy burden. However, as products of a modern society that has expanded opportunities for women, the three Grasso daughters, Paola, Valentina and Federica, are taking up their father's mantel, joining him in the winery. Already, the fourth generation has sprouted. Lidia Deltetto, Paola and winemaker husband Carlo's daughter, joined three other living generations of both families in February 2012.

I met the oldest Grasso daughter, Paola, during the early years of the millennium. She was fresh out of Scuola Enologica di Alba and launching her nascent career. Or perhaps I should say "official" oenological career. Like sons and daughters across Piemonte, Paola and her sisters had been working for years learning firsthand the art of winemaking from their father. Already Paola had a wine as bright and fresh as she named for her, Barbera d'Alba Paolina. Like so many of her peers, Paola's command of English pushed her into the marketing realm, welcoming English-speaking clients to the winery and traveling the globe to promote the family's wines.

In recent years, Valentina Grasso joined sister Paola in the winery after her oenological studies in Alba. Today, the sisters work as oenologists with their father. Fresh from her three-month sojourn in Australia expanding her English language skills, youngest Grasso daughter and trained pastry chef, Federica, now works as a chemist at the winery.

But the Grasso daughters' job descriptions are far more expansive than that. As in many family-owned wineries, in the cellar they are involved in every stage of vinification, but in summer, they join their father in the vineyards.

You would think next to their father's work, that of the three Grasso daughters is some of the most important at Ca' del Baio. And you would be wrong. The family's home is steps away from the expansive tasting room and across the courtyard from the winery. It's there you will find mamma Luciana at work either in the kitchen or office. In my opinion, she is one of the most valuable workers within the gates of the estate. Luciana not only is nurturer, motivator and spirit of the family, but she runs the business side of the winery, too.

Whether it's arranging transportation for sales, sending invoices for shipments to far-off markets such as China or for sales in the nearby tasting room, Luciana is involved. Tracking a 140,000-bottle annual production requires someone to manage the cellar register. That falls to Luciana, as well. But her days are not just filled with paper. As nurturer, she cooks for the family, and like 65 percent of the nonni (grandparents) in Italy, Luciana helps with Lidia's day care while her parents each work in their family's wineries.

One winemaker recently told me that to make good Piemontese wine, one needs to eat good, traditional Piemontese food. Both are plentiful at Ca' del Baio. Together with her mother-in-law, Fiorentina - Nonna to everyone, including me - Luciana keeps the family well-fed. It's the ever-energetic Luciana who sees to it that everyone who crosses the Grasso threshold receives a warm welcome.

In 2008, my husband, Dani, and I spent two months in Treiso at the end of the harvest. We discovered one of the most endearing experiences a foreigner can have on an Italian wine estate: workday lunch with the family. That might not seem such an earthshaking experience, but trust me, it is.

Italians are incredibly hospitable. They will invite you to dinner at their favorite restaurants. In their tasting rooms, winemakers will share with you wines from treasured vintages paired with special treats such as their homemade salumi and crispy grissini. But to be invited for a family meal in their home is truly a moment when one can say, "I have been accepted."

Walking into the Grassos' home was like entering a time machine and finding myself in my Sicilian grandmother's kitchen in New Orleans. All Italian kitchens have that same warm, hospitable feeling that says, "This is where life happens." Given its importance in the family routine, the large combination kitchen and dining room opens directly to the courtyard and is steps from the tasting room. House with office, tasting room, winery and cellar, nestled in the vineyards, are all within shorts steps of each other, making Luciana's job of administering the winery, looking out for everyone and pitching in where needed easy.

Lunch is a big meal in Piemonte, dinner usually lighter. The work is hard, so hardy lunches are needed, particularly in the damp autumn. Everyone, including Nonno (grandfather) Ernesto Grasso, joins at the table for the midday feast.

Having enjoyed more than 300 meals in Piemonte, I can truly say that family meal shared in the Grasso home was one of the most enjoyable. Although the specific details of what we ate and drank have dimmed with time, the warmth and love experienced on that day will never fade.

Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Mar 4, 2013 08:32PM Published Mar 3, 2013 10:26PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.