On a recent trip to Piemonte, I researched the under-discovered world of Piemontese women. After 35 hours interviewing women of three generations at nine different wineries, I worried the picture was incomplete. Everyone - men and women - had been so generous with their time. But I felt there was something missing. When I pressed the loud buzzer at E. Pira e Figli in Barolo and Chiara Boschis opened the centuries-old wooden door, I realized the final piece of the puzzle was in front of me.
I uncovered this gem of a contact three days earlier during a chance discussion with Maurilio Chiappetto over lunch at his wonderful restaurant, La Cantinetta, in Barolo. After telling Chiapetto about my Piemontese odyssey, he asked me if I had met Boschis. I was embarrassed to say I had never heard of her. Yes, I knew the name of this famous winemaking family in its ninth generation in Barolo, but her name was new to me.
The ever-helpful and gregarious Chiappetto took me up the street in the cold misty rain to make the introduction. Unfortunately, her brother Giorgio informed us she was in Britain. My email to her that evening drew an immediate response. We were to meet in three days upon her return to Barolo.
Tuesday afternoon, when the air still was unseasonably moist and cold, more akin to November than Easter, I once again rang the buzzer that could wake up the dead. Although I had researched her, nothing really prepared me for this moment. I quickly discovered I was meeting the designer of the haute couture of Piemonte wines.
The door burst open and before me was a petite, smiling woman in leggings and a skirt, all bundled up in a puffy coat. I was standing there in jeans with a light, powder blue sweater and T-shirt, freezing. Of course, for some reason admitting it seemed out of the question to me. I live in the Rockies after all.
Boschis greeted me as she would a long lost friend. Here before me was a woman who had successfully staked out her territory in the male-dominated world of Barolo and about whom many laudatory articles had been written. But immediately I could see she was no wine diva. There was no period of uncomfortable formalities, only a warm two-handed handshake 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.
Boschis' subterranean world
The conversation flowed effortlessly as we descended the steep stairs into the maze of subterranean rooms in the centuries-old winery. I was thrilled when we entered the warm barrel room where the humidifier had turned the space into a mild sauna. The ethereal affect of the low level lights shining up through the fog at the groin-vaulted ceiling gave the space a timeless feeling.
As we walked through the storage rooms, she described the endless process of renovation that began when she took over the winery. Boschis had just removed barrels from the smaller, mold-covered brick room, but the humidity trapped the earthy smell of wood and wine. The red and blue clay of one uncovered wall gave a window into the geological history of the area, providing a subterranean glimpse at the appellation's treasured soil.
Further underground is an area where Boschis keeps bottles in reserve to be released to restaurants and special clients when the wines reach their peak at about 10 years after the vintage. Approximately 10 percent of her production is reserved in her cellar and at la Banca del Vino - "wine bank" - at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo. It's a project run by Slow Food to collect the best Italian wines for drinking at their peak.
Boschis opened her "wine account" with her 2001 vintage and still laments she did not reserve more of that memorable vintage.
Boschis is a strong supporter of the program, as she is of anything that gives the future a look into the past. Although her "heart bleeds" when these old bottles are finally opened, her "soul is joyful" with the emotion of sharing old vintages with family, friends and clients.
A woman to the rescue
In 1980, Luigi Pira died. He was the last male heir of the renowned centuries-old E. Pira e Figli winery in Barolo. At Boschis' 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 zone, and the winery would become the launching pad of Boschis' career.
A sidebar is relevant here. In my research, I discovered the birth of Piemontese farmers' daughters was once considered "due di picchi" (a worthless bad hand at cards). Family-owned wineries died when no male heir was present to take over. But in the case of Pira, it was a woman with the help of her open-minded father who saved the winery from extinction. Boschis not only had the opportunity to save a great wine label, but to create her own stellar brand.
Although she attended the University of Torino, Boschis' degree in Latin didn't prepare her to be a farmer. Let's face it, you can dress it up all you want, but winemakers are farmers. And the Piemontese winemakers are proud to say so. It was on-the-job experiences spanning a lifetime that prepared her to successfully assume control of the operation in 1990.
New generation, new philosophy
Boschis poetically described her winemaking philosophy with words such as "joy," "passion" and "love" garnishing her language. The biggest change in her generation was not only the 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 percent of the process. The other 20 percent is in the cellar. It's logical that without the best fruit possible, nothing in the cellar will change mediocre grapes into stellar wines.
Boschis was one of the first to conduct a green harvest - crop thinning - in Barolo. If done correctly, as Boschis does, the process of cutting shoots and bunches during the growing season produces quality over yield. She strongly believes quality cannot be achieved when the vine is 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.
Boschis is very much married to the land. With brother Giorgio, who left Borgogno and joined her at Pira in 2010, she makes beautiful, award-winning wines. Brother Cesare also left Borogono and now works with his sister and eight others in an "ethical" project to preserve the culture and production of Castelmagno. Together, the close-knit siblings are working to ensure a bright future for Piemonte as we will see next week.
For information on E. Pira e Figli wine, contact Giuliana Imports at 303-547-6343.
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. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.