Last month, I spent the better part of a week “working the market,” as we say in the wine trade, with my friend and colleague Riikka Sukula, director of operations for Antica Casa Scarpa — or Scarpa as it’s known — in Monferrato.
Market work entails visiting current or prospective clients (known as “accounts”) accompanied by a locally based distributor and/or agent for the winery’s importer. It’s sometimes called a “ride-with” or “work-with.” And it can be as fun and exhilarating as it can be disappointing and monotonous.
As Riikka (above) and I made our way from wine shop to wine shop, restaurant to restaurant, to taste and chat with wine buyers, wine directors, and sommeliers, I had a light-bulb moment as I listened to her deliver her spiel about the winery and the wines.
Yes, Scarpa is a winery, a commercial enterprise, and the purpose and objective of our ride-with was to convince people to buy the wine.
But Scarpa is so much more than just a winery that merely grows, vinifies, and sells wines: as one of Italy’s oldest continuously running estates, it’s a genuine cultural institution and resource, a part of what the Italians like to call their “cultural patrimony” or heritage. Riikka and her colleagues, some of whom were my students at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences, aren’t just making and selling an agricultural product. They are protecting and giving new life to a cultural icon and benchmark that would otherwise be tragic to lose.
Maybe because we were working in Chicago where the famous line was first uttered (with Dan Aykroyd’s classic rendition of the Chicagoan accent), it occurred to me: they’re on a mission from God.
Although Scarpa was founded in the late 19th century by a wealthy Venetian who had married a woman from Monferrato, the winery saw its heyday when it was run by one of the greatest Italian winemakers of all time, Mario Pesce. Few in the U.S. wine trade remember that name today. And there’s a reason for that. But in the 1970s and 80s, before the renaissance of Italian wine took shape, Pesce was an unrivaled pioneer and visionary for Italian viticulture.
An insatiably curious gourmet and peerless wine connoisseur, he marshaled Scarpa’s impressive holdings in Monferrato and Langa to create some of those decades most memorable wines. When he died in 2004, following many years of debilitating illness, he was widely considered one of the last defenders and promoters of traditional-style Piedmontese wine (his passing came at the peak of the “new world” style that so many producers embraced during that decade).
I recently traded messages with the legendary Californian wine importer and retailer Darrell Corti, who was among the first to bring Pesce’s wines to the U.S. in the 80s. He reminded me how Pesce was an early champion of grapes like Ruché, Freisa, and dry-vinified Brachetto — all grapes today sought out by young wine professionals but all but forgotten even 10 years ago.
Pesce was also the creator of the first single-vineyard Barbera, the Barbera d’Asti La Bogliona. To give you an idea of the significance and import of this wine, first released from the 1975 vintage, Pesce’s good friend and fellow Barbera grower Giacomo Bologna released his first single-vineyard Barbera, Bricco dell’Uccellone, not long after. The rest is history.
Sadly, the winery was virtually abandoned after Mario’s passing. Not from a productive point of view: it continued to make its wines under the tutelage of Carlo Castino, Pesce’s nephew and keeper of his legacy. But commercially, it lacked leadership and the company’s commercial success was eclipsed by mismanagement and neglect.
Today, that’s all been turned around by the new ownership, a hands-off investor, and Riika’s excellent efforts to revive and preserve the amazing legacy that Pesce — and his vineyards — left us. Riika, an alumna of Slow Food U. and an instructor there, has been running the estate for three years now and her work is imbued by a sense of higher purpose that she shares with all the young people who work there.
I highly recommend the wines to you. They are superb and La Bogliona is, in my view, the greatest Barbera d’Asti produced today, still vinified and aged in large cask as it has been since the 1970s. The vineyard-designate Barolo and Barbaresco, also from historic parcels, are equally compelling.
But I encourage you to seek out this wonderful wines because when you taste and enjoy them, you experience and taste a piece of history, a vital link and continuity with what made Piedmont a focus of wine lovers throughout the world.
These are wines on a mission from God.
U.S.-based wine media consultant