Suzanne Hoffman: The Unsung Heroines Behind Piemonte's Wine

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Suzanne Hoffman Suzanne Hoffman

Suzanne Hoffman, writer, blogger, and born storyteller, captures the fading memories and incredible tales of the women in winemaking families of the Langhe and Roero.

Twenty or thirty years ago, cellphone cameras did not capture every moment of the day to share with several hundred digital friends on one social network or another; and the stories told by Piemonte would have differed wildly from the selfies and status updates of today. Indeed, there may have been very few people with a spare minute or a free, clean hand to take a photo.

Suzanne Hoffman, writer for the Vail Daily in Colorado and on her blog, recognized the bounty of incredible stories in Piemonte’s past, tales passed on solely by word of mouth and slowly fading with time. Her own interests in the wines of Piemonte were nurtured by nearly 30 years of expat life in Switzerland and travels to Piemonte for 15 years, which led her to form long-lasting friendships with many wine families. Forgotten histories began to emerge; overall, she was fascinated by stories told by and about the women, enough to fill a book (or several), yet recorded by no one.

Over 60 hours of interviews and many weeks of travel later, Suzanne has begun to write her first book. “I’ve been writing updates of these women’s stories on my blog, and people are already captivated by their courage.”

Today, we all have an easier time of telling our stories. Suzanne is helping those who never had the chance to tell theirs, but whose histories have formed the Langhe and Roero and the wine families living in the hills today.

What was the moment that motivated you to write about the women in Piemonte?

I can put my finger right on it: I was with Giovanna Rizzolio at Cascina delle Rose, where I stayed when we first started coming to Piemonte. One day over an afternoon caffè, we started talking about Piemontese women, and she told me incredible stories of her grandmother. Talk about being a salmon swimming upstream. I asked Giovanna, “Have you written these stories down?” and she replied, “No, they’re just passed on.” At that moment, I knew how important it was to save these stories; and I became aware that women were never visible in the wine world, though they had very important roles, even acting as their husbands’ business partners.

I also realized that there is now a major transition going on, because the women are beginning to inherit the wineries. Take, for example, Giulio Grasso of Ca’ del Baio today. Forty to fifty years ago, Giulio’s three daughters would not have been able to inherit the winery. It would have gone to one of their husbands or been sold.

Is this transition happening now?

This generation is the realization of the change. There are some key ladies who have blazed the trails, like Chiara Boschis, Livia Fontana, and Giovanna Rizzolio. They don’t see themselves as feminist role models, but they want all young people to look to them for advice and encouragement.

Wine is all about the experience. It’s not about the rating, or what you’re drinking in the glass right now, but what it took to get it into that glass.

In your book, will you have a particular theme that ties these women together?

Giulia of Barolo: she is the story, while everything else is her legacy.

Sometimes I get emotional thinking about her, because she’s larger than life and yet no one has told her story. Many of the women who are her legacy don’t know who she really was, other than describing her as saint-like. In fact, she is under review for beatification at the Vatican. I came to Piemonte not just to finalize some interviews, but to be comfortable with how my book was to come together, and Giulia has become the thread that ties everything together.

What would you like the effect of your book to be on your readers?

I want my readers to be curious to learn more about Piemonte. And, I want to help preserve the stories of the hardships that brought them to this place, to appreciate the hard work that generations of these women have gone through – the hardships that enabled them to get on a plane, and fly to Hong Kong and New York City to promote their wines today. It didn’t just happen overnight, especially for the women. I want people to become curious about their own past, and share them with their children, friends, and clients so that it becomes part of the story of their wineries, something they’re happy to tell visitors right away.

Some of their stories make me wonder what today’s generation would do if they found themselves in the same situation – without anything. Could they survive? I hope when people read about women like the one chicken dowry lady, they’ll think, “Yeah, I can survive. I’ll get through this.” And it will give people motivation, perspective, and hope; because I don’t think this generation really knows the deprivation and hardships these people lived through in the past.

Giulia of Barolo is the story, while everything else is her legacy.

If I had to use one word to explain what I want to happen with my book, it would be “curiosity.” I want my readers curious, and I want the women and men and all the families here to be curious so that they’ll keep reading, coming back, and asking questions. I just want to be the first domino.

Therein lies our opportunity as communicators. The world today is a scary place: we’re bombarded with problems that are happening all over the world, every day. Things happen so fast, and the news cycle is so short. I think people look to find pleasure in consistency, and they find pleasure in looking at tradition that’s being kept alive. Being communicators, we can be the window to the world of this in Piemonte. 

I’ve got to ask…what is the one chicken dowry story?

It almost sounds like a children’s story [laughs]. Esterina, who today works for Mauro Veglio’s family,was so poor her dowry was a single chicken. When she married, she and her husband Umberto Pongibue sold the eggs and bought rabbits. They must have bought two, because then they sold the rabbit meat and bought a cow. With the cow, they made cheese, and with the money from the cheese, they eventually bought a house. What came first, the chicken or the egg? I think the chicken!

I want people to become curious about their own past, and share them with their children, friends, and clients so that it becomes part of the story of their wineries.

There has been a growing interest in this region and in its food and wine lately. How will your book differ from what is already in print, and what is being written currently?

There are many wine and food books about Piemonte, which are certainly very important; and within them are many narrative stories. But the stories are always about the men, and they’re always wine- or food-centric. I’m not diminishing their importance, because they certainly are: food and wine are around which everything happens. But people are not a reflection of it. Rather, the wine and the food are a manifestation of that culture. So I’m leaving it to the experts to pick apart the wine and food, and instead I’m sharing the experience of it all, not exactly what’s on the plate or in the glass.

Wine is so dependent on the human factor anyway, and it is all about the experience. It’s not about the rating, or what you’re drinking in the glass right now, but what it took to get it into that glass. Marie Teresa Mascarello told me, “Wine holds many different values, not just money.” I’m just writing a tiny part of the story.

Last modified onTuesday, 17 June 2014 14:11
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