Rivetti might still describe himself as a farmer, but the nebbiolo from the rarefied vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco has become a spectacularly lucrative cash crop. His finest wines—three Barbarescos and a Barolo—sell for more than $100 a bottle on release. He dresses like a rock star, in designer shirts and leather jackets. He drives a Mercedes. And nearly every night when he isn’t traveling, he eats at one of the growing number of Michelin-starred or similarly accomplished restaurants in the area—such as Cervere’s Antica Corona Reale da Renzo, where we’d had lunch—that use the finest ingredients, employ imaginative chefs of the highest order, serve the wine-making community and well-heeled tourists, and never could have existed here before now.
But as often happens when something is gained, something else has been lost. Pio Boffa is Rivetti’s antithesis: a fourth-generation proprietor of a winery called Pio Cesare that does its best to resist the call to modernity. Boffa is just four years older than Rivetti, yet he dresses like a European of another time, with supple loafers buffed to a shine and sweater vests worn over striped shirts. "How you dress is important," he says. "You see kids today looking like…if I saw them in the middle of the night, I’d be scared."
Once upon a time, Boffa himself was regarded as a revolutionary. A 1982 clipping from Wine Spectator anointing him as such adorns a wall in the Pio Cesare winery, where both Boffa and his mother were born. Boffa was among the first in the area to ferment his wine in stainless steel; among the first to moderate the time it spent in contact with the skins, thereby limiting the amount of tannin that would be transmitted; and among the first to obsess about cleanliness in his winery—and, by extension, in his wines. He spent time in Napa with Robert Mondavi, living at his house for several months.
But now Boffa stands as a guardian of a dying tradition. He believes the wines that Rivetti and the others are making taste too much like wines from all over the world. This doesn’t make them bad so much as improper for a region that has something singular to offer. "There are so many areas that make wine that is approachable, easy to drink," he says. "I don’t want to be one of those."
Boffa bemoans much of the modernization he sees around him. "We have made progress," he says, "but I think in many ways we’ve lost our integrity. We have made lots of mistakes, in terms of following too closely the modern trend." He’s talking about wine, but also about culture. "I understand that this is the perspective of somebody with an older mentality," Boffa says, "and from a family that has been here forever. But why do I have to go to restaurants around here and see ostrich meat?"
The Langhe is small, and Boffa and Rivetti inevitably pass each other on the sidewalks of Alba or when driving one of the hairpin turns on the road to Serralunga or La Morra. Both love to eat well, so they periodically find themselves manning adjacent tables at one of the region’s better restaurants. When that happens, Rivetti will order a bottle of Pio Cesare and Boffa will order a bottle of La Spinetta as a sign of mutual respect. Each will enjoy the other’s wine over their vitello tonnato or carne cruda, but with a nagging feeling that an opportunity has been squandered. Such talent, such formidable intelligence, such elite vineyards should be used in the service of making truly great wine, each will be thinking about the other. How unfortunate that someone who could be making some of the best wines around, should be so utterly, transparently, and irrevocably wrong.
On a map, Piedmont appears perfectly positioned at the center of Mediterranean Europe. The abundance of Liguria lies directly to the south, with France due west. Milan and the riches of Lombardy lie to the east, while the snowcapped peaks of Switzerland are almost visible to the north.
The truth is, for centuries the Langhe existed as a place out of time. Nobody came, almost nobody left, and the culture was turned inward for so long that it became almost impenetrable. The Piedmontese spoke their own dialect, which was only rudimentarily linked to Italian. Trade with the outside world was minimal, as was travel. "You ask a 70-year-old farmer here about the sea and he’s never seen it," Rivetti says. "It’s an hour away by car, but he’s never seen it."