Sunday, April 18, 2021

The wonderfully complicated and all too brief (and happy) life of Pio Boffa

A fond remembrance

There are moments in life when a particular event happens, that sends ripples across the water.  Such was the moment yesterday when I heard about the passing of a friend in Italy, Pio Boffa. Pio was just 66 years old, and another victim of the relentless Covid19 virus.

How does this happen, a little over a month after another friend, Barone Alessandro de Renzis Sonnino, passed away at the age of 62, also from Covid?

Right now, Michigan and New York states are posting higher daily new cases than Italy, with half the population. Italy has imposed greater restrictions than those states, but the grim reaper is still harvesting souls in the motherland.  

Unfortunately, Pio’s life was one of those. And what a wonderfully complicated and all too brief life it was.

But what a time to be alive and in the business of Italian wine!

Pio lived in what were the most change-filled and dynamic times for Italian wine and their place in the world. And he was among a handful of men and women in Italy who moved the needle and gained Italian wine its due and acceptance on the world’s stage.

At an early point in his life, he was sent to California to Napa Valley and to the Robert Mondavi winery.

From my conversations with him, it changed his life. He saw wine differently. And when he came home, the things that influenced him and the decisions he would make back in Alba would be significant.

Pio was a complicated personality, and he was very particular. I knew where to go and where not to go with him when we had a conversation. He was a driven businessman, with a vision to take an ancient winery, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. He loved oak, absolutely loved it. The Chardonnay wines of the ‘80’s caused him to rethink Piemontese white wines. In that way, he and his older colleague, Angelo Gaja, were thinking alike. 


The energy of America ignited him and inspired him. But Pio was also a very traditional person.

I remember having a dinner at his home with his family. It was a serious, somber affair, like going to a wealthy uncle’s house. Very formal, with traditional Piemontese cooking. And his wines to accompany them as well. Even his California-inspired, oak-aged Chardonnay was matched to a local, simple dish.

But then he’d order his wines at dinner in a steak house, like we once did, in Texas and one could see even those rich, full-bodied, highly structured Nebbiolo wines pair magnificently with an oversized Porterhouse. It was as if he’d figured out how to bridge both worlds. And he did it with his wine and his sensibilities.

He was a nervous person, fidgety. Impatient. I knew how to get around that, as I’d learned to deal with those kinds of energies via my dad, who was similar in that way. It would pass usually, if one did not engage him when he was in that mood.

And then, he could be like a little kid, all child-like and filled with wonder at what new thing or innovation was displayed before him. He'd have a certain twinkle in his eyes. You could see it when he came across a new wine he’d never seen, or a car that had some new technological innovation. Or sometimes, just the way he’d take in the nature around him. Springtime in Texas lit him up.

He was also a bit of an imp. Being the youngest, and knowing this from my own experience, he knew what he could get away with, because he was the baby and he was cute and everybody loved him. Oh, yeah, he could turn on his inner Puck, and cause all kinds of mayhem.

He could also be grounded and humble. I remember one morning, as we were getting ready to work the market with a bag of his wine, he crouched down and looked at the wines, making sure he’d know what it was we had to sell that day. It may not have always been current vintages, but these were his children and he wanted to put their best foot forward. He was a relentless salesman for his brand, and ambassador for the region.

He’d take the beating that Vinitaly can be for a producer, standing for days in a hot booth and talking about the same wines day after day. And as soon as it was over, he’d step on a plane and hit a foreign market to work the streets. He was one of the few Italians who would forego their August vacation and work the streets, even in one of the hottest places on earth.

It was August in Texas, the outside temperature was 108⁰F, and we were rushing down a tollway at breakneck speed to get Pio to a wine dinner. Suddenly, I felt a pang in my chest. I knew it was probably stress, but I was a little worried. I told Pio, “Look, Pio, I’m having a little pain in my chest. I don’t think it’s a heart attack, but I’m going to drop you off at the dinner and take myself to an urgent care center to make sure.” All of this at 80 mph. Pio raised his trademark single eyebrow, tried not to look alarmed, and offered to take over the wheel. “No, I know where we are going and will get us there quicker. Just hang on, I’ll get you there. But when you get there, don’t worry. it’s in a rough part of town and the place, well let’s just say, looks can be deceiving. Trust me that you will have a successful night. OK?” He told me he would.

I dropped him off and headed to the doc-in-a-box. It turned out I had a pocket of air in my lungs, and it was causing pressure and a small amount of pain. The doctor took a rubber mallet and jarred the air bubble loose, I let out a giant burp, and the emergency was over.

I headed back to the dinner, and Pio was in full court press, captivating the jammed dining room, in stifling heat, with too much food and wine. He was on fire, and we must have sold 200+ bottles that night.

The salesman later told me that, when he walked into the venue - which is in a part of town that has been resisting gentrification for decades - and looked and around and muttered something to himself (along the lines of “What is this shit?”). The salesman and Pio’s import rep assured him this was the place to sell a lot of wine in Texas in August. Pio yielded, put on his working hat and proceeded to knock it out of the park.

There was nobody like him. He was complicated. He was driven. He was kind. He circled the globe endlessly to advance the cause of Pio Cesare, the Piedmont region and Italy.

Remember, when he was a little boy, most of the streets outside of the city of Alba were just beginning to be paved. It was country. Yes, the winery had been there for what seemed ages. The city of Alba grew up around it. But Italian wines in the world were barely a blip on the screen. In 2021 that is no longer the case. In 2021 Barolo and Barbaresco and the other great wines of Piedmont and Italy rank with the world’s best. They lead, they don’t follow. And it’s because plucky souls like Pio made the journey, did the legwork, spent countless hours in planes and in hot cars and in and out of Italian restaurants all around the world, to deliver the news that Italian wine had arrived.  

And then, just like that, it was over. No more travel, no more dinners. No more selling. No more depletion reports, or plane reservations, no global wandering, no more ambassadoring, no more truffles, no more wine. the carafe is empty. The cellar stands empty, and silent and cold and dark. It’s all over.

Buon anima, Pio. We will miss you, all of you. Peace to you, now, amico. Rest up.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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