Chronological / Destinations / Europe / Hotels & Resorts / Wines & Spirits

Celebrating Life on a Working Italian Vineyard in Piemonte

After traveling by car, plane and train from Puglia, Italy’s southernmost point in the heel of the boot, I arrive after dark, tired and hungry, in Northern Italy’s Langhe wine country in Piemonte, one of the world’s best food and wine-producing regions. My plan is to wake up on my birthday, the next day, on a working vineyard.

The path through Piazzo  Vineyards just below
The path through Piazzo Vineyards just below


My host, Albino Bonelli, proprietor of the lovely, family-run agriturismo Cascina Barac on more than 150 acres of vineyards straddling the border between Alba and Treiso, had kindly offered to deliver me, an American travel/wine journalist, from the train station. A soft man with a bit of padding, Albino has a giddy, playful way about him as if he teases children all day long. He speaks a little English, and when I ask him if there might be anything to eat when we get there, he makes a funny, sad face before proceeding to drive 20 minutes to an elegant little restaurant in the town of Alba.

“Isn’t it too late to eat here?" I ask.
Per noi, no!" No, not for us! He says.

He knows the owners. A man who clearly enjoys food, he could not let me eat alone. He proudly points out his wife’s family’s Piazzo wines on the wine list, and they bring out Piazzo’s Dolcetto d’Alba Scaletta, which perfectly compliments our meal. It has a deep ruby-red color and a very fragrant nose with hints of rich cherry, plum and raspberry flavors and a bit of spice. Albino samples each local delicacy while describing them in detail: the pasta with their famous white truffles; the gorgeous il grano cheese; the rich, satisfying panna cotta. Piemontese cuisine is known for its ancient recipes and exquisite flavors and I am relishing all of it.

The Cascina Barac sign
The Cascina Barac sign


After dinner, we drive another 20 minutes into the dark, vineyard-laden hills before arriving at a large two–story country house. He carries my suitcase up the staircase and deposits me, weary and sated, to my room. Buona notte!

After a blissful nine hours’ sleep, I awake to find myself in a plush queen-sized bed. Lying there dreamily, I notice that each pane in the French doors that open onto my balcony frames a picture-perfect image: there is a twisting country road leading to a white house with a terra cotta roof, and a geranium pot set off by rows of leafy vines beyond.

Throwing the balcony doors open, I am greeted by September air with a mountain-fresh chill, and elated to discover a panoramic view of the gorgeous green hills and valleys beyond. And then I remember: it’s my birthday!

Albino and his wife Wilma have taken their time – more than eight years – in fashioning Cascina Barac to be as sturdy and charming as it is. They began the ristrutturazione (rebuilding) of the 10-room inn in 1994 – the same year they were married – but did not open for business until May 2002.

Cascina means country house and so, naturalmente, they needed to use indigenous (Albino calls them,"typical") materials including river stones from the nearby Seno d’Elvio River; old (recycled) brick, and regional wood to create a feeling of warmth. May I just say that their efforts have paid off in the aesthetic and warmth departments?

At breakfast, soft classical music plays as Albino and his brother restock the buffet table. There are a few other (European) diners in the bricked-in sitting room. From our hilltop vantage point, the expansive and verdant view fills its enormous windows. The owners’ sweet and quietly chattering children are whisked away.

For breakfast, the buffet offers fresh prosciutto, three types of cheese, cereal, hard-boiled eggs, toast, pastries with Nutella (made right here in Alba) or cream inside, two types of juice (orange or passion fruit), country bread with delectable spiced plum jam, and amazing Italian espresso with a pitcher of hot milk (since it’s my birthday, can’t I have a little of each?)

Suffice it to say that it is a delicious way to start my new year.

The overcast skies of the morning give way to a chilly but brief afternoon rain that drenches the vines. Later, the sun returns and bees buzz about lazily as I read in the garden, aware of a feeling of luxuriant country living quite different from the spare seaside life I had experienced down south.

I decide to hold off on attending Slow Food’s"Cheese" festival – a celebration of global wines, cheeses, olives and other delicacies held every two years in the charming neighboring town of Bra – until tomorrow so that I can explore the winery and generally continue to savor the joys of life on an Italian vineyard.

Grapes about to be picked in the Piazzo vineyard in the Langhe region
Grapes about to be picked in the Piazzo vineyard in the Langhe region


Piazzo wines are made right here, and it’s just a few days before the main harvest. A soft breeze gently moves through vines dripping with plump red grapes. A truck brims with Moscato bianco (white Muscat) grapes waiting to be made into Moscato d’Asti, a semi-sweet frizzante (lightly sparkling) dessert wine that is served chilled. It is a bit mysterious to play witness to the origins of the nectar that others around the world will savor.

That evening, a very loyal friend drives all the way up from Nice, France to take me out to dinner in Alba. A large group of young local girls sing"Tanti Auguri" (happy birthday) to me, making the evening completely enchanting, and allowing us to witness the beautiful, warm spirit of the people of Alba and the Langhe region.

But, I discover, I am not the only foreigner to find this place special. I take a gander at the guest sign-in book and find ecstatic exclamations — even drawings — by creative guests with Japanese names, alongside those of many other nationalities. Like Cristoforo Colombo, I thought I had been the first to discover Cascina Barac. Apparently not.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Cascina Barac

Frazione San Rocco Seno d’Elvio, 40, Alba (CN), Italy 12051

Tel: +39 0173 366 418

Email: barac@barac.it

www.cascinabarac.com

2008 Prices with breakfast range from 98-190 Euros. Open year-round.

Piazzo Winery

www.piazzo.it

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