Summer is coming, and it’s time to start planning your summer escape in the Alps. I highly recommend a retreat from the world — digital and otherwise — with a trip to Des Martin’s Rifugio Valliera in Castelmagno.
In 2007, Barolo wine producer Chiara Boschis, her brother Cesare, and her fellow group members of the Des Martin consortium turned their attention to Castelmagno to renovate buildings and revive the area’s cheese-making traditions. At the timberline in the commune are abandoned hamlets where families once lived off the land year-round. The group purchased half of Valliera, a hamlet nearly 5,000 feet above sea level at timberline. They named their consortium “Des Martin,” after the hamlet’s last inhabitants. Yet another group that shared the vision purchased the remaining Valliera property, and the hamlet’s renaissance was under way.
That same year, Des Martin hired an experienced casara (cheese maker) who began experimenting with various forms at a nearby dairy during the construction of Des Martin’s caseificio (creamery). By 2015, the Des Martin cowherd exceeded 40 head. Chiara often quips that while other women buy great cars and take exotic vacations, she buys cows.
Chiara and the other members of the consortium dream of more groups coming to the mountains to transform the remaining hamlets. Already her fellow Barolo producer Elio Altare has rejuvenated mountain life in the hamlet of Campo Fei above Rifugio Valliera. Life begins anew above timberline.
In June 2015, Agriturismo Des Martin opened. The nine (9) apartments provide warm, homey lodgings for visitors seeking the peace and tranquility that communing with nature and the past provide. Chiara envisions the rebirth of a vibrant mountain culture through her passionate nurturing of agricultural restoration.
When I first drove into Barbaresco two decades ago this autumn, the village was cloaked in thick, bone-chilling fog. I soon learned the mantle covering the village was emblematic of Langhe in November.
Barbaresco was a ghost town. In the Piazza del Municipio in the village’s heart, only the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco and the Antica Torre, then around the corner from the Enoteca, seemed to have signs of life. Not much happening in that late afternoon period between coffee and aperitivo. At the other end of Barbaresco’s singular street, via Torino, the air was heavy with that intoxicating post-harvest smell of fermenting grapes in the Produttori del Barbaresco. In between the two ends of the village, the mysterious alchemy that is winemaking was no doubt going on behind the thick, green iron gate that hid the inner sanctum of the renowned Gaja winery from view. That was it. Not a creature was stirring.
Wait a minute! That was it? Barbaresco? So famous, but so small and quiet.
That was then.
Fast forward twenty years and on most days Barbaresco is anything but quiet. Between her awakening and long past the sun’s descent behind the Alps to the west the village buzzes. No longer is the tiny village only alive with tourists in the sunny months of September and October when tractors laden with precious, ripe grapes lumber along the cobblestones to the wineries, or in late March and April when Europeans north of the Alps seek Langhe’s early springtime warmth. Today, Barbaresco is alive with locals and visitors for most of the year.
Fame from Piemonte’s rising star as a popular wine tourism destination drew people to the village from which the famous wine takes its name. But it took a young man from Japan and a wine bar sporting his name to help transform Barbaresco into the energetic village it is today. Anyone who has found themselves under the plane trees in the piazza sipping a glass of wine on a hot summer day knows I’m speaking of Koki Sato.
The hissing sound of an espresso machine, wine glasses clinking, and laughter amid chatter now fill the tiny piazza from 9:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays, when the wine bar is shuttered for its mandated weekly closing, the village is quieter. Koki Wine Bar has become a gathering spot of locals and visitors and has played a large role in energizing the village.
Koki began his odyssey from Japan to Barbaresco in 1998 with a job in an Italian restaurant in hometown of Sapporo. Here Koki experienced cucina italiana and soon tasted the wine that sealed his destiny – Barolo.
One night a customer offered Koki a taste of Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino from the stellar 1990 vintage. I suppose if one is to experience Barolo for the first time, it’s quite special to start with one of the best. To say it was love at first sip is an understatement. The wine captivated Koki with its elegance as it filled his mouth with rich fruit, lingering for a long finish, providing gustatory sensations that inspired him to learn more about wine.
A senior sommelier in the restaurant initiated Koki’s vinous education with a virtual tour of the world of wine. Koki tasted wines from many different regions and began to expand his wine horizons and appreciation. In 2005, the year after his first trip to Piemonte, Koki became a sommelier in his own right.
Wine was not the only education Koki pursued in the two intervening years between Piemonte trips. He studied Italian, preparing him for a longer stay in Piemonte that began in 2006 when he moved to the region to master his favorite grape, Nebbiolo.
In 2009, Koki began working at La Ciau del Tornavento, the celebrated restaurant just behind the church in the tiny Barbaresco village of Treiso. Again, nothing like starting at the top as he did with Barolo. Michelin-star chef Maurilio Garola and his restaurant co-owner, Nadia Benech, gave Koki the opportunity to broaden his wine knowledge and service skills in one of Italy’s greatest restaurants. With an expansive, labyrinthine wine cellar of over 60,000 bottles, Koki was able to serve some of the finest wines ever produced. This further deepened his love of wine, particularly Nebbiolo. Through the years, Maurilio and Nadia have become Koki’s cherished mentors and sources of inspiration. “They are special to me,” he emphatically said.
After four years working at the pinnacle of the Italian restaurant industry, Koki returned to Japan. He pondered opening a wine bar in his hometown. In those heady, exciting first years of the new millennium, the Far East was fast becoming an important, emerging market for Piemonte wines. Koki was not alone in Japan in his love of the region, its food, and, of course, its wine, so demand was certainly in his favor.
Before Koki could take the plunge in Sapporo, Maurilio offered him the opportunity to open a wine bar in a small space in the center of Barbaresco. For about two weeks Koki thought deeply about the chance to work in Italy rather than remain in Japan. Six months later, in March 2013, Maurilio’s Prima e Poi del Tornavento opened with Koki at the helm.
Koki later purchased the bar and in April 2017 it was renamed “Koki Wine Bar.”
In the short time since Koki dove headfirst into the world of business ownership, Koki Wine Bar has become a favorite of local wine producers who enjoy ending their days with an aperitivo on the patio in summer or inside the warm, cozy bar as the night chill of autumn chases everyone indoors. Koki and his peers across the Langhe in Barolo at such places as Barolo Friends and La Vite Turchese, and More e Macine in La Morra, have filled a need for a place to have a quick bite between winery visits, a light dinner after a long day of food and wine, or just a place to sit, sip, and watch the wine world go by. Venues that are part wine bar, part osteria were sorely needed in the wine villages of the Langhe. Koki certainly made an important contribution with his little oasis.
Thriving Part of the Langhe Dining Culture
One of the attractions of the Langhe restaurant culture for many, including myself, is the tradition of multicourse, slow lunches. A large lunch and a small evening meal of salumi, cheese, bread, and, on occasion, wine, was always my preferred way to tackle the region on short visits. But for people wanting to visit several wineries a day, it can prove to be an insurmountable gastronomic challenge to have a long lunch. The evolution of wine bars such as Koki Wine Bar in Langhe and Roero have solved that pleasant dilemma for visitors and locals.
Now, in Barbaresco, oenophiles can enjoy a short, relaxing snack between winery appointments. A favorite of my tour guests at the end of a week of Bacchanalian adventures is to have a light lunch on Koki’s patio. His salumi and cheese board and Piemontese salad along with a glass or two of wine is the perfect entre-winery fuel.
Ask Koki for a wine recommendation and watch as his smiling demeanor changes into evidence of deep, serious contemplation. Then out comes a suggestion you should not ignore. This is serious business for Koki. Pairing the right wine with a guest is as important to him as pairing the right wine with food. To Koki, it isn’t about the most expensive wine or most famous producers. It’s about taking his guests on an adventure through his wine list. It is also about providing the growing number of up-and-coming Piemonte producers a stage for their wines in this incredibly competitive market. Koki knows most of the producers on his list of Piemonte wines so you will probably get a story or two along with the wine. As it should be.
Like so many young entrepreneurs in the Langhe, Koki is not afraid to venture outside the norm and create unexpected experiences for his guests. Last December – a time when the pace in the cellars slows down a bit and wine producers get to relax and enjoy quiet evenings out – Koki and Chef Masaki created Friday night Japanese dinners that quickly became popular sellouts. Each Friday featured a different style of Japanese cuisine, culminating with seafood night featuring a large plate of sushi rolls and sashimi. Tuna carpaccio topped with white truffles, a favorite of Koki’s, was one of the most unusual uses of the precious fungus I’ve ever had. Superb. Koki, no stranger to high quality, had gone to Milano himself to choose seafood for Chef Masaki. Those fun evenings proved to be the best deal around at 35 euros for the three courses and were a huge hit with the locals. Koki tells me that his Japanese Fridays are making a return to Barbaresco this December.
The Future for Koki
No one, including Koki, knows what the future holds for him. He just celebrated his 40th birthday and already he has fostered a following on several of the Continents. Koki’s dedication to the local vintners and to providing a fun venue for their wines to be tasted and sold has earned Koki their loyalty and support. Koki’s fans, myself included, would love for him to remain forever in his little wine bar in Barbaresco. As long as his parents are healthy, he told me, he’d like stay in Piemonte, but his vision is to one-day own two wine bars – one in Japan and one in Italy – and travel between the two countries.
Koki will succeed wherever in the world he lands. His passion for quality, knowledge of food and wine, his talent for creating a warm, inviting environment, and, most importantly, his ability to foster loyalty will always be in demand. And no doubt, Nebbiolo will be the star of any wine bar he opens.
Important things to know about Koki Wine Bar
Location: Piazza del Municipio 30, Barbaresco (across from the Municipio)
Opening Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. (closed on Wednesdays).
Retail wine purchases available.
Small menu. Try the agnolotti in a jar and the anchovies with bread and butter.
Delicious cugnà from Cà d’Gal available for sale.
Best patio in the area thanks to Koki and his team.
Best Barbaresco t-shirts and biking jerseys for sale!
Headquarters of the Labor of Love Society, a group of vintners and wine professionals dedicated to camaraderie and preservation of the region’s familial wine industry culture.
What the local wine producers have to say about Koki
I asked some of the local producers for their insights about Koki and his place in Barbaresco’s culture. The responses were so warm and filled with admiration and love for Koki that I struggled to dissect them and include them in the article. So I decided to add an “in their own words” section to this post. Think of it as one of the most valuable, honest reviews of Koki and his wine bar you’ll ever read. These days, we need to hear more such words to drown out all the acrimony.
“Koki is a great guy, simply! When is bar is open, the village is also open, alive.
That’s apparently because of its location, at the very entrance of the major street Via Torino, but many do not love to [go to] Barbaresco on Wednesday because Koki is closed.
[Koki] has always been very well accepted for his professionalism and kindness as a former maître of la Ciau del Tornavento, and Maurilio was the one to believe in Koki…
This place [Koki Wine Bar], I repeat, is able to give to anyone arriving in the village a SIGNAL, and when is closed (on Wednesday) the little village seems like the desert.
Koki is always allegro, charming guy. Every conversation is brilliant with him, very interested [in] any news, positive, always smiling…also he was able to select [experienced] helpers for the service, and by summer (with the patio open) they make a big job in numbers of guests. Not that easy to reach with that quality!!
If I can, I go there even more than one time a day. Formidable!”
“Always good to pass by Koki’s after work for a refreshing birretta, also some vino too! [Koki Wine Bar] is a good meeting point for sure, and a chance to catch up with what’s happening in the village and who’s in the village. Koki has become a great local figure and his solid team are quick and efficient. [He is] a key figure in helping the village as it continues to grow. Barbaresco is a central point of reference now, travelling the world by words, glasses and bottles. KAMPAI KOKI!”
Daniela Rocca, Albino Rocca (Barbaresco)
“Koki is a great person who had great courage to leave his country. For that we have a big respect for him. He has a great passion for wines and a very good knowledge. He is the kind of guy who is always smiling. We like him also because he always has new ideas about food and he has enlarged the wine list, making a big investment. All the people from Barbaresco love him.”
Silvia Altare, Elio Altare (Annunziata, Barolo)
“Koki’s place in Barbaresco is the place to go. Whether you need a coffee, a good glass of wine, or a nice dinner, Koki will guide you through his deep wine list and share his knowledge gained from years of experience in Piemonte. We need more Kokis around the region!
Chiara Boschis, E. Pira e Figli (Barolo); sentiments shared by Claudia Cigliuti, Az. Ag. F.illi Cigliuti (Barbaresco)
“Koki has great professionalism, dedication and kindness in what he does. You can feel the deep passion and respect for our land, people, wines and culture. I can tell you that he is such a good person that we all love him a lot. He [has fought] through many difficulties of his work, but he never complains and never asks [for] anything. He always just smiles warmly and make you feel special’ He is amazing!”
Carlo Deltetto, Deltetto 1953 (Canale, Roero)
“Koki is a great friend and [his wine bar] is one of my favorite places in Langhe. I’m from Roero, but when I have the chance with Paola or simply when I’m in the area just for wine deliveries, or riding my motorbike through the hills of Barbaresco, I always stop to Koki. For a quick lunch or just for a glass of wine. Why? Not just because of the quality of the food, the wine, and the beautiful location, but because of Koki. He always welcomes us with a smile, ready to share a glass of wine. I often like to ask him: give me something new, something that you like and that maybe I don’t know… and it is always a great tasting experience. I also like to share with him a new Deltetto label or vintage. His opinion is always very important for me. He has a great experience in wine tasting and, because of lots of tourist passing through Barbaresco, he knows what the people of all the world likes.
Simply, Koki is a very special guy.”
Paola Grasso, Cà del Baio (Treiso, Barbaresco)
“Koki is first a good friend of our family, second, he is one of the best ambassadors of the Barbaresco area. [Koki] is a hard worker, professional with clients and smiling and funny with children. My daughters, Lidia e Anna, love him! I think there is not one person that can talk badly of him. Sometimes I think about is culture and how it was for him before and I can definitely say his is now a true piemontese guy!”
Valentina Grasso, Cà del Baio (Treiso, Barbaresco)
“Koki is a great person and believer of our area and the Nebbiolo grape. He is always happy to welcome every person coming into his bar.”
“Koki is a person that immediately inspires positivity, happiness, and professionalism. When you talk with him you understand that he really cares for his job, he is so respectful of the wines, and of the work of the producers of the area. He is simply the best genuine ambassador for our region! He welcomes you with a smile and knows what hospitality really means. His honesty and serenity are so special to me!”
“Io ho sempre ammirato i ragazzi come Koki sono venuti qui nelle Langhe da 10000 km per conoscere meglio la nostra terra, imparare un mestiere, oggi lui ha fatto di più e diventato un punto di riferimento per tanti momenti, e gente, che amano il vino il cibo ecc.
E un ragazzo ingamba che ha dato a Barbaresco una cosa in più che un Wine Bar, un bel posto dove trascorrere ore in compagnia in ogni momento dell’anno.
In più si è rivelato un grande amico dal cuore buono !
But despite not having the photo, I did get to write the story the photo tells thanks to Chiara’s generosity with her time and memories.
Here’s an excerpt about the connection between the Franco Boschis and the historic Borgogno families, and how it came to be, from Chapter 2 — Boschis — of Labor of Love. (Note: WordPress has it’s own mind about hyphenation. Not as it was originally in the book).
But first, to provide readers with a roadmap of the family — an idea of my editor, Elatia Harris, and something lovers of the stories repeatedly thank me for — the genealogy of the Boschis family.
I had already discovered it was impossible to talk about recent history in Piemonte without World War II figuring large. In 1943, before the German occupation of Piemonte, Chiara’s mother, Ida Chiavassa, bicycled from her home in Bra, south across the Tanaro River, to Barolo to visit her paternal aunt, Maria Chiavassa Borgogno, the wife of the winemaker Cesare Borgogno. As she proceeded along the journey, with steep inclines and twisting roads, the closer she got to her aunt and uncle’s estate, the angrier she became. It was common in those days for young girls to help wealthy relatives in their homes. The 16-year-old was not at all happy about the prospects of leaving her home, her sisters, her friends, and, most of all, her first love. Little did Ida know, the long bike ride led to something much more enduring than long hours of work and loneliness.
After the Germans occupied Piemonte, the Allies began to bomb the region. Travel across the Tanaro River became dangerous, so Ida remained in Barolo. And she never returned to Bra, not for good. Shortly after Ida arrived, a young man who had experienced his own disappoint-ments in life began working for the Borgognos. The times were tough economically and had dashed Franco Boschis’s dream of oenological school. He had to go to work. Fate took him to Borgogno.
Franco was delighted to see someone his age at the winery, particularly a pretty young woman. Ida, still fuming about her fate, paid no attention to the handsome young man. But as time passed, and more men left for war, then to the cities afterward, they became friends. In time, a romance blossomed and Ida and Franco married. Chiara told me, “My football-playing father claims it was his ‘nice legs’ that she first noticed.” Whatever it was, as soon as Ida turned her back on Bra, a future in Barolo materialized. That future involved wine and a daughter who would become world-renowned for her oenological prowess.
Ida’s uncle Cesare was the seventh generation of the Borgogno family to own and operate the historic winery, founded in 1761, on the outskirts of Barolo. Cesare’s acquisition of the winery deviated from the usual patriarchal inheritance, with the firstborn male inheriting the family’s property. Born in 1900, Cesare was the youngest child and third son of Giacomo and Giulia Borgogno. In Cesare’s 11th year of life, his father died. His elder brothers lacked interest in the wine business, but one of them helped his mother run the winery until Cesare assumed its management nine years later. His wife, Ida’s aunt, and Chiara’s great aunt, Maria Chiavassa Borgogno, took the traditional women’s task of working behind the scenes in the winery.
Chiara then told me a story that defined her uncle. I was riveted to learn about Cesare Borgogno and his 1935 vintage Barolo. In 1944, during the occupation, the Germans and their equally brutal Fascist allies terrorized — I use the word advisedly — the population of Piemonte. On June 30, 1944, three trucks filled with German soldiers lost their way to Bra. They mistakenly took the road to Barolo and stopped near the Borgogno estate. A group of partisan resistance fighters spotted the trucks, shot at and wounded several German soldiers, and vanished into the countryside. The Germans retreated, but only after driving into Barolo to open fire on the castle and on homes throughout the village. Fortunately, the locals had run for cover.
Two days later in a convoy of trucks and armored cars, the Germans returned and charged the Borgogno family with complicity in the partisans’ attack. It took them very little time to root out the entire 1935 vintage — 240 large wooden crates of 50 bottles each, cached mostly at Cantina Canonica. Only one crate was hidden at the Borgogno estate.
It was well known that throughout occupied wine regions across Europe, German soldiers would plant evidence in cellars as a pretext for confiscating wine as spoils of war. The Germans claimed to have found a gun in the cellar of the Borgogno winery and helped them-selves to copious amount of Barolo, breaking everyone’s heart at the mistreatment of so precious a wine. The entire vintage went to Turin with the Germans.
Accompanied by the pastor of the Catholic Church in Barolo, Cesare left for Turin, the German headquarters, in hopes of retrieving his wine. On the way to the city, Cesare and the priest stopped at the Lancia automobile factory in Chivasso to enlist the help of a former client of Cesare’s. Wine lover Giorgio Eggstein was no Nazi, but he held a position of authority in the German army. Eggstein accompanied the priest and winemaker to Turin. While there, Cesare encountered young male prisoners from Barolo accused of being partisans and destined for German work camps. It was a fate tanta-mount to a death sentence. Believing Cesare had come to their rescue, the prisoners rejoiced. But Cesare had come to save wine, not people. The commandant declared the wines were confiscated as spoils of war, not stolen booty as Cesare claimed. He offered Cesare a solution.
He would impose a tax on all of Barolo’s inhabitants in exchange for the wines. Cesare refused. Instead, rising to the full implications of the crisis, he bargained for the prisoners in exchange for the wine. The commandant agreed. An entire vintage in return for a few young lives — Cesare saw the right thing to do, and did it.
Cancer robbed Barolo of Cesare Borgogno in 1968. His marriage to Maria Chiavassa produced no male heirs, so Maria and Cesare’s niece Ida, and her husband, Franco Boschis, assumed control of the winery, continuing the Borgogno family ownership. Over time, Franco and Ida’s sons Cesare and Giorgio joined their parents at Borgogno. The Boschis family eventually bought out the other ownership interests in the winery and began much-needed improvements to compete with the burgeoning number of new Barolo wineries. In 2008, Franco and Ida sold Borgogno to the epicurean entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti and his son, Francesco, ending generations of family ownership. The famed winery would endure, but in the hands of another family.
Meanwhile, Chiara Boschis had come of age.
Personally inscribed and signed copies of my award-winning book, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, that explores the life and times of 22 Piemontese wine families can be found on this website. The book is also available on Amazon.