No one is going to deny these are strange times: very trying for many and certainly surreal for the rest of us. Last weekend promised a bit of gloom, and not just via the weather forecast. With these prescribed self-quarantines I wasn’t going to do much except laundry, catch up on a couple of shows and brave one trip out for some essential supplies. But late Saturday morning, as I pulled into my parking spot at Target, the darkest cloud of the week’s end arrived (via a WhatsApp message). The news was to let me know about a major loss: the death of a dear, dear friend. Renato Vacca, proprietor of Cantina del Pino in Barbaresco—scomparso.
(Grazie Liliana, di fammi sapere!)
It took a while to sink in. I was fine to go into the store, spray my hands with sanitizer and discover a bunch of empty shelves. I got what I really needed and headed out. Shut the car door, started it, drove out of the parking lot and then, proceeded to break down. (Don’t worry, I kept my hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.)
Not only was this man an amazing winemaker and genuine friend to thousands of people across the globe, Renato happened to be one of the most influential people in my personal and professional development in the Barolo and Barbaresco area. I met Renato in 2006 and in some ways it feels like yesterday; in other ways, eons ago. Like everyone who knew him, I will now, really, really miss him.
In 2006, as I planned my second trip to the Langhe, my manager where I worked at the time, Joe Cannistraci at Vintage Wine Merchants in Santana Row, told me I absolutely had to go and meet his friend in Barbaresco. Luckily I took his sage advice and sought Renato out. I couldn’t believe the time and attention Renato gave me, just a young lass—a nobody—starting out in the wine industry. Not only did he personally call to reschedule my appointment with the winery I had earlier been lost, trying to find (La Spinetta!) but he took plenty of time to answer each of my questions about his own wines in exuberant detail. He also made sure to introduce me sufficiently to the Barbaresco zone in general and explain how important it was to understand the entire area. He knew I wanted to know everything.
The next year, in 2007, I was buying Renato’s wines to serve by the glass at 515, the restaurant where I was wine manager at the time. Then in 2008 and 2009, I ended up slinging his wines and selling them to restaurants and stores throughout Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. After his importer closed, I advised Renato to get into the Epic Wines portfolio. They picked him up without a second thought and on the two of them carried on with success for many years. I always went back to visit Renato each trip to Piedmont and we eventually became pretty good friends.
I’ll never forget one visit to Renato (probably 2009) when he had three glasses of wine poured and set atop a wine crate (which at the time served as a piece of furniture in his, then, humble living room). Each glass had been carefully poured and covered with a little white napkin. He was careful not to move them out of order and explained to me that each was a barrel sample from his cellar, representing each of his vineyards. (Had to have been Ovello, Albesani and Gallina.) He had poured them three days prior.
“Try them,” he said.
So I did.
They were perfect! Perfect balance, aroma, fruit, body—not oxidized at all. He said he liked to do this to test the integrity of his wines, see how their character evolved over the days and how long they stayed fresh while exposed to air.
This is the epitome of Renato to me. So humble, so friendly, so knowledgeable, so generous and of course in the end, an amazingly talented winemaker.
In 2010 when I had to attend Vinitaly with a sprained ankle, Renato reserved a seat for me in his stand so I could come back and rest my leg every hour or so. If you’ve never attended Vinitaly, well let me tell you, it’s a zoo and it’s something special to always have a resting spot anywhere, much less in the Piedmont pavilion! That trip he also secured for me my very first harvest internship in Piedmont. I have him to thank for that.
For my second harvest internship, in 2011, Renato also coordinated for me and my husband at the time, a short-term apartment rental in Alba to cover the three months we spent there. That would have been impossible without his help. I have him to thank, also for that.
I also can also give Renato Vacca full credit for introducing me to the Timorasso grape of Colli Tortonesi and for this I can also credit him for the possibility of my first published article, Making a Time for Timorasso: Colli Tortonesi in the Somm Journal in 2013. So thanking him for that too.
There were times in those early years, during my long stays in Piedmont, when I needed help, and Renato was always just a phone call or an email away, ready to lend me advice or a place to stay. He had remodeled a small apartment in his cascina for his traveling friends and colleagues and I could stay there when it wasn’t otherwise occupied by any of his other thousands of friends. One time he lent me his TomTom for my trip to France so I was sure not to get lost (that was in 2010 before our smart phones were navigating for us). He took me to meet many of his friends, introduced me to countless characters, showed me a bunch of cool spots in Alba and helped me understand how to approach learning the Italian language. Renato also attended some of the dinner parties I planned with other winemakers (thank you again Liliana!) and we developed quite a few mutual friends over the years. Thank you, Renato, for all of these amazing connections. (You know who you are.)
They say the deceased live on forever in the hearts of the people who knew them and I fully understand this having already suffered the loss of many important people in my life (my father, my mother, my step brother and other close relatives and friends). With this knowledge I move forward and find real solace in the feeling of gratitude that I was one of the lucky people who could call Renato a true friend. His advice and his laugh are crisp in my mind forever.
My heart goes out to all of the rest of you—many of you knew Renato way better and for longer than I ever did. I especially send my condolences to Franca, Renato’s wife and to Anna, his one-year old daughter. She, most of all, I feel certain, will carry on her own interpretation of his amazing character. I would also like to send all my best to his parents, sisters, cousin Aldo, his best friend, Giuliano and everyone else.