When she first developed big ideas about wine, Elena Walch knew nothing about winemaking. She was reared in Milan, studied in Venice, and then set up her own architectural practice in Bolzano, the capital of Northern Italy's Alto Adige.
Then in 1985, at 35, she was hired to oversee restoration of a 17th-century Austrian Hapsburg hunting castle surrounded by 50 acres of gorgeous, steeply sloping vineyards. The castle and vineyard owner was Werner Walch, who ran his family's historic Wilhelm Walch winery in Termeno.
Before the project was completed, she and Werner fell for each other, and they were soon married. Then things got really interesting when she turned her attention to the vineyards.
At first, she urged Wilhelm to do more with his family's stunning vineyards and cellars full of hand-carved oak casks dating to the winery's 1869 founding. Instinctively, she questioned why Wilhelm continued his family tradition of blending estate grapes with those he bought from scores of other growers.
"I said, 'Beauty must go with quality. If you have wonderful vineyards, you must have wonderful wines,'" she recalls one spring day at her winery and home built into an old monastery in Termeno (aka Tramin in this German-speaking part of Italy). "Beauty must be kept separate, and must be shown, and must be known."
She insisted he should use estate vineyards to launch a new line of wines.
"My husband said, 'I have no time to do these things,'" Walch, now 67, remembers with a laugh and a flash of her intense green eyes. "And I said, 'Give them to me—trust me."
Starting with those family vineyards and part of her husband's winery, Walch launched her own Elena Walch label. Over 30 years that have been part fairy tale with a big dose of entrepreneurial grit, Walch has achieved stellar international success with distinctive wines distributed in more than 50 countries.
It's a story that's continued into its second generation as Walch has turned over responsibility for her business to her two daughters, who've continued their mother's quest for improvement.
Like others in the Alto Adige, Walch started replanting the then-dominant overproductive red Schiava vineyards with more qualitative local and international varieties. She worked closely with the Walches' winemaker Gianfranco Faustin.
In the 1990s Walch began producing single-vineyard varietals from Castel Ringberg. The vineyard now boasts seven crus from Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Schiava.
But what sealed her reputation were two distinctive whites: The first, debuting with the 1997 vintage, was a Gewürztraminer from the family's Kastelaz vineyard perched above Termeno.
Unlike many sweet, perfumy or overripe Gewürztraminers, Walch aimed for delicate aromas and freshness.
"In Italy it became iconic," she says. "Italians still love Gewürztraminer."
Her 2015 Gewürztraminer Alto Adige Vigna Kastelaz ($35) scored 90 points in Wine Spectator blind tastings, though the U.S. remains a tough market for Gewürztraminer.
Walch followed up with another hit starting in 2000 with Beyond the Clouds (2014 vintage, 91 points, $65)—a barrel-fermented blend of Chardonnay and four other varieties crushed together.
"The idea was to show the vintage in one bouquet," says Walch.
Though the wine is always 80 percent Chardonnay, she doesn't reveal the recipe for the rest. Every vintage she completes the blend by picking four of the five varieties: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.
Four years ago her two daughters—Karoline, now 29, and Julia, 31—returned home after studying the wine business and winemaking in, respectively, Australia and France.
With their new responsibilities, the sisters moved quickly: Their first step was building a new gravity-fed winery across the way from the old one shared by their parents. The move gives them more flexibility for more parcel-by-parcel vineyard selections and for varied vinification styles.
"We felt there had been so much done in the vineyards, we wanted to continue that in the cellar," says Karoline.
The sisters are also growing Elena Walch from its 28-label, 50,000-case production. They've bought 45 acres of new vineyards both on the cooler west-facing slopes opposite Termeno and south in the Trento DOC appellation known for its classic method sparkling wines. This year they will harvest an old Chardonnay vineyard for about 650 cases of blanc de blancs that won't be released until at least 2022.
"It's a long-term project," Karoline says. "In wine you have to always look to the future."