For Love and Vino

An American artist makes a wine life in central Italy—and others follow

For Love and Vino
Winemaking was an afterthought when Claudia Rizza and Ev Thomas bought their property in Umbria so that the artist could more easily travel in and out of Rome. Now it is the center of their life. (Robert Camuto)
Oct 20, 2020

Ev Thomas never planned to become a winemaker. But love drew him to Italy, and there he found an old vineyard.

The tale of serendipity behind Umbria’s boutique Terramante winery involves an American bootstrapping it in Europe with his Italian bride and a lot of backbreaking work—made even more dramatic by the protagonist’s age. Thomas is now 70 and not slowing down.

An Illinois native, Thomas was working in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s as an artist and a museum conservator. In 2000 and 2001, painting fellowships took him to Italy, where he visited his friend, Claudia Rizza, who had divorced and moved back to her hometown of Marsala, Sicily, with her two children.

Things turned romantic. When Thomas returned to the States, “I told everybody, ‘I’ve decided to move to Italy.’”

The couple lived in the house of Rizza’s late father, in the countryside of Marsala, famed for its fortified wines. But Ev, who regularly traveled stateside and shipped his massive paintings there, found logistics difficult. So they started looking for their own place in central Italy, closer to Rome.

In Umbria, they fell upon a romantic ruin: a medieval stone tower along the Tiber River in the tiny hamlet of Montemolino (pop. 50), part of the historic commune of Todi.

“The only thing it had was a roof,” recalls Thomas. “It cost more than we had. And it hadn’t been inhabited for 50 years.”

They made a low offer, which, to their surprise, was accepted. The sale closed in February 2004.

“After we paid for the house, we had €6 in our pocket. We couldn’t even stay in a hotel, so we slept there with no heat or electricity or water,” says Rizza, 53. “That night I was laying on the floor in a sleeping bag in the dark thinking, ‘My God, what have we done?’”

The place came with about 11 acres—empty fields, woods and an olive grove—rising up a slope from the tower. Fatefully, there were also five rows of neglected Sangiovese and Montepulciano vines.

In late summer, I visited the couple at their tower, now a kind of bohemian country idyll, with a stone terrace at the foot of their meticulously kept vineyards. The amount of work it took to get this point—with little money or help—is more than impressive.

Claudia Rizza and Ev Thomas in front of the ancient stone tower on their Umbrian property
Claudia Rizza and Ev Thomas appear to lead an idyllic life now, but when they started renovating the three-story stone tower they bought, they were camping without heat, electricity or water. (Robert Camuto)

After buying their ruin, Thomas and Rizza married, and for two summers—with kids in tow—they camped out here, fetching water from a nearby public fountain. Finally, they met a mason who agreed to help renovate the tower for a bargain sum. He also asked Thomas’ permission to use the grapes.

The following spring, in 2006, Thomas visited from Sicily, and the mason asked if he would like to taste the wine. “He was really excited about it,” Thomas remembers. “So I tasted it …. It was barely drinkable. I had to smile and say, ‘Tastes like wine!’”

Thomas later made a proposal to his wife: “Why don’t we make wine? We can do better than that.”

An octogenarian neighbor volunteered to help tend and treat the vineyard that first year. At harvest, he told them, he would teach Thomas to make wine.

The farmer and his friends bumped up the dirt drive with a plastic fermenting vat strapped to the roof of an old Fiat towing a small destemming machine. They set up in the tower’s old stables.

“We laughed the night through, with these three 80-year-old guys who were cussing, joking and smoking,” says Thomas. “I never had so much fun in my life.”

Thomas aged the wine in a pair of refurbished, used barriques; two years later, the couple hand-filled and corked 600 bottles—a few of which Thomas packed on a trip to California to share with wine-loving friends.

“They told me, ‘It’s not bad. You should make wine and sell it,’” Thomas recalls.

Thomas’ wine dream quickly became an obsession.

He stopped painting for good, began planting Sangiovese clones from Montalcino and timed trips to California to take viticulture and enology classes at the University of California at Davis and to confer with winemakers.

Among those he befriended was Rollie Heitz—youngest son of the late, legendary Napa vintner Joe Heitz—who produced small-lot Cabernet at his Midsummer Cellars in St. Helena, then sold his operation to start again in Todi.

After meeting Thomas in California, Heitz says he and his wife, Sally, decided to tour Umbria. Terramante’s wines impressed him, exhibiting “forward fruit and excellent balance and finish across the board.”

“We came over, saw their operation, tasted the wines and traveled a bit throughout the area. Three years later, we were living and making wine in Umbria,” says Heitz, who in 2018 bought Tenuta Montorsolo, 10 miles east of Terramante. “It’s Ev’s fault! The wines and the area did, in fact, inspire us to make the leap.”

Thomas and Rizza dry farm—often with the help of volunteers traveling as part of the Workaway exchange program—following organic principles, along with some biodynamic practices, but are not certified. Thomas has little regard for Italian bureaucracy.

“I told him we needed planting rights,” Rizza recalls of him adding vines year after year. “And he said, ‘I don’t need any rights—this is my land.’ So I was running after him buying rights as he was planting.”

They now have 5 acres under vine, most of it Sangiovese with some Sagrantino planted in clay-sand soils; an adjacent slope of limestone and silica soils is planted to Syrah.

In 2009, they moved their production, renting the cramped historic winemaking cellar of Montemolino’s church for their experiments. Five years later, they began offering samples at wine fairs. Three years after that, they began selling their wines, which have developed a following of mostly northern European vacationers and importers.

Topping their offerings is Laudatus, their long-aged Sangiovese with 15 percent Sagrantino, which spends three years in large, neutral oak tonneau. Iubello is a 100 percent Sangiovese with two years of barrel aging. The Porcamiseria (which translates roughly as “dammit”) Sangiovese ages at least a year in barrel. Eurosia rosé blends Sangiovese and Syrah.

Thomas isn’t stopping here. Earlier this year, he bought a 10-acre alfalfa field on a high, exposed bluff. After contracting the clearing of tons of boulders, he plans to plant it next spring to Syrah vinestock from Côte-Rôtie.

As the sun drops low in the summer sky, Thomas, Rizza and I ride out a couple of miles to the now-empty field. Looking over the expanse of turned soil, Rizza sighs, and says, “Ev is the dreamer. He is crazy. He is 70 years old and planting vineyards. Who else does that?”

Thomas listens patiently and answers: “The truth is I love it. I wasn’t joking when I said I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”

People Red Wines Sangiovese Italy Umbria

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