Pio Boffa, Piedmont Wine Patriarch, Dies of COVID-19

The visionary leader of the historic Pio Cesare winery converted his family's négoce operation to one focused on Barolo and Barbaresco's top vineyards

Pio Boffa, Piedmont Wine Patriarch, Dies of COVID-19
Pio Boffa was driven from a young age to help his family's winery innovate and grow. (Sandro Michahelles)
Apr 18, 2021

Pio Boffa, leader of the Pio Cesare winery in Italy's Piedmont, died this weekend after a two-week battle with COVID-19. He was 66.

A fourth-generation winemaker, Boffa spent four decades converting Pio Cesare from an acclaimed négociant to a high-end estate winery with more than 173 vineyard acres in Barolo and Barbaresco. He was perhaps best known as a tireless global ambassador for Piedmont wines.

"The long history of Barolo has been made by great people who set an example for others, and Pio was one of those people," said friend and fellow winemaker Davide Rosso of Giovanni Rosso. "He was an entrepreneur with a vision of quality—absolute quality—to put Barolo on the wine lists of all the top restaurants in the world."

Boffa's death came after multiple pandemic lockdowns in Italy, during which he bristled about not being able to travel the globe and visit clients. "He was like a lion in a cage. He was really upset about having to stay in the office," his daughter and only child, Federica Boffa, 23, told Wine Spectator. "He was used to traveling 200 days a year—that was life."

Federica, who will take over the business with the help of her cousin, Cesare Benvenuto, 47, said that her father worried he would be struck ill from COVID, because of past lung complications, and that spurred him to hasten the transition to the fifth generation.

"He was convinced he was going to have COVID and that he wouldn't make it," she said. "So he taught me a lot in this year. He taught me how run a winery, how to run a business and how to carry on a family legacy.”

"I will carry on his legacy now with even more strength and energy and commitment," she added.

Pio Cesare is an unusual winery—a producer of more than 30,000 cases annually, divided among 12 modest-to-small production wines. Key family members, led by Boffa, managed every aspect of the operation. Boffa's death came just two months ahead of the release of a pair of limited-edition bottlings to mark the winery's 140th anniversary: a Barolo Riserva 2000 and a 2017 blend of four vineyards in Serralunga d'Alba.

The winery was founded by Pio Boffa's enterprising maternal great-grandfather, Cesare Pio, in 1881 in an old cellar in the center of Alba—positioned between Barolo and Barbaresco. Over the next century, the winery won medals at international competitions and stuck to a philosophy of quality over quantity.

Born in Alba in 1954, Boffa was the youngest of three children and the only one interested in the family business. Following his high-school graduation he traveled to Napa for a summer internship in the cellars of Robert Mondavi Winery, where he learned about precision viticulture and winemaking.

Back home in the 1970s, he began university, studying business administration, but returned home not long after to learn the wine business from his father, Giuseppe. Boffa's commitment convinced his father to buy the family's first vineyards in the Il Bricco cru in Barbaresco and Ornato cru in Serralunga d'Alba in Barolo. Boffa, in search of a great white, also convinced his father to allow him to replant about 7 acres of Nebbiolo in Il Bricco with Chardonnay.

Within the next decade, Boffa was running the winery and began producing single-vineyard crus with 1985 Ornato Barolo, and a Chardonnay Langhe Piodilei, followed in 1990 by Barbaresco Il Bricco.

Boffa wrote recently that the idea was never to claim single-vineyard bottlings were better than classic Barolo: "Our philosophy is the multi-cru opposed to the cru; the multi–single-vineyard blend opposed to the single-vineyard wine. The characteristics of the single-vineyard cru might be unique and extraordinary, but our Barolo has always been an expression of the uniqueness and extraordinary nature of the whole Barolo region."

For his 60th birthday in winter 2014, he bought a present of nearly 25 acres of old vineyards planted in the 1940s to 1960s in Monforte d'Alba's Mosconi cru. Those vineyards became the source of two more single-vineyard wines: Barolo Mosconi (first vintage 2015) and Fides Barbera d'Alba Superiore "Vigna Mosconi" (from 2017). Since 2014, Pio Cesare has only produced estate wines.

A sometimes eclectic winemaker, Boffa innovated with more popularly priced wines that combined Nebbiolo with Pinot Noir and also Bordeaux varieties. In 2016, he and his daughter and nephew revived the long-abandoned family tradition of making fortified herbal vermouth and Barolo Chinato.

But his first passion remained Langhe's great wine traditions. "Pio's heart was in making super classic wines," Rosso said.

One of his last purchases was approximately 7 acres in the Colli Tortonesi Timorasso appellation more than 50 miles northeast of Alba, where his dream was to replant and make a long-aged Timorasso white. Planting is set for later this spring. "This new project will take few years," he wrote recently, "but we have plenty of time."

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