A chance encounter at a wine tasting means new beginnings for this remote Italian cascina
Little did Summer Wolff know that a tip-off 13 years ago would change her life for ever. The American wine importer – and already long-term Italophile – was running gourmet tours of Tuscany with her business partner when they heard about an “impressive young winemaker” who was breathing new life into indigenous varieties and natural production in Monferrato, east of Turin.
Wasting no time in beating it up there, they arrived through the forest in the throes of the mid-autumn mist at dusk. “There was this romantic, other-worldliness about it that was so different to the Italy I knew,” Wolff recalls. “I was immediately enchanted.”
After entering the courtyard (“I was just in love with everything about it”), then the house (“The first words out of my mouth were, ‘Oh my God, I would love to have a kitchen like this’”), she headed down to the cellars, where she clapped eyes on her now-husband, Fabrizio Iuli.
“I don’t believe in love at first sight, but as soon as we started getting our noses into the glasses of wine and tasting from the barrels and the tanks – as us wine dorks do – there was this weird energy and attraction,” she says. “So, I like to say I fell in love with the wine and then Fabrizio, but if you go back a step further, I fell in love with the house, then the wine, then Fabrizio!”
That was in 2008 and by the following spring the pair were living together in the small village that had been home to Iuli’s family for five generations, but whose population had slowly shrunk to just 70 over the decades. It’s a common occurrence in lots of Italy’s rural towns: in Monferrato’s case, the opening of the Fiat factory in nearby Turin in the late 1960s and several debilitating seasons of hailstorms drove the farmers and their families to pastures new.
Since Wolff and her husband have lived there together, they have made it a labour of love to regenerate this corner of the world through their already established, but rapidly growing business, Cascina Iuli. One of the most exciting organic wineries in Italy, it specialises in local barbera, nebbiolo and grignolino grapes as well as two recent additions to the Italian registry of grape varieties: the once-abandoned slarina and the white wine grape baratuciat. With two young children – Ettore, five, and Gioacchino, seven – now running around, it is – needless to say – a round-the-clock operation.
We’re speaking over Zoom one evening in late September when the annual grape harvest is in full swing and to help them out, the couple work with the nonprofit World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (Wwoof) to host people, affectionately known as Wwoofers, to work the land. “It’s a great way to get people into organic farming and learn about the old systems,” says Wolff who, when we chat, has a house full. The pay-off is full board, so while Iuli is out in the fields with the seasonal crew, Wolff is hosting no fewer than seven different nationalities around her dinner table at any one time for breakfast, lunch and dinner (as well as continuing to run her own international import business and the Village Forest School she founded with a friend last year whose classroom is a yurt on the land).
This spontaneous, rich-mix melting pot is reflected in the interior of the family’s five-bedroom, five-bathroom home. “Having the space to respect Piedmont and Italy is really important to me, but so is bringing in a bit of the rest of the world through pieces that each have their own story,” she explains.
Trips to Sweden, Finland and Morocco have heavily influenced the set-up and colour scheme, with textiles the couple picked up on their wine travels complementing original tie-dye-effect terracotta-tiled rooms with original ceilings left alone above. The papier-mâché figurines that stand in the fireplace were rescued from the street by a friend in Milan. “He said they were perfect for us… Slowly but surely we’re starting to look like them,” Wolff laughs.
Built in the 1600s, the cascina has played home to many different families and its walls show its age with up to four centuries of different renderings. “There’s a big part of me that really wants to strip it right back,” Wolff says. “People pay so much to get that look, but it’s actually just what happens naturally over the years.”
Elsewhere, sink backsplashes are a collage of original 200-year-old hand-painted tiles from Japan, England, India and Piedmont, found by local interiors “guru and miracle worker” Paolo Virano. “When people sell their houses, they sell him their floor tiles and the old ones that have been saved are still cheaper than the ones from the companies making replicas. It was exactly what I wanted,” she says.
History is something that fascinates Wolff: “I’m always someone who is more interested in the past than the future. I love to know what people have done before me, rather than what is to come.” The main space of the house proves her point. The kitchen, which sits beneath the hay loft where Fabrizio’s grandfather would stay up late drinking wine and playing cards in secret with his pals (and where they still store their wine), spreads out into a huge open-plan room where a dining table built by Fabrizio and his father out of old wine barrels stands proudly – “Everything changes, but that’s the one piece I’m not allowed to touch,” Wolff says.
Above it hangs a mobile light installation by the artist Giovanni Tamburelli, featuring suspended metal fish. “Once upon a time in central Italy they would hang a fish over the table and scrape it so a bit of salt and flavour would go into their polenta,” she says.
Wolff, 44, has a clear appreciation of the richness of resourceful living. Asparagus is only eaten in April when it grows, cherries are only available in June, and “there’s no central heating, so in the winter it’s really cold in our house and in the summer it’s really warm!” she says. Most importantly: “Nobody punches a clock.” As modern-day life in rural Italy still goes, the family’s lifestyle is dictated to by the seasons rather than Monday-to-Friday 9-to-5. “Sometimes you work all hours and all weekend on the land, but then you take time out elsewhere,” says Wolff. “It’s a different, slower way of life.”
It’s an existence that Wolff humbly acknowledges is, for many, the idea of “the dream”, but anyone who has ever pursued such a thing knows it’s only ever hard won. “I’ve never lived in the UK, but in New York at least there’s a guilt sensation if you take a lunch break – if you even take a lunch break. Life is about work, not about life.”
In Monferrato there’s no escaping the life all around her. We happen to be chatting during one of her favourite times of year. “The cellar is beneath us, so when you walk out of the bedroom you can smell the grapes fermenting downstairs and it’s gorgeous,” she says. “It’s the two-week window when the whole house smells like wine.”
It’s a glorious full circle to what brought her here in the first place. “When I wake up in the morning, I look out on the sun bouncing off the vineyards in front of me – if you were to show me a picture I could tell you what time of year it is by the light.”