Whenever I leave my home in Milan, the greater metropolitan stretch on the autostrada on the road to Bologna, I always look out for the Mediolanum Forum complex (home to Italy’s renowned Olimpia Milano basketball team), and the three Autrogrills. Then, all of a sudden, the view from the road becomes a long flat stretch of green trees protecting glimpses of the agricultural lands of south Lombardia. Delineated by three important rivers, this stretch of the region’s border is rich in agriculture and dairy — it’s also known as cheese country, notably Grana Padano and Mascarpone. (It’s also home to Codogno). As I approach the border into Emilia Romagna, I am usually headed to the crystal clear Trebbia river for a swim. After that, lunch is always gnocco fritto and to wash it down the salumi, the wines of Colli Piacentini, the rolling Hills of Piacenza, a little known area dotted with wineries along the roads, producing less than 1M bottles in total. While right over the border of Lombardia, I feel a sense of adventure when I exit the autrostrada for Rivergaro. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of the flatlands becoming hilly and vine-covered, before my eyes. The area is known for the somewhat obscure Gutturnio DOC, made most often from a blend of Barbera with Croatina. A few years ago, thanks to my longtime friend Rachel Signer of Pipette Magazine, I learned about La Stoppa. Rachel and I had planned to kick-off our Northern Italy natural wine tour this year at La Stoppa and I’ve been lucky to get to know these admirable folks. They are pioneers in their methodology and highly respected in the region and abroad. Certified organic and just the road from my favorite trattoria Bellaria where you’ll find their wines on the menu. I truly began to understand the agriculture of the area when I first visited La Stoppa. With their ship-shape tasting room, welcoming winery dogs, Medieval castle ruins and on a clear day, a view of the French Alps, the setting happens to also be spectacular.
La Stoppa’s tools
Elena Pantaleoni’s family bought the La Stoppa estate in 1973. She has focused her work in the 30 hectares of vineyards (leaving 28 to nature), managed according to the organic method. Cultivated by hand, they grow Barbera and Bonarda for red grapes, Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, Ortrugo and Trebbiano for white grapes. Her Ageno was recognized less than a month ago in the New York Times in an article by Eric Asimov on orange wines.
Elizabeth: Please describe your activity as an artisan?
Elena: La Stoppa has existed long before I came to be its custodian. My father was from a printing background but had grown up with the idea of having this farm with his family. In 1973, he realized his dream and was able to acquire La Stoppa. Then in 1991, I inherited the estate after his sudden passing. Having not studied enology or farming, I chose to move to the farm and began to understand with time that nature is much more powerful than any of our will. I saw that we have to work together with and not against it, that its power needs to be respected. For me, farming organically is a prerequisite. It is the base for us to better understand what existed before me and helps us to capture and translate it into the wine. Wine has always been produced here, nowadays we feel closer to a larger idea of farming; in fact, we’ve introduced beekeeping and a very large garden project to illustrate the potential for this bountiful place and the diversity that exists in nature.
E: What is your client base like?
Elena: Most of our wines end up being consumed in restaurants and wine bars. More than half of the production leaves Italy and travels to 30 different countries. However, like many regions in Italy, there is still a strong local reception for our wines. We receive lots of private customers who have the habit of coming directly to the cellar to buy wines for their everyday consumption. In the last few years we have also seen the same type of customers arriving from around Europe and the world, coming to discover us directly at the farm.
E: When did you see things changing after the pandemic of Covid-19 hit?
Elena: I was in Chile. There was a need to come back to Italy when the first case came out in Codogno – which is very close to here. Upon arriving at Linate Airport in Milan the following weekend, I realized the gravity of the situation when I saw that the airport was completely empty.
La Stoppa’s packing room, boxing Trebbiolo Rosso
E: What has changed in your day-to-day activity?
Elena: At the estate, nothing has really changed this season. Spring has sprung and there is a lot to do outside. Nature stops for no one, and fortunately, we have the opportunity to safely continue our work outside. However, spring is also the season when we start to receive lots of guests and host an array of events at our agriturismo. This is also when we travel to various small wine fairs to connect with our community and friends abroad. Needless to say, this has stopped.
E: How long can you stay in business in this situation?
Elena: In my time here, I’ve seen that this job requires constant adapting. I’ve seen that you can build a community with work – from our suppliers, employees, to our clients – it takes all of us working and reciprocating in order to keep going. To reinforce this idea, when there is a lot of fear and doubt, I made sure to reach out to all of the moving parts in our community, writing to say that we will remain steadfast and resilient, continuing to support one another financially and otherwise. It sometimes takes just a conversation or a letter to help lift us up when there are uncertain times.
We are able to stay in business because of the strong foundation of this community that we have built over the years. We must continue and are taking advantage of these times to perform smaller jobs and investments on the estate; using this time to focus on what we wanted to change and improve all while working within our means. We are not selling as much as before, so we must be innovative and adapt. We have released and begun shipping some new products (like our wine vinegar) as some older library vintages of wine to keep our clients still engaged when they are unable to come directly to us. The majority of our wines are aged for many years before their release and having this in play allows for more economic flexibility in the end. Above all, we will survive because this is the very essence of working with nature: you can predict seasons, but not precisely. If we were to experience hail or the like, these surprises are not surprising.
E: What do you foresee in the future?
Elena: In the words of Lorenzo di Medici ‘chi vuol esser lieto, sia: del doman non v’è certezza’ – ‘who wants to be happy, be it, there is no certainty for tomorrow’.
We are all guests on this land; there is never certainty. I live day to day and by being a farmer, I am constantly reminded of these cycles of life and death. The spontaneity of nature keeps us on our toes, constantly striving to do our best, be happy, and give respect. Accepting that some things are under my control and most are not. What I can control is my choice to remain positive and creative, finding solutions to adapt well to the people and situations along the way. This is the best solution and knowing that the rest is not up to us.
Giulio Armani, enologist
E: What’s your wish for the years to come?
Elena: My dream is that these times teach everyone how important it is to be careful and respectful to our planet. My hope is that we collectively see that earth’s resources are not infinite and that all of our gestures should be made bearing this in mind. We must learn to go slower. My hope is that this event will provoke a change for the better and we will realize that in this short life, we need to work in harmony with nature and each other.
E: Finally please nominate or suggest a person that you would like to see us interview.
Elena: Arianna Occhipinti
A nice video of Elena at the Real Wine Fair 2016 in London.