Renato Ratti’s family came from the Piedmont region. While studying at the renowned oenology school in Alba, he was recruited by Cinzano, the Turin vermouth company, which positioned the young Renato in Brazil. Soon after settling in his new home, he would be joined by his wife, Beatrice (“Bibi”), whom he met in Genoa shortly before he accepted the Cinzano post.
At first the couple enjoyed their time in São Paulo, where Renato became head of Cinzano’s South American operations. Though she was college educated, Bibi found the job opportunities limited and grew restless. The couple returned to Italy, where they felt job prospects for both of them would be more equitable. The year was 1965.
Once in Genoa and with plans to settle in Piedmont, Renato placed an ad in La Morra’s local paper: “I’m looking for a castle,” it read. The young winemaker always dreamed of owning a castle but those inside the wine region were out of reach. But outside the region was something he could afford, a small plot in the historic zone of Marcenasco, adjacent to the Abbey of L’Annunziata. Because monks built the ancient monastery with the intention of making wine, the surrounding land, Renato concluded, must be good for cultivating grapes. It was here where he created his first single-vineyard Marcenasco Barolo.
Bibi came from a sophisticated Genoese family. She was a city girl and reluctant to move somewhere so remote. But when Renato brought her to La Morra, she was instantly charmed. “He showed her this vineyard and she fell in love with the place,” says Pietro, pointing to a pretty plot of land by the visitor center. Over the years, Renato would purchase the surrounding vineyards, often bartering hard with local farmers who were reluctant to sell, gradually building the Ratti winery.
Much of Italy in the 1960s was rural, the wines were not stylish and the industry lacked the sophistication to make them so. “Wine was like food here; it wasn’t an intellectual drink but a simple alcoholic beverage,” explains Pietro. But his father saw an opportunity. He knew that the Nebbiolo grape and the local terroir were able to express a very different wine from place to place, even in a short distance.
Having visited Burgundy and Bordeaux and upon seeing how the appellation system worked favorably there, Renato suggested to a group of local winemakers that they take a similar approach, concentrating on quality and single-vineyard wines with a unique terroir-driven personality. Most importantly, he highlighted the significance of establishing an appellation system for Barolo.
“My father was a man of ideas but he was also pragmatic. He was a kind of messiah: people listened and followed him,” Pietro says. But, Renato ensured a democratic process. The collective discussed the rules and regulations for making Barolo, and working with a cartographer, Renato drew the map to define the appellation borders.
With two sons and a wife to support, he had to create another source of income while waiting for Barolo to age. So, Renato cultivated other varieties, such as Dolcetto, which is bottled a year after its vintage and makes easy, affordable wines that can be drunk sooner, and, thus, provide income.
Smiling, Pietro recalls his father’s ambitions. “His mind was bigger than the wines. He became a leader of the Italian wine movement. When I was a child people were calling him daily for advice. Our home was always full of interesting people, even Robert Mondavi came to visit. My father was a strong figure and everyone respected him.”
Pietro followed in his father’s footsteps, also studying at Alba’s oenology school. His plans to continue his education in social-political science in Milan were interrupted when Renato passed away. He was only 44 years old. The year was 1988 and Pietro had just turned 20. The family made a swift decision for him to run the winery alongside an older cousin who was already involved in the business. Renato had been a pragmatic man, and when he was diagnosed with cancer, he set about directing the transition. “He even wrote a book on how to do this,” Pietro recalls. When the cousin retired, Pietro bought his shares. “I remember telling my mum: let’s keep going in good and bad years. And she trusted me.”