Book Review: Labor of Love, by Suzanne Hoffman
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Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte by Suzanne Hoffman is a visually beautiful read, filled with captivating stories of twenty-two winemaking families of this northern Italian region.
Suzanne Hoffman, an attorney by trade and freelance journalist, became acquainted with Piemonte over the thirty years she and her husband lived in Switzerland. For fourteen of those years, they traveled frequently to Piemonte, where she began to uncover stories about winemakers.
She discovered there was a wealth of history and untold stories, particularly about the women of winemaking families. They were indispensable partners, working alongside their husbands, fathers, and sons to help successfully run the winery, yet were often unmentioned or forgotten. They made decisions in purchasing land, spearheaded marketing, tracked family finances, worked in the vineyards, and much more. All the roles that men “traditionally” played were revealed to be the traditional roles of many women, too. These are the stories Suzanne recounts in her well-written and engaging book.
Labor of Love is a captivating read for its stunning photography and compelling content. Full-color, glossy photos grace almost every page, depicting the people, landscapes, vineyards, homes, and black and white or sepia-toned vintage family photographs of families from the Langhe, Monferrato, and Roero. The content is filled with facts, but that doesn’t make for stale reading; quite the opposite! It is akin to becoming engrossed in a good book as opposed to reading quick, impersonal articles online; or to living in Italy to experience the country and its culture first-hand, rather than hearing about it from across the Atlantic. The stories pulled me in.
Suzanne recorded over two hundred hours of one-on-one interviews with family members and producers, sometimes with a translator. The resulting stories are written warmly, filled with personal memories, anecdotes, family histories, and—my favorite—stories from when World War II came to the region. Woven together, they form a complete picture of what has created the wine culture of this part of Piemonte. What you won’t find in Labor of Love are tasting notes and technical notes on specific Piemontese grape varieties or winemaking techniques.
It is said that knowing the story behind a wine makes it much more enjoyable. Suzanne does this ten times over; it is a book to read slowly, ideally to savor alongside a glass of wine.
Throughout the book, many hidden gems reward the reader. Facts and philosophies are revealed that otherwise may have remained buried forever. For example, I loved discovering that there is an oak tree planted at the crux of three wine regions, the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato. Or, I enjoyed reading quotes from the winemakers. Their winemaking philosophies often encompass life lessons. In describing the work of tying the vines, “Angela [Scavino] recalled sap coming from the vines as they were twisted. ‘The vines would cry. To grow well, you must have some pain.’” Or Chiara Boschis of the Barolo winery E. Pira e Figli says, “Consistency is most important to success. Weather can be changeable, but winemakers must be consistent,” a determination that could be applied to many careers: just replace “weather” with “market demands” or “customers,” and “winemakers” with another job title.
This book would be enjoyable for a wide variety of audiences because of its personal tone and fascinating stories. However, I do believe that those who already have some knowledge of Piemonte will get the most out of it. They will find their perceptions of Piemonte and its viticulture growing more profound and complex, a gratifying experience while reading. Connecting names and dates to major historic events is a pleasure, and an overarching theme of overcoming adversity through working together—men and women, despite what labels say or “official” history reports—provides a richer context for the region’s wine heritage (and while tasting its wines!).
Overall, the deep ties that the Piemontese feel for their vineyards and land is very apparent. There is the sensation of continuity and building for the future, even with the knowledge that the most enduring fruits of labor might be appreciated and acknowledged only years down the road. In a fast-paced world of immediate recognition, online fame, and pining for often-empty leisure time, this is certainly another important lesson to take from the book.