The Newest Super Tuscan Wine Has Roots in Family Farming

February 28, 2019

The partnership that resulted in the Tuscan winery Urlari started on a ski lift in Portillo, Chile, and today its wines are imported by a company based in Teton Village, Wyoming, the small community at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

Italian co-founder Roberto Cristoforetti is both a certified fruit farmer and handcrafts custom ski boots for the world’s best ski racers. (Since the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, 83 Olympic medals have been won in Cristoforetti-made boots by skiers including Alberto Tomba, Hermann Maier, Tommy Moe, Picabo Street, and Julia Mancuso; he plans to retire after the 2019-2020 race season.) Urlari’s other co-founder, Mary Kate Buckley, has skied her entire adult life and this past summer started as president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. In 2002, the two found themselves on a lift together in Portillo.

Initially they chatted—in German, because that was their common language—about athletic footwear. At the time, Buckley was Regional Vice President and General Manager for Nike’s Americas Region and was curious that top World Cup racers all had custom boots. As their friendship grew, Buckley soon learned of Cristoforetti’s passion for wine, which had its roots in his friendship with Italian ski racer Alberto Tomba (who was known as much for being an oenophile as for his dominance in skiing’s technical events). 

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Tomba invited Cristoforetti to accompany him to wineries in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Chile, and California. Buckley had been introduced to fine wine in the mid-1990s when she was working for Disney and based in Hong Kong but often working in Tokyo. “In Tokyo, I sat in an office next to Guy [Aelvoet, president of Disney Consumer Products in Japan] and he became my mentor and a friend,” she says. “Guy shared his appreciation for fine food and fine wines. When [he] introduced me to a new wine, he’d not only introduce me to the quality of its attributes, but could speak articulately about the winery that produced it and details that translated [it] from being simply a great product in a bottle to a reflection of the deep passion and rich histories of its owners.”

By the time Cristoforetti and Buckley met, he was a partner in a start-up Tuscan winery. Later, he mentioned to Buckley that he was thinking about planting his own vineyards. (He grew up in a family of fruit farmers.) Inspired by his passion and always looking for new challenges, Buckley encouraged him, offered to be his partner, and to help—initially with marketing, and, eventually, sales. (Of course Buckley checked in with her wine mentor, Aelvoet: “When I told him I was thinking about starting a winery in Tuscany, he weighed in, first to warn me how challenging it would be to start a winery from nothing, but then to support with advice and cheer me on at every stage,” she says.)

Cristoforetti began searching for suitable land and, in 2004, found it. It was while Buckley and Cristoforetti stood on a 25-acre plot of sheep pasture in Riparbella, in Tuscany’s coastal Maremma region 4 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea, that they created the product vision for Urlari. The sloping pasture has an elevation between 700 and 800 feet and is surrounded by dense forests in which locals hunt for wild boars.

As the pasture was being transformed into vineyards—15 of the 25 acres were planted—evidence of it being cultivated since Etruscan times was found, including fragments of a wine vessel, a hairpiece, and a coin dating to 200 B.C. that eventually inspired the winery’s labels. Unusual for the region, Cristoforetti planted grapes very close together. (This is seen more often in Bordeaux.) “When the plants are so close, they fight for the limited water, so only the strong plants and grapes survive, and those that survive are going to be more intense than they otherwise would be,” he says.

To make Urlari’s first wines, Cristoforetti approached winemaker Jean-Philippe Fort, even though the Bordeaux native had never before agreed to work with a winery outside of France. (More than 40 percent of the wines Fort consults for are Grand Cru Classe, including Chateau Angelus, a Premier Grand Cru.) Intrigued by Urlari’s terroir and facilities, Fort agreed, officially bringing together the three world wine cultures Cristoforetti most esteems: Italian, American, and French. In 2010, using the 2008 vintage, Urlari produced about 8,000 bottles of its first wine, Pervale, a blend of Sangiovese (28%), Cabernet Sauvignon (25%), Cabernet Franc (25%), Merlot (15%), and Alicante Bouschet (7%). “Roberto sold these mostly from the back of his car throughout Italy,” Buckley says. Urlari’s second vintage, 2009, produced 24,000 bottles, and the winery extended its distribution. Its first export customer was Aelvoet’s son-in-law, who owned a restaurant in Belgium. “He bought 50 cases based solely on Guy’s recommendation,” Buckley says.

Not all sales were so easy though. “We thought the hard part would be making the wine, but the really hard part is selling it,” says Buckley. “There are so many wine labels in the U.S., and nobody needs another one.” She briefly looked for an importer, but was unsuccessful. “So I got my importer license,” she says. “If you look at the label today, you’ll see it says ‘Imported by Urlari USA, LLC Teton Village, WY.’” (Buckley bought a home at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort the year after she and Cristoforetti bought the land for Urlari and she became a full-time Wyoming resident in 2009.) Her strategy was to sell wine to stores and restaurants in Jackson Hole and also to restaurants in New York City. “It’s the most competitive market in which everyone wants to sell their wine,” she says. “While I had never sold wine or anything else, I had confidence that the most sophisticated wine directors in New York would recognize and buy a truly unique, high-quality wine.”

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In Jackson Hole, Buckley was able to walk into wine shops and restaurants without appointments and talk with owners and sommeliers. Dennis Johnson, the now-semi-retired manager of Dornan’s Wine Shop, which has a 1,500-plus bottle list and has earned a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence every year for 31 years, remembers the first time Buckley came in. “She walked into the shop and told me she had started a winery in Italy,” he says. “We like helping out smaller, individual wineries that are giving it a go, so I tasted the wines. It was nice stuff, a really, really good quality wine. I had no doubt it would sell.” Other bottle shops and restaurants in Jackson Hole quickly followed.

Making inroads in New York was more difficult. “I got a copy of Wine Spectator’s list of best restaurants for wine,” Buckley says. “And then I cold-called the ones in New York City.” Most restaurants wouldn’t see her, but “the ones I got in front of with the wine bought it,” she says. After Buckley had gotten Urlari onto the wine lists of restaurants like Keens Steakhouse, Delmonicos, Bar Italia, and Caravaggio, importers took notice. Today Urlari’s three wines—Pervale, L’Urlo (100% Merlot), and Ritasso (100% Sangiovese)—are sold through distributors in Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, and importers in the NY/NJ/ CT area and Pennsylvania. The 2017 New York International Wine Competition recognized Urlari as the Tuscan Winery of the Year, and its 2011 vintage Pervale won a “Double Gold” from a panel of top wine critics. James Suckling, regarded as one of the world’s top wine critics, has awarded scores of 93 points for Pervale, 93 points for L’Urlo, and 92 points for Ritasso.

On the phone in the middle of the most recent harvest, I asked Cristoforetti if Olympic skiers or grapes are more difficult to work with. He didn’t hesitate: “Grapes.” And that makes Urlari’s success all the sweeter. Buckley says, “Building a new business from scratch—literally going from standing in a sheep pasture and envisioning a wine made from grapes of plants that have yet to be planted and encountering hurdles along the way, to winning awards and having people enjoy all of our work—that’s so much fun.”