The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

A View from Cupano

Posted on | January 18, 2012 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

Ornella Tondini and Lionello Cousin are the kind of people who make you feel as if anything is possible. They’re wildly interesting, curious people with manes of interesting, curious hair that surrounds their heads like sunspots. They’ve lived lives packed to the rafters with adventures, successes and challenges—Ornella holds a degree in Art History and has both worked at Rome’s Villa Borghese and started a magazine in London; Lionello, who is French and whose Frenchness imbues his wines, is a documentary filmmaker who has traversed the globe from the North Pole to Antarctica, from Sudan to South America. They both just about crackle with intensity, even as they’re kind, generous and luminous.

Ornella is the kind of person for whom everything is a superlative. When she talks about her life, everything is “the most exciting,” “the most fabulous,” “the most beautiful.”

“Yes,” Ornella said, remembering a house she lived in that had no electricity or running water, “it was the most fantastic house. So, so beautiful.”

“Didn’t you have children at this point?” I asked, imagining a dim hell of how it would be to raise kids, change diapers and cook for a family without the benefit of modern conveniences.

“Yes! And we all agree—living in that house was the best, the most wonderful, time in our lives!” And then Ornella continued, describing in phrases and lush gestures the multitudes of candles around the villa, the wax sculptures their burning formed, and the wonder of it all.

If Ornella is relentlessly positive, her husband Lionello is quietly supportive. He has that kind of self-effacing charm that works to put anyone at ease. He apologized to me for his bad English, which given my Italian that makes drunk toddlers look articulate was beyond polite; later, as the evening I spent in their company wore on, Lionello was coaxed to show pictures of crossing the deserts in Egypt while filming (and telling some gripping tales about necessary camel eating).

Together, Ornella and Lionello have crafted a life so full it bulges. They have a big family, and they have a small, organically grown estate in Montalcino, where they make gorgeous Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino, and a Bordeaux-style blend, Ombrone Sant’Antimo. The wine is very hard to get in the United States—right now, IWM is the sole retailer—but it’s worth finding. A Cupano Brunello is elegant, generous and refined. Most importantly, at least to me, one whiff of it transports me to a magical evening I spent on the estate. I felt like Charles Ryder encountering Brideshead for the first time.

Cupano sits on a rolling plain at the far edges of Montalcino. Off in the distance, you can see the Banfi castle; to the left, you can see the medieval hilltop town of Camigliano. And that’s it. The stone villa of Ornella and Lionello’s, a structure that Banfi used to use as a hunting camp and which the couple acquired as a gutted wreck, sits by itself, all the better to watch the pink sunset, see the lemon-lavender twilight steal across the countryside, and view the black sky studded with stars.

The estate’s isolation means that the family’s Maremma sheepdog, many feral Tuscan tabbies, and even their horse, Cavallo, can roam at will. The earth curves downward from the house, the vines stretch out, the light does what the light does, conversation sparkles, and how can it not? The wine is very, very good.

Some families are just more magical than others. This premise underlies many stories—novels, histories, films and myths. But when you meet people like Ornella and Lionello, you can’t help but see where the idea comes from. These are people who make you believe your dreams. And that, even more than their gorgeous wine, may be their biggest, most generous gift.


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