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Winery creates rare gems in unsung region

Innovation at Umberto Cesari is a costly venture.

But the Italian winery, located in Emilia Romagna and founded in 1964 by its namesake, has never cut corners. Which is why Umberto’s son, Gianmaria Cesari, has continued to push forward with the bold vision of his late father.

The winery’s lab, or as Gianmaria affectionately dubbed it “our gym,” isn’t the place where he and staff go to tone up with dumbbells and barbells, but a portion of their vineyards dedicated to experimental varietals. It takes four to five years to see the results, and he estimated only one out of five plantings make it past the initial phase.

“It’s expensive to run a vineyard lab,” said Gianmaria on a Zoom call tasting. “But it’s important to us to push the limits. It’s an emotional experience to check in every six months on how a new wine is doing or how the vineyard has evolved. It’s priceless.”

When Umberto was alive, he traveled the wine regions of the world – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Portugal or Spain – it was always a research project.

“He believed he could take little pieces of excellence from around the world and bring them here,” Gianmaria said.

While inspiration can come from colleagues around the world, excellence for Umberto Cesari is in the vineyard, cellar and commitment to its standards. Only in the best growing seasons is an Umberto Cesari Tauleto produced. Occasionally, there’s a vintage that doesn’t meet the established standard and Gianmaria has to gently let down a loyal customer in search of Tauleto. The secret is to find the estate bottling in these “off years,” as chances are it’s pretty terrific.

A blend of 90% sangiovese and 10% uva longanesi, a local grape fostered in the “Cesari gym” and introduced to their portfolio, the Umberto Cesari Tauleto Sangiovese Rubicone IGT 2014 ($65) has vanilla and dried flowers on the nose, there’s an elegance to the wine as the tannins, fruit and acidity all feel perfectly harmonized. There’s black cherry and balsamic flavors in a wine Gianmaria said is “the pillar of (their) winery.”

The Umberto Cesari Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva DOC 2017 ($22) has aromas of dried violets, dried leather and dusty ground coffee. It’s got black cherry and exotic spice flavors.

Emilia Romagna is still a region where farmers are focused on volume. Like his father, Gianmaria also has traveled the world but on a different mission. His is to promote the family’s vision of the promise held by the vineyards in his hometown.

Progress hasn’t always been linear when wines are tasted, and his family’s story is told. Surrounded by other wines from Emilia Romagna in wine bins or on shelves that sell for $7.99 can be a tough stigma to overcome.

“Frustration is my most common sentiment,” Gianmaria said. “Quality comes at a cost and that’s reflected in our shelf price. My father was a visionary, but he needed huge investments to make his dreams a reality. It’s a huge challenge to go to markets in Chicago and New York and try to explain our story and our vision, but it’s part of our strategy and it’s my passion.”

There was a time when Gianmaria wondered what his father saw in Emilia Romagna. Tuscany isn’t far away. When he was younger, Gianmaria asked his father why he didn’t take a short car ride to a region with an established reputation, where demand allows producers to command higher prices for their wines.

“My father would say (he) was born, raised and grew up here,” Gianmaria said. “This place was always in his heart. I always loved the reason was that he dreamed to be No. 1 in Emilia Romagna and No. 150 in Tuscany. He wanted to open a new road.”

As he carried his laptop computer outside for a glimpse at the sprawling vineyards and gentle rolling hills, Gianmaria proudly revealed the heart of the winery. While it was an early morning tasting, it was well after 5 p.m. in Italy, a perfect time to show and tell the Umberto Cesari story.

“When I bring the wine to someone that tastes, appreciates it and listened, that’s the greatest privilege,” Gianmaria said. “To tell who we are.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at

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