Inside a Palm Beach Couple’s Tuscan Winery

Photography by Fabio Mirulla

To get to Livernano, a tiny hamlet in the heart of Italy’s Chianti region, one must turn off a perfectly comfortable highway and endure two miles of what the charming Italian driver calls “dirty roads.” On these lanes, two cars barely fit side by side, which is particularly unnerving on the hairpin bends. When the inevitable dust settles, a cornerstone comes into focus. The sign on it reads, Per Aspera ad Astra—Latin for “through hardship to the stars.”

It could be a metaphor for the long gravel road and the reward that lies beyond it—an enchanting inn and restaurant atop a hill from which tumble rows of Sangiovese vines. When an attendant approaches with a bottle of wine and two glasses—“Benvenuti a Livernano!”—the effort to get there evaporates, leaving only long views of vineyards and olive groves and spindly cypress trees, and the feeling that all is right in the world.

This is the Tuscan idyll that Palm Beachers Gudrun and Bob Cuillo built—but as the Latin phrase suggests, it didn’t come easy. When they came to the area 21 years ago, none of this existed. Bob, whose parents were immigrants from southern Italy, had vowed to buy them a home in the old country as a reward for their sacrifices, but they both passed away before he was financially able to make good on his promise. He never forgot it, though, and as soon as he rose from rags to riches—a former New York detective, he bought automotive dealerships, sold them, and became a successful producer of Broadway musicals—he went to Italy in search of real estate. A realtor told him about a thousand-year-old farmhouse on a hilltop in Tuscany. It wasn’t exactly move-in ready, but he fell in love with the panorama of verdant hills and purchased it on the spot.

Gudrun entered the picture in 1997. After a short courtship, they decided to marry, and Bob brought her to the village of Casalvento and to the house on the hill, which desperately needed a loving touch. She adored the house but was mostly intrigued by what came with it: almost 19 acres of Chianti Classico appellation rights. Gudrun, who grew up in a wine region of Austria and whose family had built wine cellars, suggested they plant the property and produce wine for personal consumption.

“It seemed like a dream to live around a vineyard,” she says. “At first, we weren’t planning to make the wine ourselves, but have a neighboring estate do it.”

Two and a half years into planting Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet, and Alicante grapes, the idea of winemaking came into sharper focus. “It was a secret wish of mine that I would one day have a winery,” she says. “From a hobby, it became a passion.”

They then found Livernano, an estate situated atop a hill they could see from their backyard. “A Swiss guy was making wine there as a hobby,” Gudrun says. “We asked him if he was interested in selling, and we bought it in 2002.”

Once an Etruscan stronghold, the hamlet of Livernano dates back to 500 BCE. From the seventeenth century to World War II, it was a farming village producing corn and cattle, but it was abandoned as people left the countryside for work in the cities. When the Cuillos acquired the land, there wasn’t much there, so they went to the archives in Siena and found records from medieval times. They reconstructed the hamlet, stone by stone, to reflect the original plan and inserted modern conveniences to make it functional.

They planted the property with Sangiovese, Cabernet, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc, while also expanding to other agricultural opportunities. Though olives existed, they added onto the grove, populating it with nearly 1,600 roots. They rehabilitated or brought in other trees—chestnuts, pears, apples, plums, cherries—and introduced beehives so they could make their own honey. They cultivated sunflowers and lavender for beauty, and coaxed from the earth practically every vegetable native to the region.

Now in command of 540 productive acres encompassing the hills of Livernano and Casalvento and all the land in between, they stepped up the winemaking effort. Their first vintage—a 2004 Janus—was a home job, made in their garage at Casalvento. It was “fabulous,” Gudrun says, which fueled the vintner dream and justified the need for a state-of-the-art facility.

It took almost 10 years to complete the winery and cellar (“cantina” in the local patois) built into the mountainside beneath their home at Casalvento. They learned the craft as they went, dealing along the way with the Italian bureaucracy, language barriers, huge shifts in weather (“The weather is always a surprise,” Gudrun muses, “like a Kinder egg”), and the humbling experience of rote tasks, like cleaning out barrels.

All in all, it was an exercise in patience. “Good things don’t come overnight,” Bob says. “It’s a waiting game.”

But good things did come. Soon after the production of their first vintages under the labels of Casalvento and Livernano, accolades started rolling in. The Livernano 2006 Chianti Classico won 91 points on both Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate, and the Chianti Classico Riserva 2005 and 2007 vintages earned silver medals in the L.A. County Fair in Los Angeles. The Casalvento Janus, a pure Cabernet, is consistently awarded more than 90 points on Wine Spectator and James Suckling, including a rating of 94 on the former for its 2007 vintage.

“When we first brought the wines to Wine Spectator, they didn’t believe they were made in Tuscany,” Bob says. “Usually Chianti wine is tart because of the Sangiovese grape, but we aimed for something more rounded. [In our wines,] you can taste the berries and a little bit of tobacco.”

To this day, the awards are many and frequent, but the recognition doesn’t stop there. Janus and Livernano Purosangue are served at the U.S. Embassy in Rome; Livernano L’Anima, a Chardonnay–Sauvignon Blanc blend, is served in Lufthansa’s first class cabin; and Casalvento Jupiter is served on Royal Caribbean cruises.

Gudrun, who acts as winemaker for both brands, attributes this success to their process. “We age in barrels and in bottle,” she says. “Everyone in Chianti is selling their 2015 vintage for Riserva and 2016 for Classico. We’re just releasing our 2012. Aging is the key to a good bottle.”

The Cuillos are so dedicated to quality that they make wine only when the conditions are perfect. If the year was too wet, or the grapes were weak, or the sugar content was too low, they’d sell the juice or ship it off to Modena to turn it into balsamic vinegar (the shipment arrives 15 years later, another test of patience).

“Of the 15 wines we make,” Gudrun says, “we have not had one year when we made every single one of them. In fact, 2015 will be the only year we’ll be releasing every wine. It was a monster year.”

It might not be the most lucrative choice to operate this way, but for the Cuillos, it’s the only one. “We want to leave something behind,” Gudrun says. “All we can leave is our good name and a good product. That’s the most important thing.”

Equally important is sharing their passion with others. The cantina is open to the public for tastings and tours and, on occasion, cooking lessons in the private kitchen and dining room. Livernano, a Tuscan-style bed-and-breakfast with 12 rooms and suites, and a restaurant serving all organic and locally sourced food, is open to guests from mid-March through mid-November.

Those who veer off the beaten path and make their way to Livernano are rewarded not only with utter serenity and the hospitality of an all-Italian staff, but also with the unique tastes and smells of Tuscany. The chefs prepare food with seasonal vegetables and fruit, including tomato sauce and preserves Gudrun personally cans, sourced from the two-acre garden; honey from the Livernano beehives; first-press extra-virgin olive oil from the Cuillos’ groves, now 2,600 trees strong; and balsamic vinegar and grappa from grapes grown on the property. Everything is homemade and healthful, supporting the notion that simplicity is the foundation of la bella vita.

For Gudrun, that is a self-evident truth. “In Tuscany, everything is different—the light, the air, the people,” she says. “Everywhere else, you forget how a rose smells. Here, you live in the moment, and every little thing feels significant.”

As for Bob, Casalvento and Livernano carry a different weight, and one need only look in the dining room at Livernano to see it. An old photo of his mother, Concetta Uva, hangs above a door, flanked by the Italian and American flags. The whole place is a tribute to her and Umberto, his father, who didn’t live to see it but would most certainly, wholeheartedly approve.

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