Updated: Dec 9, 2020
If you've ever been to Europe, you've seen shops carry espresso from the Illy family, which is known for excellent coffee. In 1997, Francesco Illy, an heir to the coffee dynasty, decided to try his hand at wine and acquired a 135 acre site in Montalcino, Italy (of Brunello di Montalcino fame) which he named "Podere Le Ripi." "Podere" means "farm" in Italian and is loosely synonymous with the term "estate" or "vineyard" in the US. Francesco is a man who dreams big. It's here where Illy commissioned his "golden cellar", a circular celebration for the nectar of the gods. You can do a tasting that takes you on a tour through the cellar, which I highly recommend, if just for its uniqueness.
Another of Francesco's big ideas was to plant the most dense vineyards in the world, just to see what would happen. The logic follows that by planting the vines closer together, the roots have to compete for nutrients and will end up pushing further down into the soil. After a couple of years, measurements were done to see the progress, and the roots had, indeed, dug much further into the ground than the rest of the Sangiovese planted on site. The wine was dubbed "Bonsai" because the vine training system used resembled a small tree. From the untrained eye, you'd think the Bonsai vineyard was a normal vineyard that went rogue, but there's a method to the madness. The downside to planting these vines so close together from a financial perspective is that the yields are extremely low (about 50 cases per year). It follows that Bonsai, then, would have to be an expensive wine, and it is. It's nearly impossible to find outside of Italy because of its small production, so if you want to taste it, I suggest a visit to Montalcino! Alternatively, you could go to Wally's in Los Angeles and pick one up for $275, but that's way less fun.
Given the financial resources of Podere Le Ripi, you might assume that the tasting experience would feel very "corporate," but you'd be wrong. The actual tasting room is very quaint, tastings are appointment only, and the guides are very knowledgeable and accommodating. We even met the winemaker who told us a bit about the wines and mentioned that he'd just gotten back from a sales trip to Los Angeles for the winery.
The best part about Podere Le Ripi, is that the wine lineup is good from top to bottom. In addition to 3 Brunello bottlings, there are also bottlings of Rosso di Montalcino and Syrah, which are solid and come in at a more reasonable price. Great wines, nice people, amazing views and an interesting history make this winery one to visit next time you're in Tuscany.