Nov 2006

Italian Wine Tasting

Last summer I found myself gazing at the beverage section of a worn menu in a Berkeley restaurant. Not surprisingly, even in this casual place verging on “dump”, a glass of wine cost an average of $7.00. I shook my head and ordered ice tea, for I know the truth, I have seen the light, I live in Italy. Wine just does not have to cost so much, especially in Berkeley, California, spitting distance from Napa Valley. On principle I do not order wine if a glass costs as much as an entire bottle. To do so would help to perpetuate the myth which so many have fallen for: If it is expensive, it must be good.

With friends this summer we visited a Napa winery where I had not been in years. I used to lead tours of Napa in the heady days before the wineries started charging a $5.00 tasting fee. Even with the fee, it was pretty easy to swallow (no pun intended) when the five bucks went to the purchase should I choose to buy a bottle. The fee was even understandable. Now, however, when one visits a winery in Napa Valley, you should leave all sense of the practical in the car. There is now a $15.00 charge for four different sips of wine. I was outraged, but the place was packed with tourists happily swilling down their micro-mouthfuls and being ever so wine savvy. If I wanted to buy their wine, I either had to gamble and spend $15.00 on a bottle I may not like, or spend the money to try it first, thus ending up with a $30.00 bottle of wine. What a gold mine.

A friend of ours is a vintner in the nearby town of San Polo here in Italy. He spent some time in California where he learned some English, visited a few wineries and was struck by the ingenious marketing concept of the Napa businesses. Back in Italy, Vittorio has started to apply some of the techniques to his families’ centuries’ old winery. Keep in mind that his winery has been in business since the 1830’s, the enormous barrels resting ponderously in the silent caves bear scars from WWI, and is located in a small town where there exists no fewer than 30 wineries. Talk about gravitas.

Nevertheless, Vittorio set up a little counter and set out some bottles, glasses and a little bowl of wine crackers to cleanse the pallet. But they sit gathering dust, for I have never seen anyone doing the wine-tasting-counter-lean. No tourists swirling the glass and commenting on blackberry bouquets or the ash finish. No postcard racks or tour buses or picnic tables covered with those little plastic wine glasses that always fall apart. People arrive, talk a bit with Vittorio, load up the car and go. Because wine is as important as water. Because it is damn good. Because otherwise, it would not be around.

There is a winery down the road from our house. I asked Luciano why we have never tried their wine.

“Because you never said ‘Let’s go there, I want to try their wine’”

“What about before me?”

“I did not drink wine before you.”

Be that as it may, I have wanted to go “wine tasting” since I arrived here and what’s better than wine tasting at our own local winery? We walked into the vast cool building smelling familiarly of grapes and cork. A round-faced cheerful man walked up and said, “Prego! How can I help you?”

“We would like to try the cabernet and the refosco.”

“Ok, how many bottles?”

I was momentarily flustered. This is not what I meant. I wanted a glass (maybe with the name of the winery stenciled on the side) with a little sip in it. Only then I would know how many bottles I wanted.

Luciano stepped into the pause.

“How about one of each? We just want to taste.”

“Va bene. You take them home and taste them,” said the man and set to work filling a box with two kinds of cabernet, a refosco, a raboso, a pinot and a mix called Preval. There were six bottles of wine in the box.

“Ok, that will be 15 euro.”

This is how it works here. Of course you can taste. You buy a bottle, take it home and taste it. At 2,50 euro a bottle (which is about $3) it is just not such a big gamble. You know it is good. Later you can show up with your damigiana or demijohn, which you can refill at the pumps, just to save time.

Probably for the same price as that glass of wine in Berkeley.

Auguri, Nonna!

Last Monday was la Nonna Italia’s 94th birthday. As part of the celebration, Anna Maria and Giancarlo had a little party for Luciano’s cousins, one segment of this extended family. Fearing too much food, I was forbidden to bring any cakes. So I baked a cake yesterday to get in under the no-cake zone. I asked Luciano if he thought she would like a chocolate chiffon cake, a recipe I had wanted to try.

“Serena, it could be a meat loaf. You just need to say that you baked it and she will love it.”

At eight we went next door to the parents’ house where extra chairs, a vast tray of pastries, and wine glasses had been set up in the kitchen. La Nonna sat at the head of the table.

She had recently taken a little fall while doing laps with her walker and had hit her head. As a result her hip-length hair, which she has never cut in her life, is cut short, a la Annie Lennox. She looks young and hip and as if she should be waving a lit cigarette, squinting through the smoke and discussing Nietzsche. Instead, she sat with her arms folded, waiting.

Valter and Stefania were the first to arrive with their fourteen-year-old daughter Giulia. Valter is bombastic and affectionate and he sat next to la Nonna and held her hand.

Enrico and his high-octane family blustered in to the house. His four-year-old, Riccardo, set to work on the trays of pastries and chocolates, hand over fist. Michele, Enrico’s eight-month-old son, watched the action quietly from assorted laps with his huge liquid eyes.

Valter pulled out a bottle of novello wine. This red wine is produced by fermenting whole freshly harvested grapes instead of crushing them, and is released at midnight on November 5th every year. Not a wine to put away, it all needs to be drunk by next summer. It is fruity and a little sweet, but very nice. I was sure I had seen bottles of it at the winery down the street, set out on the counter before the 5th. I pointed this out.

“Ah, Serena, but he wouldn't sell it to you before midnight, the 5th”

We uncorked the bottle and toasted la Nonna who smiled calmly in the center of the uproar. It is a small room and it was full. Stories flew back and forth. La Nonna smiled and waved at Michele. She has been hallucinating babies recently and so it is nice she was waving at a real one.

Suddenly she started to tell a story.

“I was walking down the street with my father. We were moving a cow from one place to another and some Austrian soldiers came by. One of them pulled out a large knife and hacked off an enormous piece of the cow’s leg. They took the meat and left and we took the cow and walked on home.”

The roomful of adults winced. Riccardo calmly chewed another chocolate. I was impartial as usual, not exactly sure if I had understood correctly. Valter did some quick calculations. “She was six and it was during World War I.” The noise level rose again in the room and la Nonna beamed from the end of the table.

Venetian Day Trippers

This morning, as Luciano pulled on his socks he said, "Today I would like to walk around a large city like Paris or Venice and look at tourists." This is as unlikely a sentence for him to utter as my saying, "I would like to discuss calculus, please."

Eager to encourage such behavior I quickly said, "Well, we cannot do Paris this morning, but oddly enough, we can do Venice. Are you serious?"

"Well, let's go have breakfast and think about it."

It is interesting that he should have such a hankering, having just returned from Paris where we spent the weekend visiting two friends. Paris is a big-breasted, big-boned woman who dominates a room with her beauty, her bawdiness and her audacious get-up. She sits in an overstuffed chair, arms akimbo and laughs a lusty guffaw of experience and sex, but sometimes, sometimes, you can see a wrinkle.

Venice, on the other hand is an ethereal, fragile waif who just barely exists in her unearthly beauty. She is subtle, constantly moving and difficult to see. But when the sun is just right, the sound of the heaving tourist crowd fades and you can hear the water lapping softly, she is breathtaking. Venice is a strange, magical city, cut off from Italy in more ways than one and survives on the very industry that is killing her: tourism.

Thousands of people fly thousands of miles to visit this city…so many that, on occasion, they close the city when it becomes too full for tourists to safely walk the streets. This kind of bombardment can’t help but have an affect on the inhabitants who remind me of the eager volunteers who dress up and re-enact life on a colonial farm or a Native American reservation. Venetians go about their business purchasing a couple of eggplants or chatting with an old friend on the street, aware that they will most likely end up as background in a video shown to bored friends in Dussledorf or San Diego. It is understandable that they are occasionally a little cranky.

As is usual for most people who live near a desirable tourist destination, we rarely go to Venice, even though it is an hour away by frequent train. But if the sun is shining, the purpose for the trip is to see tourists and Luciano gets it into his head to go to Venice, there is no discussion.

We saw Venice as it should be seen, following our noses without even pulling out a map. We strolled down the Strada Nuova, or New Street, created by Napoleon by paving over an older street and blasting right though some houses. His efforts to modernize the city (and have at least one straight road) luckily did not go far, as the name attests. This, the newest street in town, was built in 1805.

And Luciano saw Venice as an Italian should: poking fun at a photography class,

eating local pistachio pastries of a color of which does not occur in nature

and poking his finger up the nose of art.

We sat in the sun and ate overpriced pasta, I bought a silly hat, and the tourists teemed around us. We saw a shop selling reading glasses that were pieces of art, made of twigs, cut glass and bone. We would like to find it again, but as is true of anything in Venice, the chances of relocating the place are terribly slim.

Suddenly, as the sun dropped behind buildings, we got tired and the map finally had to come out and we made a bee-line for the train station.

For unlike the masses of hard working tourists, we had to get home to put out the trash, wash the dishes and eat something of a natural color.