What sticks with you after you return from a four-month stint in Italy is how the food is as good as everyone says it is, how the wine is as fantastic and how the land is, somehow, yet more beautiful. If there is one thing to say about visiting Italy, it would have to be this: it lives up to expectations. In fact, it exceeds them.
A first visit to Italy as a wine person has to be like a pachydermist’s first visit to Africa. Sure, you’ve studied the elephant, you know what it looks like and how it gets made; you’ve seen plenty in zoos and you’ve even gotten up close and smelled them. But until you step onto that savannah and see the elephants walking and talking and nuzzling one another with their trunks, you don’t really know what an elephant is.
Italian wines are the same way. Until you’ve actually gone to Italy, sat on land near where that wine was made, eaten the food that grew along with it, smelled the air that surrounded the grapes, and felt that sun on your shoulders, you don’t really know that wine. You might have had a bottle of Rinaldi Barolo, Sassicaia, Paolo Bea Sagrantino, or Gravner Ribolla in your apartment in New York, or you might have drunk it with a fine meal at Del Posto or Babbo or wherever. You might have even enjoyed one of those bottles with us at one of our tastings, and while it was great, superb even, it’s not the same as having it in Italy. Those of you who have been know of what I speak. Those of you who don’t should book your trip now.
So the bad news is that the wine here isn’t ever as good as the wine there (and the bad news extends to include French wine, Chilean wine, New Zealand wine, and even Californian wine, unless you happen to be in California), but the good news is that the wine is still very, very good. It may be a Platonic shadow on the idealized cave, but it’s a really pleasurable shadow.
And the good news continues for those of us who have been to Italy and drunk the wines (if not the Kool-Aid) is that visiting a place where a wine is born does more than gratify your senses and your sense of adventure; it also teaches your palate things that all the sipping in all the tasting rooms will never do. It teaches you the very fundamentals of terroir. It gives you perspective that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. It provides context, multiple sensory images, and the Proustian Madeleine that only physical experience can provide.
Back now three weeks, one thing is clear. I have to return. If only, you know, to make certain that my memory is correct. And to go to Umbria. I still haven’t tasted Paolo Bea in its native clime, and that’s clearly an egregious oversight that needs to be rectified.