The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Why We Long to Be Under the Tuscan Sun

The importance of the idea of Italy

IMG_2452American minds have a love affair with Tuscany. More than a site of wine, olive oil, pasta shapes or authentic culture, Tuscany and, to be specific, “Tuscan” have become shorthand for a lifestyle aesthetic—and nothing has done so much to make this so as Frances Mayes’ 1996 book Under the Tuscan Sun.

Writing for the New Yorker, travel writer and food critic Jason Wilson considers the long arm of Mayes’ book, now celebrating its twentieth anniversary:

I have sat on Tuscan-brown sofas surrounded by Tuscan-yellow walls, lounged on Tuscan patios made with Tuscan pavers, surrounded by Tuscan landscaping. I have stood barefoot on Tuscan bathroom tiles, washing my hands under Tuscan faucets after having used Tuscan toilets. I have eaten, sometimes on Tuscan dinnerware, a Tuscan Chicken on Ciabatta from Wendy’s, a Tuscan Chicken Melt from Subway, the $6.99 Tuscan Duo at Olive Garden, and Tuscan Hummus from California Pizza Kitchen. Recently, I watched my friend fill his dog’s bowl with Beneful Tuscan Style Medley dog food. This barely merited a raised eyebrow; I’d already been guilty of feeding my cat Fancy Feast’s White Meat Chicken Tuscany. Why deprive our pets of the pleasures of Tuscan living?

Wilson argues that the popularity of Mayes’ book—and her building on its success with sequels and lines of olive oil, wine and furniture—has helped to layer American consciousness with a “crushing” Tuscan bricolage. There’s no denying that Tuscan abounds, as Wilson’s killer opening graf to the piece attests. Everything with an olive and a sundried tomato is sold as Tuscan, even if the olives are Spanish, the tomatoes Mexican, and it’s a sandwich from a New York City bodega. Tuscan is everywhere you look, even if you look no further than your Subway menu.

But while Wilson locates this fixation with the mid-1990s and those “relatively calm and affluent years of Bill Clinton’s second term—with its tech bubble, budget surplus, easy credit, and Pottery Barn,” I’ve got to take a longer view of the world’s love of Toscana in specific and Italy in general. While there’s no question that the comfortable Clinton years gave some folks the ability to indulge their Italian fantasies, we’ve been nurturing those Italian fantasies for decades—even centuries.

IMG_1382Scroll back three to five decades from Mayes’ book and our imaginations were fired by Italian films by Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, or Luchino Visconti, for example. Whether it’s from watching Italy’s neorealism cinema—those black-and-white films of sundrenched days and impossibly skinkling nights—or the dreamy, surrealist Technicolor movies that followed, Americans learned to see Italy as a shiny object, a place of ineffable glamour and eroticism. Italy was like France but cooler, or so we thought, gobsmacked by Anita Eckberg frolicking in fountains.

But we have a brief attention span for history, and Italy has served as shorthand for sensuality, permissiveness and deliciousness for centuries. There’s a reason why John Keats lived out his last consumptive days in an apartment overlooking Rome’s Spanish Steps, and that is this: Italy, to English minds, was a site of magic, health, and a kiss of sin. Whether the cavalcade of seductive fruit extolled in Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, Robert Browning’s aching “Two in the Campagna,” or Shakespeare, who used Italy as a set-piece for a baker’s dozen of his plays, Italy is a much romanticized place.

IMG_2592All roads lead to Rome, goes the commonplace, and if you’re talking about creating a sense of identity that offers an antidote to American (and British) puritanism that road is long, winding, and endless. Under the Tuscan Sun might be the most famous in the last twenty years—although Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love gives it a run for its money—but for centuries non-Italians have looked to Italy to see how to live a better, more delicious, more indulgent, and more soulful life.

I’m one who bought into the myth. I read E.M. Forster’s Room with a View and saw the movie and would have bought the action figures, if they made them. And as different as visiting Italy was from what I imagined, it was nonetheless transformative. You touch Italy and it touches you. No, your dog isn’t going to be transported to Toscana with his kibble, but that doesn’t matter. Everyone who has been to Italy—including those who’ve only been in their minds—likes to feel a little closer to the Tuscan sun, even if we never leave our couch.

Pythagoras and the Geometry of Wine Politeness

It’s not all acute angles and dusty geometry

From the Wikipedia page on the Pythagorean Cup

From the Wikipedia page on the Pythagorean Cup

The name Pythagoras likely brings to mind geometry class. After all, this Greek mystic, philosopher and mathematician devised the theorem that holds his name, the Pythagorean theorem that states the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. But the teaching of Pythagoras the Samian, 570-494 BCE, wasn’t limited to just math.

He was also keen to teach people proper etiquette—wine etiquette, in fact. To this end, Pythagoras likely also invented a drinking vessel that bears his name, the Pythagorean cup. Shaped more or less like a bundt pan with a central spoke, the Pythagorean cup has an ingenious design that enforces wine politesse. If you’re greedy and pour too high, past the central spoke that leads from the foot of the cup to just below the cup’s rim, wine fills the two channels in the cup and spills onto the lap of the unsuspecting glutton. (Click here to see the Pythagorean cup in action.)

It might be simple physics—hydrostatic pressure creates a siphon that draws the wine continually out of the cup and out the hole in the foot of the glass—but it’s also ingenious. While there’s not a lot of historical writing that directly connects Pythagoras with the vessel, cups showing this ingenious design date back more than 2,500 years, and location suggests a strong correlation between Pythagoras and the cup that bears his name.

While enterprising souvenir sellers in Greece continue to replicate and sell the cup to tourists, you can actually fashion your own from a plastic wine glass, a straw, silicone glue, a plastic test tube and a box cutter. While IWM doesn’t condone the spillage of fine wine, we also believe in pouring wine to a polite level—and one that allows the wine to breathe. If, however, education through practical jokes is not your thing, you probably want to invest in some basic Brunello or Burgundy glasses for your wine consumption. You can always choose to educate through a superlative example.

In Praise of Olive Oil

Why olive oil is good for the heart

An Il Palazzone olive tree

An Il Palazzone olive tree

Last week, I got my yearly bottles of olive oil from Il Palazzone, which is always a reason to rejoice and to remember the time that, moved by the romance of Montalcino, I once picked and ate an olive off a tree. Later, I told Laura Gray, the Estate Manager at Il Palazzone, that I had.

“Did you regret it?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Immediately and for about a half hour thereafter.”

In their raw, unpressed, unfermented state, olives are rich in oleuropein, a phenolic compound that makes eating a raw olive not unlike stuffing your mouth with antiperspirant. It is disgusting. So disgusting, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine that something as delicious as olive oil could come from something that inherently repellent. Jonathan Swift famously said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” One could easily say the same about the first man who squished a bunch of olives in the hopes of making something palatable.

Olive oil is as ubiquitous, essential and telling as wine or bread in Italy. I imagine that the same holds true in other prized olive oil capitals of the world—Spain, for instance—but I speak from experience in Italy. Just about every winemaker also makes olive oil. Like making wine, crafting olive oil is a painstaking process that requires a lot of manual labor and no small amount of finesse. Makers of olive oil take great pride in how long it takes for the olive to go from tree to press; the longer the time, the more bitter the oil, and the shorter the time, the sweeter. Il Palazzone prides itself on getting the olives from tree to pressed oil in a matter of hours. A look at the estate’s webpage on its olive oil gives you a fairly comprehensive idea of precisely how exacting the creation of olive oil is.

Some olive oils make us cough, and this visceral kick comes from TRPA1, a cluster of proteins at the back of your throat. Some time ago, NPR published an interesting piece on TRPA1 and extra virgin olive oil (known, apparently, as EVOO, which looks to me like the name of a villainous organization from Get Smart or Austin Powers); scientists hypothesize that sitting at the back of your throat, TRPA1 is the last best place to alert you to breathing in noxious fumes–if you cough a lot, you’re going to get out of there. Interestingly, this irritation might also be the source of EVOO’s salubrious anti-inflammatory effects.

Il Palazzone's olive trees in bloom

Il Palazzone’s olive trees in bloom

Olives, as everyone who pays attention to nutrition knows, are excellent sources of monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. The Mayo Clinic notes that MUFAs can help lower total cholesterol  levels, aid with blood clotting, and possibly help stabilize insulin levels and control blood sugar. All of this means that olives and olive oil are more than just tasty–they’re good for you.

To anyone who has eaten an olive off the tree, pressing olives might seem like a radical act, but what a luscious, pellucid, peppery, gorgeous thing a squished olive (or several thousand squished olives) can make. Like wine, olive oil is the product of both where its raw materials grow, and how its maker treats those raw materials. Unlike wine, olive oil is best very fresh. The fresher it is, the more aromatic. A fine olive oil glows an incandescent green. It seems like something that belongs at the bottom of the sea. It’s otherworldly and ethereal, as much as it’s earthy and visceral.

And if it’s a seriously good olive oil, you don’t heat it; you don’t cook with it; you drizzle it on vegetables or bread and you enjoy it as its makers intended: slowly, thoroughly and while dreaming of Montalcino.


Reflections on First Visiting Italy

How there’s nothing like visiting yourself

IMG_1647Almost exactly five years ago, I visited Italy for the first time. I had never been to Europe. I didn’t speak Italian. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. And the time I spent there was probably the most rewarding four months I’ve ever spent anywhere.

Living in Italy was not without its challenges. I spent about forty minutes in a supermarket aisle trying to figure out what you call “dish soap” in Italian. I learned to cope without hot-and-cold running Internet, which is difficult when you work remotely. I found myself grasping at a language with a toddler’s grubby fists when I tried to ask for the simplest things. Separated from my friends, my family and my pets, I got pretty lonely. And let’s just say that the dollar was not as strong in 2011 as it is today, which added another layer of anxiety to life on the Euro.

IMG_1842But all that stress was worth it. I saw a lot of Italy, and I saw it intimately. I ate life-changing meals—not just at Michelin-starred restaurants on the Maremma Coast or at tiny chic places on Mt. Amiata, but also from street pizza joints in Rome and hole-in-the-wall Tuscan cafés at towns so small I’m not even sure if they have a name. I learned the fine art of buying produce on market day, and I picked up enough Italian that by the end of my stay people were asking me directions in Venezia, and I was able to answer. I took a lot of trains and I walked on a lot of cobblestones, and it was all worth it.

IMG_1200The thing about Italy is this: while reading books and watching movies makes you think you understand its beauty, you’re wrong. What you glean from books and movies—and even bottles of wine—is like the shadows on the cave walls of Italy’s beauty. The best that books, paintings, movies, and even wine can capture is a kind of chiaroscuro, a picture in brights and darks, and thus a limited, if dramatic, view of Italy.

IMG_0999There is nothing better than drinking a bottle of Italian wine in Italy, except for drinking a bottle of Italian wine in Italy with its maker, and I had the rare opportunity to do that many, many times. I’m not talking about standing in the cantina and barrel tasting, something that’s important and not necessarily lacking in poetry; rather, I’m talking about sitting down with the maker and some wine, and letting the conversation burble and flow with naturalness and without purpose.

IMG_2066I got the opportunity to drink amazing wine with the amazing people who made it. Ornella and Lionello Cousin opened up bottles of Cupano and their home to me. After showing me Castello dei Rampolla, Luca di Napoli shared a bottle of his estate’s wine with Eleanor Shannon and me. I broke bread and drank wine with Gianfranco Soldera, whose Italian I incomprehensibly understood, a rarity for me. Il Palazzone’s estate manager, Laura Gray, was like my sister across the Atlantic. I’ll probably die babbling about Brunello.

IMG_2390I’m lucky that my work has taken me some exceptional places, and in visiting and drinking and seeing and smelling the air around me, I’m better able to understand the wine I write about. Still, I know that however captivating my writing is, no matter how well I am able to convey the scent of Giacomo Conterno’s cantina, the sinuous undulation of Barbaresco’s hills, the feel of the lemon light of Chianti Classico hitting your face, my writing will always be lacking. The best I can do is to write well enough that it prompts you to go to Italy yourself. All roads lead to Rome, where, if you go, tell me: I know this amazing little pizza place.

A Brief Look at the History of Valentine’s Day

The holiday has a questionable past

Lupercalia as painted by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

Lupercalia as painted by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

Valentine’s Day is this week, and here the truth: Valentines Day is, was, and always will be a completely fictitious holiday. It is so grounded in fantasy that it makes the Easter bunny look real. The name, Valentine’s Day, supposedly comes from a Catholic saint, but he never existed. Finding St. Valentine is kind of like playing “What’s My Line” with three obscure saints, all called Valentine, all martyred at some point during the third century A.D., none of whom had anything to do with romantic love.

This holiday of love has its origins when in 426 the Catholic Church wanted to tame the savage beast of Lupercalia, a Roman holiday of love wherein would-be lovers engaged in a precursor to the ’70s swingers key parties and picked their partner’s name out of an urn, or merely celebrate as naked young men ran through the streets swatting women with leather thongs, depending upon your interpretation and time period. In the mid-fourteenth century, Valentine’s Day moved from the 15th of February to the 14th, the day when France and England celebrated the pairing of birds for mating season.

However, it wasn’t until 1847 when Esther A. Howland, the heir to a greeting card fortune, put those commercial wheels in motion and made the first mass-produced Valentine’s Day card that the Valentine’s Day we now know and love (and by love I mean love/hate/love) began.

The cynics among us may want to relish this tidbit, the Greeting Card Association has an “Esther A. Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary” honoring those people who can find a new way to make us buy highly colored, usually sentimental paper products. It should be noted that 85% of the Valentine’s Day cards purchased are bought by women. This is something that doesn’t make me particularly proud of my gender.

The sales of Valentine’s Day cards run second only to sales of Christmas Cards, but Halloween cards are taking a strong upsurge, symbolizing to the most cynical of us that Valentine’s Day, like mummies, vampires, and other ghouls, always returns. No matter how much or how often we try to kill it. We might as well give in and embrace the monster, I suppose.

I am of the sort who, almost by default but certainly by nature believes that Valentine’s Day is, aside from the delightful blank check to eat as much chocolate as you like, kind of beside the point. We should, if we’re lucky enough to find it, celebrate love daily and in our own ways.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with opening a lovely bottle of AmaroneChampagne or romantic Super Tuscan and sharing it with a friend on Valentine’s Day. Or just having a glass yourself. After all, as Oscar Wilde wisely said, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

Cheers to that.

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