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.

Visiting Umbria’s Paolo Bea

A look into the life and the cellar of one of Italy’s great winemakers

unnamedIWM recently offered a quartet of new Paolo Bea releases, which makes it the perfect time to revisit John Camacho Vidal’s visit to this iconic winemaker’s estate.

When I visited Italy in 2014, I planned on attending the 35 Enologica di Sagrantino in Montefalco, a tasting of Sagrantino. I love the wines of Umbria and, wanting to learn more about Sagrantino and the wonderful wines it produces, I took advantage that this tasting was being held during my time visiting to attend. I was also excited of the possibility of seeing the Paolo Bea Estate. Like many people I was introduced to the region and to Sagrantino through his wondrous biodynamic wines.

unnamed-3My friend Barbara, who runs a tour company based in Perugia, was able to call ahead of time for me and arrange a visit. Needles to say my visit to Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea was amazing and unforgettable. We were met by Sergio, who has been working at the winery for over a decade. He was very apologetic because it turned out that on that day the bottling machine, which goes from producer to producer, happened to be available and they were in the process of bottling and corking wine. We got a tour of the new winery, which was planned and designed by Giampiero, Paolo Bea’s son, who is in charge and, according to Paolo Bea, has taken the winery to the next level. All aspects of Giampiero’s design take the wine into consideration and the winery was constructed with materials from the surrounding area that provide natural ventilation, humidity and temperature.

unnamed-2As we went from room to room and stared in awe at the various barrels both wood and steel, we got an opportunity to taste the grapes that were being dried to make Bea’s famous Passito, and as we walked further down to the cellar we heard the clinking of the bottling machine. We were also able to witness the entire family busy reaching for bottles of wine from the assembly belt and quickly but diligently place them in crates where they will rest for another two years or so. When we walked down to the final level, Giampiero greeted us with his son and walked us through the rest of the cellar and the process.

unnamed-5After our tour of the cellar and watching the bottling process in action, we followed Sergio to a tasting room a few yards from the winery. There we sat down and I was able to taste through all of the Paolo Bea wines. All of them were spectacular.

unnamed-4Giampiero stopped in again and we chatted about the wine and his philosophy; after about 10 – 15 minutes Paolo Bea himself walked in. I’m not really the kind of guy that follows sports and I didn’t understand why people would freak out when they saw their favorite athlete, actor or artist, but when I saw Paolo Bea ‎walk in to greet us I felt goosebumps. I stood up to shake his hand and everything I wanted to say to the man just went blank. I mumbled a few words and he gave me a hard handshake and a hug. I presented him with some coffee that I brought from Colombia just for this occasion.

unnamed-6We tasted the rest of his wines together. Both Paolo and Giampiero grabbed a bottle and signed the label for me and gifted it—it felt like getting a rock star’s autograph. When I returned to New York, I nestled these bottles in the back of our wine fridge, where they will stay until I celebrate a very special occasion. I always say that there is no better way to taste a wine than to taste it with the person behind the wine. Not only did I have the opportunity to taste these wines at the source but also I was able to taste them with the people responsible for what’s in the bottle. After our tour and tasting it took me a few hours to come down from the excitement.


Inside IWM, February 22-26, 2016: Whaddaya Know?

A look back at the week that was

IMG_1647What do you know? Or, more accurately, what do you think you know? This week the blog challenged expectations. First, IWM’s writer tells about landing in Italy only to find that what she’d expected was even, somehow, better. Janice Cable on visiting Italy and drinking Italian wines with their makers. It’s no surprise to our blog’s readers that Stephane Menard is a wiz in the kitchen–his recipes are legend–but Stephane was pleasantly surprised by a delicious $23 Vermentino, which he paired with a simple Turbot recipe. You can read a wine’s label, but do you understand it? John Camacho Vidal shows you how to get the most from what’s on your bottle. And what do you really know about wines from the Veneto? From Amarone to Prosecco, we offer a quick tour.

Our experts relied on what they know to choose wines they’re sure you’ll love. Garrett Kowalsky spotlighted a delicious Super-Tuscan pair from an under-the-radar Antinori estate, Le Mortelle. Looking forward to the exceptional 2014 Burgundies, Crystal Edgar reflected on two wines she’s loved this year, both from Arnoux-Lachaux. And Michael Adler knows that everyone doesn’t have the patience to let their 2010 Brunellos age, so he picked two Sangiovese Grosso bottles you can enjoy right now.

Here’s to what you know, what you don’t, and enjoying delicious wine with people.

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 Trip Through Italy, the Food Edition

What Garrett ate in Italy

Back in May I shared my first account of my 2015 Italian adventure with my family; focusing on a visit to the legendary Poderi Aldo Conterno. A month or so ago, I followed up with a focus on the coastal region of Cinque Terre. Today I explore the regions I visited–Piemonte, Cinque Terre in Liguria, and Toscana–through the cuisine I enjoyed along the way. Italy  is a fraction of the geographic size of the United States; however, within its borders lies an infinite number of regional differences, whether culturally, linguistically or gastronomically.

I can find the romance in almost anything, and I tend to believe that I am capable of using pen and paper to convey that romance with my friends, colleagues and, of course, you. That being said, sometimes a picture is truly worth a thousand words and that saying may never be more accurate than when speaking about food. So please, grab your napkins and prepare to dab the corners of your mouth; here is a little of what I tasted.

Piemonte Onion PastaPiemonte Onion Pasta – Sometimes the simplest things in life are by far the most enjoyable. Take this pasta, for instance. Handmade, of course, but topped with onions, root vegetables and peasant bread that was allowed to soak for hours and condense flavors and texture.

Piemonte Stuffed OnionPiemonte Stuffed Onion – This dish was a part of a tasting menu at the legendary Trattoria della Posta, which sits in an old farmhouse on a windy hill overlooking the some of the vineyards of Barolo. I suppose it’s no wonder that stuffing an onion with dense cheese would provide for a decadent and delicious bite.

Cinque Terre ShrimpCinque Terre Shrimp – Featured in my last blog, this dish is indicative of the region. If you live in the country, you eat beef because it’s what you raise. When you live on the coast, you make simple dishes using the bounty of the sea.

Tuscany Wild Boar PastaTuscany Wild Boar Pasta – Known locally as Cinghiale, wild boar can be found throughout Tuscany and across Tuscan cuisine, often in some kind of Ragu and Pasta combo. It’s not “haute cuisine,” but it is welcoming and satisfies the soul in a way that’s indescribable. The 2010 Cerbaiona Brunello makes a cameo here in this pic.

Florence Steak 1Florence Steak 1 – Arguably the most famous dish in the region is Florentine T-Bone. Here we see it finished table side.

Florence Steak 2Florence Steak 2 – The steak is done to perfection (in my eyes) and is accompanied by roasted potatos and grilled vegetables. The quality of the individual ingredients truly makes the dish.

Florence Steak 3Florence Steak 3 – You can see the bare bone remains behind the two bottles chosen for dinner that evening.

Florence Panna CottaFlorence Panna Cotto – When we were in France in 2013, it became a running joke that everywhere my mother went she had crème brulee. In Italy I found myself doing the same with Panna Cotta, which offers just enough sweetness to end a meal without overdoing it. Here we see it finished with a Coulis of fresh berries.

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