The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Get Lost

On the value of finding yourself in Rome

For those of us accustomed to modern cities with modern grids, Italy poses a challenge to our very essences. We New Yorkers have a sense of direction that’s nigh unto inherent. The Bronx is up; the Battery’s down; the trains run in a hole in the ground; New York, New York, it’s a mathematical town. As long as you’re not in the very old—and relatively small—portions of the city, everything runs on perpendicular angles. It makes life and navigation easy.

One thing about Italy: it’s not a grid. It’s insane troll logic. And the only thing you can do is to let go of your Gothamite grid and get good and lost. It’s a beautiful thing, really. I got lost in Genova, Milano, Venezia and Roma, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I even gotten lost in Bolgheri, but that’s so small there’s hardly any thrill in it.

You see, when you’re walking around in cities that are older than old, you are walking around in a city that’s cooler than cool. Every time you turn a corner, you find something new and by “something new,” I mean something old. It’s a crazy, gorgeous, wacky beautiful world, this smashing of chronology, and it’s mind-blowing.

In Rome, I spent five hours walking around  with not much more to go on than a small map and a smaller Italian vocabulary. I saw the old city of Rome; I saw the Coliseum. I saw how Romans use Circo Massimo as a dog run. I saw graffiti old and new. I took pictures of Roman “centurions” smoking. I saw ruins and ruins and ruins. I saw many ruins, all of them wondrous. I saw stores upon stores filled with things that I would buy had I all the money in the world.

At some point, I walked out of a church and a girl selling tickets to the opera saw me. She sold me a ticket. Later that night, I saw La Traviata at the only Episcopalian church in Roma. I’ve no idea how I got to that piazza where this woman found me. I was lost.

I stumbled my way to the Trevi Fountain, and while I was there, I saw a tiny plaque advertising the Museum of Keats, Shelley and Byron. I saw the bed where John Keats died. I saw the view out of Keats’ window, and it was a very good view, indeed. I saw museums and churches I couldn’t begin to name, and I walked down tiny little alleys. I saw a pizza place (“non focaccia,” its sign said quite pointedly) filled with Italians. In my tiny vocabulary, I bought pizza. I stood outside with a bunch of hungry Italians, all of us clutching in our hands the best pizza, unassumingly wrapped in brown paper, eating almost silently. I’ve said it before: food is serious business in Italy.

I walked some more; I crossed a bridge. I sat down on the steps of something and read my tiny map, realized I was definitely on the wrong side of the river, and I crossed back. I got, in short, good and lost. And when I felt as if I could get no more lost, I bellied up to a coffee bar and asked where to find a taxi. I drank my espresso, thanked the barrista, wandered around the corner, saw some important gleaming white building thronged with people on one side, ruins on the other, and I hopped a cab.

As it turns out, I wasn’t that lost. I was only about seven minutes away from my hotel. Amazing, that.

I still maintain the best thing you can do is to go out and get lost. You find yourself when you’re lost. Everywhere you go, there you are.

Montalcino Dreamin’

Looking back, looking forward

The day after I returned from Italy, I posted a Facebook status that read “I miss Italy. That took, oh, eighteen hours.” A friend of mine responded, “Yes, but it’ll last forever.”

I’m beginning to see that he was right.

For about a month after returning to New York City, I suffered intense culture shock. Everything seemed strange and alien, and not in an interesting way. The city that I had loved for over twenty years seemed to have lost its charm; I felt like a stranger in an estranged land. Now back almost two months, I’m no longer feeling that shock that comes from a profound sense of loss. Rather, I’m feeling nostalgia for Italy, and both Italy and my warm and fuzzy feelings for it have been popping up in multiple ways.

First, I’m reading Eat, Pray, Love, which if nothing else articulates the vitality, the weirdness and the beauty of Italian (though less that of Rome, at least in my experience).  Anyone who knows me would be surprised by this development. I’m not the kind of gal who gravitates to reading fare that sits in the aisle marked “Chick Lit.” I can only chalk it up to extreme nostalgia for the land I left seven weeks ago.

Less surprising is my gravitating toward Italian foods, or not so much food but Italian methods of eating and drinking, or not so much methods as Italian protocol. I have, for example, abandoned my French press in favor of my new espresso maker, and I now drink many little cups throughout the day (though I still can’t give up adding a spot of milk). I chew on licorice root as breath freshener and when I want a sweet snack. I buy hideously expensive olive oil, fresh sheep ricotta, and Parmigiano Reggiano, because a house is incomplete without those items. I shop a lot more frequently, especially at farmer’s markets. I eat dinner later, breakfast earlier, and more mindfully.

Cocktails always have appetizers with them. Wine always has food. There is also more wine. Fortunately, I have a job that supports that change. I feel bad for those who return from Italy and can’t indulge their wine wants as they’d like.

It’s weird, though. Here I am in the greatest city in the world in the middle of a sweet, sweet summer, one that has been filled with spending beautiful blue-sky days and twilight filled nights with my friends and my family, and I’m dreaming and scheming madly about when I can get back to Italy.

Not soon enough, I find, an answer that both my friend and many of you probably have heard in your own heads.

Montalcino dreamin’, on such a summer’s day.

A Tale of Two Bottles

a summer spent with people and wine

As a writer and a misanthrope, I spend much of my time alone, brooding, typing and occasionally, writing. But this past summer, I’ve been unusually social. I attended dinners, parties and weekends away, all pleasant obligations that require me to purchase and proffer a bottle or six of wine. This past summer, the social summer of 2010, has been defined by two specific bottles of wine: Di Conciliis Falanghina 2008 and Valle Dell’Acate Il Frappato 2008.

Neither of these bottles is particularly chic—they both come from southern Italy, areas windswept and arid, not lush, romantic regions like Toscana and Piemonte—so I wasn’t buying to impress a wine snob. They’re not expensive; both retail in the low $20 range. They’re not crafted from well-known varieties; rather, both Falanghina and Frappato are little-known indigenous grapes. They’re not big, fruity, international wines; some people might not easily understand either bottle. Not endowed with the qualities given to most hostess gift wines, the wines I chose are small, delightful, slightly eccentric and cheap—and I love them.

I’m not very good at describing wine in customary wine discourse. I could say that the white Falanghina has a white peach and lychee palate and a bouncy acidity or that the red Frappato has a lovely bright cherry color, a nose of raspberries and a charming, lissome body, but I’d sound disingenuous. That’s not how I think of these wines. It’s now how I remember them, and it’s not why I cart them by the case out to Fire Island.

Instead, I’d say this: the Falanghina always reminds me of a really pretty girl who is a lot snarkier and smarter than you first thought, and the Frappato always makes me think of eating berries on Central Park’s Great Lawn with the love of my life.  Regardless of how I think of the wines—with analogies to fruit and flowers or in metaphors of people and experiences—I’ve enjoyed spending time with these wines, and I’ve liked them enough to introduce them to the people I love.

Summer is ending, and even a curmudgeon like me starts to feel nostalgic. My nostalgia too has become embodied in these bottles. Though the Falanghina may have begun in Campania and the Frappato in Sicilia, they’ve become forever attached to my summer here in Manhattan, on Fire Island and in Vermont. Though they’re wines, they feel like friends. I’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Nero d’Avola

Finding a past in Sicilian wine

Of partial Sicilian decent, I’ve always been fascinated with the southernmost part of Italy’s boot. My grandfather, Don Pasquale, was born in America, but his father and family, the Marinos (yes, like the famous Italian ices), have their roots in Sicily. My grandfather’s extended family came to America, and while some moved down south, the rest remained in New York City—in the Bronx to be exact. My grandfather served in World War II, met my grandmother in England, and five children later, the rest is history.

Soon, I’ll be journeying to Sicilia and to the rest of Italy. In the meantime, I’m exploring Sicilia right here at home via the region’s most important red grape, and varietal wine: Nero d’Avola. Whenever I scan a wine list or find myself in an interesting wine shop, I look for Nero. Nero is fast becoming a wine that I know I’ll enjoy. Often compared to Shiraz, it’s dark and full of plums, peppers and silky tannins. Even more wonderful, it’s always modestly priced and it’s an easy fit with most dishes. Moreover, this varietal holds a special connection for me. I recently grabbed two glasses of Nero at nearby NYC wine bar, Bar Veloce, and tried one of IWM’s own Nero-Merlot blends, Buceci. It was delicious, and drinking it, I dreamed of Sicilia, the lands as I imagine them, and my ancestors.

My grandfather passed away in 1998, but his love of wine lingers. I feel fortunate that he took the time to infuse me with his love of wine; it’s something I’ve held onto until this day. My grandfather and I were close, so I feel lucky that there’s still some family in Sicilia, whom I never really got to know because I grew up in New York. One day soon I’ll search for my Marinos, sit down with them over some granitas, or other Sicilian dishes, and some glasses of smooth Nero d’Avola. We can drink, eat, and catch up. It’s been awhile.

I’m going to go on exploring more wines, but I’ll always make sure I throw Nero d’Avola in the mix, for grandpa. It reminds me of him and of my roots.

Memories of Liguria

A lesson in terroir

When I hear “Liguria,” I have a few images pop to mind: Pesto Genovese, Pigato, Cinque Terre and just-off-the-boat seafood. But what really comes to mind is the inextricable nature of all these images. With its beautiful landscapes, interesting wines and super-fresh cuisine, Liguria, a crescent-shaped coastal region in the northwest of Italy, demonstrates the epitome of the word “terroir.”

During my one-year stay in Italy, I learned about the wines of Liguria.  I’d heard that Cinque Terre was a scenic place on the coast of Liguria, and I made it a point to go see the land, drink the wine, eat the food and talk with the people.  Cinque Terre means “Five Lands,” and indeed there are five villages that make up the region: Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso al Mare, Manarola and Riomaggiore.  Cinque Terre, the epicenter of Liguria, is best known by its coastal mountainous trail that can be several hundreds of meters high, and when walking, you’ve nothing but some wires to prevent you from falling to the rocky ocean bottom. This is why you must leave the wine drinking until after the hike.

Many vineyards in Liguria are literally chiseled out of the coastal mountains and rest precariously on terraces.  Heat radiates off the rocks and adds extra ripeness to the grapes, something that would not normally be achievable in these higher climes. Not only are these vineyards on steep slopes that allow for good drainage, but they also benefit from cool sea breezes that provide air circulation, which keeps the grapes dry and prevents molds and other forms of rot from developing. The refreshing, cool nights near the coast help the grapes retain their natural acidity, and the proximity to the sea can impart a savory quality to the wines. The region’s dominant white grape varieties, Pigato and Vermentino, thrive in these conditions, and while they’re often considered the same variety, they do portray different flavor profiles.

July is a pretty hot time of year in Italy, and it was exceptionally hot when we decided to go to Liguria. The sun’s rays reflect off the rocks and radiate outward. The heat is good for the grapes, but it’s not that good for me.  All I could think about was getting to the next town to sample some of the local food and wine.  Thankfully, some clouds came rolling through and showered us with rejuvenating rain. This, however, made the rocky walking surface slippery and slightly more fun.  I made it safely from the southernmost town, Riomaggiore, past the second town of Manarola and then into Corniglia.  This is not as simple as it sounds as there were close to 400 hundred zigzagging steps needed to get into Corneglia. Still, I made it safely.

After the climb, it was definitely time for food and wine. I found a restaurant with a good view and a nice wine list.  I ordered some crudo that consisted of raw local fishes.  I don’t remember the types of fish, but they were awesome with the house white. The light, refreshing and crisp character of the wine was a perfect complement to the delicate flavors of the crudo. Next I had Pesto Genovese; Genova is the Capital of Liguria and this basil infused dish is everywhere.  I paired this dish with a Pigato from one of the local producers.  The wine’s savory, fresh character and aromatic profile played up both the freshness and the aromas of the pesto. This Pigato also paired well with the main course, an assortment of seafood that included mussels, clams, calamari and prawns lightly poached in a simple garlic and parsley broth.

After a white-wine-and-seafood fest I needed something sweet. Fortunately, Liguria makes a dessert wine that is unheard of—unless you’ve been to Liguria and have tasted it. This beloved artisanal wine is called Sciacchetrà, and it’s both rare and expensive. This sweet wine from Cinque Terre is composed of several indigenous white varieties that include Bosco, Vermentino and Albaroa. The grapes are hand-harvested and left to dry in cool ventilated area until the proper dehydration level is reached. Then, the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed. The must is fermented until the wine contains about 14 percent alcohol, leaving residual sugar and a refreshing vein of acidity. Not cloying sweet like many dessert wines, this wine retains its acidic backbone due to the region’s bracing terroir.

After walking three towns and eating a big dinner, I decided that the best route out of Cinque Terre and back to Florence was by train.  I didn’t have the energy to hike another two towns, but my mission was accomplished, and I was more than satisfied. Visiting the region, I learned that the wines, the food, and the land of Liguria are not to be missed. The heat, the light, the ocean breezes all converge to create Liguria, and my memory of the place remains tied to the region’s exceptional wines.

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