The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

How to Visit Italy with Great Taste and Truffle Museums

What to plan–and what to find serendipitously

IMG_1617Summertime approaches, and with the nearly even currency conversion rate, now is the time to visit Italy. I’ve only been twice, but Italy is never far from my mind. I spend a lot of time there in my imagination, if not in my body, and I live vicariously from other people’s visits. For these reasons, I wanted to compile my travel posts in one easy to read compendium. If you’re going–and you should–I want you to enjoy yourself, and I want to add a touch of esoteric travel to your schedule.

My post on how to visit winemakers gets linked a lot by winemakers. While advice like make appointments, plan carefully and get an Italian cellphone may feel intuitive, my winemaker friends they’re shocked by how often simple visits go awry. All I can say is that going to wineries in Italy is nothing like going to wineries in Sonoma or Napa, where wine tourism is an accepted practice, and, indeed, it’s viewed as just another service that wineries offer. This is not the case in Italy, and this post gives you some essential information that will keep everyone from crying.

IMG_2282When I watched the film “The Trip to Italy,” and its paean to Italian food got me thinking about my favorite restaurants, mostly all in Tuscany (one is in Liguria), where I spent the most time. I made a brief list of my favorite dining experiences, with links to helpful webpages. All I can say is that if you have the opportunity to eat at any of these spots, you will be so happy. So, so happy.

Italians have a deep-seated sense of whimsy, and the things they do for fun are not necessarily the things we do for fun. You will not find amusement parks in Italy. You will, however, find three truffle museums and many sculpture parks. Going to Italy and not taking advantage of some of the more intensely Italian amusements is like going to Wisconsin and not eating bratwurst, going to Vermont and not enjoying maple syrup, or visiting New York City and not riding the subway. It’s counter-intuitive and silly. Here is my take on one Tuscan truffle museum, and here is a description of visiting a sculpture park, with links to a few others.

My best advice for visiting Italy, especially Rome, but, really, all of it is pretty simple: Get lost. Get lost in Rome. Ask when your town’s market day is, and visit it. Wander lonely as a cloud. Drink it all in, and let me know what you enjoy because, until I get to go back, I’m living through you.

Inside IWM, March14-17, 2016: Under the Tuscan Sun

A look back at the week that was

IMG_2452We have been living under Under the Tuscan Sun for twenty years! It’s true; Frances Mayes book was published this month in 1996, and we kicked off our week with a literary consideration of Tuscany. There’s no question that Mayes’ book, and the resulting movie, colored America’s consciousness, and in some ways, IWM itself is a result of America’s love affair with Italy. For these reasons, it’s only right that this week was mostly centered in Tusconay. On Tuesday, Sean Collins wrote about a beautiful $27 Super Tuscan from Antinori’s Maremma Estate, Le Mortelle, and on Wednesday, we discussed wines to pair with our favorite thistle, the artichoke, in honor of National Artichoke Hearts Day.

Two of our Experts stuck with the Tuscan theme. Garrett Kowalsky picked a pair of wines from Valdicava, one of IWM’s favorite makers of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino. And John Camacho Vidal explored what’s so super about the Super Tuscan, and then he chose two that he loves, Sammarco from Castello dei Rampolla and Flaccianello from Fontodi. Only Crystal Edgar strayed outside of Toscana, but given that she calls Jean-Philippe Fichet’s Meursault wines “love at first sip,” we can understand why.

Cheers to you and your love of Tuscany, a love we share with you–and most of the world.

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.

Olive Oil, from Tree to Bottle to Coughs

A look at what makes Fontodi’s olive oil special

Olive trees in flower at Fontodi

Olive trees in flower at Fontodi

I can attest that the best thing about olive oil is that pressing olives, like pickling them, makes this fruit palatable. 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.

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.

You rate olive oil according to coughs. At least, that’s how you rate olive oil if it’s really excellent olive oil and if you’re an olive oil aficionado. I learned this fact from Silvano, who served as my guide when I visited Fontodi, the venerable Chianti estate. If there’s a man who should know olive oil, it’s Silvano.

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.

A personalized olive tree at Il Palazzone

A personalized olive tree at Il Palazzone

The visceral kick, or the cough, that accompanies olive oil comes from the TRPA1, a cluster of proteins at the back of your throat. Awhile ago, NPR published an interesting piece on TRPA1, 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. In any case, it’s absolutely why Fontodi’s olive oil firmly sits in the three-cough camp. It’s a deeply peppery, profoundly bold, entirely full-throttle olive oil. It is not shy. It is not demure. It takes no prisoners. And you will love it (we have only a few bottles left–perfect to drizzle on your summer tomatoes!).

Why Bad Soil Makes Good Wine

Why you need to challenge the vine to produce the best wine

Gianfranco Soldera's hands and vineyard rocks

Gianfranco Soldera’s hands and vineyard rocks

Here’s an interesting cocktail fact: grape vines used for the production of quality wine must be planted in infertile soils in order to generate high quality grapes. In fact, grapevines cultivated for wine grow best in soils that are not fertile enough to sustain other agricultural crops. This concept may seem contradictory at first, but as you will see shortly, it makes perfect sense.

The most important factor in making great wine is the quality of fruit, and the only way to get quality fruit is to choose an optimal vineyard site for the grapes that you want to grow.  Climate, position, and soil, (otherwise known as terroir) are the three factors in choosing this site.  Each one of these is important on its own merit, but this post will focus on soil—really, really poor soil.

When say I say “poor soil,” I mean just awful soil. In some places, as in the Rhone Valley or some areas of Toscana, there is not even an ounce of dirt in sight, just rocks. It’s hard to believe that a pile of rocks can produce such amazing wine. However, rocky soils provide excellent drainage for the vines as well as capture heat during the day to warm the vines at night.  Interestingly, to cultivate great grapes, it’s more important to regulate water supply than to have highly nutritive dirt. In short, bad dirt equals good wine.

The rocks at Cupano

The rocks at Cupano

Grapevines need to be stressed to produce quality fruit. The poor soil encourages the roots to dig deeper for water and other nutrients.  As they dig, the roots begin to ramify, and the surface area of the roots that eventually comes into contact with the soil increases.  In turn, more nutrients are delivered to the precious clusters of berries.  Also, more roots equal better regulation of water supply, which is very important during the veraison, or the ripening stages of grape.

The fertile and rich soils that are used to grow commercial crops would spoil the grapes—much as spoiling a child makes for a bad-tempered kid, spoiling grapevines makes for ill-flavored fruit. Fertile soils make it too easy for vines to produce grapes, and the vines take advantage and produce like crazy.  When this happens, the quality of fruit is sacrificed for quantity.    It’s like a child never having to work a day in his or her life.  The harder an entity has to work for something, the greater it will be rewarded in the end. Grapes—and winegrowers—like it tough, and I have to love them for it.

These basic concepts are not universal, but they do provide a good background in understanding why growers make wine where they do, and how the soil influences the grapes. Consider it a grounding for your understanding of that delicious beverage we call wine. And feel free to show off by telling people not only does the name“Sassicaia” come from the word “stony,” but also that the wine grown in any other soil would hardly taste as sweet.

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