This is an article I originally wrote for the Austin Chronicle. I place it here for your information and as a teaser for when this blog gets going full time, which will be shortly after the edits and art for my next book, What's a Wine Lover To Do? (Artisan), are finally finished.
We rented a car and headed over the Alps to the town of Neive in Piemonte, the northwestern corner of Italy, to La Contea, one of our favorite restaurants in the world. I don't say this lightly. We've been around, and we've been back to La Contea often enough to know that not only is it dazzling, it is consistent. There, Tonino Verro has a small empire as a winemaker, shop owner, restaurateur, and innkeeper. His wife, Claudia, oversees the kitchen, while a crew of young, eager family and friends watches over the front of the house. It is cozy, with fewer than 20 tables, never snobby, and the food is simply glorious. We were there at the beginning of white-truffle season, and Tonino was going table to table, gently imploring the people to try Claudia's Tagliatelle With Tartufo Bianco. It was amazing. Later, Tonino walked through the dining room carrying a box with what looked like a cat in it. When he got to our table, it turned out to be a huge rabbit, freshly shot by a local hunter and ready for Claudia's roasting. We bought an Arnais and a Barbera from Tonino's winery and relaxed into a wonderful meal. The night couldn't have been any better.
Since we were in Italy, we thought it would be a good idea to visit some of the wineries that Austinite Steve Lawrence represents. Romana Carlo is just a few kilometers from La Contea and operated by the nicest family. They set up a lunch Momma cooked (including semolina dolce, a wonderful, sweet, fried polenta), and we tasted through all their wines, tops being the 2004 Terra Verus Barbera Riserva, a dense, delicious wine with a hint of oak. One benefit for all of us, since Steve is local, is that Austin gets these wines first.
With a few days until our next visit, we headed down to Tuscany to see the Banfi operation. This is one of the world's largest wine companies, yet everything we saw was handled like a small winery. We were there as they were bringing in the Sangiovese for their Brunello and watched as the workers literally separated grape by grape to assure the quality. We had three nights at Banfi, staying in a room they reserve for traveling employees. They also have a hotel with a two-star Michelin restaurant, but it starts at $500 a night! Staying in the worker's area allowed us to infiltrate the local scene. We had a chance to be away from tourists. Sitting outside in a breezy piazza, sipping a cup of espresso ... I didn't want to leave.
My favorite Banfi wine of all was Principessa Perlante Gavi, a $15 white wine with tiny bubbles and a beguiling, yummy flavor. I love finding great cheap wines. I also had an opportunity to try a double-blind tasting of 13 2001 Brunellos (see picture above). Now these are some of Italy's most expensive, sought-after wines. The good news was that the most expensive – Pian Delle Vigne by Antinori ($100), Pieve Santa Restituta by Gaja ($125), Biondi-Santi Tenuta Greppo ($120) – were not my favorites. I picked Castello Banfi Poggio Alle Mura as the best (and were the folks at Banfi pleased) and Castelgiocondo second. Both are still pricey, at about $75, but as Brunellos go, they were more than reasonable.
The other ultrapremium wine of Italy is Amarone, and Steve had been able to wangle me an invite to the Yoda of Amarone, Giuseppe Quintarelli. His wines are very rare in the U.S. and are snapped up by collectors. I had a tour of the winery and saw the incredible expense of carefully drying the grapes in lofts, down to the point that there is only a drop or two of decadently rich juice before the press. The outcome is one of the richest red wines on earth. And while Quintarelli's wines go for astronomical prices, the wines of his protégé, Luca Fedrigo of L'Arco, are much more reasonable.
Those are the wines Steve Lawrence brings to Austin, and after having tasted both Quintarelli and L'Arco wine next to each other, I can vouch for Luca's efforts. Luca takes every wine he makes to Quintarelli for his blessing, and you can taste the training Luca has received from the old master.
Our last stop before heading home was to meet with the owners of one of Italy's top white-wine brands, Venica & Venica. We met Giampaolo Venica over lunch at the Ristorante Al Cacciatore in Cormons. As an open fire slowly cooked a batch of polenta in the background, we talked about how his father and uncle had inherited the winery from their father. From the beginning, in 1930, these wines have been in demand all over Italy, but it was only recently that the wines have started building a reputation in the U.S. We tasted through everything they made, at least what wasn't already sold out, and the family style rang through. Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai, and Pinot Bianco are all well-extracted wines, but with plenty of snappy acidity to make them perfect food pairings.
The trip home from Trieste took 28 grueling hours, most spent at the lovely Newark airport. But it gave us time to talk about what we'd learned, most important being that the French and Italians consider wine to be a living thing. They don't think of it as a means to get drunk or a fun something to put in your hand while you're at a party. They see wine as part of the daily meals, lunch, and dinner. Children drink wine, albeit watered down, but they wouldn't anymore think of depriving a child of wine than asparagus. To them, they are the same. Like a vegetable, a fruit, a piece of meat, or a loaf of bread, wine is food. We should learn from them.