When people ask me why I’m reading so much about wine, I almost always answer that I love the stories that go along with the grapes. To some it may seem to be a silly explanation, since stories don’t really account for the drinking. But when you delve into the history and the tradition associated with many Old World wines, you find much more than just viticulture. I’ve found philosophy and principle and love, together with intrigue, mystery, and cut-throat competition. Families joined and divided. Religious implications and papal blessings. Deceit and heroism. Legends. It’s all very interesting for someone who likes to write.
Now, I’m a rookie when it comes to Italian wine. That is my disclaimer. But it’s not going to stop me from telling you a story about Italian wine – or, rather, an Italian vineyard gardener. It’s a tale I heard at a tasting last week, and although I might add that the aroma of the wine is still fresh in my memory, the charm of this account might just stick with me longer.
Let me set the stage.
It’s almost closing time at the wine shop. People are flooding into a back tasting room, claiming chairs at one of four rows of thin long tables, set up in lecture hall fashion. Each place seating is equipped with two wine glasses, a booklet with technical information and maps of Italy, and a plate for cheese and crackers. Sara, who invited me to the tasting, and I rush up to the front of the room, eager to eye the bottles. We claim our places at the first table.
Five minutes later the room quiets. Introductions are made, and Mollie Lewis comes forward to present the evening’s wines. Tall with red hair and not a hint of makeup, Mollie is poised to speak from a font of experience that seems impossible to have attained at her age. She can’t be more than thirty, and yet she must be. She began studying wine at 25, working her way up from restaurant sommelier positions to distribution in California before winning a job that would take her to Italy for five years. Her beauty resonates in the grace of her words as much as in the breadth of her smile, and she speaks with calm assurance about the aromas hidden in each glass and the history of the vineyards she represents.
A half hour into the tasting we move from the Piedmont region to Tuscany: to the wines of Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona. We lift glasses of Rosso di Montalcino (100% Sangiovese Grosso) to our noses and Mollie purrs.
“A good Rosso is what I like to call a baby Brunello,” she says, referring to one of Italy’s best known and most expensive wines. “Doesn’t that just smell like Italy?”
I’ve only been to Italy once, but her comment brings to mind a distinction I can relate to: the wine smells undeniably different from French wine (not to mention New World wine). Herbal is not something I typically associate with French wine, but this Rosso has hints of something that almost make me think of an infusion, with a touch of lasting spice.
As we sniff and sip, Mollie holds the stem of her glass just under her chin, like a microphone. She tells us the story of two families, the Ciaccis and the Piccolominis, pausing periodically to breathe in the wine’s perfume.
“The Ciaccis and the Piccolominis were joined by marriage in the late 1800’s” she begins, her voice somber, as if suggesting everything and anything you can imagine from two families brought together by marriage. But, with a well-timed pause, she leaves those details to the imagination.
“It is a grand estate, with vineyards and a palazzo built in 1672 by the Bishop of Montalcino, Fabivs de Vecchis (whose name has been given to the wine we will taste next).” Over the years, the land stayed within this big family, until 1985, when the Countess Elda Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona passed away without heirs.”
“To whom did she will the estate?” Mollie asks, again sticking her nose in her glass and peering over its edge with impish pleasure.
“To Giuseppe,” she laughs. “The gardener!”
Quiet chuckles fill the room as we all try to imagine the dream of falling into such fortune.
“The best part is, the quality of the wine has greatly improved at Giuseppe’s hands, which is a true testament to the real work of winemaking. It is the gardener, who cultivates his vines with love before considering their inherent worth that naturally brings out the best in the wine.”
Giuseppe is gone now, but he left the estate to his children, Paolo and Lucia Bianchini, who continue their father’s legacy.
I mark the name “Giuseppe” on my tasting sheet. The grand Countess Elda left her estate to a gardener. As Mollie segues into technical information, I imagine an old man in a beat up ivy cap, his face riddled with wrinkles from years of working in the sun and his hands dyed purple from the skins of ripened grapes. My mind has him walking up a ridge alone, surrounded by vines on a beautiful spring day. His hand brushes the leaves with care, feeling to make sure everything is as it should be. A friend approaches from the palazzo. Countess Elda is dead. All this land is yours.
That’s where my imagination runs dry. How in the world would you react to that kind of news? Sadness and joy coupled with enormous responsibility and a world of potential must have overcome Giuseppe like an unexpected spring shower.
That he succeeded in improving upon and continuing the tradition of the estate shows that Countess Elda chose wisely. These days vineyards are often chopped up and sold to the highest bidder because the land proves more lucrative as an apartment complex than as a winery, and because keeping up a vineyard is backbreaking work. But that’s a story for another day…
Needless to say, I recommend the wines of Ciacci Piccolomini, and by the looks of their Trip Advisor page they do a good job hosting visitors too. Check it out!