I like to visit wineries.
I enjoy the educational tours, the inside info about the processes, background on varietals, the …
Oh, why kid around: I’m lying again.
I like the tasting rooms. I can barely tolerate all the crud about maleolactic whatever and, with my ferocious case of ADD, about two minutes into such folderol I start looking for bright, shiny objects and begin to follow insects as they creep across the winery floor.
I want to drink.
I don’t really give a damn about how the stuff is made. I want samples.
And plenty of ’em, please.
I am at a winery in Tuscany, at Castello Vicchiomaggio, one in a gaggle of visitors being shepherded through the place.
I researched the place, and I am ready for action. The joint sits on property that was first developed, castellowise, in the fifth century, and that includes buildings dating back to the Renaissance. It sits atop a hill with views of the lovely Tuscan countryside in every direction. It is an environment resulting from centuries of grooming, of careful alteration by human hands — from the Etruscans on.
I could care less. I am, as Marcus Aurelius put it, pondering an infinity behind me, an infinity ahead. What, given that, really matters? Now is what counts.
And now, I want wine.
The winery was deemed Italian Wine Maker of the Year in 2002 (by whom, I do not know), and one of its wines — the flagship, Ripa delle More — has been hailed far and wide.
I want Ripa delle More. Nothing less will do.
But first, the tedium; the same show they trot out for visitors several times a week. First, we need to tour the winery and go to the cellars. Goofballs wearing Bermuda shorts and University of Texas baseball caps are fascinated by the huge vats and oak barrels. They listen carefully as a company plebe drones on, in barely comprehensible English, about the history of the operation. I notice an odd, eight-legged bug scurrying across the dirt floor. I follow it to where it disappears between rows of barrels, stacked high, dated and marked with esoteric codes.
Finally, all the blather is finished — we’ve discussed where the grape stems go and where the oak barrels are made, the temperature of the cellar, etc. It is time to hit the tasting room.
I come alive. I push an elderly couple from New Jersey out of my way, hustle to the front of the line and barge into the ancient space to take my seat behind a small table, closest to the pouring counter.
Out comes Ernesto, or Fabrizio, or whoever, and … more blabbing!
I spot a silverfish-like insect cruising near the entrance to the room. It pounces on a crumb on the floor and makes haste to its den. A birdie tweets in the garden.
The shill is working the feebs into a lather with talk of the history of Chianti and a Wine 101 explanation of the difference between a Chianti, a Chianti Classico and a Classico Riserva. For the classico and the low-end riserva: Sangiovese, with a touch of Canaiolo and a similar touch of Cabernet. For the Prima Riserva, all Sangiovese.
Yeah, yeah. Let’s tip a few back. So far, this is all talk and no taste.
So-called “Super Tuscans” are all the rage among some wine geeks but, in truth, most are just Sangiovese with a higher percentage of Cab than in the Classico. The tout notes how nice the label is on the new Super Tuscan.
Blah dee blah dee blah.
My hand shoots into the air. I have a question.
“What about your Ripa delle More?”
The shill stops short.
“I mean, it’s your big boy, isn’t it.”
He reluctantly admits the big boy is composed of 60-percent Sangiovese, 30 percent Cab and 10-percent Merlot — all the vines at least 20 years old, strictly pruned, with extremely low yields. It’s matured in 225 liter oak barrels for as long as two years.
”When do we get a taste of the Ripa?”
Fabrizio ignores me and spouts off about the bruschetta we will enjoy as we taste the wines.
Apparently, the staff at the old castello has prepared a couple variations on this simple, classic appetizer.
Plain bruschetta (it’s pronounced brew-sketta, not brewshetta — just in case you want to make some for your bridge party and are compelled to provide a muddled introduction to the goodie) is a slice of crusty French or Italian bread, toasted (preferably over a wood fire or coals), rubbed with a cut clove of garlic, then drizzled with some ultra high-grade extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of coarse salt.
Good enough in this basic form, but the variations are many. Just about any concoction can go on the toasted bread, including pâtés and cooked and slightly crushed cannellini beans, seasoned with garlic and thyme, moistened with extra-virgin.
Perhaps the classic topping is one made of seeded, drained and diced ripe tomato (preferably plum tomato because of its relative lack of seeds and moisture, and it’s meaty flesh) with minced basil, a bit of smushed garlic (you can use roasted garlic), salt and a bit of freshly-ground black pepper. Add a spritz of fresh lemon juice, if you desire — a bit of lemon juice brightens just about anything. Maybe a teensy bit of finely minced anchovy. One could consider the addition of some diced, oil-cured black olive, as well. Mix the ingredients, spread on the toasted, garlic-kissed bread. Enjoy, perhaps with a mix of olives, peppers, a bit of cheese, some cured meats.
Oh, and lots of wine.
Fabrizio indicates we are to enjoy bruschetta with tomato and bruschetta with a pâté.
Fine, fine. Let’s get on with the drinking.
First up, a white — a Trebianno. The most common grape in Italy. The ideal grape for the most undistinguished of wines.
The touristas love it. It reminds them of the cheap chardonnay and infernal white zinfandel they pound down at home. I’m surprised some of them don’t ask for ice cubes.
Second: a Chianti — a regular Tuscan table wine; an everyday drinker.
A palate cleanser, in my book. I wolf down a bruschetta. Bring on the better stuff.
Next, a Classico. Still, nothing special. Sangiovese is, to my taste, an ordinary grape generally used in an ordinary way.
The guys in the baseball hats love the stuff. They are also pounding down the pâté bruschetta like there is no tomorrow. I join in.
Come on, Fabrizio, let’s climb a rung or two on the wine ladder.
Next: a Riserva.
Hmm, more interesting than its predecessors — the Riserva Petri, aged for six months in small barrels, then longer in larger barrels. A 20-year-old vineyard. Better, Fabrizio. Better.
I savor another bruschetta and prepare myself for the next two reds: the Riserva La Prima (aged in small barrels as long as two years, the grapes from 35-year-old vines) then … the Ripa.
But, wait … I look down and there’s another white in my glass. What’s going on here?
Fabrizio informs us we are now to try the Vin Santo — the sickly, all-too-sweet and thin dessert wine of the region. He regales us with a suspect tale of how the tradition requires us to dip a dorky little S-shaped biscuit in the wine.
Wait! Where’s the Riserva La Prima? Most important, where’s a slug of the Ripa?
My hand shoots into the air. I have a question.
“Uh, Fabrizio. Haven’t you forgotten a couple of your wines? I mean, where’s our taste of the La Prima? Where’s the Ripa, for crying out loud? I drove up here for the Ripa. It was given a Vind’Italia three-wine-glass rating by Gambero Rosso Editore, and won the Médaille d-Or at the Concours Modiale in Bruxelles. Where’s the high-octane fuel?”
“I see you’ve finished your biscuit, signore. There is a bruschetta left on the tray. Do you want it?”
It is obvious no one gets to drive the Ferrari, as it were. We’ve been taken for a spin in the Pinto, and that’s all she wrote.
I investigate the purchase of a bottle of the Ripa.
I decide against the purchase when I catch sight of the 100 Euro price tag (about $140 American at the time).
I am inconsolable. I depart the tasting room, biscuit crumbs falling from my shirt to the insect on the floor, a frown on my pudgy face.
I vow to right the wrong when I get home.
I, too, can make bruschetta. With the best of ’em.
And, Fabrizio, take note: I will serve it with high-end wine.