May 2018

First things first books: As most of you know I read and review 3 books a week for Publishers Weekly. Those who do not read books think that this is impossible. Those who love to read – as I do – think that this sounds like heaven. And it is.

Since I have been busy reading I have decided that instead of my usual diary I will reminisce.  

Hitchhiking into the Wine Trade

At seventeen I had made a list of things I wanted to accomplish in the coming decade. Number one was to go to the moon on a tourist shuttle. Visit Paris was number two on the list. With my twenty-eighth birthday just a few heartbeats away, I bought a plane ticket, gave my three weeks’ notice to the owner of Foul Play and happily began planning my new life sous le ciel blu de Paris.

My approach to learning French consisted of singing along with Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand, neither of whom, I was to learn later, is actually French. Charles is a native son of Armenia and Yves (born Ivo) is proudly claimed by Italy.

I rambled through Paris making her my friend. I love that city and can still remember the books I read during that period: Robertson Davies’ A Mixture of Frailties on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens, Matthew Head’s Murder at the Flea Club at a café on the square in front of St. Sulpice. I often carried a copy of Peter Devries’ Rueben, Rueben or Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands to posh restaurants when I was dining alone. I always came early – 7:30. As a result I was always given a nice table, usually by the window.

One dark autumn morning I stopped into the French Quaker meeting room in Paris seeking some silent contemplation, unaware of the French Quakers’ need to speak…at length. The only other meeting I had ever attended had been in Brooklyn, where thirty-six people sat in a sunny room and said nothing for an hour. I had gone to that meeting with Stanley Ellin and his wife. Stanley is perhaps best remembered for his much-anthologized stories “The Specialty of the House”, a chilling little masterpiece for the gourmet, and “The Last Bottle in the World”, a wine connoisseurs delight. I loved to watch Stanley’s face light up when his wife entered a room. It was possible to see the beautiful, incandescent woman he had married thirty years before reflected in his eyes.

After the French meeting, over broken butter-cookies and watery tea, I met Lucy, a spare, taciturn English Quaker with long brown hair and a tan. That she had worked as a chambermaid at ski resorts and as a cheese-maker on a dairy farm impressed me, and my ability to sort out the intricacies of city life had the same effect on her.

“If we traveled together,” said Lucy “We could hitchhike and save some money.  Just don’t ever tell my dad.”

We met at the Gare de Lyon station the next morning. Our travel plans consisted of buying a ticket for the destination with the prettiest or most intriguing name. My appreciation of fine mustard led us to Dijon. And the direction of my life changed once again.

We arrived in the late morning of a gloriously sunny autumn day. After a tramp around to get our bearings we stopped to take the sun in a public park. A young man lounged on the grass beside his backpack, turning the final pages in a book. When he finished it he walked to a dustbin by the footpath with the clear intention of dumping the book so as to lighten his load. Desperate to read something in English, having just finished off Travels With a Donkey, I swooped down on him and he offered the book to me. The word “wine” stood out in large black letters across the cover. I started to read. The author, Hugh Johnson, wrote in an appealingly witty way about wine and I found myself seduced by his writing style and by the topic. He mentioned causally that the village of Avize in the Champagne region produced Chardonnay grapes. It was harvest time and the village was less than an hour away. It seemed kismet. We headed out to the main road, flagged down a small flatbed truck and set off for Avize.

The driver pulled over to the side of the road and let us off just outside the village.  I hoisted my small suitcase, Lucy slung her knapsack over her shoulder and we walked into the deserted lanes of Avize. All able-bodied residents were working in the vineyards that surrounded the village. At Lucy’s suggestion we headed to the church. “Our things will be safe here,” she said, lifting a curtain that covered the back of the confessional. When I shoved my bag underneath the priest’s chair I felt the spasm of guilt that betrays a person with no religious upbringing. I knew I had committed a sacrilege of some kind, but the precise spiritual details escaped me.

We walked into the nearest vineyard. The workers bent low over the vines and continued to pick the pendulous bunches of pale golden-green Chardonnay grapes. Only an old woman in a straw sun hat acknowledged us.  She removed her work gloves and whipped her hands on her apron.

Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” She asked.

“Work.”

“It’s hard work,” she said.  Her eyes narrowed as she sized us up. We must have looked strong and hearty or perhaps we just looked hungry. “Okay,” she said. “We’re about ready to break for lunch anyway. Come with me.”

We followed her along the narrow lanes of Avize to the winery. Waiting for us with other members of the family was a young matron. From her chic yet casual clothes, city shoes and the carved arabesques that decorated her spectacles, I rightly guessed she would rather be in Paris than visiting the wine estate at that particular moment.

“Nice glasses,” I said, admiring her elaborate wooden frames.  “I looked at a similar pair in Paris.” And I named a trendy optical shop.

She gave me a reflective stare. I watched thoughts pass across her broad, handsome face. She grasped the notion that we might not be typical farm laborers.

“Wait here,” she said.  She walked to a cluster of other family members and a whispered conversation ensued. There were enough guarded looks in our direction for us to realize that our fate was being decided.

“Come this way,” she said, leading us toward the family home, while our co-workers headed off to wash up for lunch. We followed her up the stair to a small sunny room at the top of the house. Lace curtains hung at the windows and soft duvets made from cotton imprinted with pastel flowers covered the beds. From our window we could just make out the barracks where the other workers bunked.

That first evening, after a long day laboring in the vineyard, we settled down to our place at the workers’ dining table set up in the tasting room of the winery. Muscles aching, I felt as if I had earned my hunger.

Glasses of some rough and ruddy vinegar were placed beside each worker’s plate of meat and two veg. I took my glass to the lady with the trendy glasses and said, “I think there is something wrong with this wine.” Again. she gave me that hard stare before taking the glass from me. “You are quite right,” she said. I went back to my place and she soon returned with a fresh glass of darker, richer colored wine.  I tasted it. Flashes of my first sips of wine danced across my memory: rich but elegant, fruity yet graceful. Fine Burgundy, I realized, was my equivalent of Proust’s madeleines.

I went to the kitchen and thanked her. She looked furtively toward the kitchen door to make sure there was no one around then opened a cupboard and showed me a bottle of Vosne-Romanée from, as I was to learn much later, an excellent vintage. From that point on, the color of my wine always matched that in the family’s own glasses.

Lucy would pick one side of the row and I would work the other. The vines are trained relatively low in Champagne, so we were on our knees most of the time. To while away the working hours we told each other the plots of Fred Astaire movies, enriched by a few snatches of songs. Dancing Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t It Romantic, They All Laughed.  The fruit was round and ripe, the sun shone. There was only a little rain on the last day of picking. Even with safety secateurs – the other workers had those dangerous looking needle-nosed jobbies – Lucy and I managed to cut our fingers.

In the middle of the harvest Grace Kelly’s car sped off a cliff on a winding road near Monte Carlo. Beautiful, blonde Grace Kelly epitomized movie-star chic for us.  She could swirl into Jimmy Stewart’s life in Rear Window and give him a slow-motion kiss infused with Hitchcock’s eroticism. She could ignite Cary Grant’s passion while fireworks lit the sky. That evening Lucy and I walked down to a little bar not far from the winery and ordered small glasses of Cointreau. Looking at our hands, covered in cuts, sticky grape juice still under our nails, we thought about elegance and glamour and all the times our hands had been kissed by French boys trying hard to assume savoir-faire. How long, we wondered, would it take for our hands to heal?

 

 

 

September 2016

24 September Art in a Fragrant Garden

The annual Canova prize for young sculptors, sponsored by the Canova Foundation and the Guerrieri Rizzardi wine company, is a magnificent opportunity for young artists. The prize consists in part of a showing of the winner’s work at the Museo e Gipsoteca Antonio Canova in Possagno. This year was a joint show of the works of Maria Savoldi and Giulia Berra.

 

2Savoldi’s work is site specific, which means the sculpture is created in and for a particular place. Arranged around the large room in the exhibition hall were photographs of her sculptures – all of which are made of colored wire. These images are the result of a bicycle trip she made through France, Spain and Portugal.  “I would find a place that inspired me but at the same time seemed to lack something. Then I would fill the void,” says Savoldi.  “When I was working, people would gather around and watch. There were lots of children who would come up and ask me what I was doing and we would talk. I was never alone on this trip.  I left the pieces in situ for people to touch or take away.” She also attached tags on the work with her email address should someone wish to contact her and discuss the work.

Her act of creation can be seen as a work of art in itself.  I hope that many other opportunities come her way to travel and share her experiences and artistic vision.

Giulia Berra produced vessels (made of bent wood and feathers) which were suspended from the ceiling in a smaller room. The interaction and movement of the shadows they cast created the interesting sensation of walking inside a work of art.  Again, there was a transitory nature to the work.

After the show, all the guests trouped out to the beautiful garden and forked down nice plates of spaghetti and drank excellent Guerrieri Rizzardi wine.

Michael and I got home, loaded up Stanley and headed down to the train station on our way to Vicenza, where we had dinner with Susan H. – all the vegetables were from her garden and we washed things down with Champagne.  Yes, it was a good as it sounds.

 

17 September Meeting Myra And tasting a Valpolicella from another space and time

4-myraMyra lives in the Collie Euganei. I wrote a book about this incredible place (The Venetian Hills: A Connoisseur’s Companion to the Colli Euganei). She saw the book and wrote an email suggesting we meet.

Myra brings her book, a memoir of her life in a Colli Euganei spa town: The Best Mud in Italy.

 

 

 

4aTocati, the annual festival of street games is in full swing in the centro storico. The games are those that involve sticks, balls, rocks and chalk. Yes, real old fashioned games! One of the founders of this event was Gianni Burato, a wonderful illustrator and very kind and intelligent man. His friends still miss him. The logo you see was drawn by Gianni. He also did the cover for my book Bacchus at Baker Street – the version with the cover featuring a Basil Rathbone-ish gent sipping Champagne.

 

 

5-wine We go to the Osteria Carroarmato for lunch and ask Annalisa, the owner, to choose a wine for us. The 2010 Taso Valplicella Classico Superiore from Villa Bellini is superb. Brilliant rich cherry color with a dark sheen. It is vibrant on the nose and palate, with firm seductive flavors of mature cherry. Supple yet vivacious – a 3 dimensional sensation. The wine just keeps on giving pleasure. After 40 minutes in the glass it is still firm and flavorful.  I have no idea why this photo has come out sideways….if you are looking for techical perfection I fear you must look elsewhere.

“The first time I tasted this wine I thought of that 1988 Quintarelli Valpolicella you brought to dinner a few years ago. It had that same staying power,” says Annalisa.  “This is probably the last chance to taste this wine or a wine of this style from Villa Bellini because the owner has sold the estate to a big company.”

She said this because, as every wine lover knows, Great Wines are made by individuals with vision and a soul.  This certainly does not mean that Villa Bellini will necessarily be making lesser wines.  But they will be making different wines, ones that reflect the current winemaker/owners. I wish them well.

13 September Dancing in the Office

It is 10 a.m. I slip Xavier Cugat: King of Cuban Rhythm! into the cd player and Michael and I rumble a rumba. Ahi ahi ahi!  I will confess: I dance and sing every day.  I don’t do either of these activities exceptionally well…but boy do I have fun. This is the first time I have enticed Michael into a morning dance.

4 September  Lunch with Gian Paolo and family at the Carroarmato.

Oh, I have known Gian Paolo for 20 years! We met at the first ever International Wine fair to be held in Brazil. The fair itself, held in a big hotel complex, was nice enough. The tranquility of the event was marred only by the periodic shattering of glass shelving. The organizers had not realized that heavy glass bottles are best displayed on something a bit tougher – if less elegant – than plate glass. And the urge to put one more bottle on a thin sheet of glass was just too tempting for some.

One of the positive results of the trip was that Gian Paolo became a good friend and was, in fact, the Italian Best Man at my wedding.  He also gave Michael one of his first freelance translating jobs. The relationships you forge during difficult times are usually meant to last.

 

8However, the most delicious outcome of this trip as far as I am concerned is that Ed, our dog, got his first byline in Decanter, a well-known British wine magazine. I had already contracted to write about the fair for another magazine when I got the call from Decanter. My byline could not appear over both stories, so the editor and I agreed to assign the second one to Edmund Cane (a.k.a. Ed Dog), my alter ego. From there Ed’s career blossomed until he had contributed to every major British wine publication. Each time his byline appeared I would whisk his copy of the magazine down to Annalisa at the Carro Armato and she would give him a meatball for being such a clever dog.  Ed was less than 200 grams when we got him and the doctor estimated that he was around 3 weeks old.  He had been abandoned.  He was the smartest dog I have ever had the pleasure to know.

 

3 Tasting and smoozing at Soave VS9Here is a photo of Charlie Atuola with Stanley.  Charlie is the international wine consultant behind the Duel of Wine film, which will be presented (out of completion – way out of competition) at the Venice film festival. He is sublimely happy.

There is an Italian expression: non c’e un cane (there’s not even a dog), which is used to indicate that few people turned up at an event. That can certainly not be said of Soave Versus. The place was packed. Yes, I tried to edit the image but to no avail.

2 September Dinner in the Grand Guardia to kick off Soave VS.

We arrive and mill around a bit.  The mayor of Verona comes in and recognizes Michael – Michael usually participates in the San Gio Video Festival Press Conference which takes place in July – and comes up to shake Michael’s hand.  I can see Aldo’s eyes light up. Being on cordial- greeting-terms with local politicians is a much prized attribute in Italy.

I was fortunate to sit next to a person who enjoyed talking about books. Everyone at the table gave me their leftover meat to take home to Stanley.  What a great group.  Doing something as brutta figura (in this case we can translate the expression as gauche) as taking home leftovers to the dog is frowned upon in Italy. But the Soave-ites know me by now and indulge my little foibles.

1 September Press Conference for Soave VS

We roll up to the town hall to attend the Press Conference.  I bring a paperback (PerryMason e la Voce Fantasma a.k.a. The Case of the Mythical Monkeys).  Soave Versus is the annual 3-day event (with tasting) that is now held in the Grand Guardia in Piazza Bra. After the Press Conference Aldo (the director of the Soave Consortium) suggests we follow him and a couple of bloggers and a politician of some sort (I try not to remember the names and positions of local politicians – no matter how nice they may be personally). We go to Signore Vino and chow down on sliced meats and SOAVE!

NOVEMBER 2015

1aFirst, as always, books by friends: Killed in the Ratings by William L. De Andrea. This was his first novel and won The Edgar (The top award from the Mystery Writers of America).

 

I met Bill at an MWA cocktail party in New York. He came over to me and said: “Look around. We are the only two people in this room who are under thirty. Let’s blow this pop stand.” And we did. We went to a diner for burgers and then to a movie. He was a witty and kind man, who died much too soon (aged 44).

 

Re-reading this book made me nostalgic for a world where the memory of elevator operators in posh buildings was still green and payphones were on every corner. Cellphones that do everything have certainly made it more difficult for mystery writers today. An entertaining book. I plan on re-reading his other novels.

 

30 November Cooking at San Mattia
We set off for Corte San Mattia Agriturismo (www.sanmattia.it), Giovanni Ederle’s lovely restaurant and hostelry. The view from the terrace is stunning. If you want an agriturismo holiday, this is the place! We are here for a cooking demonstration and have brought Stanley, who behaves impeccably. He spends some time sniffing the Agriturismo Dog and inviting her to play. She sits like a rock, aware of him but uninterested in the jumping, leaping, racing around play that Stanley has in mind.

What I learned: If you want to peel onions without tears either hold the onion under hot water before cutting or wear sunglasses.

 

29 November Go Chievo
1bWe head out for Montorio and a big pre-game lunch organized by our soccer fan club (Chievo is Life) for three Udinese fan clubs. Chievo will be playing Udine this afternoon. “May the best team win,” says a Chievo fan across from me. This is why I love Chievo – the players and followers are so nice. Along with the 220 sports fans there is a crew from the RAI (the Italian National television company). Stanley – decked out in his Chievo scarf – is a big hit with them. We hope he makes the Dominica Sportiva program tonight.

 

27 November Golosario A-go-go
3We make our way to the La Collina dei Ciliegi winery (www.lacollinadeiciliegi.it )to attend a presentation for the annual Il Golosario guide, compiled by Paolo Massobrio. (www.ilgolosario.it ) The book has over 1000 pages and is chocked-full of information about some of Italy’s best food and wine producers. A few of them were on hand, showing their wares. I cannot even begin to convey the purity of flavors on offer. Among my favorites were B73, a maker of organic jams, sauces and liquors; Az. Agr. Vallier, makers of an array of products based on walnuts and La Giardiniera di Morgan – I have never tasted such fresh, crisp vegetables preserved in white wine vinegar. I could go on and on. If you are in Italy and you want the best local products The Golosario guide is for you.

 

By the way, I tried the Il Corvino 2014 from La Collina dei Ciliegi and found it fresh, fruity easy-drinking. The price is right too. Around a tenner.

 

I spotted a pleasant looking man heading for the door and asked him for a ride down the hill to Grezzane, where we could catch the bus. When he found out that our final destination was Verona, he very graciously offered to take us there. During the ride we found out his name was Savino Poffa and he owns Trattoria Urbana Mangia Fuoco in Brescia. (www.trattoriamangiafuoco.it ). Around 15 years ago he and some friends started an organization to save racing greyhounds called GACI, which stands for Greyhound Adopt Center Italy. (www.adozionilevrieri.it.)

 

“The dogs were kept in cages and only let out to run. When their racing days were over they were put down. So the average life span was around 4 years. My Josie is 15,” says Savino, referring to one of the dogs he adopted. “She is a wonderful dog. Sometimes she comes to work with me.”

 

25 November Zanoni at the Carroarmato.
4We are the Carroarmato (www.carroarmato.it ) for a dinner and tasting of Pietro Zanoni’s Valpolicellas (www.pietrozanoni.it) Our Pal Ugo is the moderator and Graziano Guandalini (www.grazianoguandalini.sitiwebs.com) masterfully plays the upright piano.

 

I ask Pietro: “What’s new?” He replies: “I’ve got a cat. My daughter named it Tito. I’ve never had an indoor cat. It sleeps on the bed!” He says this last bit with real wonder in his voice.

 

Annalisa, the owner of the Carroarmato, is a great fan of Pietro’s Valpolicellas. She likes their fresh, direct style.

 

Tonight we taste 4 vintages: 2013, 2011, 2009 and 2007. All were fresh and firm. My favorite of the evening was the 2011. It has a rich undertow of ripe fruit, with an almost orange-zest sensation. A very, very nice wine. Michael describes it thus: “Like the pages of an old book…the smooth texture of a well-read book.” I feel I have infected him with my bookishness.

 

23 Durello in Milan
6I am up at 6 a.m. to walk the dog and get some work done before heading out on the Soave Bus that will take us to Milan for the Big Durello/Sparkling Wine tasting.
We arrive. Susan H. and I have a productive meeting, kicking around some ideas for a mutual project. Then off to the tasting. We sit through the press conference. A representative from Euposia (www.euposia.it) says he will announce the winners of the Euposia mega sparkling wine tasting, at which I was a judge. However he does not reveal all the winners. But we do find out the winner in the White Sparkling Wines made from Indigenous Varieties category is – a Durello. This makes everyone very happy.

The winning wine is from Sacra Mundi. It is fresh and clean, with a pleasingly tart flavor.

A Durello/Durella Lesson:
5The grape name is Durella but wine made from this grape is called Durello. This is due to the fact that the Italian word for grape (uva) is feminine and thus ends in an “a”, while the Italian word for wine (vino) is masculine and thus ends in an “o”.

The name of this very vigorous vine is derived from its tough (dura) skin. Its most important DOC zone lies in the Lessini Mountains in the provinces of Verona and Vicenza, north of the Soave zone. It is grown specifically in mountain sites on soils of volcanic origin.

Lessini Durello is a light dry white wine with a minimum alcohol level of 10%. When it has an alcohol level of 11% it can be labeled “superiore”. This grape’s high acidity makes it ideal for sparkling wine production. Lessini Durello Spumante is rapidly becoming the aperitif of choice in Soave and Verona, where it is served with fairly fatty goods, such as cheese and salami.

The Durella grape can only be found in the wines of this region, and may be used as a lesser components in Breganze Bianco, Gambellara and Lugana.
Lesson Over

 

At around 3 p.m., I have tasted what I want to taste. I go sit in the foyer and read a battered paperback copy of Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. Aldo, the director of the Durello Consorzio comes up and says: “Patricia, you are always reading books that are un po ossidato (a little bit oxidized).

At 4 p.m. I take a 10-minute stroll to the train station and head for home, leaving Michael to hang around for the prize giving.

 

18 November The Week and Beyond….
7 The WeekMy interview with Umberto Eco was cited in The Week Magazine. They used one of my favorite quotes: the one about Dan Brown. Hip, hip, hip hooray.

The set up and Dan Brown quote: Foucault’s Pendulum is about three waggish publishing employees who, having read far too many manuscripts about crazy theories, decide, as a game, to make up a conspiracy theory of their own, in which they link the Knights Templars to practically every occult manifestation in history, and suggest that the Templars are destined to take over the world. The trio soon find themselves in fear of their lives, threatened by a secret society which has taken their game all too seriously.
“It was I who invented Dan Brown, he was a character in that book,” says Eco, laughing.

 

November 12 and 13 Euposia Sparkling Wine tasting

8Beppe G. picks me up at the bridge and whisks me off to The Aqualux Hotel in Bardolino (www.aqualuxhotel.com ) for the annual Euposia mega-tasting of Sparkling Wines from around the world.

 

I am one of 21 judges. Each of us has our own table. There is total silence and the sommeliers are efficient. The wines are tasted blind. (That means that the identity of the wines in the glass are not revealed to the tasters.)

 

Day One we tasted 91 wines. The overall quality level was high. However, I sometimes found myself writing “a bit dull but without faults”.

 

THEN Day Two, the second wine (number 202) was poured. I put my nose in the glass and every atom in my body buzzed. YES! EUREKA! From the first sniff the quality was clear. Fresh, vibrant, fragrant. The palate followed the nose. I put the glass aside and warned the sommeliers not to take it away.

 

I kept it for 2 hours while going through the rest of the wines (there were around 70 for Day Two). Sample 202 stayed firm and fresh and appealing. I wrote “I love this wine.” on my tasting sheet.

 

After some unseemly begging and whining on my part I finally got the organizer to tell me the name of the wine. However, he rightly insisted that he would tell me only after all the tasting sheets had been handed into the invigilator and the results had been put in the computer. It was a Champagne Jacquart Mosatique Brut. Oh, I hope it gets a prize.

 

12 November My Dog Ate It.
9There is a happy ending to this. I took the nibbled note and the nibbler himself to the bank and they gave me a nice new 50 Euro note. And I have learned to put my purse on a higher shelf because I now know that my dear little Stanley can open zipper pockets

November Happy Birthday to Michael
We celebrate at the Osteria Vecchia Fontanina www.ristorantevecchiafontanina.com  The food there is excellent. The service friendly – and they like Stanley.

DECEMBER 2013

31 New Years Eve With Artistes and Stanley Dog

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWe arrive at the apartment of an Italian/Austrian couple to celebrate New Year’s. We bring a magnum of Villa Rosé 2008 (Franciacorta) and a Bianco di Custoza Amedeo 2011 from Cavalchina. The rosé is wonderful…it goes well with the sushi and the salmon starter, the Cavalchina Custoza  -one of the best I have ever had –is excellent with the soup.  Our hostess requests that everyone visiting her apartment leave their shoes in the hall.  This gives me the opportunity to wear my Champagne socks in public for the first time in two decades.  They were knitted for me by my pal Evelyn H.  Table-talk: art, what is an artist and poetry.  A good time was had by all.     

28 December Happy Birthday Cinema

We go the deconsecrated church where Ugo shows a silent film – The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford.  Afterward there is cake and wine for all.  We take 2 magnums of Zamuner Rosé that go down a treat.  People are lining up at my end of the table for more.  This makes me happy.  I love sparkling wine…but it is very hard to find occasions to open magnums.

26 December Boxing Day Tea with the Ladies (Michael is Tea Master)

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

13 December How I Hitchhiked into the Wine Trade

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMy pal Lucy and her husband, Toni, arrive from Scotland today for a flying visit.

I met Lucy, a spare, taciturn English Quaker over broken butter-cookies and watery tea at a Quaker meeting in Paris. In a certain sense it was this chance meeting that propelled me into the wine trade.  Here is how it all began that early autumn in Paris some 31 years ago.

That she had worked as a chambermaid at ski resorts and as a cheese-maker on a dairy farm impressed me, and my ability to sort out the intricacies of city life had the same effect on her. 

“If we traveled together,” said Lucy “We could hitchhike and save some money.  Just don’t ever tell my dad.”

We met at the Gare de Lyon station the next morning. Our travel plans consisted of buying a ticket for the destination with the prettiest or most intriguing name. My appreciation of fine mustard led us to Dijon.

5We arrived in the late morning of a gloriously sunny autumn day. After a tramp around to get our bearings we stopped to take the sun in a public park. A young man lounged on the grass beside his backpack, turning the final pages in a book. When he finished it he walked to a dustbin by the footpath with the clear intention of dumping the book so as to lighten his load. Desperate to read something in English, having just finished off Travels With a Donkey, I swooped down on him and he offered the book to me. The word “wine” stood out in large black letters across the cover. I started to read. The author, Hugh Johnson, wrote in an appealingly witty way about wine and I found myself seduced by his writing style and by the topic. He mentioned causally that the village of Avize in the Champagne region produced Chardonnay grapes. It was harvest time and the village was less than an hour away. It seemed kismet. We headed out to the main road, flagged down a small flatbed truck and set off for Avize.    

The driver pulled over to the side of the road and let us off just outside the village.  I hoisted my small suitcase, Lucy slung her knapsack over her shoulder and we walked into the deserted lanes of Avize. All able-bodied residents were working in the vineyards that surrounded the village. At Lucy’s suggestion we headed to the church. “Our things will be safe here,” she said, lifting a curtain that covered the back of the confessional. When I shoved my bag underneath the priest’s chair I felt the spasm of guilt that betrays a person with no religious upbringing. I knew I had committed a sacrilege of some kind but the precise spiritual details escaped me. 

6We walked into the nearest vineyard. The workers bent low over the vines and continued to pick the pendulous bunches of pale golden-green Chardonnay grapes. Only an old woman in a straw sun hat acknowledged us.  She removed her work gloves and whipped her hands on her apron.

Qu’est-ce que tu veux?” She asked.

“Work.”

“It’s hard work,” she said.  Her eyes narrowed as she sized us up. We must have looked strong and hearty or perhaps we just looked hungry. “Okay,” she said. “We’re about ready to break for lunch anyway. Come with me.” 

We followed her along the narrow lanes of Avize to the winery. Waiting for us with other members of the family was a young matron. From her chic yet casual clothes, city shoes and the carved arabesques that decorated her spectacles, I rightly guessed she would rather be in Paris than visiting the wine estate at that particular moment.

“Nice glasses,” I said, admiring her elaborate wooden frames.  “I looked at a similar pair in Paris.” And I named a trendy optical shop.

She gave me a reflective stare. I watched thoughts pass across her broad, handsome face.  First she recognized that Lucy and I had recently been in Paris. Then the notion that we might not be typical farm laborers flitted by.  

6a“Wait here,” she said.  She walked to a cluster of other family members and a whispered conversation ensued. There were enough guarded looks in our direction for us to realize that our fate was being decided.

“Come this way,” she said, leading us toward the family home, while our co-workers headed off to wash up for lunch. We followed her up the stair to a small sunny room at the top of the house. Lace curtains hung at the windows and soft duvets made from cotton imprinted with pastel flowers covered the beds. From our window we could just make out the barracks where the other workers bunked. 

Being granted special privileges did not endear us to our colleagues, nor did the speed and accuracy with which we picked. A quick harvest meant fewer hours work and therefore less pay.

At the end of our first work session an overseer praised our conscientiousness, going so far as to suggest that the others should follow our example. The French pickers took this as an open declaration of war. Healthy bunches of grapes would be stealthily tossed under our already picked vines in order to create the impression that our speed was due to sloppy work. Leaves and stones were dumped into our baskets should we chance to leave them unattended. We sussed out these ploys fairly quickly and we reacted by scrupulously policing our rows a second and sometimes a third time, by keeping our baskets by our sides and by remarking casually but loudly that the origin of the word sabotage was French…and little wonder! Thus we robbed them of the pleasure of reporting us to the overseers. At the time I don’t think we fully realize the existential crises we created in the minds and souls of our French fellow workers.

That first evening, after a long day laboring in the vineyard, we settled down to our place at the workers’ dining table set up in the tasting room of the winery. Muscles aching, I felt as if I had earned my hunger.

Glasses of some rough and ruddy vinegar were placed beside each worker’s plate of meat and two veg. I took my glass to the lady with the trendy glasses and said, “I think there is something wrong with this wine.” Again she gave me that hard stare before taking the glass from me. “You are quite right,” she said. I went back to my place and she soon returned with a fresh glass of darker, richer colored wine.  I tasted it. Flashes of my first sips of wine danced across my memory: rich but elegant, fruity yet graceful. Fine Burgundy, I realized was my equivalent of Proust’s madeleines.  

I went to the kitchen and thanked her. She looked furtively toward the kitchen door to make sure there was no one around then opened a cupboard and showed me a bottle of Vosne-Romanée from, as I was to learn much later, an excellent vintage. From that point on, the color of my wine always matched that in the family’s own glasses. 

Lucy would pick one side of the row and I would work the other. The vines are trained relatively low in Champagne, so we were on our knees most of the time. To while away the working hours we told each other the plots of Fred Astaire movies, enriched by a few snatches of songs. Dancing Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t It Romantic, They All Laughed.  The fruit was round and ripe, the sun shone. There was only a little rain on the last day of picking. Even with safety secateurs – the other workers had those dangerous looking needle-nosed jobbies – Lucy and I managed to cut our fingers.

8In the middle of the harvest Grace Kelly’s car sped off a cliff on a winding road near Monte Carlo. Beautiful, blonde Grace Kelly epitomized movie-star chic for us.  She could swirl into Jimmy Stewart’s life in Rear Window and give him a slow-motion kiss infused with Hitchcock’s eroticism. She could ignite Cary Grant’s passion while fireworks lit the sky. That evening Lucy and I walked down to a little bar not far from the winery and ordered small glasses of Cointreau. Looking at our hands, covered in cuts, sticky grape juice still under our nails, we thought about elegance and glamour and all the times our hands had been kissed by French boys trying hard to assume savoir-faire. How long, we wondered, would it take for our hands to heal? 

Our picking team had two overseers: Raymond, the nice one, and Mini H., so dubbed by Lucy and standing for Little Hitler. The only other foreign pickers were four exceedingly tall Dutchmen with children’s faces. Picking was much more difficult for them: even on their knees they had to bend double to reach the bunches. We called them John, Paul, George and Ringo. These nicknames allowed us to talk freely about them without arousing too much interest. I am sure that remarks like: “Paul is really cute,” followed by furtive glances in young Dieter’s direction went completely unnoticed.

The final day of picking ended in a party. All the horrible things we had wished on Mini H. vanished into vapor when we met his wife. Poor old Mini H. had his Hell on earth. Mrs. Mini vamped into the tasting room in tight black slacks and a leopard print bodysuit. She swayed up to pink-cheeked Dieter and grabbed his arm. “Oh, you are so strong,” she said rubbing her bosom against his midriff. She then gripped Frank’s hand and walked her fingers up his sleeve, “Oh, you are so tall,” she said, looking hungrily into his ever-widening eyes. Raymond, the nice overseer, also had the wife he deserved – charming, attractive and clearly in love with her husband. Sometimes there is justice in the world.

9aLucy and I continued to ramble around France.  As Christmas neared Lucy returned to her family home in England and I returned to New York to earn more money for my next trip to Europe. We vowed to meet up for future harvests. We suited each other as traveling companions. We shared the rare ability to appreciate silence. Neither of us felt the need to state the obvious and we were not complainers. When our random rambles left us in the mud we just carried on, knowing that around the next bend things would be different and, perhaps, better.  

There you have it: How I hitchhiked into the wine trade.

9 December  My WSET  Tasting Students

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAt 9:30 a.m. yesterday morning my WSET tasting students arrived to blind taste the 4 wines I had prepared for them: a generic Burgundy, a Mersault, a Chardonnay from Sandro de Bruno and a 2003 Tergeno (an Albana and Chardonnay blend produced by Fattoria Zerbina).  This latter wine is made from late harvest grapes and often has a touch of botrytis.  Its freshness and liveliness on the nose and palate blew the boys away.  I then gave them some tips that my tasting tutor had given me lo those many years ago and sent them on their happy way.   I studied blind tasting for three years in London with Maggie McNee, M.W.  She was a revelation. I only hope I can transmit to my students the energy, enthusiasm and knowledge that she gave to me.   

Early December

Cantina di Soave Annual Lunch - Excellent Sparkling Durello
Cantina di Soave Annual Lunch – Excellent Sparkling Durello
Annual Meat Fest at the Sandro de Bruno winery
Annual Meat Fest at the Sandro de Bruno winery

 

Dinner at Geppy and Germana's
Dinner at Geppy and Germana’s
Silvio
Silvio
Ugo declaiming
Ugo declaiming

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

NOVEMBER 2012

November 29 Illasi Valleys R US

We take the bus out to Tregnago, a little town in the Illasi Valley, about 40 minutes east of Verona. We are here on the occasion of the launch of the Illasi Valleys Association.  Some five hundred people turn out to the event.  Bernardo Pasquali, the president of the association, gives a tour de force presentation.  He is enthusiastic, creative and has the knack of choosing the right partners.   Let me tell you a little about this group. First, there is nothing like it anywhere else in Italy.  Right now it has 55 members.  The members include, wine producers, oil makers, travel agents, limousine and tour bus services, bakers, restaurateurs, spas, an optical manufacture and designer and an artist who fastens beautiful and practical things from wrought iron. They have all banded together to promote their territory: The Illasi Valleys.

At every wine and food event I have been to in Italy in the last 15 years there has been the same bleat about promoting the territory of production.  The Illasi Valleys Group is the first to actually DO something!  I wish them well. Everyone connected with this enterprise vibrates with enthusiasm.  Hooray. Go Illasi Valleys!  www.visitillasivalleys.com

November 28  A fine osteria in Verona and waiting for the plumber or someone like him.

We go to buy vegetables.  It is raining – what else? We trudge to the bus stop our shoulders loaded down with bags of cabbage, carrots and the rest.  We are captured by the display window of a café.  It is beautiful: lovely fresh cheeses, elegant steel-blue and terracotta décor.  A pleasant young man behind the counter waves at us to come into Café Carducci. “My grandfather started the café. It is the oldest family owned osteria in Verona,” he says.

“It is too elegant and welcoming for Verona,” I say, and I mean it.  They place has a fabulous ambiance.

I tell him I would like to write about it for a website I contribute to and he asks me my name.

“You’re famous,” he declares.  This pleases me enormously.  I am famous to a very narrow band of wine lovers around the world.  I have had New York restaurateurs, Canadian journalists, a Dutch businessman, a Greek music teacher and an East Coast doctor tell me I am famous in the last month.  Pretty cool, but the question –then why ain’t I rich? – always floats up in my mind when I hear that declaration.

We take the bus home.  I make lunch. I pull the cork on the open bottle of Tanbe” 2010 from Villa Canestrari. I put a dollop into the pan to deglaze it.  I pause for a moment.  I then pour myself a glass to deglaze me.

The plumbers arrive.

Must meditate.

Ugo and Michael are entertaining a group of Danish business people.  Ugo wants to do a blind tasting – literally.  It turns the event into a very pleasant parlor game…with all the innuendos that blindfolding strangers entails.

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November 27 The plumber is supposed to come again….

He doesn’t.

I taste “Tanbe” 2010 from Villa Canestrari (a blend of Garganego, Traminer Aromatico and Sauvignon Blanc). Good saturation of yellow-pale gold. Bright and fruity (ripe pears), with a creamy floral note (peach blossoms) and a grassy note derived from the Sauvignon Blanc. Very satisfying.  I am told that it costs around 5 Euros at the cantina. That is an excellent price.

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November 23  Off to Trentino for big Trentdoc tasting

We taste 73 Trentodoc sparkling wines blind.  I like having the opportunity to taste these wines without knowing who the producers are.  It is the only way to shut out all the hype and to really understand who is making good wines.

The top producer for me in terms of the number of wines that – when tasted blind – got my highest marks was Ferrari Fratelli Lunelli,  The company’s Perlè Rosè 2006, Perle Chardonnay 2006, Giulio Ferrari il Fondatore Riserva Brut 2001 and Ferrari Brut non-vintage were stylish, zesty and satisfying – each in its own way.

Among the other producers who stood out were Endrizzi, Abate Nero, Maso Martis, Roberto Zeni,  Cembra, Rotari, Istituto Agrario San Michele and Opera Vitivinicola in Valdicembra.

I also gave high marks to a producer I had never heard of before: Revi.  The wines have all the qualities of top-notch Trentodoc.  The estate’s entire annual production hovers around 13,000.  They don’t export…so, if you happen to find yourself in Trentino, give them a try.

An English photographer said: “But that name – Trentodoc!  They need a different name!”

I explained to him why Trentodoc is, in fact, a good name. “It identifies the region of origin – just like Champagne does.”

“I like Prosecco,” the phohtographer persisted.

“And because the name was not sufficiently tied to the area of production there are now “Proseccos” from all over the world, made in all sorts of way.  Whereas the name Trentodoc  firmly places the production zone in Trentino!”

I don’t think he was convinced.

November 19 Marco Caprai

I interview Marco Caprai whose winery Arnaldo Caprai has just been named European Winery of the Year.   When I asked him if his children were going to join him in the business someday, he said; “My boys are two and three years old, so it is too early to determine if they will follow me into the business. But I can tell you that they enjoy following me into the vineyards because they like to eat the grapes straight from the vines.”  The interview was published on www.wine-searcher.com.

November 18 The Cat Who…lives on my bedside table

I stack all the Cat Who books on my bedside table…I may need to drift into Moose County in the next few days…months….years….

16 November Euposia Champagne and Sparkling Wine tasting

Beppe picks me up at the bridge and drives me out to the Bacco D’Oro Restaurant in the Illasi Valley, east of Verona.  I am one of 20 judges who will be blind tasting over 100 sparkling wines from all parts of the world.

I like the way it is organized.  No talking while tasting. Everyone just marks the wine as they see fit, with no useless and distracting discussion.  Two of the problems with discussion while tasting are:  it breaks the taster’s concentration and it is too easy for a confident person to convince the others to change their opinions. Sometimes confidence does not equate with accuracy.

The Big Winner in the Rosé category this year went to Bollinger Rosé. Creamy elegance.

Coming in a close second is an Italian wine Bellenda Rose 2005.

This is the fifth edition of the Euposia Sparkling Wine event.  At an early edition the top prize went to an English vintner. That fact created quite a stir in the British Press.  Since then the importance of this tasting has grown exponentially.

I am very happy to be a part of the tasting panel.

15 November Moving

The moving men come at 7:20 and spend four hours loading up two trucks. Then we are off to the new apartment and another 4 hours of unpacking.

Before agreeing to rent this new place I asked specifically if the plumbing and electricity were up to code.  I was assured that they were. We flush the toilet and it overflows

My resolve to live my life as a dog emerged. By living like a dog I mean: take everything in stride and be happy with what you have.  I try to look for positive things.  I decide that the positive thing is that I will now start divesting myself of possessions.  Travel light will be my by-word from now on.

As I looked around at the boxes piled everywhere, I realized that I only have 4 boxes of clothes but over 35 boxes of books.  I have thousands of books.  I must divest myself of some of them.  But which ones?  There are some that give me pleasure just holding them, like Mrs Shelly, a biography of Mary Shelly published in 1890.  I have quite a few interesting first editions from the 1800s – most in good condition. I have a lovely leather-bound book with hand colored illuminated letters.  I have 50 or so books that have been autographed to me that date from my days as manager of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York; I can’t get rid of those.

I have hundreds of paperbacks that I will never read again.  But others…

Watching television on the morning of that fateful 9/11 when the airplanes smashed into the Twin Towers, I sank into a deep depression.  All I could do was cry or feel a pressing numbness. The world at that moment had become an ugly, frightening place.  What got me through the next ten days were those silly “Cat Who…”  books by Lillian Jackson Braun.  They provided me with a world where most people are nice, the heros are gentle and calm and most everyone is kind to animals – even the crooks.  For ten days I lived in “Moose County, “four hundred miles North of everywhere”.  It was only after that mental vacation that was I able to come back and join the real world. I can’t get rid of those books.

I have books that I realize have no value anymore: A two volume set of the complete works of Robert Browning, dating from the early 1900s.   But it is a second edition…so no collector would want it and anyone who just wanted the information would Google it or probably download a copy from some internet site.

What am I going to do with all these books – some exquisite, others just readers copies?

There is not the same fervor for collecting books in Italy that there is in English-speaking countries.  And besides, in Italy the market for English books in general is practically non-existent.

If anyone within the sound of my voice has any ideas about how I can sell my good old books, dispose properly of the second and third edition copies of other nice old books and offload hundreds of paperback novels….please let me know.  The idea of E-bay and Paypal, etc. frightens me just a little as I am not technically inclined.  Any help will be much appreciated.

Novmber 4  5-hour Lunch at Geppy and Germana’s