On my last trip to Italy, a colleague asked me to sit in for him at a B2B in Grosseto. Mind you, my dance card is full when it comes to Italian wines, but hey, I was there and so I said, "Sure, why not."
After a very late night on a path from Parma to Modena to Lucca to Viareggio (in one day), we headed out very early down the sunny West Coast. This area is growing on me, seeing as I get there more often, lately, than my home state of California. So I pretend I am going from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, but with really good Italian restaurants along the way. It makes traveling easier, especially with hard beds, flat pillows, haunted rooms and any number of improvised showers one finds in Italian hotel bathrooms.
So we arrive to the hotel for the B2B, and a few sleepy eyed producers of wine are setting up their tables and opening wines. My two young Italian handlers, Michela and Giovanna, amble up to me with a list. "Here are your appointments today, Mr. Cevola." Fifteen appointments with producers of Morellino, Montecucco and any number of fantasy Tuscan wines, red and white. I gaze at the list and know this will be a long day, a marathon, something akin to speed dating with potential wine partners.
It wasn't my first rodeo with Morellino
The first one is a bright young lad; he represents one of the first producers of Morellino in the area. Little does he know, when they shoot out dates, that I have older bottles of Morellino in my closet back home, standing like Etruscan sentries, frozen in time and probably art this time, as lifeless as the statues in the nearby archeological museum.
Fifteen minutes later I head to the next table, a sunny and tanned young man, about 35, who makes 6,000 cases of wine. He has a young wife one son and a daughter on the way. He is the future, having been inspired by his nonno to live the life of a farmer. I kid him that his Ferragosto tan still looks fresh. He laughs. "Yes I wish. The harvest, we just finished it. This is the life." I know. I know.
The next, a couple, has an unusual setup. They look out of place, but not uncomfortable, in this setting. I taste their wines. They are brilliant. No oak, no steel, no manipulation. They have been reading from the same chapter and verse as many of the young, up and coming winemakers from around the world. In my time, they would have been called hippies, but they are brighter, and have that yoga-glow from peering into their future and setting their course. They make very little wine, but this is the kind of wine I want to drink. I give them the name of a friend in NY who really needs to talk to them, and they hand me their brochure with their agriturismo. How I would love to spend a few days there.
But their 15 minutes are up and I must move to the next table. A young man, looking a little like John Candy is pouring me his wine, as bulk offering. He looks nervous, sweat is pouring off his forehead.
His wine: the nose stinks of sulfur. I mention to him the bottle might be off. He opens another. It isn’t as bad, but I notice a thread in his style. Too much sulfur. My already suffering nose is twitching inside; I am fearing another nose bleed. I make quick work of this visit. No further dates will be necessary.
Next table, an older man, he says something to the interpreter, and she turns beet red. He recognized her, and she was startled. I look at his hands, the hands of a farmer, cracked nails, with dirt and stones wedged between the fissures. I don’t know why but I ask him if he has always been doing this. He looked the part, after all, but I was interviewing my "dates" so the questions started coming out a little more spontaneously. Seems he was a computer person in his last life, in Torino (of course) and was responsible in the very beginning of the computer age for setting up the computerized power grid for the city. His wines were rustic in a Tondonia way. But I just couldn’t relate to them. Or the prices.
Morellino, in its basic incarnation, is a lovely wine. Think simple Beaujolais with a sunnier disposition and a little less spice. All along this trip the wines that have resonated with me have been on the lighter side. The Lambrusco from Sorbara I had in Modena. The Etna Rosso we opened in Grosseto later that night. And Morellino that wins my heart, or at least another dance, has lightness in the taste that isn’t heavy, isn’t brooding. My colleague Jeremy has written about that in a brilliant post (sorry Gianpaolo, I couldn’t stop this time). And so there are people who recognize the nature of Morellino and aren’t trying to Brunello-super-size it.
Mind you, there is still too much Merlot and Cabernet and Syrah and Petite Verdot in the Maremma for my taste. Next table.
Another young producer is in love with the Super Tuscan model. I ask him, again a spontaneous questioning, how Merlot and Cabernet found their way to the coast? "Oh, it has been here all my life."
It has been here all my life. That is how these things get their start. Someone, centuries ago, from another tribe and in another language, on this spot said the very same thing about the Ansonica.
The Green Mile
I head to another table, a young woman she is ruddy-faced, looking more Irish than Tuscan. She makes Montecucco, both the Sangiovese and the blends (with those intl grapes). But her Sangiovese Montecucco, again, is a more authentic expression, you can smell the land, the touch isn’t heavy, there are not oversaturated flavors from Cabernet or wood.
And so it goes, for 10 hours, with a short break for lunch.
At the last table, I am exhausted. My nose is shot, my back is sore, my feet are swollen from sitting and Sangiovese and salt from too many cured meat tastings. I want to go home, drink water, put my feet up and listen to some Bob Wills. Fat chance, Leroy, for there is a wine bar and a box of samples from one of my "steadies" waiting for me at the haunted hotel we will check into. It's going to be a long night, with more crazy stuff for another post, or two.
Piazza Dante in Grosseto: the inspiration for the Dr. Zaius character
Note: this post was written as a result of being on an invited tour of Emilia and Tuscany by the Italian Trade Commission