Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Beyond the Aurelian Walls

So you’ve had your Roman holiday. Seen the sights. Taken in the Vatican Museum, the Baths of Caracalla, the Borghese Gardens. Touched the PietĂ . You’ve driven on the deserted streets of Rome before the sunrise, past the empty and brooding Colosseum. You’ve had her, Rome. Now what?

As all roads lead to Rome, all roads lead out of Rome as well. Spin the dial, any direction will do.

East? Marche, Abruzzo.

South? Campania, Basilicata, Calabria.

North? Umbria, Romagna.

West? Sardegna, Maremma.

Does it really matter? If you are a trophy hunter, it does. You’d have to go to Tuscany or Piedmont. Maybe the Veneto. Find a stash of Barolo or Brunello, dig in the cellars, among so many Bentleys, parked, waiting to be driven around the table.

Maybe just go straight to Alba, set yourself down and start receiving the devotees from La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga, Neive. Make your list, conquer them all. Go ahead, you’re an American, it's your right to uncover every golden nugget and bestow a sheen upon them for the masses waiting back home for their instructions.

I have never had a wine that made me a better person. No Gaja, no Conterno, no Sassicaia, has ever improved what I am because I partook of them. But a walk among the walled town of Monteprandone, a light lunch with a bottle of Rosso Piceno in a little trattoria run by a chef, famous, but brought home to the town of his childhood because he was needed. And the no bright lights, no Michelin, no Gambero Rosso rating, no 97 points. Just a flame and a stove and another beautiful day in backwater Italy. My kind of place. No, it didn't make me a better person. But it was so quintessentially Italian, I didn't need points or stars. Or pictures of empty bottles.

How about a little closer to Rome? Right as you enter Abruzzo, that beautiful long drive from Lazio, the green hills, the history, the beauty. Why even go any further? There would be enough. But Abruzzo, a small village inside the mountain, somewhere on top of it. Bitter cold in the winter. Wonderful in the summer. Again, nowhere. But crawl among the cellar of the restaurant on the hill, go find something. Valentini? Going back years and years to the time when Eduardo was making the wine. In the mood for Mascarello? Monfortino? Massetto? It’s all there, along with a simple red from Abruzzo, made to go with the food the chef grew up with, his grandmother’s cooking. Do you need the full spa treatment? Do you need the ride in the Ferrari? What will you follow it with? A ride in a Maserati? Lamborghini? Vintage Bizzarrini? Isotta-Fraschini? Will it ever be enough?

That has been the discussion among the tables I have been having with my friends who have come back from Italy or who are returning to Italy. None of us lust any more for the powerful reds from Piedmont. They are for peak moments, and life taken always as climax gets dull. The drug wears off, just looking for a new normal. It isn’t about the lost cellars where the high scorers are slumbering in some post-penetration haze.

No, our conversations center around a bottle of Valpolicella, or Lagrein. No exotic reds from Valle d’Aoste. Oh, an occasional Aglianico or Nerello appears, but not even the cult ones. Just the ones left behind after the collectors and scorers have collected and scored. What is left is the rest of Italy, outside the walls.

All the Italy I’ll ever need.

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