Thursday, December 30, 2010

Colli Orientali Flashback - A Generation Ago

"Follow your own star" ~ Dante Alighieri

The wine trail in Italy  ~ 1988 ~ Colli Orientali del Friuli

It had been a difficult spring. A beer company had bought the wine company I was working for and we were transitioning to their offices. A last minute offer had been proffered (literally “here’s our offer, take it or leave it”) and I reluctantly took it. It was a job, but the pay was terrible, the drive was long and the folks who hired me had no idea what I did or what the fine wine business was all about. It would be the first, and not the last time, beer people invaded my world and made a mess of my life. So what to do, but go to Italy for a couple of weeks?

After settling in at my base on the Adriatic, San Benedetto del Tronto, and having my fill of fresh seafood and white wine from the Marche and Abruzzo, I borrowed a car from a friend and headed up the coast towards Venice. I had my gal Lizanne with me on the trip. She was years away from being diagnosed with the dreaded disease that would kill her in too short of a time. We were in full blaze of youth, bulletproof and had a car.

The plan was to go to Venice, Ravenna and Friuli, specifically the Colli Orientali, where two wine estates were part of the world waiting back home, if there was a home to go back to. Unbeknownst to me, two of my colleagues would unsuccessfully plot to render my position irrelevant in a lustful grab for my job. I had a corner office and a Vice-president title. I learned that those two things are not all what people think they are, myself having long ago surrendered to the fields in flyover country that constantly needed plowing and refreshing. But the sun was shining on an Adriatic Italy and I had my Beatrice, and her love, and was heading to Udine.

Myself and Abbazia di Rosazzo winemaker Sandro Facca

Chris Zimmerman was working for Winebow at the time, and we had just brought the wines into Texas. Chris was, and still is, an exuberant Italophile. I loved the way he would say “Ronco del Gnemiz” as if he were diaphragmatically launching an aircraft carrier. He suggested I go to Abbazia di Rosazzo and set us up with a visit. At the time Walter Filiputti was involved with the winery and was one of the winemaking wunderkinds, thanks in some part to the ink Veronelli spilled in raising the awareness of Friuli wines. We were to meet with him and his winemaker, who I believe was Pierluigi Zamo'. I might be wrong, but the picture looks like a young version of him.(* note: received from Ronco del Gnemiz that the winemaker above was Sandro Facca. see comment below. -AC)

From the vista of the property of Rosazzo, I was reminded of Napa, another set of eastern hills, off the Silverado Trail, Pritchard Hill, up where Chappellet and Long Vineyards are placed. Similar light. And some of the wines in fashion, in 1988, were similar. Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, part of the Italian love affair with America, but also part of a patrimony, especially with Merlot, that Friuli holds. But that is another story for another time from another person.

We loved the wines from Abbazia di Rosazzo and Ronco del Gnemiz- they were bold, they had a force to them that ordinary wines from the area couldn’t rise to. But they weren’t for everyone and they were expensive. And barely nine months before, in America, the stock market had melted down; we were in an election year cycle and everyone was bearing down. Not usually a good time for growing parts of the wine business that aren’t in the mainstream.

We would be exposed to the local grapes as well - Tocai, Schioppettino, Tazzelenghe, Pignolo, Refosco,Verduzzo and Picolit, along with Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio.

Girolamo Dorigo w/wife and daughter and Lizanne (in red) in Grado

We had another family to visit, near Buttrio, Girolamo Dorigo. I had been selling his wines for a few years through another importer, Tricana. My friend Eugenio Spinozzi was in love with these wines and with Girolamo, or “Guigi” as he was nicknamed. Guigi was a friendly guy, a little intellectual. His wife loved literature. I remember sitting in a cafĂ© in the nearby coastal town of Grado and talking into the night about all manner of Italian authors. I loved those wines, in their pure expression, before the barrel sellers made their rounds.

I have been through Friuli since then, on a pilgrimage to see Gravner or any number of rising stars. What has happened to Walter Filuputti? One never hears about him anymore in the States. Perhaps he has found his groove and is living and working under a caressing sun in the Colli Orientali. I remember the area as having a special light, like Greece, Like L.A., like Pritchard Hill.

Ravenna ~ near La Tomba di Dante

Venice? Oh we went in for a little foray. Lizanne called it her 15 minutes in Venice. It was June, or July, and Venice is no place to be in that moment. We found a little place tucked into a corner, ordered “do bianchi” and a plate of something fresh. But Venice was never our place.

Ravenna, on the way back, that was our place. We visited the wonderful mosaic covered churches (reminding me more of Sicily) and paid our homage at the tomb of Dante. We made light about it and his death, not knowing that in 13 short years I would be carrying her ashes to bury in Assisi.

Hence, corner offices and lofty titles are part of the illusive world we all scamper around in a desperate grab to make meaning for these lives we have been loaned. Close the doors, empty the drawers, open the windows, and jump into a glass and a world of beauty and nature and history. Colli Orientali is as good as a place to go in Italy as one could want. And while the wine flows, drink it up, savor it and do it again. And again.

“Remember tonight... for it is the beginning of always.” ~ Dante Alighieri

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