Thursday, February 09, 2012

Langhe Report: The Back Story

I love my bed. And my pillows. I was born in July; I essentially revel in being home. But the life I chose has taken me on the road for quite some time now. I must admit after the events of September 11, 2001, it has been more difficult. But hey, after what my grandparents endured crossing the Atlantic, crammed into a ship with hundreds of other hopeful “Americans to be,” it really is small change.

Since being back I have been in the streets, selling and doing wine dinners. Folks who have read recent posts come up to me asking what this “dream job” must be like. Romantic, exciting, involved. Yes, it is that. And more. If I may, for the sake of balance, elaborate? Maybe a timeline would be most illustrative.

Jan. 16 – Early flight to Houston to work the market for two days. When I arrived, early, one of the appointments canceled, claiming they didn’t have time. Even though we set the appointment two weeks earlier. So it goes. Keep rolling. I was staying in a hotel near the freeway, hopefully with a room on the back side. It was a long day and a late night, but around 1 AM I got to bed, feeling tired and with a little scratchy feeling in my throat.

Jan. 17 – More work in the field. Pretty normal day. In and out of buildings with various degrees of heat and cold. Houston wasn’t in the death grips of winter, so we often found ourselves presenting in a room that had fans and air conditioning on, in January. By the end of that day my throat was starting to constrict a little more.

Jan. 19 – Hop a flight from Dallas to Chicago for a quick one-day-in-and-out meeting and wine tasting. The weather in Chicago was 1°F (-17°C) when we landed, and a light snow was falling. Finally we met up with winter. We dashed to the hotel, downtown, and plunged right in. My throat was sore. Between the meeting and dinner, I ran across the street to a Trader Joe’s and bought juice, ginger and fruit. I proceeded to steep ginger in water prior to our dinner. I was tired.

Jan. 20 – After a rough night in a dark, cold room I woke up not knowing where I was. I really thought I was home. I was a little delirious. But I made it to the shower, packed what little I brought, drank more ginger tea and climbed into a cab for the airport. I made it home in the afternoon and had an appointment downtown. I was really feeling crappy. But I needed to pack for a 12-day trip to France and Italy, leaving the next day.

Jan. 21 – In the plane from Dallas via Paris and on to Montpellier. Our plane had some oil leaks, and we sat around for an hour or so before they told us to get out and go to another plane. The man next to me, a rather large man, was not happy and so he told me of his dis-satisfaction, seeing as I am so close to the American Airlines brass (not). Around 2 ½ hours later we finally got in the air towards Paris. The man next to me heard me talking wine to the young couple in front of me, who by now were smashed from taking sleeping tablets and drinking wine. They were gone. The man next to me told me he worked for a chemical company, devising ways to make natural gas smell. “Mercaptan. This could be useful for your wine business.” Umm, no. We do not need any mercaptan in our wines thank you very much. This was going to be a long flight. I grabbed a small bottle of very spoofulated Spanish Tempranillo, downed an Ambien and a couple of antihistamines, put on my eye covers and noise-canceling head phones and proceeded to climb down into my rabbit hole for 6 hours. When I awoke we were almost in Paris.

Jan. 22 – Paris. Our plane was so delayed that I lost my connection to Montpellier. But there was a flight from Orly, and they had a space for me. I grabbed my luggage, my throat numb but letting me know it wasn’t happy, and hopped onto a shuttle to the regional airport on the other side of Paris. Once at Orly, I tried to check my luggage, but was told by an airlines person to come back two hours before the flight departed. At two hours I came back and another airlines person told me to come back in 30 minutes, it was too early. I came back 30 minutes later and got through the line only to be told by the counter person that I needed to come back in 15 minutes. The French were really starting to get on my nerves. Finally I jumped through all the can-can hoops the French had set in my way and got on the damn plane to Montpellier. Once I arrived they got me to my hotel and I crashed.

Jan. 23 – My first appointment at the MillesimĂ© Bio wine fair was in the morning, so I chugged an orange juice (coffee wasn’t sound too good to my raw throat) and headed on a bus for my first meeting. All went well, until about 3 PM. As my travel colleague Devon tells it, I looked over at him and looked like I was “pretty out of it.” Understatement. Around 4:30 I started to get the shivers and headed back to the hotel, begged off dinner and climbed into bed. I was burning up. Somewhere around midnight, I hear folks outside the window, hear them cheering on Devon, and thought it was time to get up and get on the bus. They were just coming in! I took two aspirin, covered up and prayed this would pass. Around 4:30 AM I woke in a pool of sweat, my clothes, the sheets, everything were soaked. I felt lightheaded, but sensed I was on the mend.

For the next two days I chilled out, took it easy, didn’t eat (or drink) so much and tried to make it through the wine fair. Which I did. And then I had to take a train to Marseille, where a hotel and a plane were waiting to take me to Milan. At Marseille the train station had a shuttle service. The shuttle driver could take me to the airport, but would not stop along the way at the hotel. I saw the hotel, but had to walk 15 minutes with luggage, at night, to the hotel. Once I got there they had my room. A smoking room. I went downstairs to ask for a change but was distracted by a restaurant and went in and had dinner. Once I had a little wine and food, I figured I would tough it out and go to bed, having to get up at 4:30 AM to get to the airport for a very early flight.

Jan. 26 – I made it to Milan, before the client I was meeting there. I got the rental car, made sure it had snow chains (don’t know why) and met up with him. We were in Italy; things were going to get better. We made a beeline to Piedmont. The GPS was taking us on back roads until I reset it for “fastest” not “shortest.” This same GPS once took us over a hill in Tuscany because it was the shortest way. It also took us straight through Rome and rush hour because that was the shortest way to the airport. When will I ever learn?

Anyway we get to our first appointment and all is going well on this first day in Italy. So far, so good.

Jan. 27- My travel partner starts feeling odd at dinner. He steps outside, conceivably to throw up. But he never does. The next day, Jan. 28, he isn’t going anywhere.

Jan. 28 – I head to the two appointments without my travel partner. It is a Saturday, and I really pushed it for weekend appointments, wasn’t going to blow it. In Alba, it was getting colder, and as I headed to Cocconato for my afternoon appointment - the GPS had me on what seemed like back roads - the snow stared falling. I probably should have turned around right then. But I didn’t. I got to my appointment and all was well. At the end we went to dinner before heading back to Serralunga, where our hotel (and my travel partner) was. Well, I couldn’t get the car off a road without sliding; the snow was really coming down now and sticking. So my winery pal, Roberto, got me back to his place, stuck me in a guest room and said we’d deal with it in the morning.

Jan. 29 - In the morning the snow was about one foot deep. I was feeling pretty crappy. My pal back in Serralunga was not at 100% either. And we had to leave the hotel as they were closing for a month. No pressure there. Roberto’s family dug out, I made a feeble attempt to put on the snow chains and headed out. I had a lunch appointment in Barolo. On a Sunday. No way was I going to let my hosts down and be a no-show. As I got off the mountain I took off the snow chains so I could make time. Meanwhile the GPS was faltering. Maybe the satellites weren’t getting through. All I know is I was on an autostrada (toll road, no turn-arounds, no exits) and was in near white-out conditions and the GPS was telling me I was going the wrong way. Briefly I contemplated taking the car over a bridge and making a turn over the rail to a quick and serene death. But I had an appointment, and a colleague and the hotel was closing. I had obligations. So I just kept driving through this white hell until the GPS decided I was going the right way.

Once I got to the road to Serralunga, I was wishing I hadn’t taken the snow chains off. For the life of me, I do not know how I got up that hill. Slippery, ice, small roads, I was exhausted, feeling worse by the moment. One word: Adrenaline. I made it up to the hotel. They were closing, but they would put the snow chains on the car, if for only to get rid of us sooner. Not really, they were actually very helpful; in fact the sommelier was instructed to guide us to the guest house for a night.

As we were going to the guest house, my sommelier guide’s car slipping, while my snow chain car doing ok, I was starting to think this “guest house” might not be a good idea. As we got stuck on the road down to the guest house, I begged off and told the young sommelier we would just get a hotel in Alba, no problem. Good move. The guest house, an old convent, was perfectly restored. But it was empty, and it was winter and more snow was falling.

Anyway we make it to our lunch appointment, 3 hours later. But we made it! And after a great meeting we headed back to Alba, snow chains on, in the dark, more snow falling. And we made it there too. My travel partner was feeling better. I was ready to go to a room, take a hot shower and go to bed. I wasn’t 100%. But I had been traveling and in these crazy kind of conditions for a while now. I was starting to think this was the norm, my dream job. Romantic, exciting, involved. Cold, ice, freezing.

Jan. 30 – We have a 9AM appointment in Barbaresco so we head up. The GPS took me on a goat trail, and we almost bit it in Barbaresco. But 15 minutes later we are sipping Sauvignon like nothing happened. Once through with that, we head down the hill, take the snow chains off and head to Brescia and Franciacorta-land. There, it is sunny and warmer and no snow (yet). 24 hours of respite and in a pretty nice place (Thanks, Giulio, Roberto and Alberto).

Jan. 31 – The day before we head back home, we drive back into it. There was a Boca producer I was dying to see. As we head up the road to another hill, the snow is coming down again. But it isn’t sticking. So we risk it. Once there our host, Christoph, is waiting with lunch, wine and smiles. Life is good. And then we decide to go visit the vineyards. We pile into his Toyota 4-wheel-drive and think nothing but “la la, la la” or something equally vacuous. Christoph is from Switzerland, so this kind of weather is nothing to him. As we head to one estate on the way back, some poor chap has gone into an embankment. We try and pull him out but all we get it a broken chain and wet feet. We head on as they go to get help. On the way to Christoph’s vineyards, my travel partner thinks he sees a white wolf. Whatever. About 5 minutes later our driver-winemaker-pal starts spinning. We get out of the car, snow up to our mid-calves.

Christoph nearly goes off the ledge but manages to sidle up to the stone wall and slam into it. We are now stranded, and there is a white wolf stalking us. Christoph calls for a ride, and we head down another mountain. About 3 minutes into that, I fall back onto my pack (and a camera inside). I hear a cracking sound and hope it isn’t something inside of me. As it turned out, it was the camera flash. We get down a ways, and two Italians are arguing. They had come to get us, and one followed another too close and they bumped. The one who got bumped was complaining that his car was damaged. The last day in January wasn’t turning out too good for a lot of folks in Boca.

We finally got back to town, did some barrel tasting and ate a butt-load of cheese. As it got dark, I turned to my travel partner (who had a 6AM flight the next day) and said, “We better get to the hotel.”

Fortunately the hotel was only 50 minutes away. Theoretically. The last 5 miles it took us 2 additional hours to navigate. Snow, ice, rush hour, big city, airport, lousy road planning, even lousier GPS instructions. Around 9 PM we get to the hotel.

By some stroke of insight (plus I had to pee) I stopped to fill the car up with gas along the way. My flight wasn’t at 6AM. But I was up nonetheless and out of the hotel by 7:30. I just didn’t want to press my luck with a rental car in the early morning snow and ice. And once again the GPS turned me around (when will I ever learn?). So the trip to the hotel, theoretically a very simple exercise, turned into one last coda, a little more icing on the cake that this trip had become.

Good news is I made it home and got to my bed and am on the mend. And we met a lot of nice people, had a lot of great wines. That happens. But it doesn't happen exclusively. There is the yin with the yang. And while this business (and my job) seems like the bees knees, it isn’t always a grand slam. Oh yeah, it was a good game, and we had some good hits. And it went into extra innings. But it was a long, long game. And I am glad to be home.

Sorry for these 2,700+ words to tell this story. If you are still reading (or skimming) this, thanks for going the length. As for me, I am glad we got out when we did. For the next week or so, Italy (and most of Europe) has gotten hit with a storm of Biblical proportions. I am very glad I wasn’t flying the plane (with my trusty old GPS).

That’s it. The back story. The real nitty-gritty. You still want to be in the wine business?

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