Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Valdobbiadene

“Have you ever been to ‘osteria senza oste’ in Valdobbiadene?” my friend Paolo asked me by email last month. I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about. Not a clue. And I proceeded to forget about it, like we do for so many things that pass by our way. But when I arrived in the Valdobbiadene area (The land of Prosecco) Paulo planned an afternoon. “I am taking you to see people and places the tourists don’t know about.”

Paolo is young, happy, a former winemaker and now working half in Italy and half in the United States representing several wineries. One of them, Cá dei Zago, we met the young winemaker Christian Zanatta at Vinitaly last year. I promised the next time I was in the Valdobbiadene area that I’d be glad to stop by.

Under threatening skies, after several days of heavy rain, we first went to Cá dei Zago. The young winemaker has been fortunate in that his vision of Prosecco and Valdobbiadene corresponds more to how his grandfather saw the land. When I mentioned his name to an enologist at the Conegliano school of enology, he looked at me, startled but pleased, “Ah yes, Christian,” inferring with his words and body language that the young man has tapped into the source of greatness in this area.

Later in the day, after many bottles of the Cá dei Zago Prosecco col fondo, Paulo took me to the osteria senza oste. On a hill in the Cartizze area, a little shack is filled with provisions; Prosecco, local cheese, bread, salumi and a guitar with five strings. In better weather there might have been more people there. This evening we had it all to ourselves.

Osteria senza oste is an osteria on the honor system. There is no one to take your money and you pay what you want. It works in this galaxy, a throwback to the hippie days of free love, but substituted with free Prosecco. The view is stunning, but the energy is inside this little hut. The Veneto is so much more than Venice and Verona.

Once we finished one more bottle of Prosecco Paulo wanted to show me another osteria. “Have you heard of Gallina?” he asked. I’d probably driven past it a time or two, but there was nothing in the memory that recalled the place.

There is no sign. We step inside and a man, Luigi Gallina, greats us in a loud, happy voice. He seemed to have been partaking in merriment for some time. In fact, there was a party that was taking the large room for the night. “Do you have any fresh asparagus?” Paolo asks.

Luigi booms back, “No!” and walks into the kitchen. Upon returning he brings us three short glasses and pours us some of his Prosecco, rustic and refreshing. Luigi is ruddy faced, short and has the clearest blood-shot eyes I have ever seen. Many of the winemaker’s kids grew up at the tables in this place, their parent’s friends with the Gallina family. Paolo and his partner Francesco tell me stories of the place as Luigi, now in whirling dervish mode, runs from room to room. This is really a scene, something one would see in Italy 40 years ago, but could only hope to see in present time.

Luigi is sending platters of asparagus wrapped around a delicate pastry to the party in the next room. “He approaches us, “Take, take, they won’t know. Go, take.” So we slide one or two off the large platter. Simple food, but food that has been bathed with the spirit of many generations of trial and success. No errors here. Another shot of Prosecco spills into our glasses, the noise level rises. We are now part of the party. And that is how an osteria has been for hundreds of years in Italy. This one, the oldest in the area, started in the 19th century. Forget everything you think you know about Italian food. Forget Michelin. Breathe in all of this, I say to myself, this is the essence of Italy I try and tell people back home about. Those who have an open heart and a willing spirit. Luigi is living patrimony in the land of Prosecco, a priceless gift to the world.

I have stumbled into an alternate universe, one in which people are wise when they are young, happy when they are old. Everyone eats well, and they drink white fizzy wine. How many times I have stood behind a table pouring wine to people who come up to me and say, “I only drink red wine, don’t pour me the white.” In this land, those emotions would be misplaced. How can a Cabernet go with a delicate pastry wrapped around the freshest of asparagus? This light fizzy juice is Romeo to the Juliet that is in season and fresh. No effete red wine snobs need apply.

Back to the earlier part of the day, at Cá dei Zago. Christian’s mom, Mariagiustina Zago, runs a little bed and breakfast on the property and she was running around that day. Christian finally released the basic wine and she was gathering bottles for the folks who were staying there. “I have to take the wine out of the tanks before this, now it is easier in the bottle.” She is very animated and lively, in fact she almost ran us over as she drove in the little circle around the property to leave it. It was wet, we are crouched on the side of a hill, and the rain is making the soil loose. Christian is worried about the vines.

Out in the vineyards, Christian is showing us some of the vines his grandfather planted when he was Christian’s age. What must it feel like to have these living plants that your grandfather planted 60-70 years ago, now in your care? To old-soul Christian, this is a simple solution. You take care of it and keep the tradition alive. All around him, the popularization of Prosecco has people planting in flat fields where grain once grew. Over to his neighbor’s they still spray their plants to alleviate fungus, to promote growth, to discourage pests. As we walk by one of those vineyards, Christian asks me if I can smell the difference. I can smell the chemicals. It reminds me of a hospital, where people go to die.

In the cellar as well, an original one, Christian shows his old barrels. We see signs of when his grandfather and uncle were here. A picture of the room in those days, hangs above the exit. A room within a room, like an Escher painting. The circle of life and within it a life very much devoted to making sure Prosecco is made in the way of his grandfather.

Now if you want to find this wine, in America, you have to search. In New York, Jenny & François Selections stock the wine when they have it. There is an importer as well in Seattle, maybe another one or two dotted around the country. Seek this wine out.

Christian also makes a Zero Dosaggio vintage dated Metodo Classico. Lovely wine, but not why I came to this hill, or to the osteria senza oste or Osteria Da Gallina. I came here to meet the grandfathers, young and old and taste the food and wine from their time. We cannot travel back in time, but we can still hitchhike through a galaxy of wonderful things here in Valdobbiadene and the land of Prosecco. And that is what brings me back through this magical portal, again and again.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

3 comments: said...

I feel like I am there with you. What a wonderful experience. Miss your love, Sis

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks, sis - wish you were here

Jar - Paolo Bressan - great guy - he was just in Austin last week - works with Zago and La Vis, among others...
great guy - thanks for the comment

Anonymous said...

Great aticle. This is the Italy most tourists don't get to see and the one I am grateful for everytime I visit my family. That special feeling you get when you are surround by the energy in that "alternate universe, one in which people are wise when they are young, happy when they are old" is indescribable. Thank you for making me feel those emotions and for introducing me to a Prosecco I have not heard of.



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