Sunday, March 20, 2016

San Gimignano – Vernaccia, Fireflies and the Dark Energy of Hope

The vault of memory stores more than kisses, licks, slaps, bites and stings.

A long-time colleague of mine obsesses over Vernaccia from San Gimignano. A white wine from red wine-dominated Tuscany. He must put it on wine lists. A wine that has been forgotten by today’s cadre of sommeliers, searching for brighter, shinier objects. Something newer, more exciting. Sexier. Oh yeah, just wait, Vernaccia from San Gimignano will be back, as soon as someone under 30 “discovers” it.

In the meantime, before they were born, one spring night, I found myself on a dirt path, walking towards a home. Those of us in our group, my future wife Liz and my friend and importer, Eugenio Spinozzi, were heading to dinner with the Arrigoni family. Pietraserena is a peaceful little enclave at the base of San Gimignano. So peaceful, the film director Franco Zeffirelli used the location to film some of his story about St. Francis, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”

San Gimignano is an odd little town. Really a walking town, rarely are cars allowed inside the walls. An insulated (and some would say, isolated) place, for many years. So many that some of the population interbred a little too much. When we were there, in 1988, one could still see the effects of that.

As a wine, Vernaccia from San Gimignano, to a young Italophile in the 80’s, was somewhat of a Holy Grail wine. Remember, the white wine revolution in winemaking in Italy was just beginning. There were a lot of dreadful examples of white wine and Vernaccia wasn’t immune to that fate. But it didn't stop us then (or now) from pursuing the Vernaccia of our dreams. Maybe it was the legends that surround the wine, from the cozy tower town to the poetic remembrances of Michelangelo. It was an honest pursuit, for which there was little or no payback, save for the thought that it was part of history and we were doing our part to keep it alive.

Producers were all over the map. Light, insipid, thin, oxidized examples were available. Oaky versions, ramped up with the testosterone of ambition also could be found. Where was “the” Vernaccia, the one that lights the fire of discovery, among our hopeful searches?

My friend Eugenio was sure he’d found it at Pietraserena. And I bought in to his vision 100%. Hence, our pilgrimage to unveil the dark energy that surrounded the secret garden, where our precious Vernaccia would be found.

As we parked the car a ways down from the Arrigoni homestead, it was still light. We were in the longest period of daylight, and even though we were a little late, our Italian hosts understood.

Inside, Mr. and Mrs. Arrigoni welcomed us with some light sparkling wine. No need to analyze just yet, everyone, it seemed, made sparkling wine, usually for their own consumption. A little home-cured prosciutto and some fresh vegetables arranged as antipasti: zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, with a little olive oil and anchovy dip. Something to spur the appetite on.

As we sat down to the family table, the most memorable plate of thin twisted pasta, trofie, arrived with a fresh pesto sauce. The Arrigoni’s came from Liguria. To this day, one of the best things I have ever eaten in Italy. And along with it, their Vernaccia.

Now, I know there was food, and plenty of it, that came afterwards. And I ate the roasted meat and the grilled vegetables. And we drank some of their Chianti Colli Senesi with it. And it was lovely.

But this memory takes me back to that moment with the pasta, the pesto and the Vernaccia. That was when the sun burst overhead, the night was held up for what seemed an interminable amount of time, and we all were bestowed with a glowing, perfect, primal example of Vernaccia. It was there I understood what Michelangelo meant when he described the wine before him as one which “kisses, licks, slaps, bites and stings.” And even though the winemaking process in his time most likely produced a different wine, here we were, in 1988, transfixed. Here indeed was a wine that did all that, and did it in a way that left an indelible mark upon us. I would never be the same. Vernaccia from here on would be held to this standard. If I strayed from Pietraserena, I would be left at the altar of disappointment time and time again. But the magic moment, one which if I had Pietreserena’s before me, would restore my hope.

That night. Oh yes, the sun finally did set. And somewhere around midnight we said our good-byes and headed out to our car. There was a moon, but it was several weeks from being full. Enough to help us find our car. As our walk led us deeper down the trail, when we turned a corner, something amazing happened. The path was lit by thousands of fireflies. It was as if we had walked into another universe. Some many that there was a slight hum to their collective wings shuffling about in this place. We were giddy, and not solely from the wine. This was one of those miraculous nights one can find oneself ensconced in Italy. The stuff of poetry and art, film, and music.

Maybe it was a one-off. Meant only for the chamber of memories. Both Eugenio and Liz are gone now; maybe they are fireflies waiting for June in San Gimignano. Dear souls, I hope so. I know this – you cannot find this in books or study groups. Yes, those things are important now – and critical to one’s success in their career. But if you can ever have a night like we had in San Gimignano, close the book, excuse yourself from your group and fight for a chance to have something like that in your life. It will change how you think about wine and life. And even though it may not advance your career aspirations it will enrich your life more than you could ever imagine.

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1 comment:

James Biddle said...

WOW! This piece struck so many cords: it took me to where I’d been, where I am, and where I’d like to be. I’ve been in a ponder-funk recently: wrestling with being fully present vs. just being here; being in the moment vs. preparing for ??; being rather than doing; and all somehow bounded by a cacophony of silence.

In Italy, I’ve experienced the magic and mystery of pure simplicity; the fulfillment of well-being by simply being quiet while also being fully present. After such an experience, I’d tell myself that surely this couldn’t be exclusive to place—to Italy. So, I’ve tried to recreate those moments stateside, with limited approximation. I’m leaning toward the understanding that this is rarely a solitary quest. Your experience sounded like you were surrounded by others on a quest, but in the presence of those already there—even though they probably couldn’t articulate their journey. I can imagine there were times of silence during the meal—times that memories and dreams could rush in.

Thanks again for guiding our wonderings and wanderings.

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