Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Long Green Mile – An Enduring Life in Italy

It is not without the slightest tinge of envy, that I read the many people who work so hard to taste wine, write about it and share their notes with others as to the color, the aromas, the taste, the feel, the quality and ultimately some kind of appraisal. Somewhere along the line, that chromosome dropped out of my being. Instead, I have been sentenced to walk a long green Italian mile, camera in hand, occasionally with wine glass, maybe even a pencil and paper. But I fail the written test, ultimately. This thing is too big, too much of a thing, for my little brain to adequately quantify. I will never be a Cernilli, or a Galloni, or even a Suckling. I am too distracted by the movie that is constantly flickering in front of me. And in front of me is often the boundless array of nature, in which wine serially steps in front of the camera and makes its brief cameo.

Since my “retirement” on April 1st (a foolish day to lay down my arms, but nonetheless the prescribed moment) I’ve spent five of the last eight weeks in Italy. Lounging on the beach of San Benedetto del Tronto, you might ask? Or hiking the Dolomites in Alto-Adige or along the Apennines in Abruzzo? Maybe sailing the Adriatic or the Tyrrhenian Seas? Ha, if only! No, this fool was rummaging around the Langhe, in places like Barolo, La Morra, once getting sidetracked to Alessandria to visit an old vineyard in Gavi. And places in Tuscany, in the heart of the matter, sun and steam and Spring in full onset. And subverted to the soft rolling hills of Valdobbiadene, a life sentence to be sure. And yes, with a little bit of wine. But what is more and more commanding my attention as I get farther down that long green mile, is the unbounding and breathtakingly beautiful thing this Italy is, and how little we pay attention to what the real Italy is really all about.

In the meantime, I get an email, out of the blue, often, from someone wanting my opinion on where to go in Italy. “We’ll be in Rome on June 2nd and 3rd, then to Florence on the 4th and 5th, and then to Venice on the 6th and 7th. This is our once in a lifetime trip to Italy, where should we go? What should we see? Are there any wine visits we can make in those places?” Yes, Rome on June 2nd, a national holiday, is a great place to be experiencing all that Italy has to offer. Go have some pizza and some Chianti, you’ll have the trip of a lifetime. What can I say? I’ve walked so far beyond that segment of my green mile, that I cannot even imagine how to respond in a civil manner anymore.

We’re all missing the real Italy. It isn’t (just) in a church, or a trattoria, or a winery even. It is in the unfettered and endless nature that is still contained within the boundaries of this land, this Italy. And it is amazing.

And that’s just the silent nature. The other creatures, the domesticated animals, as well as the wild, feral ones, living their morning in liberated bliss, singing their songs, crawling up craggy slopes looking for one more sprig of fresh spring grass or herb. That’s the ongoing procession in nature that most tourists miss about Italy, when there are so many more pressing matters, like going to Venice to pillar, from port to starboard, on a jerry-rigged gondola.

Since my “last call” in five of those eight weeks, I saw not enough but more than my usual dose of rural Italy. Italy has become for me a place not to take it all in, but to stop and take a breath. A walk in the morning mist, before anyone is awake, except for the birds and the cats and the baker and the farmer. Oh, and the vine pruner. Why yes, they are out there early, for there are two hectares to prune today, and the season is advancing rapidly. This is boring you? This is the life that makes Italy what it is. These are the calibers that determine the pace of life - they come from nature, not man. And still we rush to Pisa to see a crooked tower, or Ravenna to see a collection of mosaics, as if that will solely release us from the bounds of mortality. Maybe for some, it does. But I’ve seen all that, many times, and what brings me back to Italy, now, is the unceasing pull of life in nature that has a grip on Italy, and really the whole world, if we only open our eyes and hearts to it.

Another email pops up. “I’m in San Gimignano today, what should I go see?” My answer always disappoints, because it is always the same. “Step outside of the place you are staying. Look to your left. Look to your right. Look forward. Pick a direction. And walk that way. And see what happens.” But what works for me probably doesn’t exactly work for these souls looking for exact instructions. They want to know which tower in San Gimignano they should take a picture of. Where the best vista is for the Kodak-cum-selfie shot, the one that is considered obligatory. And where, oh where, to get the quintessential and obligatory bowl of pasta with pesto. And yes, even in January. I just can’t walk along that span of the green mile anymore. It is too painful to go back and retrace the steps, knowing I will end up back here anyway, heading towards the gallows.

Along the way, I’m walking in a vineyard which is so old it is still on its own European rootstock. Pre-phylloxera. Over 100 years old. And in the vineyard, I am sinking down as if in quicksand. The earth is finally swallowing me. This vineyard, which I first heard about in 1982, and tasted wine from and sold a little bit, now I am walking it with the woman who took over from the original woman who farmed this land. Organic, no poison, just the plants and the animals and the bees, and a soul who is listening to the heartbeat of her land. And the wine? You want a tasting note, don’t you? OK, here goes:

The wine is younger and I am older, since last tasted. The bowl of the glass fills with the flowers of the field, and the cut grass and the morning fog. In the taste, there is the freshness of youth and the calmness of maturity, along with a slight, salty bead of dew, like the one that rests on the wings of the bees that have gone about their work in the vineyard all these millions of years. And in la imboccatura, like the first kiss, when you were fourteen and feeling the butterflies in your stomach, and your hand, holding hers, was clammy, and that taste, it also is in the glass. And it is refreshing and it is calming and it is the best thing in life on earth in the present moment. And it is a fitting amercement for those of us who’ve been proscribed, all these years, to walk that long green Italian mile.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


kathleen said...

Truly lovely essay
best, from Liguria said...

Al, I am so excited to see that your scope of writing is taking on a new approach. Painted with a broader stroke. It suits you. I look forward to many more colors, scents, sounds, and nuances. Love you, Sis See you soon I hope.

Marco Zingarello said...

Killer tasting notes!

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