Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Valdobbiadene: The Spirit Center of Italy’s Wine World

A million years ago, KPFK in Los Angeles aired a story about the Rolling Stone performer, Brian Jones, who found a tribe of master musicians in Morocco, that he became very close to. Jones was searching for the beginnings of music on earth, and it was his realization that the musicians of Joujouka were a large part of that story, embodying a tradition of music that went back hundreds of generations. It was a tale I never forgot, so much that I longed to go to hear the music myself. But life, la vita, found another way to divert me in my search for something rare and ancient, towards my own tribe of the vine.

I arrived into Valdobbiadene this past Monday for a week of wine, in my new stint as U.S. ambassador for the Ruggeri winery. This is a new role that found me, post-retirement. It is not a full-time thing, but it sounded like a great challenge and a lot of fun. I accepted the challenge and came to Italy. I was to spend some time with Paolo Bisol, who has a passion for Valdobbiadene and whose family is one of the reasons Prosecco is so sought after today. But this post isn’t about popularity. It is about what makes this place tick.

Paolo is a wiry sexagenarian, one of those lucky few to have a full head of hair color of his youth. “My dad is 99 and he has yet to have his hair turn completely grey,” Paolo told. So, there is also longevity in his bloodstream. Not that it’s all roses in the garden. Of course, they must make room for Glera. In any case, Paolo was running me around Valdobbiadene, showing me the different terroirs. It was a misty day and looked like rain was in our future. We saw a couple of men working in the fields, planting a new vine, and stopped to take a picture. Paolo tells me, “I will tell them you are a journalist and would like to take a picture. Maybe they won’t be as suspicious.” And so, he did. And when Paolo asked the two men, the younger one, whose face had been concealed behind the vines, popped out and said, “Alfonso what are you doing here?” Ha! It was Christian Zago, a young winemaker. Paolo looks at me, as if to say, “What is this? How does this man know you?” Well, this wasn’t my first rodeo in Proseccoland.

The rain was not here yet, but the feeling was that it might be coming. And Christian and his vineyard man, Alfonso, were ready to come down off the hillside and take a break. “Come, let’s go into my aunt’s house for a little Prosecco, the 2017 is fresh. I want you to try it.” This is where the magic started happening.

In Brian Jones time in Morocco, there were any number of magical moments. And the best ones were about music. In my scenario, it revolves around wine, but not without the cast of characters, the people. And Valdobbiadene lacks not for intriguing souls. I love them and I love it here and this is one of the reasons I came to Valdobbiadene, to capture some stories to tell a better tale about Prosecco. An unfiltered, natural, inspired story about why this wine has captured the hearts (and mouths) of millions of people around the world. This is no accident.

Sitting around a table in Valdobbiadene with three elderly women (my Sirens?) and the three men, Paolo, Christian and Alfonso, is one of the great joys in my life. I am in their world, and they are talking as if I am not there, which is exactly what I want. My silent camera captures fleeting images and another bottle of Prosecco magically appears. The second of many more to come.

After an hour or so, we say our good byes to the ladies and proceed to Christian’s home, to taste another wine. The rain in now coming down, and we all climb into Paolo’s Rover. Somewhere along the way, when Paolo is not in hearing range, Christian takes me aside. “Thank you for bringing Mr. Bisol to visit. I have so much respect for the work he has done and for the history he is sharing with us today. He is one of the great men of Valdobbiadene.” To hear Christian is to know he is a young man of rare depth. He has the burden of the future on him, and he is beaming to hear about the tradition and the stories. His vineyard man, Alfonso, also is listening intently. These are people who value their learned ones, even if they be learned themselves. And here Nature is emblazoned within their hearts and souls. That is why I think this place is the spirit center of the wine world for Italy.

At the Ca’ dei Zago winery the rain in now coming down faster and we repair to the cellar, where there is wine and dry floors. Christian's tiny little dog, Ulisse, follows us. Friendly and itsy bitsy, but carissimo. This place is not limited to just the humans for depth of emotion and expression. It’s all interlinked.

We taste first one, then another, and then the rains get harder. So, we go deeper into the cellar. Ulisse disappears into the maelstrom outside. And then we start tasting from the tanks. Large wood, concrete, stainless steel. Sparkling whites, col fondo, metodo classico even a small tank of red, one of the true unicorn wines I have had recently. Trevisana Nera, 2017. Don’t try and find it, you won’t. He makes only enough for his family and a few friends. It was, lovely.

Christian sabers a bottle of metodo classico. Prosecco is better known as a sparkling wine made in the “bulk” method (or Charmat, or as the Italian like to say, the Martinotti Method). And there are good reasons for that. But sometimes one likes to see what a wine can stretch to. And this is how Christian reaches. Paolo is intrigued. Meanwhile the two Alfonso’s are sipping away, smiles getting bigger. We are praying for more rain. And Ulisse reappears, the quintessential wet dog.

But after six bottles, we must shove off. the rain is over and work must continue. It is Monday, after all. So, Paolo and I head out, looking for coffee.

I ask Paolo if he knows Primo Franco. “Of course, we’re old friends! Would you like to go see him? Let me call him now.” What started out as Paolo telling me about Prosecco and the land, in a leisurely drive around the hills, has now become a moving salon of sorts. And so, with a call and an invite, we are heading to see Primo at Nino Franco.

Now, Paolo doesn’t know me from Adam, and again when Primo embraces me like a long-lost brother, speaking in very familiar ways (no Lei here, only tu) I see Paolo’s eyebrow arch in a Spock-ian way. Perhaps he is thinking, “Who is this fellow from Texas that we just assigned to be our Ambassador in America?” We’re both getting to know each other in this way. And let me tell you, this is what I am looking for. I need to know who Paolo is in this world, and what better way than to have him in the company of his contemporaries in wine in Valdobbiadene, and see how they play together. And they play well.

Look, Primo is a force of nature in his own right. And I unabashedly love him and his family. He calls up his daughter, Silvia, and in two minutes she appears. We hug, and she looks at me, “What is this, that you just materialize here out of thin air?” I reference Star Trek and how Scotty beamed me down and we all laugh. This is a Monday for the history books, at least for me, given my ambivalence for that day of the week, under normal circumstances. But there is nothing normal about Valdobbiadene. And I am fine, more than fine, with that.

We sit, and then Primo starts bringing about ancient bottles and then even more ancient records of purchase, postcards, an archive that he and Paolo are pouring over, like two little boys looking at a baseball card collection. Jeez, it doesn’t get any better than this. And on top of it all we’re sipping on something old and something new. A 1992, a 1995 and the new baby. It seems Silvia isn’t the only one giving birth in the Franco family. But Primo has many offspring in the cellars. He is after all, part of the magic. For me, a big part. Like I said, I love the man and his family.

I’m rambling, but this was our day. Eventually Paolo gets a call and we must rush off. When his wife passed away, four years ago, she left him with nine cats and four dogs. Now there remain six cats and three dogs. And he must attend to their needs. He wants to stay, you know the hospitalitas thing. But I tell him not to worry, we will see more of each other, go take care of your animals. They need you now.

This is the end of this chapter, but not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. Yes, I am retired, as Luca Currado and Stefano Illuminati both laughingly call me, a “pensionato.” But I am not sitting on the couch waiting for the sun to set. In fact, I haven’t seen that couch lately (or my loved ones and my animals). I need to get home eventually. But for the time being, I am in my own sacred village, sitting and sipping with my spirit brothers and sisters. And this is just the beginning.

I very much look forward to meeting Paolo’s six cats and three dogs.

written and photographed (except for the cover photo, supplied by Ruggeri) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy

In view of my (part-time) post-retirement role as ambassador for Ruggeri, I intend to curtail (specific) future blog posts about Prosecco. If there are any future developments that are general and newsworthy I might chime in, but only if they do not suggest any conflict of interest with regards to my role.
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Chris Langan said...

Great read, Alfonso. I LOVE the Ca' dei Zago wines - absolutely delicious. My current employer, Charles Smith, is good buddies with Christian and his bubbles flow freely whenever I'm in WA with Charles. Not to mention Nino Franco...... Best to you in your "retirement." ~Chris

Unknown said...

Sei felice pensionate. Have enjoyed your writing for years.
Rich Losacano

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