Sunday, January 20, 2019

Umbria - From the Stalls to the Stars

Assisi - Eremo delle Carceri (St. Francis' Hermitage)
As one might be expected to do in the later chapters of life, I’ve been cleaning up my study. Actually, it feels more like prepping a dead man’s home for an estate sale. At the very least, I am (heaven forbid my use of the “C” word) curating the collection of a wine man. A traveler. A photographer. A father. A husband. A son. A brother. And a primate on earth. And therefore, some things have been bubbling up to the surface, like an ancient vat of Sagrantino, done the old way, with lots of dried fruits and a healthy dose of residual sugar.

Rainy day in Umbria - the baby wasn't so happy about it
In one of those rear-view mirror visions, the children are looking out from a window of a little trailer, which is camped high up in Assisi in a hostel area, which is closed for the season. But the caretakers kindly let me and my new little family rent the trailer for three weeks, for about $5 a day in 1977 prices. Not too bad.

A short walk from the trailer leads to what was once a stall, and inside they are cooking food, for a good price, very local, very healthy, and with all the accoutrements of an (humble) Italian table. We keep within our budget (which it turned out was $17 a day for a family of four, all expenses). But at the time, we’re vegetarians, and it is the autumn time. And there is plenty of great verdure and bread. And cheese, warmed over a wood fire, ala spiedini. And red wine from Umbria. Simple red wine. Fresh. Dry. Balanced. Sane. So very naturale, although our life, at the time, effloresced much more naturally. After all, we were young Californians, with dreams of a progressive future. We were broke. But we weren’t in debt over our heads. We treaded pretty lightly. And it was a good time to be young and alive.

Years later I would take my wife Liz, before she died, to Assisi, and we stayed down the hill in Torgiano. It was a starry-eyed young couples place of great luxury. I was representing Lungarotti in Texas and we were guests of the family. And it also was quite lovely, very special and wonderful. After our winery tour, one of the Lungarotti family members said to us, “When you go into the restaurant tonight, please order any wine of ours that you’d like, it doesn’t matter how old it is. You are our guests.”

And that is the balance of life as I know it in Italy. Whether it be a modest meal in front of an autumn fire in a stall or a sumptuous feast of duck and Torgiano Riserva on a linen table, also near a fireplace. Both are dear to me, not one is greater. For I am grateful for all of the experiences to have had in Umbria and in Italy. From the stalls to the stars.

Piero Antolino wrote the article “From stars to stalls, this is the life!” in the May 1990 issue of Italian Wines and Spirits, and was the jumping off point for this post. I came upon his article in my ever-expanding travel file that I have for Italy. It is now three stackable containers, by region and if the city is big enough, they’re given their own file spot. Rome is bulging. Venice too. Ditto for Florence. Everything in those files I’ve gathered on one of 50+ trips over the past 48 years. A card for a little trattoria in Trentino. A brochure for an Apulian village that has long ago changed dramatically. Lots of ephemera, and all catalogued like a librarian. My life’s memories of travel to Italy on reams of transitory paper.

And along with that goes the photography. Umbria in October, from right below the Eremo delle Carceri (St. Francis' Hermitage), has a vista that in the fall is often filled with fog and bonfires. Get up early and listen to the shepherds herding their flock through the fields below. The bell ringing leader, taking the others to greener plots.

There are files of photographs needing to be gone through. And it is on the list of things to do before I die.


I’m sitting on a bench in a men’s changing room. Getting ready to walk the treadmill and do my penance for having lived a rich life. Trying to make less of myself. And so far, have been relatively successful, shedding 18+ pounds since I “retired.” I feel great, am up to 54 push-ups a day and am organizing my other life’s work – the photographs.

Anyway, two older gents nearby are kvetching about how terrible everything is in America. How it’s not as great as it once was, as it should be. And all because of young liberal left wingers (and aliens) who don’t want to work, who all they want is a hand out, and who don’t do things the way these old men did, and what a great frigging shame the whole thing is.

I hear fear in their voices, mixed with a couple of tablespoons of anger and self-righteous entitlement. The fear is fear of change. Good luck with that, old boys. Everything is changing. Like it always is.

I find myself getting really angry. Listening to these two old crows banter on about stuff they’ve just regurgitated from the screaming box they're addicted to and can't take their eyes off of. And they, barely two generations removed from another country themselves, from being the immigrants they so fear and loathe.

I’d tell them there are all kinds of addictions and afflictions. But the rate of change and the need to ever be more vigilant in regards to the information that is coming past your ears and eyes, to not let it harden your heart or endanger your children’s children’s future. But they haven’t asked me into their conversation, nor would I find it very uplifting, trying to change two men who both have one foot (or one lobe)in the grave. In any event, I’m an introvert, a loner. And they’ll be dead soon enough.

It’s weird to think that way, but I now think the only way to cleanse it is for the natural state of things to take place. The earth doesn’t need us. We need the earth. We’re on our own. And some of us are not doing that great right now.

But you came here to read about Italy and wine, non e vero?

So, let there be blood. Let's give you a tasting note.

I long ago read about Sagrantino being originally a passito wine. Making Sagrantino dry would come centuries later, along with the heavy bottles and high price tags. This was tasting the history of the wine; this was meeting face-to-face with the ancestors. This was a moment to bow on one knee before taking a sip.

That Sagrantino that I spoke about earlier, it was a half-bottle, 7 years with age:
Lights down, music to a low chant, with only the heat from the candles. Once inside, the wine turned my palate towards the pagan. We had landed in Xanadu: the sacred river, the pleasure dome, the caverns measureless to man and the sunless sea. The milk of Paradise. And you didn’t even have to die.
That’s my Italy. My hope. My dream of renewal. It can be yours too. It beats yelling at the TV screen.

Sunny day, all smiles again

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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