The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Monday, July 10, 2006

The beauty of Alto Adige is maybe best described as impressive. Epic, grand. The mountains start abruptly from the valley floor and rise precipitously, improbably steep in their ascent into pure blue alpine sky. Magical, certainly, but in an era when natural beauty seems to be frighteningly ephemeral, inexorably leaving the temporal world for existence solely in the fading memories of previous generations, it's worth noting that Tyroleans have consciously not destroyed this place. Despite appearances this distinct region of northeastern Italy is not fantasy, even if it does possess an elemental richness rare outside its boundaries. People live here, they use nature, marble is quarried, trees are felled, farmland is everywhere, often even in the form of steep vine-covered terraces rising as high as temperature and gravity permits from the Adige river basin. Dairy is important here: ask Sasha in my store's cheese department about the quality of Alto Adige cheeses and you'll get another perspective on the natural richness of this area.
The food throughout Italy is disarmingly good. After months or years away I'm always caught off guard by the often simple but consistent quality of Italian restaurant fare. Dishes made from five quality ingredients, thoughtfully, artfully, perfectly prepared. Studies in flavor balance that should be the preface to cooking school textbooks. To me great Italian food is genuine, the farthest thing from tall-food, completely lacking Michelin-starred pomp and pretense. Two examples: I ate lunch in a house/restaurant high above the precariously situated town of Molten (resident sparkling wine specialist Josef Rieterer boasts the highest elevation cellar in Europe at his Arunda winery in the heart of this village). We ate speck, crucolo and salami as an antipasti, fresh white asparagus (I was lucky to visit in spring, during this delicacy's short season), and deep fried baby goat capretti from animals raised just outside the room where we dined, followed by a perfect apple strudel. Local food, enjoyed while looking out the window of Da Marga's quaint wood-panelled dining room at a snowy expanse of Alps that stretches to Austria. They'd had a cold winter and spring- patches of snow dotted the fields and narrow roads as we wound up the mountain towards our greatly-anticipated lunch. Our ascent was a little harrowing (Rieterer drives a Volvo, which made me feel safer than the rented Alfa Romeo that had taken me to his place) but the food was worth the fear. We encountered few motorists, and they all pulled over or passed politely on the essentially one-lane of asphalt and gravel. That's as close to adventure travel as this professional wine taster and card-carrying risk-avoider gets. You can keep your tickets for five days of base jumping at Yosemite: I'll stay in San Fransisco, and eat sashimi.
The night previous to my journey with mad scientist/bubbly genius Josef, I'd drunk a bottle of Triacca Sasselo (my pick for Valtellina's best Nebbiolo) for 13 euros, ate fresh ravioli covered in Porcini mushrooms for 7 euros, and was served a delicious osso bucco that set us back 9 euros. None of these courses had the 1000+ calorie heft that many American chefs seems to be strangely compelled to send out of their kitchens, but as we were intending to finish three courses along with grappa and espresso, that was a gustatory relief. I haven't been to a restaurant in the U.S. that has the mastery of simple quality and honestly delicious food that we enjoyed at Trattoria San Basilico alla Pergola in Verona, and the three of us, all gluttons, dined for $150. And this restaurant has many peers in its home city, and maybe that’s the key- Italian diners generally haven't abandoned an insistence on real quality, and honest satisfying food that references local culinary traditions. Certainly beats empty pretense or depressingly vacuous excess, which seem to be more common dining options over here. I don't want to eat the half a cow plus fries special for $11.99, nor do I want to spend any more dining time at some small-food, everything fussed over, injected with duck fat and covered in a silly and improbable reduction sauce made from flavors never found on the same continent in nature at a restaurant where they (deservedly-I should know better) rob me blind with cuisine that references everything at once and thus makes untraceable any path home, any link to a culinary heritage.

Next Post: (it's written! I just need to find time to type) A Few Days Tasting Wine and Traveling around Beautiful Verona


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