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, March 10, 2014

Day 2 My pizza demons and the Val di Susa


I believe shadowy forces are aligned to make good Italian pizza unattainable to me. Infuriatingly just out of my grasp. I travel extensively in Italy and make pizza a priority, but roadblocks (sometimes literal) are thrown in my path to pizza worth eating. Pianos fall from the sky, hippos step on my cell phone. 

I submit to you item of evidence #53 in my case for individual persecution by a wickedly unfunny pizza god.

Franco Penna and I are driving up a one-lane path to a very promising bed and breakfast sited on top of a hill on the periphery of Nizza. The evening sun paints everything salmon, the breeze is mild and I’m coasting to the finish line of an epic two-continent two-day work and travel stint, grimy and nodding off against the side window. Franco says “ that place makes very good pizza,” and points to a building literally at the bottom of the path from my temporary residence, a 10 minute walk, 5 minute jog, probably 45 second peddle-free bike ride along a grade of hill that would make the journey home worthy of an extra slice. I’m bolt-up awake, feeling like Franco jabbed a syringe full of horse adrenaline and Merck blow into my jugular. It’s going to happen, I have no formal dinners planned with farmers, no pesky early morning appointments scheduled in a different province, I have no cash but hey I saw a place called GIGANTIC on the side of the service road not a mile away, I’m certain they give cash back on purchases, or have a “bankomat” next to their pallets of plastic-wrapped plastic-containered plastic food that you can eat with plastic folks on plastic plates probably at a plastic picnic table with a plastic umbrella shading your eyes from the fake sun of their indoor multiverse. The streak ends, the slump is over, pizza is thown in my path. Oh wait, they are closed on Monday. It’s Monday.

Hey Italy, I have a cure for the retail portion of your economic crisis: be open when I want to buy things. Dammit.

It’s not like I have been abstemious: I had salami and Toma Piemontese for breakfast. And a croissant and espresso. And a couple glasses of unfiltered mountain wine, served straight from the tank by winemaker Franco Celso on an arbor in the shadow of a steep stone-by-stone ancient terraced vineyard that wound back into the alps. Rocca del Lupo, his backyard.

The wine is wild and pretty delicious, purple in color and just “finished” 15 days ago. Last year’s wine is all gone. This mountain used to be packed with small family vineyards, now Franco is the last, the only one to ever sell his wine bottled and outside of family relationships. There is hardly any wine to be had now, he’s old and down to farming two fields, maybe a few thousand bottles at best. The labor involved would give pause to an athletic young person: Franco’s daughters have chosen modern lives in banking and lawyering. I counted hundreds of rough hewn steep stone steps on this maybe 2-acre site. Even the trellis poles are hand hewn from alpine rock! Incredible. To be honest I’d take a lifetime of toil for little money while feeling cold Alpine air and facing the snowy mountains of the other side of the Val di Susa over lawyering. The farm has a blunt beauty rare even in remote wine locations. I will dream of it. For a while I was pulled up the vineyard slope and into the Alps. It felt like finding a font of sanity. It was a hike that could not be denied. Work can wait.

Franco admits he just cuts the grass, nothing else. No chemicals. He asked if I’d want my wine filtered or with added sulfur. I took a deep breath, stuck to my guns and say no. You make the wine, I buy the wine. I do not make decisions about the character of the product, particularly when the wine I’m tasting is as real as it gets, a place in a bottle, with a bad sexy-lady label for no additional cost. Maybe I’ll discuss that issue down the line.

His father got a technical Oscar “from Tom Hanks!” in 1992 for the lamps he made for cinemas. 100 years ago famiglia Celso made bicycles. In the late 1960’s Franco Celso lived in northern California. He is an interesting dude, he rolls his own “to slow my smoking” and runs "for a few more years at least" an artifact to agricultural traditions we can see shrinking away before our eyes. Scant few members of the next generation are doing this here. Actually no one. 

Reaching lunch took a very long time, and blew up any plans I had to make fresh pasta ever again. In fact, I had fresh ravioli filled with Castelmagno cheese in a completely empty restaurant in Cavour, a mountain town west of Turin, that was better by a fair distance than any ravioli I’ve ever had in America. No contest, not even close, put the fancy edge cutter down you upstart watered-down third generation wannabe trattoria chef hack. It was shockwaves of flavor inside perfectly cooked paper thin but not meager pasta. I stopped the Italians talking politics on at least three occasions to say “the pasta is perfect” to make sure other sentient creatures registered what was happening on our plates, the disturbance in my universe. The first course had been mediocre (carpaccio was fine, vitello tonnato was not my favorite interpretation of that dish, too dry) and the dessert really only had one exceptional element, a gentian semifreddo. But the pasta was worth writing home about.

So Italy throws down the gauntlet, as it often does with first meals. I was tempted to skip dinner, to leave perfect ravioli as my last food thought of the night. Now I’m convinced I can attain a simple healthy meal in the small-but-pink restaurant next door. It would be a first in my land of feasting.


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