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!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Day 3: Astigiana

There is a haze. Mountains are absent and second row hills are a dim outline. That’s the end of complaining, because it is a perfect March day in Piemonte. The air is cool and fresh, a breeze comes occasionally from the north but you can tell it has lost interest. Running through the hills between Nizza and Canelli I see a young girl picking violets with her grandmother, harvesting flowers from the damp clay embankment and stone wall on the uphill side of the path. It is timeless, and hard to reconcile with the dull industrial zone lined with warehouse stores like “Enotechnica (for fixing all your bad winemaking problems) and Idrotechnica” (for solving with gears and piping some other industry’s woes) that I trudged past just a few kilometers ago. On my return route along the ridgeline I see a trail of violet petals at 5 meter intervals. I wonder if the wind stole them, or if she was on an adventure.

Three days away and all children are bittersweet reflections of my daughters.  

Chickens and roosters charge down steep fields of bright green first grass, barking dogs follow them and me. An old man bent and pruning has draped his coat at the end post of a row of Barbera vines for the first time this year. A woman sweeps the courtyard patio between a normal rambling brick and stone farmhouse and its barns, a brown cardigan covering her faded floral house dress. A free beagle is savvy enough to spot me and take another route at a distance of 20 paces, the intelligence of an independent animal living close to civilization. It’s the dang countryside, mostly hills covered by vines, scattered houses and the occasional wine estate or agriturismo. It is not picture postcard perfect but it is close, and I like being in it.

I’m running in anticipation of pizza, working up an appetite. I chose to skip lunch, unless you count cheese and salami, which I do not. When running through an impressive group of wines at dacapo in Agliano Terme at midday I snacked on a few glicini and slices of really tender, fresh salami, bright red and probably illegal in America. There was a decent semi-soft cheese too, but the salami was the deal.

Dino Riccomagno from dacapo is coming to America soon, specifically to New York to celebrate his son’s 18-birthday. He’s worried his son will just want to hang out in the mid-town Abercrombie & Fitch and Apple store. My guess is once he gets a whiff of downtown and Brooklyn, shopping will be a low priority. Dino can (and does) wear bright green pants. No American male can do this. Same goes for white pants. Yesterday, while involved in heated discussion with a particularly large Italian gentleman about the state of his driver side door window (it was broken, by him running into my open car door, but luckily not me, as I exited the vehicle) my interior narrative was “well, no matter how this fistfight goes, he’s the guy in a lavender sweater, which means I win.” Pastels may be present in the preppie fishbowl at the university nearest you, but the vibrance and audacity of color chosen by Italian men is unsettling to an outsider.

Luckily it was just a loud exchange of Italian words, delivered in a way that could seem deranged and pre-altercation to people from the USA. We walked away.
I take a fair number of pictures of Dino’s stainless steel Italian stove while he is finding some bottle or other for us to taste. There’s a new Grignolino from a half-hectare vineyard that Paolo Dania (the winemaker) and Dino (the viticulturalist) just purchased from a neighbor. Piedmont Wine Imports will buy this wine for summer, and then you can have some, too, for a while. A half-hectare doesn’t make much wine.

Also the Nizza “cru” Barbera from dacapo is much improved with the 2010 vintage, for the first time in my experience it justifies the elevated price from their elegant Sanbastian Barbera d’Asti. To be Nizza a Barbera must be from 20-year-old vines at least, and from land 200 meters or more above sea level. The vines must be southeast or southwest facing. It’s a more serious wine. The Metodo Champenoise sparkling wine is consistently better than most Blanc de Noirs from Champagne that I try. It is 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay, with a really pronounced Pinot character until the linear, mineral finish just sort of brings everything to a point. It’s high caliber.

The I drove to Canelli: to Cascina Barisel.
I know Franco Penna well. He lacks the self-righteousness of natural farmers, and he has a good sense of humor. He’s not an outwardly ideological guy. In his cellar while tasting no-sulfur natural yeast Dolcetto, in the middle of 15 hilly acres of scrupulously tended chemical-free vines, I think I see the core identity of Franco. He is action not talk. His talk is lively and gently irreverent, untethered to the professionalism of Cascina Barisel. He wants people to taste his wines because they taste good, and that is how he presents them. He is quick to discuss the wines of other estates that we taste together, and he seems to enjoy interaction with other winemakers. He has opinions. He is very generous. The estate’s cellar is very well maintained. Many additional hours of labor clearly go on at Barisel to create even-keel, understated and exceptionally affordable wines. I scan down a sheet of available quantities: there isn’t much wine! Franco prices his wine to sell “I have to make a living with wine, this is not a rich man’s hobby for me,” and to drink. They are seamless and perfectly representative daily wines, clean, direct and good.

The sun may be shining but rainwater is still draining down the hills of Astigiana. Light chalky clay soils stick to my fancy leather shoes and stain one of the three pairs of pants I possess. So much for packing light! I don’t go to the top of Franco’s hill, I stop mid-slope among stunted mean old Moscato vines, sick of sticking and sliding and wondering how much better the view could really get. A truck is delivering bottles, it’s time for me to get out of Franco’s way and out onto some little road. We’re meeting up again soon for pizza anyway.


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