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, October 03, 2016

Fausto from Torre dei Beati. All the fish. Alone in Puglia.

A little rain is falling. A damp notebook and circling flies may force my retreat in a moment. Which isn’t a hardship. Inside is airy, vaulted, dramatic space. Rooms made of stone, cool, shifting patterns of dark and light, on ledges, thick doorways, heavy wood beams. I’ve rented an apartment for most of a week, for a pittance (think Red Roof Inn prices) and it’s amazing. The owners have provided a week’s worth of local fare. The place is spotless. It has weathered beauty. It has wi-fi, and a fancy shower. The farmhouse is surrounded by olive groves and broken white rock plateaus, to every horizon.

Posta Santa Croce dates from at least the 1630’s: written references begin in that period. Architecture makes it obvious that the farm has been here significantly longer than 400 years. As you’d expect there is a church, wound by ripening pomegranates and bordered by an elaborate tree house. Rope swings descend from cypress trees. And there’s an ancient stage! It is dotted with bright green 25-gallon demijohns, and faces an audience of hay bale “seats.” The driveway winds for a kilometer from the paved two-lane road, a link to coastal towns of interest, Trani, Corato. Octagonal Castel del Monte, constructed by fan-of-geometry Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (say that after two glasses of Primitivo) in the 13th century is very close, hiking distance. Orchards of cherries and apricots are losing their foliage: harvest is complete. Gargantuan cacti with radiant red-and-orange tips jostle against everything. They threaten to take over. Equally invasive rosemary and feral grape vines struggle back. They vie for scant earth between pockmarked stones.

I wanted to write in the stone patio off the apartment at Posta Santa Croce, in Puglia. But I’m distractible in the extreme, until I hit the groove. Flies might stymie productivity. The patio is a terrific uneven mass of un-mortared walls, sturdy wooden workbenches for sorting fruit, olives etc., and a huge low-walled fountain. It’s not as cool as it could be in this here month of October, on a cloudy day. Humid, that’s the issue. In Francavilla al Mare the weather was perfect, but the architecture was lacking. Retreating sore-loser Nazis destroyed what had been a jewel of the Adriactic, a summer beach destination for affluent citizens of Naples and Rome. Francavilla still has the beach, and it’s truly lovely. Waves barely lap the shore, sand isn’t as abundant as in Pescara, but there’s 100 feet or more of basking space between promenade and sea. Only a few nice villas remain, their faded glory further marred by proximity to major roads. In their place, squat, square, functional hotels and residences. In summer you have limitless choices of beachfront seafood restaurants, some even require guests to eat on tables in the sand. By October these places are all closed, Francavilla has shrunk unexplainably back to its off-season size of 40,000 or so locals. Better to visit now than during July when the bumping nightclubs of Pescara keep even second-cousin Francavilla raucous until 1am. That’s middle-age speaking. For young people and seekers of sun and sexy, high season has plenty to offer.

Fausto Albanesi’s home is a legit construction site. There was water damage that required scaffolding. Fausto’s wife Adrianna Galasso thought, “why not add an additional floor onto the currently four-story building?” Apparently scaffolding is the expensive part… though building a whole new apartment and roof can’t be cheap! I didn’t recognize the building with its current exoskeleton, shrouded in industrial plastic. After driving past it 10 times like a crazy person, turning a 1km trip from my hotel into a 30-minute chore, I found the correct driveway, and descended into an empty parking lot. I rang the bell, walked around for show, then accepted I was probably supposed to meet Fausto at the winery, not his house. Makes sense, I knew they were picking Pecorino today. We hadn’t really talked particulars. So I stole some figs, and headed for the cellar, in the hills of Loreto Aprutino.
Via email Fausto seems stressed. In person it’s clear that he is very tired, the toll of two construction projects. The winery is also expanding, to make triage of fruit easier at harvest, and to do more movement of grapes via gravity. In spite of numerous accolades, there isn’t sufficient cash to do all this activity at once, so work goes slowly. The Wine Advocate gave a wine of Fausto’s over 90 points recently… though neither Fausto or I could recall which wine, or what the score was! Gambero Rosso picked his Pecorino as one of Italy’s top 50 wines. He’s widely cited as a qualitative leader in the “new” (not Valentini, Pepe, or Masciarelli) generation of Abruzzo estates. Fausto is proud of these accolades. By nature he is quiet, thoughtful, intellectual about wine. He knows the wines of many other regions in detail, including non-Italian places. He knows the underutilized potential of Abruzzo’s countryside. Which is vast. After Trapani in Sicily, Chieti is Italy’s second most productive grape-growing province, in terms of quantity.

“Seventy percent of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is bottled outside of Abruzzo.” Take a second for that to sink in. “What other region would allow this? Eighty percent of Abruzzo’s money, that is intended to prevent fraud, is spent on enforcement inside of Abruzzo, on checking what I do,” Fausto states. “But who is checking on the Abruzzo wine bottled in Veneto, or Bordeaux? Abuzzo is a sleeping giant. It benefits many others that we never wake up.”

We’re having this conversation at a great, bustling place on the beach in Pescara called Ristorante Pizzeria Marechiaro. Most places in Francavilla were either closed for the season, or full. In Pescara we park in a graffiti-covered courtyard (some really artful pieces, I wanted to take photos but was afraid Fausto would consider it strange.) “The restaurant isn’t in the best neighborhood,” he says, which I think is pretty funny: grandmas are strolling around. College kids, too, dressed in the uniform of hodgepodge distressed tight grey and black worn by the vast majority of young Italians. Fausto’s oldest daughter goes to school in Pescara. He calls her at 1am to see if she wants to join us. “It’s too early!” she said

Inside, the restaurant is full. Next to us, a couple of teenagers seem to be on an epic breakup date. The boy’s eyes emit pure despair. There are women in tight short dresses, heels and bling, multicultural, multi-generational families, long tables with seniors and their progeny. At least one group of foreigners, possibly English. It is awesomely thriving, and representative of Pescara. The wine list is as eclectic. We settle on glasses of Franciacorta, followed by 2014 Kofererohof Kerner (which I know reasonably well) and 2010 I Clivi Malvasia (which is new for me.) A basket of hot wedges of unadorned pizza comes out, followed by a barrage of fantastic un-ordered seafood. Perfect crudo, including a local version of uni, and a Fasolari clam: red, firm, pure enjoyment. A pile of perfect scampi, then big grilled gamberi, a zucchini flower stuffed with baccala, also my alien nemesis: the Panocchia. It tastes like lobster, it looks like a more terrifying villain from Starship Troopers. I’ll have nightmares.

I’m glad we made it here. At 3pm Fausto was clearly fading. His assertion that we would meet for dinner at 8:30 seemed improbable. The Pecorino picking was just completed when I arrived. A nine-person team was at the sorting table. They would work until an hour after Fausto and I were feasting on crudo that night. Sorting is serious business at Torre dei Beati. As afternoon turned to evening Fausto and I surveyed his most recent planting s of Montepulciano and Pecorino, and a small stand of dritta olives. Afflicted once again (like in 2014) with crop-destroying flies. Fausto was buying 2015 oil for personal use. “If you see 2016 olive oil from Abruzzo, it’s full of poison,” he said.

At last, the Gallinella arrives. It’s a big red fish, presented pre-dinner for our approval. It comes out and is taken apart on a vast platter, the hinterlands of which are filled to overflowing with fresh chitarra pasta. The chef is showing off what’s best of local fare, and I heartily approve. By the end of my 50% of this monster, my gut is busting. Fausto orders gentian, to ease the pain. Then, inexplicably, he begins selling the plan of going to Chicco, the best gelateria in Francavilla, for dessert. It’s nearly 1am! But we speed down the coast, passing many open ice cream shops. Apparently there is a god: Chicco is closed. The couple that own it are old, Fausto explains. The wife makes excellent small pizzas. I dodge death-by-pizza. We meet up at 9:30am for a ridiculous, perfect breakfast of espresso and gelato at l’altro, in Pescara’s central pedestrian area. My road-worn metabolism had done its job, the danger had passed. In fairness to Fausto, he’s an enthusiast, not a glutton. We were meeting to go sea kayaking. Rain intervened. Gelato was the logical plan B.
Five-year-old kids play soccer on a stone court, dribbling and passing with exceptional determination. I’m familiar with talent levels at this age, courtesy of my two sporty daughters. We say our goodbyes. He will come to North Carolina in early 2017.

The sounds of a happy child. The proprietor’s kid will be bored if he grows up here! Sunset comes to Puglia.


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