I was in Italy…and it struck me this weekend –I have never heard anyone say they didn’t like Italy, whether they spent time in the cities, the countryside, the mountains or on the coast. After (and I’m ashamed to admit this) going there for the first time, I can see why. Wine and food are already so central to the social fabric in Italy…all you have to do is insert yourself. The people were great, the country is beautiful, the food and wine are delicious…or interchange those adjectives around a bit if you like…it all applies. I did do some taping of my show, “The Grapes Unwrapped” while there…and it will show up next month as an episode on wine tourism, near and far. Yes I could use many places in the world as examples of wonderful places to explore wine and more, but Tuscany would be up high on the list even if I hadn’t gone there.
First, we went to Rome which is relatively easy, because if you have a good location (and we did, the Hotel Fontella Borghese, owned by the dynamic Cinzia Pighini Giordani with a truly wonderful staff, especially Kalid!), you will eventually walk into a great site, and also a great many options to eat and drink well. And we had a number of really good meals (gelato doesn’t count as a meal, but as a food group though)…and quite simply, found it easy to have wines in restaurants for what I would pay retail in the United States. The very first night, I found an easy to drink rosato from Umbria…for ten euros. Was it remarkable? No…except in that it was good and crisp after a long, hot day walking around the city, went nicely with the Roman summer fare I was eating and it cost for the bottle what some places here would charge for a glass. So yeah, I guess that is remarkable.
There were wine bars and shops I passed that I wished I had gone back to and checked out as we walked all over the city (the one enoteca near the Spanish Steps specializing in wines just from Lazio caught my attention, as one example), but didn’t get back that way or have time to go find them again. One tip I will give is to not expect to be able to backtrack if you have a packed itinerary, so jump in when you can. But, I also learned that traveling in Italy is not about lamenting over what you didn’t get to see and do, but reveling in and fully experiencing and enjoying what you did get to see and do.
Now, onto Tuscany. There are lots of fine wine regions in the world that one can travel to…Tuscany is certainly in the top tier. I don’t care though how much of a wine nut you are…most folks can’t visit winery upon winery, day after day. Most people don’t have the trained palate, and in a place like Tuscany, you are likely to increase your chances of going off-road and careening down the side of a mountain, the more wineries you visit.
Here is what I look for when taking a wine vacation. First, I want it to be convenient…to other places, sites, activities, and transportation. Tuscany was a short drive from Rome. There are major roads and highways there and throughout. There are great places to see beyond the “agriturismo” sites. One can, and we did, see Cortona, near where we stayed, Florence, Siena, Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano, among other towns and cities, all within an hour, often half hour drive from where we stayed. Staying in the eastern part of Tuscany also gave us easy access to Umbria.
Next…give yourself a really good home base for your trip. We did just that…we stayed at Poggio Sant’Angelo, near Cortona, which felt more like home than home base most of the time. Not familiar with Cortona? It is where “Under The Tuscan Sun” takes place, and that area, and throughout Tuscany, you find a romanticism that I often speak of when it comes to wine and visiting wine regions. Our home base is owned by Allesandro Maresca, who was a fine host and a most interesting person…well-traveled and well-read, this environmental engineer certainly fit into a definition of “hands on” ownership, as over time, he himself did much of the restoration and renovation of the house and grounds. It is a pleasure to give business to someone you really like…Allesandro is a true gentleman of a business owner.
The marketing energy behind the establishment is Luca Chanaz. Charming and witty, but also well connected to the region, he was able to arrange two very special winery tours for me and Allesandro, give excellent general and “insider” advice on places to see, both well documented and off the beaten path, and also deal with the daily needs of the guests that didn’t quite fit into any specific category. He will soon be launching a business called “Tips and Trips” and you will surely hear more about it from me.
Anchoring the property are Lui and Anna, who run the restaurant, front and back of the house, more than capably. Some of the best meals we had were at Poggio Sant’Angelo, steps from our room. Fresh, seasonal local fare at reasonable prices and a nice, compact winelist that reflected the region. It was great to know that our home base truly was a place we could return to every night after spending a good ten to fourteen hours away every day once we left in the morning.
So everything was in place to be a wine tourist. Great central location in one of the best wine regions in the world…a great home base with a very capable and affable staff, with local connections…really good local food…oh and one more thing – my cousin, maybe. Let me explain.
Poggio Sant’Angelo has a local connection to where I live, Maplewood, NJ. Tara O’Leary, a participating artist in “The Intersection of Art and Wine” and Geralyn McGrath, owner of Geralyn’s Art Studio in Maplewood, were running art classes in Tuscany and used Poggio Sant’Angelo as their home base too in the spring. It was Tara who introduced me to Allesandro and Luca, and sure enough, there were other locals who arrived after we did…and other locals who have stayed there previously…so you can say the place was tested out and came with really high recommendations. And we all know how exacting folks around Maplewood and South Orange can be. So there is this additional arts connection at Poggio Sant’Angelo, and there is also a resident artist, a sculptor who envisions installing a sculpture garden on the property in an area overlooking the countryside and adjacent to the pool (yes, there’s a pool too). The artist is Patrizio Zona. Not only is he very talented, he has a fantastic last name…fortunately there is someone with the Zona name who is creative and talented. And it seems we may possibly have some sort of ties since our families are both from Caserta, outside of Naples. I am doing some research already but it added yet another personal touch to my stay there.
Now that I talked about how to get well set up for a wine trip, in part 2, I will talk about the wines I tried and where I visited.