MONTEFIASCONE, Italy — I love the scene from “Sideways” where Virginia Madsen’s character, Maya, is in the car with Miles, played by Paul Giamatti. They’re talking about Pinot Noir and she gets this far off, almost lusty, look and says, “A bottle of wine is actually alive.” It’s when he fell in love with her and I reaffirmed my love for Pinot Noir. It’s the pride of my native Oregon where they make the best in the world. Screw Sideways’ Santa Ynez Valley.
Here in Italy, wine IS life. It’s one of the four major food groups. And each wine has its own story. I recently chased one of those stories into the lush countryside of Lazio outside of Rome where they started crushing grapes during the Roman Empire.
I came to Montefiascone, home of EST! EST! EST!, one of the most intriguing white wines in Lazio. The story goes that in the 12th century, a German bishop about to visit the pope sent a high church official to Rome on a scouting mission to find the area’s best wines. When the prelate reached this village, now with 13,700 inhabitants, about 60 miles north of Rome, he found the best. To indicate where the bishop must stop, he wrote on doors “EST! EST! EST!” (Latin for “IT IS!”) Thus, the wine EST! EST! EST! was born.
Joining me on this day trip were Alessandro Castellani, my wine and food muse, and Robert Della Vedova, our Australian-Italian friend who combines Aussie hilarity with Italian class. We started our boys day out with our regular stop at La Felicetta in nearby Viterbo. The little trattoria surrounded by rolling countryside is home of the best gnocchi in Italy, a heaping pile of little potato dumplings covered in a rich tomato meat sauce and showered with grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
After lunch we didn’t just have a glass of wine. We went to a wine outlet store. The Cantina di Montefiascone is a long, stone building on the outskirts of a town that was once a favorite day trip for 11th century popes Stephen IX and Gregory VII. The town’s cathedral sports a dome 27 meters in diameter which is the largest in Italy outside the Vatican and Milan’s Duomo.
It hovered atop the hill as we pulled into the near empty parking lot. We were the only customers. The Cantina di Montefiasconi may be the cheapest wine and food store in Lazio. Half the length of a wall is lined with wine. To be frank, EST! EST! EST! isn’t great. As Italian white wines go, even as Lazio white wines go, it’s pretty non-descript. But it’s still beats the label off 90 percent of the vile swill bad bars and restaurants in the U.S. pass off as house white wines. And the price here makes it better value than all of them: 1.50 euro. That’s $2. That means you can buy one for every day of the week and still have money left to buy ingredients for your next meal.
That’s exactly what I did. I bought two bottles of excellent organic tomato sauce for 1.70 euro each, a bag of large organic spirali pasta for 2.60 and a bag of chocolate biscotti, Italy’s famed hard, nutty biscuits, for 3.90. I walked out of there with seven items for 17.40 ($21.68). Two nights later, I made spirali pasta with fresh Italian sausage, green bell peppers and organic tomato sauce and showered with grated Parmigiano Reggiano. It’s one of the best of many great meals I’ve made in Rome where I’ve gone from a decent cook to a cook you can take home to mom. Of course, it helps to have the right ingredients.
Anyone visiting Rome and wants off the beaten track, come to Cantina di Montefiascone. It’s easy. It’s at Via Grilli, No. 2, a 10-minute walk from the train station which has about 10 trains a day that takes about 90 minutes from Rome and costs 7 euros.
On the way back to Rome, we stopped for the amazing vista that is Lago Bolsena. This one time site of a volcano erupted in 104 BC, at the height of the Roman Empire. What remains is a lake 8 miles x 7 miles and reaching a depth of 500 feet.
EST! EST! EST!