Perugia: Italy’s chocolate capital a sweet spot to celebrate the dying profession of journalism

Perugia on one of the few times it didn’t rain. Photo by Marina Pascucci


PERUGIA, Italy — If Italy was a gelato cone, Perugia would be the hot chocolate syrup they dip it in.

It’s the chocolate capital of Italy. It’s home to Perugina chocolate (Baci chocolate kisses, anyone?), the annual Eurochocolate festival and more chocolate shops than Dublin has pubs. Thus, my heart — and my dentist — have huge sweet spots for this hill town in the heart of Umbria.

It’s not just chocolate that brought me here recently. The International Journalism Festival had five days of lectures and conferences, including the intriguing and newsworthy American topic, “Beyond Fake News: What’s Next for Tackling Online Misinformation.” Perugia is the capital of Umbria, pushing Sicily as my favorite region in Italy, with fantastic local cuisine and wine and an unspoiled persona. As the only one of Italy’s 20 regions not bordering an ocean or another country, Umbria has been the least vulnerable to outside influences.

Oh, I also won an award.

Perugia is the birthplace of Perugina chocolate. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The Camera di Commercio Perugia takes such great pride in its town and region it bestows awards to journalists shedding light on a place oft overlooked on tourists’ well-trodden pilgrimages across Italy. I won the Umbria del Gusto (Flavor of Umbria) award for the January blog I did about American transplant Ev Thomas buying an 800-year-old farmhouse in Umbria and turning the few grape vines into a fledgling winery. The Local, Italy’s only English-language news source, picked it up and while it didn’t go viral, it did go Umbrian.

The town put up my girlfriend and me for two nights in the four-star Sangallo Palace Hotel, wined and dined us and feted us like the celebrities that we aren’t.

No, Umbria del Gusto isn’t the Pulitzer. But it’s in Perugia, and that’s award enough. Plus, it’s always fun trying to explain what “Dog-Eared Passport” means in Italian.

Perugia (pop. 165,000), 100 miles north of Rome, always gives me the early impression that I’m walking onto a science fiction set. To reach the centro storico (historical center) from the hotel, you must walk up through a complex of dark, eerily lit tunnels, lined with huge, high-ceilinged rooms used for everything from a souvenir shop to conferences. I remember sitting blindfolded in one of them during Eurochocolate 2008 and having a blind chocolate taste — run by blind people.

Rocca Paolina was built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The area is called the Rocca Paolina and built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s as a fortress over a very wealthy neighborhood. In 1983 the city conveniently outfitted it with escalators, making the steep climb into darkness a lot less taxing. Nevertheless, I still always feel like I’m in a subterranean, prehistoric cave waiting for a T-Rex to step around the corner.

Escaping from the tunnels you come across a compact centro storico that is tranquil until the hordes of university students hit the piazzas and bars at night. The town is home to the University of Perugia, founded in 1308, with 35,000 students and the University of Foreigners with 5,000 foreign students, most of whom are abroad with mommy and daddy’s money for the first time. It was this atmosphere that Perugia received its most fame in recent years.

Amanda Knox, a Seattle native studying in Perugia, was arrested and convicted of murder in 2009 when a roommate had her throat cut during what many have termed a group sex game that went bad two years previously. The attractive Knox became a media sensation. “Foxy Knoxy” spent nearly four years in jail and was eventually exonerated after evidence emerged of the police’s colossal series of screwups.

On one past trip through Umbria, some friends and I stopped by the roommates’ old house on the downslope of the hill. The long, two-story home has become as big a tourist attraction as San Lorenzo, Perugia’s 1,100-year-old cathedral. After many conversations with locals, who don’t seem to mind the persistent question, I’m firmly convinced the only people who think she’s innocent are in the city of Seattle.

Speaking of Seattle, Perugia felt like it all weekend. It poured nearly the entire time. I emerged from the tunnels to a tempest making the cobblestone streets empty and slick. I walked past the Perugina outlet store and to Palazzo dei Priori, the 13th century palace that looks more like a small castle than the city’s main art gallery. I managed to find a staircase that wound down into a dark alley to a small sign reading “LA TAVERNA.”

Pappardelle with Umbrian ragu at La Taverna.


This hidden, elegant diner is THE place to try Umbrian cuisine. This region is known for four main foods: cinghiale, wild boar that so over runs Central Italy even animal lovers don’t protest its hunting season; tartufi, black truffles that are considered a delicacy all over Europe and without question the most overrated food in Italy; lenticchie, lentils made into a thick soup terrific in winter; piccione, pigeons, cooked whole and once the diet staple of locals while under attack in the Middle Ages.

While I waited for Marina to get off work and take the train up, I took a seat alone at a table with a white tablecloth and looked up at the vaulted brick ceiling. Eating inside what seems like a cave has its own romance, especially when Umbrian food is added. My pappardelle with Umbrian ragu (long, flat noodles with wild boar meat sauce) was thick, fresh and fantastic. Topped off with a glass of Umbria’s Morcinaia wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Merlot, it was a great bargain for only 23 euros.

Works by Gerardo Dottori


The award ceremony was a two-day affair beginning with an evening guided tour of the Museo Civico di Palazzo della Penna which hosted weird, haunting works of Gerardo Dottori, a Perugia artist famous for his futuristic works from the early 20th century. Later, the other seven award winners and I joined the organizing committee and judges for an aperitivo of local meats and cheeses followed by an Umbrian feast. Besides my tender manzo, I had a dish called sfornato, kind of a local polenta but much thicker and tastier than the bland polenta I’ve had in the past.

I sat next to one of the judges who read my work. Dennis Redmont is a retired former Associated Press bureau chief in Rome. Amazingly, we had met before. In 2003, nearing the end of my first 16-month stint in Rome and deeply in the throes of love with my adopted city, I went to him hat in hand opening I could land a part-time job and extend my stay. He sat down with me and said that AP was in the process of shedding about 15-20 percent of its workforce around the world. It was foreshadowing of what was to become in my news industry.

Since I returned to my old job at The Denver Post in 2003 to today, The Post’s newsroom has gone from more than 350 reporters to 60. The staff is so small the paper moved from its cool downtown location to the suburbs where it shares space — with its printing plant.

Yes, I did get out at the right time.

The award winners. (I’m the tall one.) Photo by Marina Pascucci


But events like Perugia makes me glad I keep a hand in it. I dressed up in my toned-down gray Italian suit. Marina talked me out of one of the shiny silk suits that make me look like a flunky for the Irish mob. Before the ceremony at Centro Servizi G. Alezzi conference center, we escaped the rain across the street at Caffe Perugina. It’s one of Perugia’s beautiful bars (cafes are often called “bars” in Italy), with ornate furnishings and brass tabletops. Over a cappuccino, it felt like we stepped into Perugia in 1920s. I was taken aback when the barista said Caffe Perugina began in 1997.

During my career, I was never big into awards, mainly because I didn’t win many. I was more of a grinder journalist, a sportswriter who plugged along day after day, seeking news and sprinkling my coverage with the occasional long human interest story. When I branched out into food and wine, things changed. You don’t really break food news. What, “TOMATOES SEEKING MORE RESPECT IN SUPERMARKETS”?

Instead, I wrote the weird (I tried eating a 72-ounce steak in Amarillo, Texas), the trendy (restaurant boom in Moscow) and the disgusting (animal penis restaurant in Beijing). I always tied it to the local culture. This was the second award I’ve won for food and wine writing. Maybe I missed my calling.

The conference room was packed with observers and photographers. I sat in the front row with the other winners, all of whom walked up to the dais for a question and answer period. Notified shortly beforehand that the session would be in Italian, I nearly fled the room. I can answer any question in Italian; the problem is I likely won’t understand the question in Italian.

I told Redmont my dilemma, who said he would do the Q&A in English and translate.

“It’ll be more exotic,” he said.

Most of the awards were for videos, showing Perugia at its majestic best, catching sunrises from the hilltown and the monuments glistening in the city’s soft lights at night. Two guys traveled around Umbria talking and capturing video of the region’s underrated wineries.

I felt so old school. It was merely a blog. How boring. But Redmont asked me about the theme of Dog-Eared Passport and a recent blog I wrote about my three travel stories from hell. I talked too long and talked too fast and hardly anyone understood. I had to wait for Redmont’s translation to hear any laughter about my bout with typhoid in Northern Thailand.

Later, we all gathered for group photos, standing in front of a phalanx of photographers as if we were standing on a red carpet instead of a concrete floor.

Afterward, Marina and I dashed back to the hotel to change clothes more appropriate for early flooding stages and waded back into Centro Storico. The journalism festival had 275 different conferences. We had time to choose one. Appalled by Pres. Trump’s attack at the free press and labeling every critical sentence “fake news” drew me to the lecture “Beyond Fake News.” James Ball is an English journalist and author of “Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World.” He was part of a London School of Economics commission that did a report on misinformation.

I met him outside the Arcivescovado conference room, sharing the same piazza as Palazzo dei Priori. Late 30ish and casually dressed, he talked to me about how news coming out of Brexit is getting as scrutinized as much as it is out of Washington. Ball is a level-headed, highly intelligent journalist with a quick British wit and an analytical bent.

James Ball


One point was fake news involves more than Donald Trump. Before Trump started defecating on the First Amendment, journalists wrote wildly hilarious headlines just to get the reader “clicks,” the new media measurement for economic success. He mentioned some headlines from that day:

“BIBLE SHOCK! WHY EXPERT CLAIMS JESUS RESURRECTED THROUGH ADAM’S BODY AFTER CHURCH FIND!”

“NH370 SHOCK! DATA FROM MISSING MALAYSIAN AIRLINES FLIGHT SHRUGGED OFF AND IGNORED!”

“TIME TRAVEL SHOCK! TIME TRAVEL FROM 2018 SHOWS PHOTO OF DINOSAUR FROM THE PAST!”

He said they were all from that day’s edition of The Sun, the United Kingdom’s top-selling newspaper.

“So if fake news is this terrible threat to journalism then why is our biggest paper putting it out? If fake news isn’t the problem, what is? … What we have is a bullshit problem and a misinformation problem and that’s a lot harder than fake news.”

He brought up the story in Breitbart, American journalism’s equivalent of “Mein Kampf.” It wrote that a Muslim mob set fire to Germany’s oldest church. What actually happened was a protest march of recent Muslim immigrants seeking asylum. There were some fireworks and one hit a tarpaulin on a boundary wall of the church grounds. It started a small fire and the protesters helped put it out.

“There was a fire. There was a church and it was a majority Muslim crowd,” Ball said. “Is it fake news to turn it into what Breitbart did?”

And it’s not just the rags that are guilty of this, Ball said. Take Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election.

Marina and I near Palazzo dei Priori


“They put those emails by Wikileaks but that’s not where the public saw them,” Ball said. “They saw them through Fox News, through CNN, through The New York Times, The Washington Post. We don’t self search. We shout at Facebook. We shout at Twitter. We shout at the public. We shout at Russia. We ignore the fact that we’re the agents for all this.

“We’re not good at not being played.”

The heart of Umbrian wine country reveals a rising star: Sagrantino

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.


MONTEFALCO, Italy — One of my pleasant surprises after retiring to Rome with a taste for wine and no car is I never have to leave the city to taste the best wines in the world. I never even have to visit a restaurant or wine bar. All I have to do is wait for the wine tastings that come to Rome nearly every weekend. Piedmont. Puglia. Bio wines. Chianti. Nearly every theme under the massive Italian wine umbrella makes its way to Rome where I can drink my way through an entire region without ever leaving a conference room.

However, I must admit these wine tastings, called degustazioni in Italian, miss a lot of local flavor. You can hold them in the most beautiful hotels in Rome, such as the Radisson Blu, but you only get, literally, a taste. You don’t get the feel. You don’t see the vineyards shining in the sun. You don’t smell the French Oak in the storage rooms. You don’t see the sprawling winery setting in the rolling hills. Degustazioni make you feel like you’re in Rome.

Wineries make you feel like you’re in Italy. Old Italy. Where grapevines hang over picnic tables and entire villages revolve around the wine production calendar. Sometimes you have to get closer to the wine to truly taste it.

For some reason, however great Italian wine is, it tastes even better where it’s made.

After five years in Rome, I finally had that opportunity last week. My good friend, Alessandro Castellani, a sportswriter for the ANSA wire service and Italian food and wine connoisseur, got an invitation to attend the Anteprima Sagrantino. It’s a fair featuring the rare, delicious and little-known Umbrian wine called Sagrantino. It’s held in Montefalco, a town of about 5,800 in the heart of Umbria and the center of Sagrantino production.

It sounded like a great time: two days drinking one of the most underrated wines in the world, stay overnight in a beautiful hotel that has hosted movie stars, eat Umbria’s great local cheeses and meats and visit a couple wineries in the quiet off season.

I decided to tag along.

This was not only two days of drinking wine. It was two days of drinking wine in Umbria, which is rapidly becoming my favorite wine region in Italy. That’s a little like being the prettiest woman in Italy, too. The competition is fierce.

Alessandro picked me up near his home in northwest Rome and drove the 90 miles north to Montefalco. Driving anywhere with Alessandro is like getting a loud lesson in Romanaccio, the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. Every car is driving too slow; every truck is driving in the wrong lane. Then again, he was in a hurry. To wine lovers, Anteprima Sagrantino is like a toppled milk truck near stray cats.

I’ve often called Umbria “Tuscany Light.” It has everything Tuscany has — walled towns, mountains, vineyards — at cheaper costs and a fraction of the tourists of its northern neighbor. It’s the only region that does not border a sea or another country. Thus, it has fewer outside influences. It has remained true to itself and to the relatively fewer outsiders lucky enough to discover it.

I love driving into Umbria, on uncrowded roads, through rolling hills, past walled villages perched high on cliffs like magic kingdoms. Deeper in the heart of Umbria, I pass vineyards, olive orchards and deep, green meadows. It’s now winter. It’s cold, in the low 40s. The vines are bare. But no matter.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco's old town.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco’s old town.

You don’t have to drink wine outside under grapevines.

I tell people that to reach Montefalco, you go to Bastardo and take a right. True. Umbria has a town called Bastardo, named for the Osteria del Bastardo (Bastard’s Inn) around which the town was built in the 17th century. Montefalco has a much more romantic origin. Falcons were known to fly majestically around the foothills of the nearby Apennines mountain range.

Montefalco’s old town sits inside a 12th century wall. This once star-crossed village existed peacefully under the rule of the Papal States for 400 years before the unification of Italy in 1861. We stopped just outside the wall at Villa Pambuffetti, a four-star palace set in the middle of 10,000 square yards of gardens and century-old trees. The lobby looks like an Italian grandmother’s living room with overstuffed chairs and couches and a fireplace to warm your hands. A big jar of sugared jellies and chocolates share a coffee table with the daily papers. Tony Curtis once stayed here.

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti


But the real star of Montefalco is Sagrantino. If you’ve never heard of it, let alone tried it, don’t feel bad. Like Umbria, it’s little known and underrated. The big reason is the Sagrantino grape is only grown in Umbria. Thus, Umbria, off the beaten path, is the only place that makes the wine. It’s an Umbrian tradition for a new grandfather to buy 12 bottles of a vintage and save it for 25 years until the grandchild marries.
Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.

Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.


While the grape has been around since the 16th century, Sagrantino wine is relatively new. It was mostly used to make the sweet Passito wine used during mass in Catholic churches. Being a close proximity to Rome and its 900 churches, Montefalco did a thriving business. But in the 1970s, technology improved and the Sagrantino, made from 100 percent Sagrantino grapes, received the official DOC denomination in 1979 and the higher-rated DOCG in 1992. Sharing center stage here is Montefalco Rosso, using a blend with Sagrantino, Sangiovese and another grape such as Colorino.

Expansion worked. Today, 63 wineries dot the wine map around Montefalco. Most are exporting, some as much as 40 percent and to as far away as China and Japan.

I had only a passing knowledge of it. Meanwhile, Alessandro, who had lauded this festival for weeks, was panting like a thirsty dog.

We entered through the walled city’s huge arched door and up the narrow cobblestone street to a nearly hidden hallway holding a large conference room. Here was my familiar territory: a square room with 40 wineries sitting table to table all offering four or five of their best wines.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.


Sagrantino is a hard grape to grow. It needs a long, hot season and has one of the highest tannin levels. It’s twice the level of Nebbiolo, the base for my favorite Barolo wine, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It makes Sagrantino a much drier red wine. Look at the wine and it is a deep purple, with an almost black center. It just so happens purple is my favorite color.

Thus, Sagrantino is absolutely beautiful to behold — particularly in a glass, even at 11 a.m. when we started drinking.

I became a huge Sagrantino fan before lunch. Among the metropolis of Montefalco wineries, Arnaldo-Caprai is one of the best known. At wine tastings, I always start by asking for their medium wine. Not the best, not the worst. Alessandra Nobili of Arnaldo-Caprai started me with a 2015 Collepiano and it was very good, rich and full with the taste of plum and cinnamon I’d read about.

Then she graduated me up to a Sagrantino celebrating the winery’s 25-year anniversary last year. Simply called 25 Year, it was one of the best red wines I’ve ever had. No wonder. It’s 50 euros in Italy, and about $150 in the U.S. where Arnaldo-Caprai has a base in New York.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his  family's Scacciadiavoli winery.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his family’s Scacciadiavoli winery.


Another big winery here is Scacciadiavoli. It sells in 14 states in the U.S., plus Europe, United Kingdom and Japan. Iacopo Pambuffetti, a cousin of the hotel owners, is a big, jovial bearded member of the winery’s founding family. He speaks of Sagrantino as if it’s a family member, too.

“I love Sagrantino because it represents very, very well my region,” he said. “And it’s an incredible wine. If you want, you can put it among the top wines in Italy.”

He then talked about how well it goes with wild boar and lamb, goat cheese and dark chocolate. I hadn’t eaten since a cornetto on the ride up. My taste buds were hyperventilating. We were in Italy.

In Italy, wine tasting is foreplay.

Alessandro and I went to Olevm (the Latin word for “oil”), a small home-style restaurant with olive print tablecloths and a big chest of drawers holding olive and wine in the middle of the upstairs dining room. Black and white photos of Italian movie legends such as Alberto Sordi and Sophia Loren eating pasta hang on the walls.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.


We had bruschetta with olive, zucchini and potato spreads then I had pasta with greens followed by chicken in Sagrantino sauce (I’m wondering if they use Sagrantino to run their cars, too.). It’s the first time I’ve ever had purple chicken but the unique combination is something that should be exported as well.

Placated with carbs, we entered Anteprima Sagrantino’s war room: the media tasting room. Converted from the Montefalco city council chamber, it sported five long tables with nine seats each, all with six glasses, breadsticks and a spit bucket.

The place was empty.

We took our seats and the young server gave us a list of 45 wineries we could taste. Oddly, we had to try a minimum of six. Who was I to argue? We tried (gulp!) 10: six 100 percent Sagrantino and four Passito.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.


I am not a wine connoisseur. When I taste a wine I rarely can separate the cherries from the tobacco, the plums from the raspberries. Most who say they can are full of fertilizer. They’re trying to impress their date or the sommelier server, most of whom try hard not to roll their eyes. I am not a wine snob. I can tell a red from a white and that’s about it.

But I know what I like and the best of the bunch was the Moretti Omero, rich, deep and the kind of flavor that lasts in your mouth long after you swallowed. Fruits? Christ, I don’t know. Who cares? I just knew I had to buy a bottle.

The highlight of Anteprima Sagrantino is the winery dinner. About 20 journalists, wine writers and freeloaders poured into cars and headed first to Scacciadiavoli for an aperitivo. Scacciadiavoli is the area’s oldest winery, established in 1884. It sits just east of Bastardo with 86 acres anchored by two large white buildings that look like simple churches. Downstairs in the tasting room where we mingled with Montefalco’s crem della grapes while munching on fried baccala’ (cod) and bread with anchovies, washed down with the winery’s sparkling wine.

We then piled back in the cars for a short drive to Le Cimate where we sat in a large modern dining room. Bordering the room were four large tables featuring cheeses, main dishes, wines and made-to-order desserts. It was gluttony paradise.

I sat next to Giulia Goretti who has traveled all over the world promoting her Vini Goretti family winery near Perugia, Umbria’s capital about 30 miles to the north, and two around Montefalco. This winery goes back four generations dating to the early 1900s. When she talked about Umbrian wine, I listened.

“It’s something more special now,” she said. “When you are proposing an Umbrian wine you are proposing something different, something that not many people know. A lot of times it’s more interesting than other regions that are more known.”

Between bites of nearly orgasmic tortellini in cheese topped with truffle shavings, I asked her how so many wines in such a small region can compete against each other. It’s like 30 gelaterias on one block in Rome.

“The world is very big,” she said. “We export a lot. And every Sagrantino is different.”

Perticaia winery started in 2000.

Perticaia winery started in 2000.


The next morning, Alessandro and I went to the outskirts of Montefalco to the small winery of Perticaia (meaning “plow” in the Umbrian dialect and marking the transition to agriculture). Started in just 2000, it’s a split-level mustard-colored building with 123 acres of vineyards and 200 olive trees. In winter, its vegetarian is bare, making the landscape almost ghostlike in the morning fog. But inside the warm, light-filled tasting room, we tried 10 — count ‘em, 10 — wines that belie the size of the winery. I especially liked the brand new 2018 Sagrantino and the 2012 Montefalco Rosso.

We left fat and happy (me a little more as Alessandro had to drive back to Rome) and couldn’t help noticing the smiles on all the faces of the wine people we met. This truly is a wonderful business, manufacturing something you love and can share with the world in a beautiful setting. The stress of economics, competition, weather and marketing doesn’t seem to faze these people. If wine is the key to a stress-free life, maybe I should increase my intake.

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia's storage room

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia’s storage room


“We are always in front of a glass of wine,” Goretti told me. “We are always at a table with a lot of people, talking and drinking and laughing. How can you not be happy? That’s why it’s the best life ever.”

Owning a winery in Italy not as easy as toast but this couple is toasting now in the land of St. Francis

Fabrizio Bizzarri, Ev Thomas and Claudia Rizza stand in front of Thomas' and Rizza's 800-year-old house in Umbria.

Fabrizio Bizzarri, Ev Thomas and Claudia Rizza stand in front of Thomas’ and Rizza’s 800-year-old house in Umbria.


TODI, Italy — So you want to have a winery in Italy, huh?

Sit on your porch looking out at your vineyard on the hill, sipping the fruits of your labor under a warm sun, a plate of pasta in front of you as the church bells peal from a nearby village?

Getting thirsty? Getting antsy? Getting dreamy?

Here’s one reality.

You’re in sleeping bags on the floor of an 800-year-old stone house with no electricity, heat or water. It takes you seven years to get a building permit. You realize that your land really isn’t your land. You have no money and take equipment from cartoonish strangers on the promise you’ll pay them later. How?

Who knows?

Yet there’s another reality about the wine making business in Italy.

“With little money and just lots of work, you struggle but you know what? The truth is, we didn’t start off with this dream. We started off with an idea. That has turned into, honestly, a dream life.”

This sage advice comes from one Ev Thomas, a 69-year-old American artist who indeed is living the dream of many bored, overworked Americans with a fine taste for wine. We’re sitting in the living room of his stone house built in 1272, around the time Marco Polo set sail for China and St. Francis of nearby Assisi ditched his penthouse for prayers. The wood fire in the cast-iron fireplace warms the stone house like a dozy bathrobe against the 40-degree temperature outside.

Art is everywhere. Thomas’ paintings of the sea and a set of stairs hang on the walls. In the dining room is a table that once belonged to a family of Raphael art collectors from the 16th century.

“You’ll have lunch — and breakfast, what the heck? — where Raphael probably ate at this table,” Thomas tells me.

Thomas with his Iubelo wine of 100 percent Sangiovese. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Thomas with his Iubelo wine of 100 percent Sangiovese. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I met Thomas and his Sicilian wife, Claudia Rizza, at the Sangiovese Purosangue wine tasting event in Rome’s Radisson Blu hotel last weekend. They stood out in a room filled with dozens of wineries for two reasons: one, he’s an American; two, their Terramante winery is in Umbria. Sangiovese is a delicate grape that’s the main ingredient of such Italian wines as Chianti, Brunello and Montepulciano. All are prominent in Tuscany, the brightest star in Italy’s wine constellation.

I’ve always called Umbria, just to the south of Tuscany, as Tuscany Light. It has all the things Tuscany has (wineries, walled hill towns, lousy soccer) as its northern neighbor but with a fraction of the tourists and lower prices. Umbria is the only one of Italy’s 21 regions that does not border a sea or another country. Of all the regions with histories stretching back millenniums, Umbria may be the least influenced by outsiders.

The biggest influence remains a humble saint.

Francis Bernardone, better known as St. Francis of Assisi, was a wealthy, carousing son of a rich cloth merchant and a French noblewoman. After a year in prison and a bad illness, Francis went into the army in 1205 but a holy vision changed his life forever. He tossed away his gold, grabbed a robe and spent his life helping the poor and living in a cave.

Now enter Ev and Claudia, living in what amounted to a cave. What they discovered is neighbors and Umbrians farther afield who went out of their way to make their idea come to fruition. The people weren’t curing the sick, but they did help an American’s winery get started.

“In the U.S. you could never do this,” says Thomas, tall, fit, bearded and looking younger than 69 years. “You never could. You have to understand that this zone is unique. There is still deep underneath the Umbrians in this area are still connected deeply with St. Francis and the mentality of St. Francis.

“It’s beautiful. And it’s one of the reasons I like it so much.”

This story began in 1997. Thomas, raised on Chicago’s North Side, had gone to the University of Washington and later to San Francisco at age 25. Working as an artist and part-time at an art gallery, he met Claudia in ‘97 at a museum event. She moved back to Italy and they reconnected in 2000 when the American Academy of Rome brought him over as a visiting artist for three months. They then brought him back a year later.

Claudia Rizza preparing lunch.

Claudia Rizza preparing lunch.


They eventually moved to her native Marsala, Sicily, where Thomas continued to make and sell art. However, in 2004 he wanted someplace closer to Rome which he loves and has an airport for convenient shipping.

“We took a compass and drew a circle around Rome,” Thomas says. “We just started round the perimeter of Rome and out and out and out until we found something we could afford. We didn’t have much money. We couldn’t find anything and we were getting kind of desperate.”

They arrived in Todi, a charming collection of stone houses, palaces and lightly trodden windy alleys on a hill 35 miles south of Assisi. The locals, unlike Californians, were encouraging them to stay. They found this house.

Then they learned the price.

“We said, ‘Oh, well, there’s no point then. We can’t afford this place,’” Thomas says. “They said, ‘No! Just make the family an offer because you never know.’”

They offered what they could afford — two-thirds less. The owner didn’t laugh. He didn’t explode. He agreed. But then there was the matter of the geometra, the pseudo real estate agent who helped them find the place.

“They get a percentage,” Rizza says. “We were short 500 euros. We said, ‘We’re going to buy but you’re going to have to cut your fee.’ And he did. We had no excuses. He agreed so now we have to BUY THE FUCKING PLACE!”

The home, located at the end of a long dirt road on a hill on Todi’s outskirts, was once a tiny fortress and still sports the three-story stone tower used as a lookout for marauding armies during war-torn Umbria in the 13th century. At the time of purchase it looked as if it hadn’t been refurbished since then, either. What is now the dining room was outside. They lived in the tower and what is now the living room. They slept on the floor the first night. It was February and their lone heat was each others’ bodies. The fireplace was gutted. Thomas tried to make a fire and the whole room filled with smoke.

“It was kind of a hole,” Rizza says.

They returned to Sicily to regroup and came back in the summer. They hooked up a shower in the back and used the sun to heat plastic bags of water. Things were looking up. At least they were clean.

Then the good samaritan Umbrians, all seemingly came from St. Francis’ family tree, offered help. The couple met a “crazy” builder fishing on the neighboring Tiber. Ol’ Italo, “Mr. Italy” as Thomas calls him, rarely wore shoes and walked with a gait of Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But he was pretty handy with his hands and offered to fix the entire house to their liking for 10,000 euros. They borrowed the money from Rizza’s brother and Italo moved in.

Italo noticed nearby an old vineyard, a throw-in during the purchase. He asked if he could take the grapes. Sure, they said. Why not? They weren’t going to do anything with them.

What do they know about making wine?

“The next spring I came up to check on things and he was here,” Thomas says. “We agreed to meet, He said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to try the wine!’

“‘What, the wine is ready already?’”

“‘Oh, yeah! It’s much better this way. It’s fresh.’”

“Oh, it was the worst wine I’ve ever tasted,” Thomas tells me. “But I couldn’t tell him this. When I went back home to Sicily, I told Claudia, ‘Jesus, that was the worst wine I’ve ever had. We can make better wine than that.’ So we started making plans.”

Thomas dug into research like he’d soon dig into the soil to plant vines. He connected with friends in the California wine industry for advice. He went to California to take weekend classes.

They returned to Umbria popping their corks about someday popping real corks. Then they ran into the biggest roadblock, bigger than money or weather or vine disease.

Italy’s bureaucratic red tape.

Turns out, landowners own only one meter of land underneath the surface. In Umbria, which has very strict rules for planting grapes, you must buy the rights to plant and then wait for permission before planting vines. For an American, that’s as foreign a concept as the Italian language.

“He was like, ‘This is my land!’” Rizza says. “‘And I do whatever I want to with my land!’

“‘No you can’t.’”

“‘You and your stupid Italian mentality! You’ll never go anywhere!’

“He was planting and I was chasing after him to comply with everything.”

The couple are laughing now. We’re eating ribollita, a hearty farmer’s vegetable stew, and ossobuco, the famed Lombard dish of veal shanks braised with fresh vegetables, white wine and broth. We’re sopping up the sauce with fresh Italian bread and washing it down with their lovely Sangiovese wine on Raphael’s old table.

You couldn’t have a better Italian winter afternoon if Paolo Sorrentino directed it. Suddenly, the red tape and labor and worries seem a lifetime ago.

“You have to go through somersaults,” Rizza says. “We did it the first portion because we planted a half hectare at a time. We decided to put up the money ourselves just so we didn’t have to go through the bureaucracy.”

Expansion and equipment were other matters. They applied for a building permit in 2008 and didn’t receive it until 2015 and they had to rebuild the living room and veranda area. Equipment for making wine? What equipment? Where would they find it? Where would they get the money? Turns out they had a neighbor named Fabrizio who sold farm equipment and was, obviously, another descendant of St. Francis. He had a duster. It cost 1,500. They didn’t have 1,500.

Fabrizio said, “OK, I trust you guys. Don’t you worry. Take the duster. Pay me when you can.”

They later bought a sprayer from him and every month, the couple paid him a little bit, borrowing money from Rizza’s mother, using Thomas’ pension with Rizza selling some ceramics and working at B&B in Magione 40 miles to the north.

Luigi, left, Hermiti, far right, and Renzo, next to Hermiti, helped son Lorenzo and Claudia build the home. Ev Thomas photo

Luigi, left, Hermiti, far right, and Renzo, next to Hermiti, helped son Lorenzo and Claudia build the home. Ev Thomas photo


In 2007, they were ready to make wine. Again, the neighbors came to help. Three jovial elderly men came by to help collect the grapes. They brought a plastic vat that was bigger than the Fiat Panda it rode upon and dragging a destemmer behind it. All five went to work.

However, it wasn’t really work.

“They’re really old guys,” Thomas says. “They’re between 85 and 90. But they’re spry and smoking cigarettes like fiends. By the end of the night, after doing all this stuff and getting it into the vat, I never had so much fun in my life. I laughed so hard because these guys were great. They loved life.

“That got me hooked.”

Thomas made two barrels of what he thought were two pretty good wines, made with 100 percent Sangiovese grapes. Terramante (www.terramante.com, info@terramante.com), a combination of the Italian words “terra” (land) and “amante” (lover), was born. So were Iubelo and Laudatus, his two wines named with local ties. Iubelo was the name of a poem written by Umbrian friar Jacopone da Todi, who following St. Francis’ lead, gave away all his possessions. He also wrote “Stabat Mater,” which remains one of the great hymns in the Catholic Church. Laudatus, a Sangiovese-Sagrantino blend, comes from a Latin word, laudato, which means “praised” and is all through St. Francis’ religious song, “Canticle of the Sun.”

Cute names, but the true test was taking it to California where his friends would judge.

“They said, ‘This is great wine. You should actually try to sell this stuff,’” Thomas says. “‘You should really think about making wine.’”

His research continued. He looking into the best clones, the best planting materials, the best harvesting strategy. He became a sponge of wine knowledge.

He only had five rows of grapes but little by little the plot grew. He now has five acres and through 12 years of trial and error, has produced a wine that is starting to sell and get recognition. One Belgian passing by loved the wine and bought a couple of cases. What Thomas and Rizza didn’t know was that man’s wine club was voted as the best wine-tasting club in Europe. The club returned and bought 50 cases more.

Then wine writer Jane Hunt, a master sommelier, liked the Iubelo and asked Decanter magazine to consider it for its list of top 100 wines in the world under 50 euros for 2017.

The winery

The winery


We get in their car and go farther up the hill to their winery. The three-story stone building overlooks the gorgeous green Umbrian valley. The small building, where friars also made wine in Medieval times, holds 14 barrels and two tanks. He takes a plunger and squeezes out enough from a tank to fill half a wine glass. It’s their best vintage yet, he tells me.

It’s cold. It could use some time on a kitchen counter. But it’s fantastic, rich and fruity and clean.

We walk back outside and I look out at the hills beyond. The farmland is partitioned off like a quilt with olive orchards on top, vineyards in the middle and grains and sunflower plantings in the bottom. I made a mental note to return for some fall colors that might make New England look like Cleveland. It’s noon. I hear church bells peal.

Beauty isn’t the only advantage an Italian winery has over California. After all, have you seen Napa County in summer? No, the biggest reason is economics. Thomas and Rizza struggled early but in California owning a winery is something you only see in movies, which is about the only type of people who can afford it.

Claudia and Ev in their barrel room.

Claudia and Ev in their barrel room.


A winery in Napa or Sonoma is cool. It’s sexy. Yes, it’s expensive but the tax write-offs are great. The California wine scene has gone corporate. You don’t find wineries in former friars quarters.

“What is happening in California, particularly in the Napa Valley, is land values have gone up tremendously,” Thomas says. “In part this is a result of large international investors as well as, in some cases, personalities. Multimillionaires who go in and buy something because it’s always been their dream to have a winery.”

Thomas says an acre of land in California goes for between $250,000-$750,000. For a minimum five acres, that’s more than $1 million. Thus, that section of Bay Area real estate is outrageously expensive. So, frankly, are the wines.

“As a consequence, it’s difficult for a lot of the original family wineries and they’ve been sold,” he says. “That name may still exist on the winery but they’ve been bought by a large corporation or a group of wealthy investors. So if you’ve invested that much money, it’s not possible to get a profit even if you’re selling your wine at $85-$90 a bottle.”

Their California friend in the family wine business recently sold his winery and moved to Umbria and is starting a small winery to make Cabernet and rose’. In Umbria land goes for about $4,000-$5,000 an acre and in Tuscany, except for the over-the-top Bolgheri region, it’s about $30,000.

“If he sells a bottle here for $15-$20 he’ll end up with a larger profit margin.”

Thomas and Rizza don’t have aspirations of getting rich. They hope to break even next year and maybe if they acquire more land some day they’ll make a profit. They should. I was never a huge Sangiovese fan. I’m a Barolo, Piedmont guy. But his Iubelo is the best Sangiovese I’ve ever had. It’s rich with clean acidity and a bushel of red fruit. It’s great with cheeses, pasta or a Florentine steak. I’m taking home a bottle to make my pasta amatriciana even tastier.

“Sangiovese, when you take it into your mouth and it’s the right temperature,” Thomas says, “it has this quality of blood.”

Now that he’s up to his taste buds in Italian grapes, he may become the touchstone for Americans with similar ambitions of starting a winery in Umbria. I ask him what advice he’d give.

“Decide what part of Italy,” he says. “Take some time. Drive around Italy. Make sure this region is what you’re interested in. What does this region have to offer you that fits into what’s important to you. Maybe the Piemonte is more you. Maybe Puglia is for you. Then of course, are you an urban person or are you a rural person? Very basic life decisions like that to begin with.”

Living in Italy I’ve noticed some of the happiest people living here are wine people. I can see why. They’re outside in beautiful country. The weather often reminds them of heaven. They’re making a product that is not only delicious but healthy. They meet interesting like-minded people.

For me, a glass of wine always represents a celebration of a good day’s work even for someone like me who doesn’t work. But here in Umbria, it’s deeper than that. As Rizza quotes St. Francis:

“If you work with your hands you are a worker. If you work with your hands and your head you are an artisan. And if you work with your hands, your head and your heart you are an artist.”

Responded Thomas: “I still think of myself as an artist, even with what I’m doing.“

Salute.

Lunch with Doctor Wine: One of world’s top wine experts, Daniele Cernilli uncorks his knowledge

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.


There are few things better in life than sitting in an historic Roman trattoria and drinking good wine and eating good food all afternoon. One thing that is better is doing it with one of the leading wine authorities in the world.

Daniele Cernilli is to Italian wine what Tom Brady is to American football. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Known as Doctor Wine (www.doctorwine.it), he has authored five books, including his most recent, “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2018,” a massive 615-page tome that breaks down every wine and winery in all 21 regions of Italy.

In 1986 he co-founded Gambero Rosso, the bible of Italian restaurants which adorned every kitchen of every Italy resident who cares about food. A philosophy graduate and former journalist and teacher of history and literature, the 63-year-old Rome native has traveled all over the world and is an international wine judge. He has been to the U.S. 30 times.

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo


We met for lunch at Checchino dal 1887 in my old neighborhood of Testaccio. Checchino sits near Monte Testaccio where in Ancient Rome they piled broken shards of terracotta pots used to store wine, olive oil and grain in the nearby warehouse, the ruins of which still stand. Started in, yes, 1887, Checchino has been in the Mariani family for six generations and once received a Michelin star.

It’s tastefully decorated with white tablecloths and drawings of old Rome on the walls. Sharp-dressed waiters bring out all the famous Roman dishes such as coda alla vaccinava (oxtail), rigatoni con la pajata (pasta with sheep intestine) and trippa alla romana (interior of a cow’s stomach). Yes, real Romans, such as Cernilli, still eat this stuff.

I wimped out and had the bucatini alla gricia (long pasta with pig’s cheek and pecorino romano cheese). Cernilli ordered us bottles of 2015 Chianti Classico from Brolio-Bettino and a Frascati Superiore from Vigneto Filonardi just down the road about 20 miles.

The food and wine were superb and so was the conversation. I sat down with Cernilli and Robert Della Vedova, my Australian friend and Cernilli’s English instructor:

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.


Me:: How does a wine expert from Italy get started in the wine business? Do you remember the first time wine became special to you?

Cernelli: Yes, of course. Imagine I was passionate for geography when I was a baby and I discovered that wine is a geography of taste. Every place, every wine region, has a particular taste, a particular scent. The wine is the marker of that. It’s very interesting. When I discovered this I was very interested in discovering more and more. Probably the first wine I had in my life that I remember was the wine that my father bought for the family. It was from Castelli Romani. It was a Frascati, probably. But also a Chianti Classico I remember from Carpineto, a very famous estate. I remember, for example, the ‘64 of Caponetto, I was 10 years old, probably 12, the wine was on the market two years later. Probably I had a little touch of wine when I was 12. I remember during the New Year’s Eve celebration, I remember some champagne, Cardon Rouge, with the label of the red cotton inside. I remember I was 10 or 12 years old but just to try because
it’s not good for a 12-year-old person to drink alcohol but the times were different then.

Me: So you’re 10 or 12 when you first got interested?

Cernilli: Just a touch. But the idea of the wine for an Italian family is like bread and olive oil. It’s not a great shape, especially 50 years ago, to have 12 years old person to drink a little bit of wine. Nowadays it’s normal.

Me: So your first wine was from Lazio. How’d that get you interested in geography?

Cernilli: It’s a good region for some wines like this but it’s not Piemonte. It’s not Tuscany. It’s not Burgundy. It’s not Napa Valley. It’s a region for wine that comes simply and for fragrant wines. It’s wine to be drunk not to be philosophered.

Me: But how’d that get you into geography?

Cernilli's last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.

Cernilli’s last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.


Cernilli: Then I discovered that the wine is very good. I attended the sommelier school and I became a teacher of sommelier after two years. In 1983 when I was 29 years old. I became a professional, then journalist. I founded a magazine that became very famous in Italy, the title was Gambero Rosso.

Me: What inspired you to do the magazine?

Cernilli: I was one of two founders. The other founder passed away, unfortunately, Stefano Bonilli. He was a professional journalist before me and had the idea. I wrote a lot for wine magazines. We started as an insert of The Manifesto, a communist newspaper. I was not a communist. I am not communist. The Gambero Rosso is the name of the osteria where Pinocchio was robbed by the cat and the fox. It’s a masonic history. Carlo Collodi was the first writer who invented Pinocchio and was a master mason. Walt Disney the same. The story of a piece of wood becoming a human person is a masonic story. This is the reason Walt Disney made the Pinocchio pictures.

Me: Has your appreciation of wine changed over the years now that you know it better?

Cernilli: You probably don’t listen to the same music. You don’t read the same books. You don’t watch the same films. It’s the same with the wine. Wine is something that’s a live drink. The wine is also a marker of the moment of the history of the technique of the spirit of the world. The technique is incredibly improved over the last 20 years. But there are other topics. For example, ecology, the sustainability of the production. Not to use sulfites of natural wine. Many people are very interested in that. A lot of people don’t care. Some people have great sensibility in this topic. It’s a new technique. Sustainability is very important. There are many ways to reach these kinds of results. There is no doubt it’s important to respect the nature and make wine with the least preservatives possible.

Me: Just philosophically, what do you like about wine?

Cernilli: Because it’s a great tradition of our Mediterranean area. Wine was born in this area, Greece, Middle East.

Me: Actually Georgia. I was just there.

My bucatini alla gricia.

My bucatini alla gricia.


Cernilli: There’s another birthplace that is Greece. It’s not just Georgia. It’s Armenia. Modern Turkey. Sicily and Greece. It’s something we drink for 3,000 years. This is important for us. It’s a great tradition. I feel in this my roots. The roots of the Mediterranean person is in the wine. It’s in the olive oil. It’s in the pizza.

Me: What makes Italian wine special?

Cernelli: Italian wines we have 500 denominations. We have about 5,000 wineries in Italy. No, 50,000 wineries. We have 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of vineyards. So that means 6,000 square kilometers. All the Italian vineyards if you put together, are the coast. Every little town, little situations can change. You can have the same grapes and very different wines because of the soil, because of the weather, because of the vintage. This year is a very wet vintage. Last year was a very dry vintage. If you tried a 2017 of this wine in the future and 2018 of this wine in the future it would be different. One more bigger, more alcoholic; the other more acid, lighter. So it’s a functional concept.

Me: French wine is the same.

Cernilli: The only difference is the French have less varieties, 20-25 main varieties. We have 1,000 varieties. Every region, every little area has a local variety. France does not have that. They abandoned a lot of local wines to make more modern-style wines. Bordeaux influenced the style of the wine all over the world. All the world from the New World, from California, from Australia, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc come from Bordeaux. The Burgundy wines are part of the New World: Oregon, some parts of South Africa. The French dominated, colonized the world of wine for many years. Now there are the Italians. And Italians are only in Italy. If you take the Nebbiolo or Sangiovese and put them in Napa Valley it’s not the same. It’s very different. There is not stability in the expression of the wines. So Nebbiolo can only be made in the part of Piedmont. If you put Nebbiolo in a different part you won’t recognize it. This is the particularity of the Italian wine.

Cernilli's coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.

Cernilli’s coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.


Me: My favorite wine in the world is Barolo. Give me your opinion of Barolo.

Cernilli: Barolo is the best wine in Italy. Barolo is fantastic. But Barbaresco is not very far from Barolo. They are made from Nebbiolo so they are in the region and are very close. Barbaresco is a little lighter, normally. It depends on the producer.

Me: I always tell people, Americans, because you can rarely get a Barolo for under $50 in the U.S., get a Barbaresco because it’s released a year earlier and it’s about half the price. It’s not as good but close enough to fake it.

Cernilli: From Castello di Grinzane Cavour, inside the area of Barolo, you can see the bell tower of Barbaresco. It’s only 20 kilometers.

Me: I see you teach wine tasting. How long does it take to develop your palate to where you can determine the fruits in a wine?

Cernilli: There is a technique approach to the tasting, a sommelier approach. They want to let us dream about the wine but not explain technically what’s in the wine. If you tell me that you feel the smell of the running horse in the wine, it is not possible.

Me: I went to a wine tasting once and some clown said he could taste the mushrooms of Toscana. We were in suburban Denver. Come on!

Cernilli: You look at the color of the red wine. You can compare the color of the wine with the color of some berries. It’s very simple. The wine takes from the wood spices and vanilla or pepper or cinnamon or something like that. Not more. Then you check the balance of the wine between the tannins, the stringents and the acidity that make you salivate. The matching is very important for the Italians. Matching for the food is very important for us because we drink to eat. Less for the French. Less for the British. For the British they want to drink then to eat. Or they eat then they drink.

Me: It’s interesting you say that because when I have aperitivos, if I just have wine, the Italians need food with it.

Cernilli: For example, you can’t have a Cabernet with an aperitivo. That’s incredible for us to have a big red wine for an aperitivo. It is not possible. I can have spaghetti amatriciana with a Cabernet, not an aperitivo. An aperitivo is a Frascati. Or a sparkling or a light wine, a Riesling, or a light red. Not a Cabernet, not a Brunello, not a Barolo. We have to have to some meat with a Barolo.

Me: I like Barolo with amatriciana. It’s a heavy taste and Barolo has big flavor.

Cernilli: When you have fat added during the cooking, you need tannins so the Barolo is very good. If you have fat inside like the cotechino or a very fat salami, you need acidity. You can choose a sparkling or a big white wine with good acidity. Gorgonzola with a sweet wine.

Me: What do you think of this Chianti?

Cernilli: In this wine you can taste wild cherries and probably some smokiness because of the barrels.

Me: Are you getting that from looking at it or tasting it?

Cernilli: Both. After 40 years of tasting wine, I can understand something when I see something into the glass. Because I can hear the noise and how the wine goes into the glass. I can understand the alcoholic level. Because the more alcohol you have, the more grisarol you have. The grisarol is like the oil. You can see. If you put a Palo Cortado, a big sweet wine from the Sherry region, it’s like an oil in the glass because there are so many sugars inside that it’s solid.

This is a real Chianti Classico. This is the most Chianti Classico you can have. In order to make the barrels, you must work with the fire and toast the inside the wood because you have to curve the wood in order to make the barrel. You have to burn inside. The smell of burning is in the wine.

Della Vedova: When I was growing up, we’re talking 50 years ago, Chianti was considered the cheap wine.

Cernilli: Chianti is a wine. Chianti Classico is atop the list of the Chiantis. There’s the Chianti Reserva. Now they have the great selection that is more than the Chianti Reserva. It’s like a Brunello.

Me: I noticed you wrote a book called “Memories of a Wine Taster.” Give me your best anecdote.

Cernilli: If you know the wine producer, they are characters. There was a lot of memories. For example, in Burgundy, Dugat Py, a very famous producer, it’s a farmer, it’s a simple person. We were 3-4 people to visit the estate, a very, very little estate in Burgundy. We asked for a taste of a very important wine. Chambertin, a very important wine. Very expensive. But he disappeared and came back with a tuxedo. Because to open a Chambertin he changed his dress for the respect he had for the wine.

I wrote about a Champagne producer, Ricotan. It was a man so he went in a nightclub, a lap dance and strip tease. The girl in the strip tease was not so involved in the strip tease. He said, “You don’t know your work. Now I will show you what you have to do.” He began to make a strip tease.

Me: Ever think Gambero Rosso would get this popular? It’s kind of the bible now.

Cernilli: No. It was the bible. Now they lose a lot of power. Not only power but, I don’t know, respect. In the last year they are very commercial. They are a big company and they need money to pay. They are in the stock exchange. They have to sustain the level of the value and options. The change was a big change. Because Stefano Bonilli passed away. I left the company (in 2011). A lot of people left after us. Now I don’t recognize it. It’s different. Very different. I don’t want to criticize. Probably they must do that but I don’t agree. So I went another direction. I do this new wine guide which has a lot of information and honesty, intellectual honesty.

Me: I find people in the wine industry — in enotecas, vineyards, wine journalists — very happy. You seem very happy. Are there any negatives about your job?

Cernilli: Two things: Corruption of some people and the alcoholism. Many people involved in wine drink too much. There are some people that destroyed themselves by the wine. It’s like a gynecologist who becomes a sexual maniac. People that eat in restaurant or go around the world, in order to sell the wine, to present the wine every day if you are not very secure of yourself and rational, the risk is very, very high. Because this could be a nice thing or can destroy you. It’s a soft drug.

Me: With whisky it’s more the feeling. With wine it’s the taste. If I get addicted it would be to the taste.

Cernilli: Yes, but the level of alcohol is very different. Whisky is 43, 44 and more. Wine is 14 or one third. I don’t drink any liquor. For me it’s too much.

Me: Beer?

Cernilli: I drink beer if I’m thirsty. It’s not something to think about.

Me: I drink white wine when I’m thirsty.

Cernilli: I drink white wine or water with lemon.

John: I have a very important question. Tell me why you get more headaches when you drink wine in the U.S. than you do in Italy? I say there are fewer sulfites and preservatives here.

Cernilli: I don’t think so. The Italian wine making is more safe wine making and more ecological.

Me: It’s more natural?

Cernilli: Natural is a strange word. Wine is not natural. Wine is human. Winemaking in Italy respects the nature because we don’t need, for example, irrigation. If you want to make wine in the States, you have to irrigate. Because you don’t have rain enough.

Me: There’s more rain in Tuscany than Napa Valley?

Cernilli: Yes. Much more. For us it’s impossible, it’s not legal to irrigate if there is not a big drought. This is one of the main topics. The second, the system of wine growing there are many changes in Italy. The use of pesticides is incredibly less in the last 10 years. Consider that 15 percent of the wine growing in Italy is organic. Fifteen percent is a lot compared to other parts of the world. Then probably we are auto criticism. We think to be worse than others. The image is probably not so positive. I’m very sure now, I saw a lot of vineyards in the States, Napa Valley, Central Coast, Columbia Valley in Washington state — and they are not so organic.

Me: Here’s the key question. I ask all wine experts this and I love the answers. I’ve had such a variety. Pretend you’re going to be executed in the morning. What bottle of wine do you drink tonight?

Cernilli: Probably the Monfortino ‘61, a Barolo. It’s one of the best wines I ever had. I don’t find now a ‘61 Monfortino.

Me: What makes it better?

Cernilli: It’s the emotion. It makes you remember. I remember when I had my Monfortino ‘61. I remember where I was. I know I can’t have another time with this wine because they finished the bottles. It’s not possible to buy. There were very few in production and it’s very famous. Now you can have the 2001, not the ‘61.

Me: How much was it retail?

Cernilli: I don’t know. Maybe 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 euro.

Me: It’s interesting because I ask a lot of sommeliers this and they often say very simple wines.

Cernilli: Simple wines are very important.

Georgian wine: An 8,000-year-old tradition is popping corks around the world

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union's top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union’s top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.


TELAVI, Republic of Georgia — I’m standing in a room with six holes dug deep in the ground like time capsules, places you put deep secrets and store for thousands of years. In a way they are.

About 8,000 years ago, not far from where I’m standing, these same types of holes were scattered around this blessed land, this intoxicating bridge between Europe and Asia. The holes back then weren’t time capsules but they did contain secrets. They were secrets to producing a gift to mankind that I hope keeps giving until man’s extinction.

Wine.

Yes, wine’s birthplace was 8,000 years ago, right here. Not in Italy. Not in France. Not in Ancient Greece. But here in this former Soviet republic, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin who had a few sips of Saperavi red while killing 20 million people. Last year, archaeologists discovered clay fragments about 30 miles south of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and about 50 miles from where I’m standing with a glass in my hand. The fragments, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were dated to 6,000 BC and parts of large vases where inhabitants stored wine, underground, in the same type of holes where Giogi Dakishvili is showing me where he stores his.

Keep in mind, 8,000 years ago man was just recovering from the last Ice Age and agricultural techniques were spreading throughout what is now Europe. Thanks to receding ice leading to warmer temperatures, the conditions for growing grapes and making wine were similar to what they are today.

During a recent two-week trip to Georgia, I saw those conditions and understand why this country of 3.7 million people the size of West Virginia has one of the trendiest wine scenes in the world. With a latitude similar to Tuscany and Bordeaux, it has mild winters and 2,300 hours of sun a year (Remember, nighttime hours are part of the cycle.). Natural springs come from the nearby Caucasus mountains which are covered in snow all year round. The humid air coming from the Black Sea to the west allows the growth of 530 unique grape varieties. Georgia is the top grape-producing region of the 15 former Soviet republics behind Moldova.

Combine 8,000 years of history with ideal conditions and Georgians’ fierce independence after centuries of oppression, and you have a wine culture as important to the population as the mountain air they breathe.

“Wine is not only a gastro product for me,” said Irakli Rostomashvili who runs a small family winery out of his home. “It is everything. It is our culture. It is our history. It is our religion.”

***

To pop the cork on Georgian wine [link], I took a marshutka, kind of a large Volkswagen bus and Georgia’s main mode of long-distance travel, an hour and 45 minutes east from Tbilisi to the town of Telavi. The bilingual street signs are handy as the Georgian alphabet, all swirls and lines, looks like spaghetti after being thrown on the floor. The four-lane highway has no lines, potentially problematic as we zigzagged our way into the highlands. Soon, dilapidated, rusted factories and buildings with aluminum roofs gave way to beautiful green meadows and fields lined with grape vines, all outlined with snow-covered mountains in the distance.

Kakhuri Winery's vineyard

Kakhuri Winery’s vineyard


Telavi is the capital of Kakheti, the region that hugs Georgia’s southeast corner and has 60 percent of the country’s vineyards. It’s a pleasant, clean town where its 20,000 people wake up to see the Caucasus to the northeast and the Gombori mountains to the southwest. Rolling green hills and valleys provide the foreground. You constantly walk around with a curious urge for a glass of wine and a piece of cheese.

I organized my tour through the Kakheti Wine Guild which occupies a large corner office lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with Kakheti wine bottles. Three young, energetic, knowledgeable Georgian women man the phones and greet visitors. They set me up with five winery tours over two days and even arranged for a taxi to shepherd me around for a reasonable fee.

The women are too young to have experienced communism which ended here in 1991. But they heard stories from their parents and studied Georgia’s wine history. It’s a fascinating tale intertwining politics and culture, told best with a glass of ruby red Georgian wine in hand.

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo


Georgian families have been making wine for centuries. That all ended in 1921 when the communists took over and grabbed all the vines for themselves. They nationalized the wine industry, meaning when the Politburo sat around discussing new ways to oppress its population they drank the semi-sweet wine from Georgia.

The fall of communism in ‘91 kick started Georgia’s wine industry. It began modestly. Georgia’s handle as “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union” was met with more smirks than sales. In 2006, Russia, which made up 80 percent of Georgia’s exporting wine market, announced an embargo on Georgian wine, claiming they didn’t meet sanity requirements. Georgia defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, displaying unusual honesty and an insight into the, ahem, loving nature between the two countries, admitted that “many (Georgian) wine producers exported falsified wine to Russia because Russia is a market where you can sell even turds.”

Without its chief market, Georgian wine makers had to adjust or die on the vine. They upgraded their production methods. They improved the quality. They expanded the variety. And they looked for other markets. Then it exploded. Last year, according to Georgia’s National Wine Agency, 76.7 million Georgian wines were sold to 53 countries.

But to understand Georgian wine, one must understand Georgia culture. It’s a land that has been overrun by the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, the Seljuks, the Russians and the Russians again.

And that was just Friday.

Oh, and did I mention the Black Death? That came in the 14th century and wiped out about half of Europe’s population. Throughout their tumultuous history, Georgians turned to the one thing they always had in abundance. It was not soldiers. It was wine.

“Wine helped us survive ancient times,” said Giogi Dakishvili, who runs his family’s Vita Vinea Winery. “Persian invasion, the Turkish, Soviet occupation. Now we have freedom.”

Georgian toasts, called "Supra," are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo

Georgian toasts, called “Supra,” are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo


They’d forget their troubles around the table, raise glasses and toast to what they did have. Family. Friends. And, of course, wine. Toasts have become so important to the Georgian wine culture that it has its own word: supra. The supra is even a profession. Georgia has professional toastmasters, known as tamadas, who attends parties or family gatherings and leads toasts.

Toasts in Georgia are art form. Some toasts are so moving, grown men cry. Some laugh. And everyone takes part. The toasts go around the table, and you’d better have something to toast or will be the subject of that night’s scorn.

Usually the first three toasts are to God, thanking Him for the food and wine which, despite Soviet times, always seemed in big supply here. Other toasts are more specific, ranging from the love of a woman to a new appliance. Under the Soviet Union, the supra was the one time Georgians could express themselves. And today at a table of 20 people, after 20 toasts, the Georgians don’t express themselves all that well.

“It’s a way of communicating,” said Zurab Ramazashvili, owner of Telavi Wine Cellar, one of Georgia’s biggest wine dealers. “You keep talking around the table. The subject could be love, betrayal, country, women. It’s for all people.”

How’d this become a cultural spectacle rather than a simple “clink” between two friends? The story goes that when God told the world’s people to gather when he gave away the land, the Georgians showed up late. He asked why. They said they were toasting him. God then said, “If that’s the case then I will give you the best piece of land, the one I was reserving for myself: Georgia.”

And this is where I spent two weeks drinking wine.

***

I spent two days in Telavi bouncing around five wineries like a thirsty sailor. The Telavi area has 20 commercial wineries, not counting the small family operations. Reservations aren’t needed. Visitors are welcome and tasting fees aren’t much. Mine ranged from 7 to 10 euros. Add in taxi fees that were 10 euros the first day and 27 the next and it amounts to a pretty cheap weekend.

The winemakers all spoke English but be careful. The tastings aren’t like they are in Italy, France and California where you get just a “taste.” Many poured about half a glass. This is where taking taxis is advantageous over renting a car.

Here’s a look at the five wineries I visited. Contact the Kakheti Wine Guild (www.kwg.ge, 350-279-090) for more information:

Kakhuri Winery

Kakhuri Winery


KAKHURI WINERY.
This is where Georgia’s communist past puts on its gray trenchcoat. Kakhuri’s winery is a big, gray stone block. If it had raised letters instead of small windows it would look like a tomb. Until 2000 it was a silk factory. Today, it houses one of the leading commercial wineries in Georgia.

The woman who gave me a private tour took me into a scruffy warehouse with dirty white walls but they were lined forever with French oak barrels. Here is where they store their wine for six months.

Georgia has three main types of wine: semi-sweet, still the favorite of their main Russian market; dry reds, which have grown in popularity and I’ll compare favorably with many of their Italian counterparts; and sparkling wines which have been around since the late 1800s but are now starting to win awards.

Kakhuri's tasting room.

Kakhuri’s tasting room.


Another room is filled with five-liter plastic jugs filled with white wine. They look like giant bottles of honey. On the tasting room wall are nine mini bottles of different flavored chacha, the Georgian vodka they make from grape residue.

My favorite of the five wines I tasted was the Kindzmarauli, a semi-sweet red wine made with 100 percent Saperavi grapes, the most common red grape in Georgia.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.


ROSTOMAANT MARANI

This little family winery goes back to the 1920s. It all ended in 1921 when communism settled in for its long stay and the Soviets took over all wine production in major factories. Nicolas Rostomashvili had to give up the one thing he loved to do. Five years ago his great-grandson, Irakli, restarted the winery in the family home. The Rostomaant, named after his great grandfather, is just one of many small family wineries sprinkled around Kakheti.

With Georgian families, wine is more than a business. Rostomashvili sells about 1,000 bottles a year.

“Wine must be deep,” said Irakli, 38. “It must say something. It has so many vitamins, I don’t want to eat anything. When I have a headache, I drink two glasses of wine and it helps me.”

I walked along a path under a huge tree and past a pile of firewood to his modest, brick tasting room where a woman has laid out plates of Georgian cheese, bread and walnuts. Next door, he showed me a room with five holes that are the trademark of Georgian wineries. While modern wine-making methods are being used in all wineries, many winemakers, from the big commercial dealers to guys like Irakli, make wine the same way the inventors did 8,000 years ago.

When he makes wine, Irakli includes the skin, stems and everything else and places it in clay pots, known as qvevris, lined with beeswax. They’re placed in these holes for six months to two years, depending on the wine. After two months, he examines the qvevri. The end result is the most natural wine you’ll ever taste. He uses five times fewer sulfites than the full-sulfite wine you find in the U.S. His five qvevris produce 3,500 liters of wine.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.


This ancient method is now being used in some wineries in Italy, France and the U.S.

“I can’t say it’s better or worse,” he said. “It’s totally different. It’s hard. You need a lot of work, cleaning, patience.”

His wines are no worse than the large commercial wines I tried. My favorite was his Saperavi 2017, a rich, deep red to which he adds no sulfites. The best part? It retails for about $12;.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.


TELAVI WINE CELLAR

Ramazashvili looks tired. The owner of Telavi Wine Cellar and Georgia’s famous Merani wine is the antithesis of the wine people I’ve met over the years. They’re happy, bubbly, energetic. Ramazashvili looks like an overworked, underappreciated factory drone from the USSR, circa 1978.

“I’m never happy,” he said with a wry smile. “I’m always thinking of ways to get better.”

He’s done quite well so far. His winery has won more than 600 awards which cover an entire wall of his large, corporate-looking tasting room. Telavi makes 70 different wines, ranging from table wine to wines coming from a single vineyard. They sell 5 million bottles a year.

Telavi began in 1915 but also fell victim to Soviet nationalization. Ramazashvili took over in 1997 after a stint as a professor of medicine an d then a doctor, who under communism, received just slightly better pay than some of the better lab rats.

“I changed my life,” he said. “I go into business. If you’re a private doctor you get paid but people had no money.”

Ramazashvili rarely drinks and doesn’t do traditional toastings.

“I have so many opportunities to drink outside,” he said. “I’m too tired.”

The Telavi plant is huge. One warehouse is lined with hundreds of oak barrels. Another room has 40 qvevris, all lined up like miniature missile shelters. Here the reds ferment for six months and the whites 12-18 months.

My favorite was the semisweet Tvishi white made from 100 percent Tsolikouri grape from the west part of Georgia. It’s pleasant, soft with a mix of fruits.

Vita Vinea's family vintage bottle.

Vita Vinea’s family vintage bottle.


VITA VINEA WINERY

Dakishvili’s tasting room looks like a dining room of a hunting lodge. Inside the big, beautiful brick room are three overstuffed black chairs and a moosehead over a fireplace. On a long tasting table made of stained wood, Dakishvili, 47, talked about being the son of one of the USSR’s top oenologist, which is basically a wine scientist.

“It’s a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not only a business. Every family member is in wine production.”

It brought a good income, even under communism. The family compound is a large yet homey complex on the outskirts of Telavi. The snow-covered mountains can be seen from their front yard. He remembers under the USSR how the shops had so little. The meat and poultry were always frozen.

“But we had a lot of wine,” he said.

He started the business in 2008 and produces most of his wine in his eight qvervis. His white wines are so amber they almost look orange. The business is taking off. He produces 50,000 bottles a year and exports to the U.S., United Kingdom, France and Japan.

“Maybe in the past we didn’t promote,” he said. “We weren’t prepared to promote our wine in a good manner. Now it’s a totally different reality in Georgia. The wines are high quality and well promoted.”

My favorite was his First Vintage 2007, a gorgeous red from the family’s first batch of grapes.

Me in Vaziani Company.

Me in Vaziani Company.


VAZIANI COMPANY
Frankly, my notes from this winery are a bit blurry. My tasting room host, Tamara Meskhishvili, engaged me in an intense conversation about the pluses and minuses of Stalin while she poured me, not four, not five, but 12 tastings, each one about half a glass.

I do recall her pointing outside the tasting room to a huge baobab tree she claimed was 2,000 years old. She also gave me good looks at qvevri, explaining that each one weighs 2 ½ tons and men, specifically trained to make them, take six months to make one.

After the 12 tastings, Meskhishvili told me I had something in common with Stalin. My favorite wine was a Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet wine that’s the No. 2 seller in Russia today.

It was also Stalin’s favorite.