Wine tastings: They’ve returned to Italy and I can’t wait

Renato Astrologo discusses wine with Cornell University students at his restaurant, Renato e Luisa.

Happiness in Italy can be defined in many ways. A gondola ride in Venice with no tourists. Finding little gems on the Adriatic Sea. How about Valentine’s Day on the Amalfi Coast? Recently I discovered another.

A wine tasting at my favorite restaurant in Rome.

Renato e Luisa, a little trattoria on an alley near Torre Argentina, held a wine tasting two weeks ago. It was significant in two ways: One, it gave me another excuse to eat Renato e Luisa’s terrific Roman cuisine with an elegant twist; two, it was my first wine tasting in two years.

Thanks, Covid. You KO’d one of the great advantages of living in Rome. 

However, no adult beverage that has been around for 8,000 years will let a measly global pandemic keep it down for the count. Wine tastings are returning, however slowly. And I’m taking full advantage of them.

Wine tastings in Rome

One of the surprises of my retirement to Rome eight years ago was I didn’t have to rent a car to go winery hopping in Italy. Wineries come to Rome. At least once a month – pre-Covid – I’d find a new wine tasting, known in Italy as a degustazione, with an interesting theme: Piedmont. Organic. Chianti. Montefalco. Red. White, Sparkling. Whatever.

There’s something for everyone.

You pay a reasonable fee, walk into a big room and there are 20-40 of the best wines in Italy for your perusal. All the sommeliers are there to answer questions, including my favorite: Pretend you’ll be executed tomorrow morning. What’s the one wine you drink tonight?

It’s surprising how simple some of the wines these Italian wine connoisseurs choose.  I’ve learned a lot, including my beverage of choice if I ever land on death row.

However, when Covid caused Italy’s first lockdown in March 2020, the wine tastings obviously disappeared. Moving from table to table and drinking wine unmasked would be a petri dish for a virus.

But Italy’s Covid case curve is dropping. Our seven-day daily average of new cases is at 51,406, down from a one-day high of 228,740 on Jan. 18. We dropped our outdoor mask mandate Feb. 11.  Officials say we may be completely mask free by April.

It is safe to drink wine in public again. So let’s pop the cork.

Cornell students come to Renato e Luisa every year.

History of Renato e Luisa

I’ve gotten to know Renato Astrologo over the years during my many pilgrimages to his eatery. I go whenever I want to feel like the happiest man in the world again. His goat cheese topped with honey, walnuts and balsamic vinegar is my favorite appetizer in Rome. His fettuccine with bufala ricotta and cherry tomatoes is heavenly.

He invited me to a wine tasting he holds every (normal) year for students from Cornell University, which has a branch not far from the restaurant. Before the students arrived, he told me some interesting history about the place.

Benito Mussolini ate there. It was under the name Il Frustaro (The Whip. Honest.) but it was just down the road from Palazzo Venezia where he worked and drummed up his fascist following into a frenzy from the iconic balcony that’s still there.

Renato and his business partner, Luisa Vagnoni, opened Renato e Luisa in 1998.

Cornell students get a lesson

At the time it was across the street from Cornell and like, most years before, two weeks ago about 20 students took seats in the dining room where Renato addressed them in surprisingly good English. I never knew he spoke English.

“I like to invest in quality instead of quantity,” Renato told them.

Prosecco from Casa Vittorino in the Veneto region.

He quizzed them. He asked them questions about what makes alcohol content and about grape skins. The students, being from a great school like Cornell and just being college students who know their way around alcohol, knew a lot of answers.

I sat at the same table with Luke Slomba and Emile Bensedrine, two mature, polite New England students majoring in civil engineering. I told them about how Rome has become a civic disaster and they talked about life in Covid student hell. Yes, Cornell’s gorge, famous for student suicides, has a big fence to prevent last jumps but there’s a place down the way that remains open.

What better way to change the course of a depressing conversation than tasting great Italian wines?

Wine and food pairings

Renato also did some ingenious food pairings. He started with a lemon slice, covered in sugar and also fiori di zucca ripieni (stuffed zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and taleggio cheese). Sounds awful? It wasn’t, particularly when chased with a narrow flute of Casa Vittorino Prosecco, Italian’s version of Champagne.

Renato added that the narrow glass is used because sparkling wine such as Prosecco does not have many aromas. He also said – take note, everyone – keep sparkling wine at 5 degrees celsius (41 Fahrenheit), white wine at 8-10 (46-50) and red wine at room temperature.

Grechetto from Umbria.

Next came a new wine for me. I’ve never tried a Grechetto, a white grape from Umbria, a very underrated wine region north of Rome’s Lazio region. It’s used primarily for blending with such grapes as Chardonnay, Malvasia and Trebbiano.

Alone it was terrific. But any wine is great with the goat cheese appetizer Renato paired with it: Little round balls of goat cheese sprinkled with nuts, topped with honey and sprayed with balsamic vinegar. Sweet and sour. Soft and crunchy. Renato also added a pear covered in gorgonzola cheese.

These appetizers could stop wars.

Then came an Assisi Rosso from Sportoletti, another winery in Umbria and a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese. With that came gnocchi con pomodoro (small potato dumplings in a tomato sauce).

A test

At the end he gave us a test. I usually don’t like it when a wine tasting audience is asked what flavors they taste in a wine. It’s the perfect platform for wine snobs to impress with something they know absolutely nothing about. I remember one guy in suburban Denver took a sip and said he tasted Old World mushrooms.

He was so full of crap he must’ve taken mushrooms.

This was different. Renato gave each table three little test tubes of aromas. Each one is a smell you could find in wine such as strawberry, raspberry, licorice, etc. We each took turns sniffing the test tubes and calling out the flavor. 

Our trio hit two of the three: green apple and honey. The third was tangerine. Luke and Emile won a souvenir: a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

Luke Slomba and Emile Bensedrine with their prize.

Wine industry bouncing back

This was a terrific afternoon, a badly needed return to one of Italy’s most civilized forms of entertainment. It also helps Italy’s $20 billion wine industry which dropped 4.1 percent in 2020, including 6.2 percent in the domestic market, according to Wine News.

“Covid is so terrible and we lost too much time,” said Serena Frattari, a wine maker whose family started Io Vino, an annual wine tasting event that returns to Rome next month.

She said the wine industry bounced back in 2021. Thanks to so many people stuck at home, wine sales online and exports jumped. According to ISTAT, the Italian government’s statistical arm, in the first seven months of 2021, wine sales jumped 6 percent, including 11 percent to non-European Union countries.

Now wineries are finally bringing their wine back to the people in person. That includes VinItaly, the massive annual wine fair that will once again bring in 4,600 wineries from 35 countries to Verona April 10-13. It was sidelined the last two years. 

“It’s safe because in Italy the law can make degustaziones safe,” Frattari said. “With the restart, we can start to retaste our wines.”

The safety rules still apply. All the wine officials will wear masks and the wineries’ tables will be at least one meter apart. They don’t care. They missed us.

I missed them.

“For me the most important part of degustaziones is the contact with the people and for information and for those who have a passion for wine,” she said, “from the blogger to the journalists to the normal people who know wine.”

Upcoming wine tastings

If you’re in Rome now or coming, here are three wine tastings scheduled for the city: 

Wednesday night: I’m going to the toney Savoy Hotel, Via Ludovisi 15 off Via Veneto, the old haunt of Italian celebrities and their hounding paparazzi, for the Wines of Sicily. 18 euros.

March 13: Io Vino will host Selezione da Vitigno Autoctono (Selection from Native Grape Variety) at Ergife Palace Hotel, Via Aurelia 619. Wines from the regions of Campania and Le Marche. 20 euros.

May 20: Nebbiolo nel Cuore (Nebbiolo in the Heart) will feature my favorite grape from my favorite wine region, Piedmont, at the Centro Congressi Barcelo Aran Mantegna, Via Andrea Mantegna 130. 22 euros.