Old Vines, Exquisite Wines – Tenuta San Francesco at last!

I felt like I was back in Bali when I saw the terraces…almost.

We left the coast and climbed into the Lattari mountain range. It’s cold enough up here for trees to drop their leaves but warm enough for grass to stay green. Nicola had his phone tuned in to Google maps but still asked locals for directions a few times.

I’d originally thought I’d take the bus from Praiano to Tramonti and walk from the station to the winery. Had I done that, I may still have been walking. Our trail through the mountains reminded me of the last lines in a poem by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The story of my life.

Four people watched us expectantly as we approached the winery. It was the tour group waiting for me.

Sophia, the daughter of one of the owners of Tenuta San Francesco, was our guide. The three gentlemen were from Brazil and I was the lone American.

Sophia is a teacher. She was brilliant, speaking Spanish to the Brazilians, English to me, and Italian to anyone else. She explained we would do a tour of the vineyards then have our tasting, was that all right? We agreed, three Si(s) and a Yes.

I’d been awed by the elegant pergolas spiderwebbing the mountainsides as we’d driven through this area. I asked about them. The framework is chestnut wood, Sophia said, and workers use willow twigs to tie branches to the beams. She explained that willow is organic material and deteriorates. When that happens, it takes four months for experienced knot tiers to replace all the bindings on the vineyard’s thirty acres of vines.

We were standing under the spreading branches of a vine that was over 500 years old. Sophia told us when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, volcanic ash created perfect soil conditions for grapes. And when phylloxera, a type of aphid that attacks the roots of grapevines raged throughout Europe, many originals were lost.

The infestation began when plants carrying the phylloxera aphid were brought from North America in the late 1800s. What followed changed the wine industry in most of the world. Since only vines from North America were immune, in order to preserve and perpetuate the varieties of grapes throughout Europe and other countries (even Australia) original vines had to be spliced onto plants with roots imported from North America.

But because volcanic soil resists phylloxera the vines of Tenuta San Francesco were protected and survived. In a few other areas of the world where similar conditions exist, original vines remain, some over 2000 years old.

She explained that the quality of wine from the rare Tintore grape, which is the variety produced by the original vines of Tenuta, is some of the world’s finest. But the yield from old vines is not large so supply is limited. It’s considered a boutique wine.

The branches from this twisted, ancient specimen create a network overhead covering an area the size of a toddler’s playground. Gardens are planted underneath. Sophia pointed out a plot of fava beans sprouting just behind us.

The vineyard tour completed, we headed inside.

Buildings in Italy seem like they’ve existed for all time. I’ve never been comfortable around glass and steel. Give me rocks, timber, crumbling plaster and I feel at home. There’s a sense of being grounded in antiquity, a connection with the past that I felt as I walked through those doors.

“How old is this cave?” I asked as we entered.

“It has been in the family since the 1700s,” Sophia replied. Sleek steel and electronics against three hundred year old stones jarred me in an exciting way, a bit like waking up to the mechanical hum of a drone peering in my bedroom window in Bali at six a.m. (Don’t laugh, it happened!)

The winery logo was stamped on barrels lining the walls. Sophia showed us how it can be read as a T for Tenuta, and an F for Francesco. She also explained this type of cross was used by the Knights Templar. The designer added a stylized bunch of grapes at the bottom. Classy.

Information continued to flow. Whites are prepared and aged in the steel vats. Reds start there then are transferred after many months to wooden barrels where they age for two years before being bottled. Red wines, we learned, can handle the wood undertones. Whites cannot.

When we were saturated with Sophia’s knowledge to the point of overwhelm, she said, “Would you like to taste?”

She didn’t have to ask twice. We followed her into a sunlit area where our table waited.

Sophia’s mother was preparing food for us.

Gaetano Bove, the man I met in the cafe who invited me to tour his vineyard, introduced the first wine, Per Eva, which he’d named for Eva, his wife.

Sophia’s mother set plates in front of us. “Winter salad,” she said. Fresh goat cheese, warm potatoes mixed with olives and onion, and tomatoes with chucks of hearty farmer’s bread. Silken crispness of Per Eva, like spring rain, enhanced the subtle flavors of the salad and softened the onion’s sharp surprise.

Before we emptied our glasses of per Eva, Gaetano was pouring Turmiento, the winery’s organic red.

I’ve only tasted a few organic wines and wouldn’t go out of my way to find them again. Turmiento was an exception. If you know organic restaurant owners who import wine, recommend this one. It’s rich, warm, and it paired brilliantly with the dark farmer’s bread, pecorino cheese, and sliced salami that had just appeared on our table.

Gaetano radiated love for his craft. As he brought out our third wine he mentioned famous people who had visited the winery, among them Justin Timberlake and his wife, actress Jessica Biel.

Then, as our glasses swirled with liquid of the deepest, richest crimson, Signor Bove told us he’d recently gone to France to attend a meeting of top international wine makers. He’d taken E’ Iss, the red, made from the ancient pre-phylloxera vines. Each of the fifteen attendees had brought their specialties, some bottles selling wholesale for as much as 25,000 euro ($27,000 USD). They did a blind tasting, he said and shook his head. “Mine was better. And only thirty euro per bottle.”

We sipped, and sighed a collective, “Ahhhhh.” I thought Turmiento would be my favorite. It was smooth, seductive. But it turns out E’ Iss was like the difference between the boy you date on the sly and the one you bring home to meet Mom and Dad. I brought E’ Iss home.

Which, by the way, was no small feat. When the food was eaten and the wine was drunk, I said goodbyes and Gaetano drove me as far as Maori, the coastal town where he has a veterinary practice, and dropped me in the square. From there I’d catch the bus to Praiano.

Nicola had instructed me on the finer points of navigating the bus system. I had to buy a ticket before I got on, and he suspected in Maori I could only buy a ticket to Amalfi. I would need to buy another in Amalfi to get to Praiano.

I found a helpful person by this playground who pointed the direction to the Tabacci shop where I could purchase my first ticket. I set out. It only took two more queries to locate the tiny place.

Ticket in my pocket, I started back to where I’d seen people waiting in bus shelters. “Where do I catch the bus?” I asked a street vendor tending her cart. The woman took me by the arm and steered me to the side of the road and pointed.

“To Praiano?” I asked, just to make sure.

“No,” she said, and pointed to the opposite side of the street.

It was a twenty minute wait. I boarded, took a window seat, and snapped photos all the way. If you scroll through fast, you’ll get a feel for the wild twists and turns of the fabulous coastal road.

Then we were in Almalfi with another ticket I had to hunt, kill, and drag home! I asked for directions and was shown the newspaper shop across the street.

Done.

A bus with no driver idled nearby. The sign above its front window said Sorrento. I asked a man if this bus stopped in Praiano. He didn’t know. Then I heard, “Yes. To Praiano.” A face with a neatly trimmed gray beard and mustache nodded at me from the front seat. Gratefully I boarded, inserted my ticket and turned to walk toward the back. The bearded old man patted the empty spot beside him.

“I can sit here?” I asked. He nodded.

Within a few minutes the driver appeared and another gut churning ride commenced, but this time I had a seat companion. “You speak English,” I said.

He nodded. “I speak three languages, French, English, and Dutch. You know pork?” he asked.

It seemed a strange question. “You mean pig?”

“Yes, pork. In French pork say this.” A strange, pig-like grunt erupted from his mouth. “In Dutch pork say this.” The intonation was different but still unquestionably porcine. “And in English…”

To say I was happy when we reached Praiano would be an understatement. Still, I was grateful when Signor Pork reached across me to ring the bell for my stop or we would have sailed right by.

By now it was dark. I stood alone at the corner where deserted Via Umberto heads uphill and Via Roma, with more traffic, is a straight, level shot to my blue gate. I poked around in my memory trying to bring up the map of Via Umberto. Without data on my phone I couldn’t request Google’s help. Dressed all in black I’d be invisible on the busy Via Roma, narrow and without sidewalks…

I started up Via Umberto knowing with the certainty of experience that somewhere there would be a staircase going back down. After about 150 meters (apx. two city blocks) a footpath veered off to the right at a serious downhill slope. It was beautifully lighted so I took it. A few hundred yards later I knew exactly where I was. The stairs that take me from Tutto per Tutti to my house were right there.

I just want to say to senior women, men too, if you’ve ever dreamed of solo travel, if your feet sometimes itch and your eyes long to gaze on something other than your own backyard, do it now.

No matter what creams, dyes, or wrinkle retardants we use, we don’t get any younger, and time doesn’t wait.

A Tiny Lump of Mozzarella and Half a Bottle of Wine…

Bewitched.

I’m bewitched.

It’s the sky, the sea, the wild wind, the clouds, the dazzle of sunlight on water.

It’s the flirty Italian men. (Oh! You have no idea! They are unstoppable!)

It’s my cozy perch high on the cliffs and the cushy chair by French doors – did I mention French doors – overlooking endless stretches of water. The Mediterranean.  

My house faces east. The house of the rising sun. (I love that song.)

I didn’t come for the sunbaked Roman holiday. I came to scratch the itch in my soul. To answer the question: Was it really as good as I remember? And even while asking I know the answer.

Why did this place lodge in my being when there were so many others that could have?

I’ve been to Norway. I have family there. It’s rugged and fabulous.

There’s a Swedish town, Simrishamn, on the Baltic Sea. It’s an artist’s hideaway. Bougainvillea vines heavy with blossoms climb the walls of pastel-colored houses. Smiling, white-skinned people that look very much like me walk cobblestone streets and live in those houses. Fishing boats dot the harbor, bobbing, bobbing.

In Lucerne, Switzerland, the air is so clean it smells like snow. (Have you smelled snow? It’s a rush of cold in your nostrils that that has no scent, only sensation.)

What about Paris? London? Budapest? Luxembourg?

Canada?

Mexico?

Puerto Rico?

The Caribbean?

This morning I watched dawn break through dark skies. It was holier than prayer. When the wind whipped the sea to froth, tears dribbled down my cheeks and my heart filled with passionate thanks.

It was here, only here, that called me back.

Italy nourishes every part of me. My fascination with other cultures loves the deep dive into this country’s past. Many of the world’s great artists, mathematicians, politicians, musicians, explorers, architects, philosophers, and writers were Italian. What fostered those minds? What foundations were laid to support genius across such a broad spectrum of disciplines?

Refined rubs shoulders with rustic here. Wild is countered by tamed. Tradition butts heads with progress – who wins – while grapes, and olives, and lemons continue to grow.

And the food? I’m not exactly a foodie. In fact I’m the antithesis of food focused. But give me woodfired pizza and a glass of Primitivo di Manduria from the Puglia region and you will be my new best friend forever.

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I shouldn’t have done that. It’s too blustery and wet to go out. All I have in the fridge right now is a tin of those Danish butter cookies, one egg, a little bread and a tiny lump of mozzarella…oh. But wait. There’s still half a bottle of wine. I’ll be just fine.

True Love and Fishing

I’ve been MIA from blogging for a few days. A lot happens in a very short time in my life. I like that. My youngest daughter is now engaged. Take a look at this lovely custom designed ring! Is that not exquisite?!

She found a great guy (or let’s say they found each other) about three years ago. They are incredibly compatible and well-suited. It sounds like a wedding next summer and I couldn’t be more excited.

The rest of my update is anti-climactic after that, but still good stuff! For instance, I haven’t been fishing since I was a teen. We lived on the Mississippi River and I could never catch fish. Fishing was a family outing and my little sister would pull them in one after another as I sat, my bobber dead in the water, and watched.

So when my brother (who has a home on the Mississippi) said he wanted to take me fishing I may have appeared less than enthusiastic. After reminding him of my unsuccessful childhood experiences he assured me that he knew where the fish were and if we went early in the morning I would absolutely catch some. How early is early I wanted to know? Well, lets just say we compromised  and were on the river by 6 a.m. It was a beautiful morning and cold. Once the boat started moving cold became VERY cold. I pulled my fleece and long windbreaker coat up to my neck and added a life jacket. We cruised upstream while he told me about the great lures we were using and how these poles were the heavy-duty ones he had when he lived in Alaska.

I didn’t attempt to cast the line with the wicked looking lure and the strange reel apparatus on a super long rod. That was a recipe for disaster. He expertly sent the hook flying and handed the gear to me telling me if it lost its back-and-forth action that meant I had snagged a weed and I should reel in immediately. Let me explain here that when you’re trolling behind a boat and the line catches a weed, it feels oh so much like a huge fish has just hit that hook with a vengeance! There is an instant adrenalin rush. But weeds don’t tend to fight back much so it’s soon evident that all that excitement is for naught.

We’d been trolling about 30 minutes and he hooked a small one that he threw back. All of a sudden there was a jerk on my line that felt important. I started reeling and wham! There was a fighter on the end of the line! What a thrill! I reeled him up to the boat as my brother issued continuous instructions and readied the landing net. “Keep reeling, don’t give him any slack, keep it steady, you’re doing great, okay there he is! Nice one! Good job!”

That happened twice more and I’d filled out…caught my limit. We brought home 4 fish. I out-fished my brother…bless him! What a great day!

I have a new appreciation for northerns, especially after they are cleaned, fried by my sister-in-law who is an expert, and turned into a fabulous dining experience. My previous relationships with fish happened when they arrived on a plate in a nice restaurant. The current, more intimate involvement took the meal to a whole new level. There is no comparison to the freshly delicate flavors and flaky textures of a fish caught mere minutes before it becomes food. I would do it again even if he insisted on 5 a.m!

The trip northward also included a delightful visit with my parents.

Dad’s 90th birthday is coming up and Mom is 84. They are the truest love story ever told, married for 64 years and still cuddling and murmuring “I love you’s.”  Their secret? Never go to bed mad. As mom tells it, sometimes they stayed up all night, but they have never once gone to bed angry with each other. Is that possible in 64 years? Probably not for most. But these are special people. Very special.

Now I’m spending my last few days in northern Minnesota on the beautiful banks of Lake Imagination. There isn’t much water in the lake, but if you squint your eyes and believe what you don’t see (it helps to have a glass of wine) the acres of green prairie grass look more and more like a lake! And at Lake Imagination it’s always 5:00 somewhere so a glass of wine is never a problem.

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