Tasting the Tuscan Wine

The “Sunset Siena and Chianti Wine Tour with Dinner from Florence” sounded elegant. It included “transport by air-conditioned coach, professional tour leader, and dinner at a wine estate with wine tasting”. It did not include gratuities.

But these were optional.

By the time we pulled up to the winery doors, I was tired. I was thankful to be able to sit and let the fun come to me for once.

The sun was setting, somewhere in the west behind the rolling Tuscan hills, and it was obvious to all of us that the “sunset” part of the tour was already over.

This did not bother Marco in the slightest.

Marco represents his family’s vineyards to incoming tour groups and we followed his exuberant lead for the rest of the evening. He gave an introduction at the gate and although my research told me we were in the Holy Grail of wine country, the cup was not any more glamorous than that in Temecula.

We settled at tables in a room and this was all we got to see of the winery. There was no tour. When you read about this place on their website, it’s hard to reconcile what they think they look like with what we actually saw.

Marco (Polo) is a comedian with a captive audience. I have to admit he was entertaining, even assuming that, as the audience tastes more wine, he gets exponentially funnier. He can’t lose. I did feel, just a little, like I was sitting in on a time-share sales pitch, though.

He sold a lot of wine at the end of our evening.

Our group was so random. There was an eight year old with his mom, the Three Elderly Sisters of whom I spoke in the last blog, middle-aged giggling women on a girls trip who were there to get wasted, honeymooners who admitted they were trying to get pregnant to the whole room, true wine aficionados who frowned into their glasses,…we sat at a table with a couple from Morocco who spoke French. We smiled and kept our manners and stared at the plate a lot.

Marco was okay with all of it. He’d seen worse.

We were all served a glass of wine, a plate of antipasto, a pen, and a form for making notes. Marco then taught us the proper way to appreciate wine:

    1. Use a goblet or a paper cup. It doesn’t matter. But if you have a wine glass, for ding dang sake, pinch the stem at the base with thumb and pointer, and keep the rest of your grubby fingers under the bottom. The wine is chilled. The wine is pure. Stay as far away from it as you can and good luck not spilling.
    1. Pour in a half inch of wine. Hold it up and let the light refract through the liquid.
    1. Does it look like…white wine? Good.
    1. Now sip it. Does it taste like…white wine? Good.
    1. Holding the glass properly, swirl the wine in a little hurricane-like vortex while slowly counting to ten. Don’t spill it, I said!
    1. When you reach “ten”, stick your nose and mouth into the cup. Your chin and cheeks should keep the wine in place as you inhale deeply.
    1. Does it smell like…white wine? Good.
    1. Place your spare hand over the mouth of the cup. Holding the glass properly, swirl the wine in a little hurricane-like vortex while slowly counting to ten. Do not get wine on your hand. See step 1.
    1. When you reach “ten”, remove your hand and place your nose and mouth into the cup again.
  1. Does it smell like…buttered bananas? You are a wine tasting winner because that is exactly what this wine is supposed to smell like and now you have discovered it.

This is the only white wine produced by this winery. And it smells like bananas.

We repeated these steps but now the goal was to write down our thoughts as we took a bite from each of the foods on our plate and immediately sipped.

My notes explicitly state that, although the white Vernaccia di san Gimignano was nice with toast, it was exceptional with a bite of salami. Marco asked by a show of hands, which food was best with the wine. Only the eight year old and myself had preferred the sweet and salty combination.

Marco reminded everyone that there were no wrong answers.

The red we sampled next was a Chianti Classico, with the black rooster label. If it had fruity flavors, they were lost on me. This was when I remembered that I had been fighting a head cold all week. For all I could tell, the wine tasted like buttered chicken. But this was the good stuff.

So I drank it. Salute!

“The vinegar on your greens,” declared Marco, “is our Balsamic Select. It can also be purchased at the end of our meal tonight.”

He flipped a sample form over as the meal was served. On the back, was an order form for everything they sold at the winery.

Convenient.

The Brunello di Montalcino has a strong personality with a dry, full, smooth, well balanced flavor. Its bouquet is characteristic and intense, composed of violet and forest fruit scents. I found it spicy with a strong leather undercurrent. It did not distract me from trying the secret family recipe white sauce lasagne because the waiter was going around and pouring million-dollar Truffle Flavored Extra Virgin Olive Oil over our plates.

I have never tasted truffle outside of a box of See’s candy.

There are no words to explain this flavor to you. But it is fabulous and delicious and intriguing. Even with a head cold.

“Truffles are a strong aphrodisiac,” warned Marco, “be careful!”

The honeymooners giggled. The gigglers demanded more wine. The eight year old looked thoughtful. I drank my Brunello.

Another course was served, a thin slice of beef and little bits of potato, some bare lettuce. With it we tried Cavaliere, a Super Tuscan. “The prime quality and structure of this wine demand excellent first courses and risottos with sauces made from game, red meat, and mature spicy cheeses.” My thoughts were, “There’s a horse on the label and it has great legs in the glass. Logic.”

Have I mentioned that red wine puts me to sleep within minutes?

Thankfully, plates of biscotti appeared, along with the house dessert wine. Naturally, there were rules: dip the biscotti into your wine ten times, then nibble the cookie and sip the wine. Repeat.

Marco set up shop as we finished, selling his wares to one and all. Hubby had thoroughly enjoyed the wines and bought some Cavaliere to bring home.

“Excellent choice,” I mumbled. I was cheating, chomping on the brick-hard biscotti and swilling the wine down after it.

Sure, Marco can school me on wine etiquette, but me and enjoying dessert go way back.

I know I promised you all some Italian recipes and although we ate many a splendored dish, there was no time to walk to the back and question the cook. Marco promised me the recipe for his grand-mama’s white lasagne but there is nothing on his website but panzanella and knuckle of pork. While I found you some fabulous limoncello recipes and told you where to find the best gelato in Italy, here instead I will point you to Mary’s fresh blog: Spoon and Suitcase. She shares her world wanderings and her culinary discoveries.
It’s a little mini-vacation all over again.
Enjoy.
On the road again… The legs of a thoroughbred. Marco makes the money fly.

The Coward of Capri

Let me begin by pointing out that spending a day on the Mediterranean, lounging on a little jet boat, a little swim time, a little sun time, before exploring the glittering isle of Capri where butterflies and movie stars flock, is pretty much everyone’s idea of a good time.

But I’m not everyone.

This day was planned by the merman I’m married to, and you have to understand that, after his gift of the opera, I was certainly bound to go along with his own anniversary fantasy.

I was terrified.

Standing in the mouth of a volcano, facing off with seafood dinners that had actual eyeballs staring back at you….not a problem. But this trip was not exactly as advertised.

“Includes pick up from your hotel and transfer to the Port of Massa Lubrense,” says the brochure.

Translation: “Our little bus will drive two nautical inches from the Cliffs of Insanity, missing oncoming busses by one. If you scream, we drive faster.”

“Depart to Capri following the Sorrento coastline, stopping at the waterfall of Marciano,” the brochure continues.

Translation: “We will, after sizing up your group, decide to go full throttle across the bay instead, racing for the Blue Grotto. If you flinch, you will fall overboard and we will not circle back for you.”

“At Capri, visit the Blue Grotto, White Grotto, Green Grotto, Wonderful Grotto, Natural Arc…with stops for swimming and snorkeling,” it says.

Translation: “We will arrive at the Blue Grotto and wait for an hour while everyone else who arrived ahead of us proceeds, one at a time, to attempt access to the cave.”

This was no joke. The Blue Grotto has a tiny opening, no larger than a single narrow boat. Said boat can hold four tourists and a pilot. The tourists sit bobsled style on the floor in each others’ laps and when the tide, currents, and boat wakes align to dip low enough and open the cave entrance, they all lie down flat. The pilot gives a mighty push on his oars, ships them, and then lies down flat on TOP of the tourists. As the boat shoots into the crevasse, the pilot grabs a rope that has been strung along the entry and pulls like mad to get into the grotto before the waves lift the boat back up and smashes it into the cave roof.

I sat there watching these little coffins shoot in, perhaps one every ten minutes or so. This is because those inside the grotto must sooner or later fight their way back out and how either side knows who gets the next turn, I have no idea.

There were several large boats full of tourists ahead of us, plus a long line of tourists snaking up the cliff, where the grotto can be found by land.

“It may be a while,” said our professional English speaking skipper, casually, “You have to be ‘in’ with the operators here to get your people into the queue.”

Translation: “My tour company does not have an ‘in’. We can wait all day or move on. Your call.”

We continued around Capri, seeing only three of the advertised five grottos, briefly and from the poopdeck. They were beautiful of course, like La Jolla but missing the seal pups. Finally, within sight of the Natural Arc, we got to stop and jump in the sea.

Translation: “Hubby jumped in the sea. I took the photos.”

I do not get along with any version of water, so you will have to take Hubby’s word for it that the Mediterranean is saltier, more buoyant, and not overly warmer than our Pacific in SoCal. It’s incredibly clear, vivid blue, and contains jellyfish. Which factoid Hubby realized a bit too late and came back on board with sting marks that were red and swollen and peeled twice before healing.

I rest my case.

“Stop on the island for 4-5 hours to explore Capri and Anacapri,” the brochure touts.

Translation: “You get three if you’re lucky. Meet back here on time or…you know the drill.”

Skipper tossed us each a foil-wrapped sandwich for the road.

The harbor of Capri is the most crowded place in Italy. Read that again. We needed to hop on a bus and head directly to the top of the island. We wasted precious time bumping shoulders with heaps of humans trying to do the same. How no one was run over by a little blue bus there, I will never know. Lynette, by the time we found a bus, everyone started looking like George Clooney…

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The bus drove straight up. We were not provided with parachutes. It dropped us off at the top of Anacapri and I was faced with my next fear. To get to the tip top, you must sit in a single chair hung by a cable along a lift, for the thirteen longest minutes of your life.

I put a peppermint in my mouth and got on.

I kept my eyes closed, my hands fisted around the thin bar. I shut down my brain. I slowed down my breathing. I held perfectly still and did not care that everyone passing me on the way down would see my cowardice.

Let’s do this.

The air is very thin and quickly there is nothing but dead silence and the soft squeaking of the pulley overhead. Each cable post is a gentle little boost upward and I tried to shrink in on myself. I heard a dog bark, millions of miles below me.

What if I really am a million miles up? What if don’t see the exit coming and it carries me back around again? What if I can’t get the bar to move and I’m stuck? What if the wind picks up?

I cracked my eyes just enough to determine that I was above a tree and about to soar over a ravine.

I slammed my eyes closed just as I heard nervous giggling ahead of me. The lady in the chair in front of me called out to her boyfriend in the chair in front of her: “Hey! Remember that movie we saw when that one guy got stuck on a ski lift and had to climb off?”

Eons later, I heard her call out, “Are we there yet?” The peppermint held back my nausea until the last minute, when I heard the operators at the top of the lift discussing something in animated Italian. I had enough time to peek, take a deep breath, and then launch from my hot seat.

The view from the top of Anacapri is spectacular. Brilliant. We sat on a patio, eating gelato. But deep in my heart, I knew I had to make that return trip.

From near the umbrella pines, I heard a lady quietly sobbing.

“Me, too, kid,” I mumbled, “Me, too.”

But she was crying because she had just been proposed to. And her fiancé was by turns comforting her and laughing with her. I glanced Hubbys way and blessed him for being sensible and proposing to me on a freeway onramp. Actively merging had not kept me from letting him pop the ring on my finger. So romantic.

And at sea level.

The Island of Capri was blooming with small yellow and white flowers. Butterflies danced in every corner and out over the cliffs. Joyful, exuberant in their efforts to extract the most delight from every moment. I took that picture into my mind and got back onto the lift.

When I dared to open my eyes, I was in a place quite close to the ground. A field of flowers were at my feet. It was covered in butterflies. Floating colors swirled around me and off into the sky.

“Look,” they said, “or don’t. We will hold the space for you. You are safe.”

I closed my eyes again, and stayed right there in that little bit of field, watching butterflies dance until I landed at the bottom.

Gamblers. But the view was nice. So beautiful! Buckle up. Going up….this is my stunt double. Hubby took photos. He’s crazy like that. The view from the top! It really is a little piece of paradise.

Pompeii and Vesuvius

Vesuvius stretched its arms out to the sea and allowed our little tour bus to climb up to its shoulder before we had to park and hike the rest on foot.  You may want to rent a hiking stick at the entrance. The ground is pebbled, steep and treacherous, black and barren. What scrub grows on Vesuvius clings in hope. There is nothing there large enough to throw shade on a hot day.

Lava flow can be easily traced In wide ravines and slopes. Large shelves of strata sit broken beside the path, tapering sharply downhill on the other side. Once you reach the crater’s lip, it’s a fascinating sight. Smooth as glass sides descend to what must be a singular sharp point at the bottom. Perfect drifts of rubble sit here or there, where they settled with a sigh at the end of it all, the last dregs in the cup of desolation.

When you tour Vesuvius in the morning and Pompeii in the afternoon, you risk the already milky sky turning to cloud and marring your view of the Mediterranean. But you also enjoy some semblance of coolness on an active volcano top and we were thankful for it. The view was a little hazy but balanced with a bright sun. Bring a hat, a water bottle, a granola bar, and your euros…because at the end of the trail, they have a souvenir shop that quite one-ups the Vatican’s rooftop hangout. It may be a tiny open shack but they serve up the local wine (from Christs’ Tears no less) and shots of limoncello. Hubby hastened to get in line. Lemons are a fruit and fruit is part of a balanced breakfast. I secured five postcards and five volcano stamps, wondering whether the Italian salesman was as enthusiastic about delivering the mail as he was about his provincial wares.

Four weeks later, those postcards have yet to be delivered.

On the walk back to our bus, we noticed seismologists equipment set up in strategic locations. We passed the remains of the funicular. Built in 1880, 1909, 1911…after being repeatedly taken out by Vesuvius, the Italians gave up. The last eruption was in 1944. We walked a little faster to our bus.

Our tour guide, Amanda, introduced us to the city of Pompeii, a world destroyed in AD79, that at once is both ancient and modern, barbaric and civilized. If Pompeii told me anything, it’s that people are the same, regardless of whether you place a stone or a computer into their hands.

The excavations are extensive.You can spend a day here, wandering the streets. They are Roman streets, though, so you have straight lines, orderly apartments, tidy rows of engineered brickwork. The streets are grooved from the wheels of traffic and the sidewalks are raised above it to avoid the runoff of rain plus horse manure plus whatever other offal will flow down the slightly tilted roads, out and away to the edge of the city. To cross the street, there are large crossing stones.

“And now, my dear groupa,” says Amanda, “What do you need to know about the take-away food stalls? Here you see the bowls formed into the counter, some held meat or honey or olive oil. The stove you see here in the back. The shops you see, over here, can be immediately known by the deep grooves in the threshold, where they pulled heavy gates closed at the end of the day.”

We walked along, hopping from side to side seeking shade as we went.

“Notice the water troughs at intersections,” continued Amanda, “These streets were not named. If you gave your address to someone, you told them “Three houses east of the Lion Fountain” or perhaps the Priestess Fountain. Each is unique and provided the public water.”

We went inside the House of Menander and photographed beautifully preserved columns, elegant courtyards, deeply colored wall murals, bedrooms, bathrooms, cooking areas. The floors set with mosaics.

We went into the baths, very modern, with a locker room, changing areas, lounging areas, sauna, different pools at different temperatures. We went into the brothel, exactly as you would imagine it, no space wasted, with full color menus along the ceiling. The theaters are cozy and the raised stage is just right for plays or a night of music. And this is how I will imagine it.

Athletic training grounds, barracks, a basilica, a mill and bakery, a forum complete with temples to Zeus, Isis/Venus, Apollo, and Jupiter, vineyard areas, garden plots, aqueduct making an appearance, it was all familiar. The space in the forum area was once lined with white marble, tall columns, graceful statues. It made a stark contrast to black Vesuvius, framed perfectly down the peristyle.

“And now, my dear groupa,” continued Amanda, “I will allow you some moments to wander this space and we will meet back here in 15 minutes.”

This space was personal. This space took more than 15 minutes. It punched you in the gut. Behind gates, were row upon row of excavated materials. Pots and wagons, anchors, birdbaths, step-stools. A large treasure chest. And under glass were plasters – not statues – of victims. A woman lying on her side, gasping for breath. A person hugging his knees to his chest, hands over his nose and mouth. An infant. A dog curling with convulsions.

Shortly after noon, on August 24, AD79, Vesuvius took them all by surprise. No one knew that it was a volcano. It hadn’t erupted in 1800 years. It was odd to see black volcanic rock used in some of the construction; that’s usually a sign. So was the massive earthquake they had had, 17 years prior.

There was no word for “volcano” before Vesuvius.

Erupting for over 24 hours, with the force of two atomic bombs, spewing 1.5 million tons of lava per second, Vesuvius took out Pompeii with pyroclastic surges. People asphyxiated from volcanic ash and gas or were flash-killed by thermal heat, depending on which scientist is speaking. Then ash and pumice began to fall, burying everything as deep as 14 to 23 feet.

And what do you need to know? That graffiti can be read, in great detail, 2000 plus years after you have etched it on the wall. Quite the way I see Facebook postings 2000 years from today.

You’ve been warned.

My dear groupa, if you don’t believe me, you also can take a two-hour walking tour of today’s Pompeii by clicking hereOr you can watch a truly cheesy and entertaining BBC documentary, casting Italians with British accents, here.

Going Up Tremors Order Up!

 

Zoom in on this detailing. I really wanted this to be an aviary. But it’s for the house gods (lares). Boring. So many photos, so little blog space…

Rome, The Vatican

We signed up to see the Vatican and the Colosseum on the same day. Which is ludicrous. But necessary. This is why espresso is the Italian drink of choice.

I warned you, you won’t see it all and you have to keep moving. Buying a tour is a great way to utilize time and stay disciplined. I would still be standing in the Vatican foyer staring at an urn if it weren’t for our tour guide, Leti. She got it done.

We dashed from our hotel that morning and caught the metro to the Ottaviano exit. At that point we were lost in a maze of wet streets with hundreds of other tourists, all searching for their particular group. If I hadn’t gone onto google maps at home and visually street walked the place, we never would have found it. You can’t do too much homework before a trip like this, because tour guides do not wait.

Leti led our earbud-fitted group of 25 through the mobs to the Vatican’s back door. It’s protected by a massive orange brick wall that goes to infinity in both directions, so you must wait in line with the other tour groups as each entrant is scanned for obelisks and other hazards to the Church.

The Vatican museums don’t open until 9am but groups can come in at 8:30. We shuffled along in line and unlike Disneyland, our entertainment began immediately. Leti told us history and interesting things about the Vatican while street vendors walked by shoving umbrellas at us. Yesterday, it was silk roses. 

Street vendors are pickpockets in disguise. If you let them, they will shove a thing in your hand and then demand your money, even if you try to return the item. Hubby and I prevented this by holding hands. Also, yelling “Stop it!” seems to work. They are sworn enemies.

Then it started to sprinkle. We knew it might, but it doesn’t rain on the Metro and it doesn’t rain in the Vatican and the afternoon was supposed to be sunny. We huddled together for another twenty minutes before we were the begrudging owners of a black five-euro umbrella.

My hair was mostly saved.

We are now going to move briskly into and back out of the Museum wing, leaving photos below for you to stop and stare at and block the way for everybody else because how many people can you cram down the corridor without knocking over a priceless work of art? Answer: an awfully lot.

At the end of this corridor, and bypassing so many other corridors that your heart breaks from the missing of them, you arrive at the Sistine Chapel. Leti told us everything we needed to know before going inside, because you aren’t allowed to speak, take photos, or otherwise rumble in the Pope’s personal space. He has really loud guards in there, telling you so.

Stare up at the ceiling until your neck cricks. It is outrageously fabulous. You can identify most of what you see, just keep in mind that Michelangelo didn’t want this job in the first place and he mostly did the first few Genesis squares and let an army of other painters work out the rest. Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter. But when the Pope demands you do a job, when he makes you leave your home in Florence and move to Rome for years to do it, well, as an artist, you get a bit moody. You think thoughts.

When he painted the Last Judgement on the wall, he went ahead and put the Pope’s face onto St Peter. After all, the Pope was paying for it. But he also painted his enemy’s face into the corner of hell and his own face into the flayed skin of St Bart. Talk about a statement. But most of all, he painted all of the patriarchs as nudes. Very healthy nudes. When a religious eyebrow raised, he explained that…he was a sculptor. And this is how he rolled.

Much later, after Michelangelo died, painters were sent up there to add strategic little loincloth swags and later during restoration, most came back off again. Today, the mural is a bit of everyone’s opinions.

You also very much need to know that Botticelli, one of the painters on the team, had a pet chihuahua that was inserted three different places in the chapel wall murals. Because he could. I’m sure there were purse dogs in the time of Noah, I just can’t show you chapter and verse. And now the Pope has them.

St Peter’s Basilica is a kaleidoscope of color and gold and movement. It’s like walking into a huge, hollow layer cake that has too many frosting roses on it. At first, it’s sweet, then it’s hard to swallow.

The Pieta is there, a very early Michelangelo sculpture of Madonna and Christ, so early that he felt compelled to sign the thing, to prove he’d made it. It continuously floors me that flowing, rippling motion and emotion can be evoked from naked rock like this. Leti had to prod us forward, past the areas of other popes, the latest of whom was lying, mummified, in his glass coffin, still handing out benedictions. His waxy face peeking out from sumptuous robes had no life in it whatsoever. In the Vatacombs below, where countless other popes lie, you can get an idea of their visage from the likenesses carved on the tops or sides of their sarcophagi.

I’m not convinced a live performance after you’re dead is a better plan.

Finishing the tour brought us out to the edge of St Peter’s Square, but Hubby and I had one more item to cross off the List. We bought ten-euro tickets to climb the Duomo. You take a lift to rooftop level where you find yourself on a small piece of the ledge that runs back around the inside of the domed Basilica ceiling…so we could look down…so far down it made you dizzy…on the places we had just toured with Leti. Swirling tourists, chanting priests, flickering candles, arches full of color and golden light are all around you. An immense space overflowing with opulence. My home feels quite bleak in comparison, but what a thing to see.

We walked away and entered the Dome. Don’t do this big climb if you have issues with claustrophobia, because although the beginning was an open curved pathway painted gold, eventually you are in a narrow, tilting passage, and then you are in staircases twirling straight up and you are hoping the guys in front of you don’t stop because the air is getting tight and there is no going backwards and now it’s stuffy and where is the top of this thing? The return trip is in the opposite side of the Dome and both are one-way traffic only. It’s a commitment.

We enjoyed getting back onto the rooftop, because the Pope had kindly provided us with a souvenir shop and a snack shack right there, with a view to die for. Do you know what all of those saints parading around the edge look like from behind?

Hubby got a bevmo and I went next door and wrote five postcards (with Papal stamps) for the kids and left them for the flying nun to deliver. Below us, St Peter’s Square undulated with multitudes waiting to begin their visit. We strolled past them on our way out, pausing to take a photo of the guards. Honestly, who else gets to wear a uniform this awesome outside of Hotdog-On-A-Stick?

Back in our hotel, Hubby was grateful to put on shorts and let his kneecaps out for some fresh air. We headed to the metro, our new best friend, and sped towards the Colosseum and the Forum.

We left the umbrella behind.

Let’s begin with the fine art: ginormous toes. Pedi time! When even ceilings make you gasp. The map room is this boring…! The Pieta is behind bullet-proof glass. The High Altar Bernini made. That’s the guy… Domes inside of domes. You could go on and on… From the Duomo top. St Peter’s Square is round.