Being in Italy means a lot of things, and depending on what you love, it must mean wine or coffee or a lot of both. I don’t know about all of you readers out there, but two of my favorite things: Wine. Coffee. Maybe not for everyone, but for most of the people I hang out with, it would be some sort of sin to skip the wine experience of Italy.
Unfortunately for Americans, the wine industry has been a trickster when it comes to marketing wine and this is why, especially in the late 70s and 80s, table wine and the nastiest Chianti ever made were bought by the barrels from Americans, thinking that it was the best Italian product at the time when in actuality, most of it wasn’t even authentic. You can still see those straw-wrapped bottles on the shelves, but when I was growing up, that was the thing to buy. Nowadays though, much of the marketing has changed because with the surge of wine magazines, specialty wine stores, the popularity behind wine tastings and wine bars, some Americans are getting smarter. Others are just able to find the better deals, whether it’s the real thing or not.
This is why when you visit Italy, many Italians will treat you like you don’t know anything about wine and that’s because according to their world, most Americans know nothing. Those in that industry have spent years laughing at Americans for what they buy. I envision that a lot of the restaurant workers over there huddle in their kitchens, making a mockery out of us and loving every minute of it. In general, Italy does have a level of gourmet overload to it, where the fine cuisine is expected of them so that is what they project to the tourists, even if it is shit that they are selling. In the end, it is just like anywhere else you visit-you want to be sure to find the authentic places.
The food that the locals crave on their average weekly night. The wine that they save up for on the weekends. The dessert that they treat themselves to after a terrible work week. The best hike. Where do the locals go? I always try to find those out because if I wanted the microwaved version, I could go buy the frozen selections in my hometown grocery store. I’m not complaining about being American, but I do feel that our salad bowl-like culture has done an incredible job at butchering authenticity, especially in the area of cuisine. So when I travel, I really do try to make smart choices, and although I have some fails, the journey of finding the real deal is so worth it.
I wouldn’t consider myself very intelligent when it comes to wine, but I’m getting better at understanding what I like. I have grown from someone who didn’t enjoy wine to a seclusive merlot drinker to a red zin addict to now what I would say is all kinds of blends with some pinot thrown in there. All the while, my enjoyment of a couple of whites has remained. I still enjoy a good Sauvignon Blanc on occasion. When I decided to take a summer trip to Italy a couple of years ago, I had a couple of goals of course, but wine was for sure a major objective. These are a few of my highlights from that trip.
#1 Montepulciano in southern Tuscany
There are several ways to explore the wine vineyards of Italy and I did two versions, one of which was taking a small, guided tour via Vittorio of Italy and Wine Tours (www.italyandwine.net/). The website needs some work, but Vittorio was helpful, succinct, and perfectly Italian. By that I mean he didn’t up-sell his country or the wine; he just took us to the sources, and let them speak for themselves. We did the Montepulciano Tour, which gives you a tour of two wineries plus a mouth-watering lunch in the heart of the town. My favorite winery, Villa Sant’ Anna, of my entire trip came from this tour. I love their version of bold wines, especially the Nobile Poldo and Rosso. From this tour, I learned a lot about wine-making and I also found out that the pink government labels on Italian wine actually mean that it is a more authentic wine. So, when you are buying Italian wine in the states, be sure to look for those pink stickers! Good Italian wines are more difficult to find in Alaska, but I’m getting better at looking. I highly recommend this company.
#2 Cheaper Hostel Wine Tour in Tuscany to the Luggiano Vineyards
So hostels have many advantages, and most of the time for me, that does NOT include the tours that they offer. When/If I ever open my own hostel, one of my main goals would be to tie travelers to good tour companies, but the local, small outfits that maybe my friends are connected to. This doesn’t necessarily mean cheap, but well done. Yes, many hostel travelers can’t afford top of the line guided tours, but there are many travelers, such as myself, who are staying at a hostel so that they CAN afford to do other things while traveling. We are always looking for the best authentic value, not the cheapest option. I have found that a guided tour from a hostel is either unnecessary because you can figure out things as a group or that the tours they offer aren’t the best of the sub-pars of the area. You get what you pay for so to speak. Having said that, guided tours have their purpose, time, and place and when it comes to something like wine, you are pretty much going to have to shop for a guided tour.
His name is Guido and as you can see in the picture, he pretty much fits the bill for some sort of Italian mafia guy, right? He spoke like one too! Not the best wine in the region, but it didn’t matter because the company was brilliant. The family-owned winery Luggiano is a small business and they have a specific focus, one of which is known as a San Veneto, which is considered more of a specialty dessert wine. To create it is a very arduous process and you don’t get a whole lot of product from the venture so it’s pretty expensive. Many of the wineries I visited talked about it. Not really my style, but I like learning about the process. Guido sat us down at his picnic table where his family hangs outside for meals and gave the run-down for how his operation works as we tasted the wine. We then got to tour the area, which included seeing a very old press. Going with my hostel sidekicks made this day light, easy, and fun! For a bargain price, we left with a decent buzz and sun-soaked faces.
#3 When in the city, ask a local about where they go to enjoy dinner and wine
Obvious, right? Florence is a very romantic, artistic city, full of too many choices. Stay away from the squares and ask those that know best about where to go. I had several meals while in Florence, and believe it or not, you can go wrong in Italy. It wasn’t like Peru, where everywhere I went was amazingly delicious and authentic. Those suggestions that we grabbed from locals turned out to be at the top of the list whereas when we guessed, those tended to be just alright. This was especially true in Cinque Terra as well, but writing about that comes later.
Italy is amazing country, full of so much richness, on all levels. I would say that all cultures have richness in one or two areas, but the Italians seem to want to perfect it in everything that they do. Appreciating that at the source, on the acres of vineyards with their family history and identity is truly special. And if you can’t make that happen, when done well, you can still find that sense of pride in the restaurant environment as well.
Soon, I hope to write to you about my tips for Cinque Terre-one of the great hiking adventures in Italy. Until then, I hope this encourages you to try a new Italian wine label out!