Friday, June 13, 2014

Un bicchiere di vino – A glass of wine.

It’s morning in Florence and the air is already heavy with humidity and the sweat of passengers crowding onto the 9:30 AM bus to Greve in Chianti. With the temperature expected to soar to 98 degrees today, I figure it’s best to flee to the countryside, and what better place to escape than a winery in the Tuscan hills?

In less than an hour, I’m standing on the side of the road, looking at the directions I’ve cut and pasted into my phone for the “food and wine experience” at Castello di Verrazzano.

You should take the SITA bus with destination Greve in Chianti and hop off at the bus stop called “Greti.”

Check.

On the main road go in the opposite direction for 100 meters, on your left you will see our wine shop.

Got it. Check.

From there you can reach the winery with a 30 minute walk. The road up to the castle leads through the vineyards of the property.

Oh, dear lord.

Admittedly, this seemed like an inspired idea some months ago—a summertime stroll through a beautiful vineyard. Now that I’ve arrived, two mitigating factors immediately present themselves. First, the stifling heat. That would be bad enough. And second, the hill. The road to the castle is decidedly up hill.

To quote the great Winnie-the-Pooh: “Oh, bother.”

The walk is, indeed, a lovely one. I’m surrounded by gently rolling peaks and valleys lined with long, straight lines of green vines that cling to wires strung between wooden posts. And beyond that are scrubby olive groves and cypress trees surrounding medieval castles with red tiled roofs and crenelated towers. It would have all the charm of Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun” if it weren’t for, well… the Tuscan sun.

By the time I arrive, my legs are tired, my lungs feel sticky, and the perspiration on my forehead is dripping down my face and burning my eyes. I slump onto a bench under an arbor of grape vines, glance at my watch, and feel relieved that I still have time to spare before the tour.

At noon, a dark-haired woman with a hearty laugh comes to the patio to gather the members of the tour. Her name is Maria and she leads us out onto the grounds, which are beautifully manicured with lush green lawns, old stone walls, reflecting pools, and fountains. In those noble surroundings, she tells us the story of the company’s namesake, Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian explorer who sailed to the east coast of America before ending up on the island of Guadeloupe in 1528, where it seems that he was killed and eaten by the natives. Maria makes a well-timed joke about Giovanni being the New World’s first Italian meal and we all laugh.

While the vineyard has been operated by the Cappellini family since 1958, the vineyards at Verrazzano are mentioned in manuscripts dating back as far back as the year 1150. Today, it’s a family affair and as Maria talks we see the owner’s mother Clara, a handsome woman in her 90s, emerge from the castle and wave to the group.

We duck into the cool of the cellars and hear more about the production of Verrazzano wines, which include a fine Chianti Classico. Above the wooden casks is a sign that reads:

SILENZIO. IL VINO STA RIPOSANDO.

Hush. The wine is resting.

After an hour long tour, with just the right mix of history, science, and humor, we’re ready to rest as well. We’re ushered into a large dining room with rustic wood beams, a terracotta floor, and elegant white table cloths. I’m sitting at a long table with a couple from Paris and an extended family from New Holland, Pennsylvania—parents and their grown daughter, their son and his girlfriend. We strike up a pleasant conversation, lubricated by the wine, and before long we’re chatting as merrily as old friends and clinking our glasses to chimes of salute! and cin cin!

The food part of the “food and wine experience” is actually quite a feast, a five course meal paired with seven excellent wines. We start with a glass of Verrazzano Rosso as we pass around large plates of ham, wild boar salami, head cheese, and fettunta—grilled bread drizzled with young olive oil that literally means “greased slice.” Next, comes a Chianti Classico DOCG, paired with penne pasta in a light tomato sauce with herbs. That’s followed by an even better Chianti Classico Riserva with roast pork, a garden salad, and white beans.

On and on it goes. The wine is flowing and the food never ending.

We enjoy a taste of pecorino cheese with a syrupy spoonful of balsamic vinegar, a cantuccini dipped in Vin Santo, and a shot of fiery grappa. People begin to sing and dance. The convivial mood is broken only once, and momentarily, by my own heathen act. Unable to keep pace with the alcohol, I’ve poured the remains of one glass into another to make room for the next tasting. Clearly, I’m an amateur among professionals, and my friends at the table gasp in horror!

By the end of the afternoon, we joke that we’re ready to roll down the hill, all the way back to the SR222 and the bus stop that will return us to Florence. Luckily, a service vehicle is heading that way, and the driver is kindly offers to drop us off.

I glance at the guestbook before we leave. “Fantastico,” “bellissimo” and other superlatives clutter the page.

Indeed.

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