Wine wasn’t always what I wanted to do and many years ago I wasn’t even aware that this could be a viable profession. However, as I quietly reflect I see how closely it is tied to my past, a past that really shaped the person that I am today and the trajectory of my life.
My parents are Italian immigrants and began taking my sister and me to Italy before our first birthdays. As a kid my identity was so closely entwined with Italy. In part I feel it was destiny and in part it was how I had intended it to be. I wore my “Italianness” as a badge of honor, something that I felt distinguished me from everyone else. And so from a very young age I resolved that Italy was my place. I would on day move there.
The summers I spent in Italy were so different than my summers in the US. I was always surrounded by cousins, friends, and family. As a kid, and still to some degree to this day, I often felt like an outsider. But not in Italy. Italy gave me a sense of place. I felt like I belonged and this sense of belonging was magnified during lunch. As I grew older and continued to travel to visit my family during the summer, these meals became something I really looked forward to, a comforting tradition. In the US we ate together as a family every night so the concept of gathering together for a meal wasn’t foreign to me. But lunches during those childhood summers in the south of Italy, where life is amplified, felt alive. More people meant more joy and more warmth and more laughter and more celebration. More people meant more food, which in the southern Italian culture is directly proportional to the depth and breath of ones love and affection. The afternoons were animated and energetic, and I loved it.
During these lunches my uncle would bring out homemade wine that he had transferred that very morning to 1-liter bottles from the demijohns kept in the basement. Basements in rural Italy, with their cool and slightly damp environment, also doubled as a wine cellar. I still remember the distinct smell that lingered in the air as I watched wine being slowly being poured out from larger glass containers to smaller ones. It’s the same smell I would encounter the first time I walked into a real wine cellar. At lunch my uncle, while staggering bottles on the two tables that had been pushed together to accommodate 15 plus people, turned to me and said “red or white”. Upon hearing my answer, he would fill my water glass, the kind still used in old-school trattorias in Italy, part of the way. At 10 years old I had my first glass of red wine.
I never gave any of this a second thought then. I was a kid and didn’t have any interest in wine. I didn’t ask what I was drinking or where it was from or how it was made. I did not even know these things were relevant. I was just happy to be part of the moment, of the gathering together, of the sharing, and of the stories.
This small and seemingly insignificant detail became a piece of a much bigger memory, and a much bigger feeling. I felt included. I felt like I belonged. Looking back, I can now see that my connectedness to this place fostered a real sense of self and I carried this with me as I grew. I was almost 30 and I still held the dream of moving to Italy. It wasn’t until I got a glimpse of the wine world that I understood how I would get there. Wine would take me there. While it is true that wine became the conduit for which I came to Italy, it is also what made me stay.
I realize it may seem rather diluted and simple, and perhaps a bit obvious, but Italy is where I learned that wine is inextricably connected to a place. It is where I learned the concept of terroir, a word that may now seem overused yet still contentious. Perhaps I’m touching on the subject of terroir late as it has been thoroughly discussed and dissected by those with far more experience than me, but it is nonetheless ever so relevant. Working now in the Chianti Classico region I have come to really see how a place can define a wine.
“The greatness of the Chianti Classico territory is that it wields a Midas touch…The soils of Chianti Classico, with schistous clay galestro and alberese marl rock, are the envy of the wine world. They impart distinctive aromatic characteristics that link all the wines, no matter the grape, to an undeniable sense of place.” Monica Larner touches on this idea of sense of place in her piece on Chianti Classico new releases in the latest issue of the The Wine Advocate. Here only soil is mentioned, which is of course a decisive factor, but too exclusive for my experience.
I can attest, as many others can, that the greatness of Italy rests in its diversity. In the diversity of terroir, varieties, traditions, and winemaking. The sense of place is many things together, both tangible and intangible, and it is what makes a wine unique and gives it distinctive characteristics. In an article I read some time ago, Eric Asimov writes, in regards to a rare wine being tasted, “The precision and purity and the thread of distinct aromas and flavors –are owed to the interaction of the vineyard, the climate and the people who made the wine. In other words, terroir.” I would take it one step further and add here culture and tradition. Rajat Parr writes something akin to this. “I fight to share and keep alive the wines of typicity. I consider myself an ambassador for those winemakers who are guardians of tradition. And I think this way…because I believe in the accrued wisdom of humanity, which has spent centuries figuring out the best ways to make wine. I love these wines not because they are traditional but because they are alive, they are individual and unique. They are good.”
There are countless other wine writers and experts who have deeply held opinions and I don’t want to repeat what others have already offered on the subject. In many ways I still feel as though I am starting out in my career and in some way that makes me less fit and credible in discussing terroir and sense of place and all those forces that exert influence on a wine. But I do know that sense of place means something. I do know how mighty the force can be. Sense of place is powerful and by understanding it we can naturally move closer to understanding wine. Without those childhood moments in Italy made up of people, emotions, food and wine, love, laughter, togetherness and tradition I would not be who I am in this world and I might not be doing what I do. As much as sense of place can fully shape a wine so too can it deeply define a person.