I can hardly believe how much time has gone by since I’ve written or posted anything. It’s a fast-paced life, and during this time I’ve been blessed with some great trips and wine tastings which I feel need to be shared. Since I can’t write a book about it, I will share some highlights in this post and I hope you get inspired to try new things and visit new places.
I remember when I took my first ‘wine class’ and realized how complicated this study can be. As many of you know it’s not only about the smell and taste of the wine, it’s a complete history lesson about a country — from the Ice Age to modern volcanic activity. Wine always tells a beautiful and enchanting story. To sip it is to live! It’s a time capsule from the Old World to the modern spin in the New World.
I feel very lucky and honored to be Italian-American living in California. Honestly, it just doesn’t get any better — from Napa wines to Montepulciano in Tuscany. I get to taste a lot of wine, being the sommelier of Primo Italia, the restaurant owned and run by my husband and me. I get to express our heritage and love of food, wine, music, and people. Our trip to Italy last summer was a wonderful combination of sharing our culture and family tree with our children. We also ate and drank very well. In Sicily we climbed Mt. Etna and sat on the rocky beaches of Taormina and the white sandy beaches of San Vito lo Capo, drinking Etna Bianco, Insolio, Grillo, Zibbibo and Nero d’avolas to our hearts content. There’s beauty and wonderment in how these wines and their vineyards continue to grow in the comfort of Etna’s ashes — it’s an anomaly of it’s own.
Riding the aliscafo from Salerno and viewing the picture-perfect towns along the way and their many grapevines growing along the cliffs, being blessed with the spritz of the Mediterranean — this memory puts a smile on my face. One marvels at the love and care these vines get as the vintner prunes and protects them. They are hand-harvested — there are no machines that can handle this job. We stopped in Ravello, the home of Marissa Cuomo, a wonderful winemaker producing beautiful whites, reds, and rosé. As we flag down an ombrellone in Positano and order a plate of frutti di mare, we enjoy our glass of Falanghina (the varietal of Campania). My husband and I sit and watch blissfully as our kids splash in the sea. In the distance we hear my favorite Italian summer song, “Partiti Adesso” (enjoy the song as you read …)
Our Italian tans glisten as we ascend all the stairs to shop for sandals and postcard paintings. It is simply my heaven.
In Tuscany, the scenery gets rustic as we drive through vineyard after vineyard of Chianti and Montepulciano. We stop at Cantina Contucci, where we are hosted by Andrea Contucci, one of the sons of forty generations of wine. He graciously gives us a tour of the castle he lives in. We then drink wine in the cantina next door. It’s hard to believe the history of this place. The walls are decorated with art by the same artists who lined the halls of The Vatican. Then there are the musty pre-War cellars where Andrea himself as a child played hide and seek. The old cobwebs feel creepy to my kids. Large casks line the cement walls and are still in use today. As we walk through, I notice a ‘topper’ which is something I had never seen before in Italy or Napa. This amazing tool, called a Colmatore, comes from the verb “colmare,” which means to fill. Basically this topper has 3 uses, to fill the cask without opening the vat and therefore limiting oxygen exchange, observing the first bubble which indicates if wine needs to be added or take out, and lastly it allows gases to get out during fermentation. Invented by Leornardo Da Vinci, it is still in use today in Montepulciano. The Old World truly believes “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.” This tour is an art and history lesson for all of us. My youngest son, Santino, with his huge eyes, can’t believe he what he has seen; he begins reciting quotations from his favorite book, “Who Was Leornardo Da Vinci”.
Drinking Contucci’s wine is transcendent! The juice came from vines over forty years-old which still produce amazing fruit — all the while never getting irrigated and simply living from the depth of the vines and the water they get depending on the weather alone. I now have a whole new palette as I taste these reds from the Rosso to the Reserva. The history and techniques seen here are not at all shared in our Napa Wines, which use the more modern technology and marketing techniques to attract their oenophiles. Not to say what is right or wrong, but there are only a few notable wineries in California — such as Frogs Leap, with their cool red-door barn and vineyard dog — that tout their organic and natural winemaking techniques, from the vineyard to the filtration.
From the king grape of the Tuscany, Sangiovese to the international varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Verdot — who together have bestowed upon us the American beloved Super Tuscans — you simply never need to leave the Tuscan hills. Whether we eat pappardele with boar, or sip Vermentino poolside at our agriturismo Poggio Al Tufo, or visit the Etruscan town of Pitigliano where we can envision historic battles as we sit beside ancient walls — we find ourselves satiated in more ways than one. We make our way to Florence, our last stop, where I hope to buy some jewelry on Ponte Vecchio along the Arno river, I remember the phrase I heard over and over in earlier wine classes and now rings so true to me on this trip: “What grows together goes together”. This should always be remembered, no matter where you are in the world when drinking wine. Look around and take it all in. Appreciate where you are and what that region has to offer — from the people to the plants to the animals that roam the fields. It’s part of the ultimate wine experience.
Summing up, the trip to Italy got me so excited that I planned out five months of wine-themed dinners at Primo Italia with some of my favorite wines and winemakers. As chef and I work to curate the perfect menu, I am excited. From the moment my guests arrive, we take our three-hour journey together. As we eat and drink through each course, my guests’ eyes express the joy this gathering has brought them. We began in fall with a tasting of an assortment of wines from Colle Massari Montecucco to their Bolgheri Grattamacco which lead to a series of Tuscan wine dinners. Beginning with Nozzole of Chianti, then Castellina Di Quercetto as their entire family joined us, and Mamma Laura cooked a traditional Tuscan fare for our guests. The gifted winemaker Andrea Contucci made the trip to visit us in L.A., where we reminisced about our unforgettable visit in Italy.
On June 14th we welcome Peter Neptune MS as we explore the wines of Piemonte the home of Nebbiolo the noble grape. I like to call him “My Master” since he taught me so much. (limited seats left). On September 6th we have an exciting collaboration with Billy Harris as we Primo Italia is one of the featured restaurants in the Billy Harris Dinner Series where we will serve a multi-course dinner and wine pairing as well as have a live auction to benefit No Kid Hungry, The Trotter Project and the James Beard Foundation. Eat and drink for a good cause!
It’s been quite a year, and although there aren’t enough hours in the day to taste and share it all, I sure try. I truly appreciate the time people spend with me — and all the new folks I have met, and the places I’ve visited. It’s my way of living my life to the fullest.