I’d known Ross for a while, but I didn’t really know him. Now, I had managed to talk my way into plotting a road trip with him from Milano to Napoli with the explicit purpose of consuming dozens of wines and thousands of calories along the way. Soon, we’d be entangled in each other’s bodily mists, steaming in a mobile terrarium doing one hundred and fifty kilometers down the Autostrada in the middle of July. Not knowing would give way to inhaling deeply, swapping stories of our youth, of our travels, and sharing in each other’s elation, exhaustion and metabolic perfumes of fermented juice and well-worked wheat all while on our way to the next meal and wine tasting.
Ross owns a natural wine importing and distribution business called Critical Mass (kinda reminds you of the early days of the internet bubble, no? The meaning of the term remains the same, but the subject could not be more different). His primary focus is on Italian natural wines, for which I have a strong affinity. Italian wines are for everyday drinking. When these everyday drinking wines are made naturally, they are one part of a balanced diet, and a gross omission from the grossly oversimplified food pyramid, a soul nurturing and stress-reducing panacea that, along with the advent of various THC/non THC-laden tinctures, the most evolved minds would refer to as medicine; preventative medicine of the highest order. They also taste great. They taste of place, of the soil in which they were grown and the air that whistles through the vines, of the house or cellar or garage or mountainside where they were fermented. They make food even better and food makes them better still. The bright and buoyant quality of a well-made natural wine is, simply, something to celebrate.
Before we go too deep into my embellished tales of Italian road-tripping, allow me a moment to explain natural wine. Natural wine is incredibly common, it has been made for thousands of years and, chances are, if you’re a wine drinker, you’ve drunk a natural wine. Some of the world’s most highly regarded houses/brands make natural wine, however, they may not choose to advertise this fact because there is no need for them to do so. Natural wine is not new, nor is it a trend, but, yes, we can certainly say it is enjoying a renaissance. I first happened upon a group of wine drinkers who were making the distinction between wines made naturally and those not being made naturally about 15 years ago at a small restaurant in Redhook Brooklyn called 360. Drinking there, night after night, I began making the connection between wines that, from the cultivation of the vine and the berry, enjoyed very little manipulation along the way to becoming wine. Grapes grown organically and in a biologically diverse garden, or vineyard, pressed and fermented spontaneously without chemical catalysts and bottled without elaborate filtering processes yielded light, expressive wines that danced on my tongue. They were alive, and I could taste it. Thanks to the pioneering group of folks out on Van Brundt street in the early aughts, my palate was forever altered.
There are four important factors that make natural wine distinct from conventional wine and one great big important thing to remember:
1) The grapes are grown organically, without pesticides
2) The grapes are harvested by hand, not machines. This emphasizes attention paid to grape quality.
3) The pressed juice is allowed to ferment without the use of added yeast. The yeast that occurs naturally on the vines and in the cellar is responsible for eating the sugars in the juice and converting it to alcohol, nothing else.
4) No additives are used in the wine to alter flavor, increase the percentage of alcohol or to stop fermentation.
AND, ONE GREAT BIG IMPORTANT THING:
Just because a wine is natural doesn’t mean it is good!
As with all products, there too are bad examples of natural wine. There are snake-oil salespeople out there who will try to sell you a poorly made wine that while, yes, it may be natural, it is off in one or more ways. They’ll sell the story of how it’s made or tell you the flaws are intentional. Always taste for yourself, don’t be sold by a story. Plowing a field with a yak doesn’t make the wine taste better. A wine must stand up on its own, without influence from either romantic or ill-intentioned storytellers.
Having traveled extensively up-down-and-back-around the boot and having ventured on a wine tasting a time or two, I knew I had to prepare. I was eager to return to the soft vistas, the overcrowded Autogrills, and the easy pace of un lungo pranzo. Embracing the art of the long lunch is not the business of dilettantes, no, like cultivating a proper drug habit, one must be committed to the thing to discover the transcendent beauty in gustatory overkill, heat flashes, ass sweats, and dehydration. When the mind is numbed to the physical demands of massive caloric consumption, true enlightenment is achieved. To handle seven days of non-stop eating and drinking, one must conjure a monastic discipline not unlike the revered Shaolin monks. I began with scotch.
You see, only a novice would start drinking wine before a wine adventure. The idea is to mitigate the onslaught of acidity and tannins to come, while preparing your mind to handle the rigors of consistent intoxication. Some prefer beer, but I find that pedestrian beverage leads to nothing more than a nightmare of headaches and bloating. Single malt scotch, on the other hand, is a well-crafted beverage that produces a fine euphoric effect, far less rugged than the corn-spike bourbons of the middle of the country, and far more pleasing than the monosyllabic palate of the latest vodka en vogue. And let us not speak of gin and the fire-spitting dervish it coaxes from my prehistoric cortex. No, scotch is a gentleman’s beverage, and ever aspirational, I am drawn to it.
A note to airlines: when are you going to improve your wine lists? The dark little secret here is that had I wanted to drink wine at the beginning of my journey, there were certainly no decent wines from which to choose. And believe me, I was offered no solace by the goofy mug of some sommelier entity plastered on the wine card in American Airline’s first class. I find myself at a loss as to the benefit of sommelier training other than the novelty of a good party trick.
I had heard the voice of our photographer on a conference call organized by our respected magazine and knew Andrea was a woman, but beyond that I knew not what to look for. So, properly dazed from my medicinal whiskey applications, I stared at each passing woman in Malpensa with the expectant eyes of an imminent greeting. None were wiser as Italian women have long inured themselves to the half-glazed doughy gaze proffered by countless men and boys throughout the warmer climes. She woke me from my stupor with a phone call, duh, and we prepared to organize our car. As we waited for Ross we speculated on the make of car, imagining some horsed-up German ride overflowing with colorful bottles, hair blowing in the wind and, pinkies up, not spilling a drop as we sip the finest wines know to humanity driving winding roads through terraced vineyards.
Enter Ross, a man of the world, Teva’s and all. Upon seeing him, I immediately freshened up, delighted to be in his presence. Ross is a man without pretense, a man of public transportation, a true traveler, humble scholar and full of scorn for all aristocracy. A brother, to be sure.
True to form, he secured an Opel. Some soccer mom-ish, sloped hatchback cum SUV. White. I believe it was an Opel Kandahar or Kajagoogoo, or something thereabouts and equally as disastrous when compared to our fantasies and as indicated by the names I ascribed to it. I adored the anonymity of our ride, and the apparent safe-ness of the choice as, upon a time, Ross was a motorcycle racer, and a damn good one at that, and I’ve rode shotgun on enough switchbacks with former racers, wannabees, and jack-asses that I preferred the allusions to domesticated caution evoked by our white whatever it was.
Absent but energetic discussion about the traffic and the varying modes of transportation from here to there that got us all to where we were got us swiftly out of Milano and well on our way to our first stop: Fattoria Mondo Antico. FMA is a comfortable agriturismo and winery situated in the low-lying hills of Lombardia approximately an hour and a half from Milano. Diego and his father, Dario, focus their energies on growing grapes and making wines of the region: pinot nero, barbera, croatina, moradella, and chardonnay.
We began our day with endless plates of the family’s own salumi, bread and, from down the road, their grandfather’s ricotta. This is a proper introduction to a day and night of wine drinking as wheat, meat and fat provide layers of protection from the acidity and alcohol. We drank through a vertical of their chardonnay, and then I became particularly fixated on a bottle of 2015 Pinot Nero, almost losing my cool, I consumed damn near the entire bottle and this was only the first lunch. I determined to return to my room for a bit of self-flagellation, yet there was no time as we were set to visit the cellars and taste barrel samples. No one said a thing, perhaps they didn’t notice my over enthusiastic slip-up. Fortunately, I have had years of experience and knew I had the fortitude to press on.
The star in the cellar was a light red they were calling a rose and that, in their eyes, was simply a mistake, of which they were trying to make the best. I find this happy accident to be both typical of small natural wineries and a benefit of making wine in this manner. If something isn’t really going according to plan, when you’re small and you’re both the grower and the winemaker, you have the intimacy with the product required to be nimble and make something other than what you were originally planning. How often has calling the last minute audible resulted in great innovation? I think we’d all agree on countless times. Large, machine harvested, indifferently farmed vineyards don’t have this luxury. In the case of large farming, if something isn’t going according to plan, something else is added to fix it. In that case, innovation occurs not in the vineyard or at the winery but at some outside company mandated to design chemicals or machines to ensure continuity. I have a big problem with continuity, not just in my life, as an idea. The obsession with growing businesses to stamp out the same widget the same way until the end of time is just fine when you’re making airplanes and if the widget isn’t right the plane won’t fly, but in agricultural products, variation is healthy. At FMA the only resemblance to a factory is in the name.
Another delightful and typical quality of many small, natural growers and winemakers is they enjoy growing and making wines from grapes indigenous, or if not indigenous, ones that have been around for a long long time, to their regions. Often the grapes that succeed in a particular region are the ones that owe their history that region. FMA is growing moradella, which is not an emulsified salumi from middle earth but an earthy, thick skinned, inky grape that is all but gone from the vineyards of Lombardia. It was full bodied, luxurious and a bit feral and, with a little luck and some hard work from FMA and Critical Mass, we’ll be seeing it here in the states. At dinner that night, I drank another bottle of that 2015 pinot nero and a proper amount of moradella complemented by Diego’s mother’s casoncelli alla bergamasca, a dumpling-like pasta from the area that was stuffed with breadcrumbs, eggs and bits of their salumi.
The next morning, Ross found me greedily eating figs from the tree spreading its bounty outside our room –ah, Italy- and insisted I take a café with him. In Italy, taking a café is required reading approximately five times a day, whether you need it or not, a distraction to break the monotony of the day, if your day progresses as such. Ours did not. Before I knew it, we were on the road south and driving in the breezy hills outside Lucca to visit Paolo of Al Podere di Rosa. A very youthful sixty, Paolo was hiking up and down his hillside vineyard excitedly showing me the seventy-year old trebbiano vines that had been planted in concentric semi-circles. His theory for the pattern is protection against rot, that is, the rot wouldn’t travel down and across an entire straight line of vines, rather, stop at whatever level of the circle it had begun. Planting informed by Dante, perhaps.
Paolo makes a wine he calls Chiesino, which is a blend of trebbiano and vermentino and is favored my wife, Jori, and our wine director at Fish & Game, Lila, who was pouring it by the glass for the better part of the summer of 2018. Refreshed from quaffing a couple vintages of Chiesino while standing in the semicircular vineyard, we sought out a decent lunch spot. As mentioned, lunch is a serious affair, to stop at any Autogrill and eat a panino on a trip such as this would be considered negligent. Andrea, our intrepid Los Angeles born photographer has lived in Italy long enough to almost be considered a native, and, as fortune would have it, knew of a spot en route to our coastal Tuscan destination.
Perhaps due to the quickly fading buzz from my morning correction, I was desperate for table and some sparkling fortification, I swore up and down there was snow in the Apennines, which flanked us to the east, so much so that I convinced my cohorts and we puzzled over how it was possible mountains of such unimpressive altitude, on the coast of Tuscany, were sprinkled with snow in July. Our answer met us almost as soon as we turned off the Autostrada, confronted with wall-size slabs of stark white marble carved, wouldn’t you know, from the surrounding mountains all along the coast, exposing snow-like white cliffs and sheer walls, and shipped all over the world from the seaside town of Viareggio, next to which we found the al fresco Osteria La Brocca in the village of Pietrasanta.
At lunch, we were joined by a local architect and artist who argued the authenticity of the maltagliata trabaccolara (randomly cut pasta sheets with seafood ragu) I was eating, explaining his grandmother never added tomato, as I argued back the merits of orange wine. We were all feeling confident in our opinions after Ross and I had righted ourselves with a bottle of spumante we had picked up in Lombardia. Paolo’s Chiesino is a slightly orange wine, and we had put a couple bottles on the table to drink with the rabbit, which had been slowly cooked with white wine, bay leaf, all spice, onions and olives.
With whom I was sharing this dialectic other than Ross I am not aware, but as it’s convenient for my narrative I will take a moment to note that among the uninitiated there is an impression that natural wine means all the white wines are not really white at all but hazy, off-colored, cider or beer like effervescent beverages. In fact, not truly white wine at all. This is, of course, stuff and nonsense. White natural wines rank among the most elegant fermented drinks known to humanity, possessing a finesse not often found elsewhere. Yes, there are too the wines of a less familiar color, less familiar in modern society, but they do not dominate. These off-colored wines are often the result of pressing out the juice from the grapes and then allowing the skins to sit in the juice for a period of a time, thus encouraging the skins to somewhat pigment the wine, just how much so is based on the length of time the skins sit in the juice and the variety of grape, color of skin, etc. This type of maceration was a common practice before commercial production of sulfur dioxide achieved relevance, along with other advancements, in the post-war industrial west.
In winemaking, sulfur dioxide is used to stop fermentation. When a winemaker determines she is happy with her wine, she can add the SO2 and the wine will, essentially, stop living. Fermentation will stop, the yeasts neutralized by the chemical. Adding SO2 to a wine during the fermentation stage is like pulling the emergency brake on a train. It’s a swift and decisive dead stop. There are a number of reasons why winemakers allow the skins and juice to mingle. Only one of them is that sulfur dioxide occurs naturally in healthy, organic vineyards, often appearing on the skins of grapes. Allowing for post-press contact between skins and grapes not only lends a tannic structure to the wine, it further protects the wine from fermenting all the way to vinegar by naturally introducing sulfur dioxide.
Our new friends enjoyed the orange wine from Lucca and, to return the favor, ordered up a round of sgroppino, vodka mixed with lemon sorbet, for the road. I admired them for their confidence in Ross’ ability to safely drive us to our next destination and I was fully prepared to assist with navigation, between naps.
When we arrived at Piero Riccardi and Lorella Reale’s home and cantina perched on a cliff in the small town of Bellegra, Lazio, I took my shoes off. Well rested from my navigation naps, I joined this lovely couple on their sprawling patio, vines and wild herbs tangled just below, from which Piero claims one can see fourteen villages. I drank in the views, the soft breeze, and the landscape of steep green hills and stone structures punctuated by slender cypress. I also drank Malvasia and Cesanese. Their wines are made from these two indigenous grapes grown in vineyards stretching between Bellegra and the neighboring town of Olevano Romano. These are food wines, and Piero and Lorella showed us exactly that, treating us to snacks of crostini with fresh sheep cheese drizzled with olive oil, anchovy and rosemary, thick slices of homemade testa, fresh ricotta made from local raw milk, and a giant bowl of figs that had been picked that morning from one of the several fig trees shading the property. There was a moscato Piero had made when he was a young man in 1978, no label, and properly dusty from the cellar. The wine still had some structure, acid and fruit and we savored it while we nibbled on Lorella’s gorgeous pear crostata. Lorella is from Sicily and she is nobly perpetuating the stereotype that Sicilians have great facility with sweets. I could have reclined on their patio for weeks, fattening on her marvelous pastries, their well-structured Malvasia and slightly gripping Cesanese.
Piero is a bit of a forager, and among the vines he finds a variety of wild herbs, some of which I knew and some I did not. A man after my own heart, he tossed these herbs in a bowl with just a bit of salt and his vinegar, reserving the olive oil for another use. I don’t know at what point in our culinary evolution it was somehow agreed upon that oil had a role to play in delicate salads (I am not referring to hardier chicories, which need some fat to balance them out), but I find it strangles the greens rather than exalting them, as does vinegar, salt and/or colatura. More of his herbs found their way into the evening’s dinner of abacchio (sheep) braised with red wine and tomato, paired brilliantly with some older, brooding vintages of this fine couple’s Cesanese.
Campania was hot when we arrived from nearby Lazio, made hotter still by the late night we had spent under the stars, listening to Piero tell stories about his career as a documentary film director for Rai Uno, and drinking his wine that also told a story, a story of those hills, the soft, warm breeze. A story unadulterated by chemicals or flavor influencing yeasts, a story that has a sense of place.
Now the place we had arrived was hot, Vesuvius hot, and in a greeting that seemed somewhat counterintuitive, our hosts offered us deep fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella. Counterintuitive or not, I gobbled them up as I stood in the sun in the hills of Montemarano, drenched in sweat, and they were delightful, made even more so by the crisp, cold and ever-so-slightly smoky Fiano di Avellino made by our host at Cantina del Barone. I found this Fiano a great example of how a wine can truly taste of a place. Ages ago, following the last great eruption of mount Vesuvius, the ground was piled high with ash. This ash was eventually covered by soil and receded below the surface, but not too low to find influence. Not more than two meters below the surface sits this layer of packed volcanic ash, found throughout Avellino. No where is its presence so apparent as in that hint of smoke found in wine, made naturally, from some of the older vines in the region.
Having spent hours in the late morning Campanian sun in our Opel hothouse followed by scarfing down several giant cheese and meat stuffed fried blossoms, I was ready for a shower, often one’s only reprieve when tackling a schedule as demanding as ours. Word was, the family who runs Il Cancilliere were preparing a midday feast for us, presided over by “Il Cancilliere” himself, the capo of Ross’ merry band of Campanian farmer winemakers, so I hustled to get through my late morning ablutions.
When I emerged from my room, I found the crew at table under a cluster of hazelnut trees, laughing and enjoying some aperitivi. Angelo of the eponymous Cantina dell’Angleo had joined out crew. He was tall and had strong but not sharp features, there was both a severity and a mild sadness in his eyes, the gravity of which was set off even more by his cleanly shaven, bald head. As he ushered us into his jeep, he chewed on a half-smoked cigar and I couldn’t help but draw some connection to George Peppard’s Hannibal from the A-team. Angelo owns the oldest Greco di Tufo vineyards in the DOC, and he uses his jeep to get to the top of the hills, so steep that we literally tumbled out from the jeep, which was only grades away from resting on its back end, nose up in the air, clutching to the the crusty soil, to survey his plots. The mineral depths of his wines are striking and certainly influenced by the sulfur deposits in the area. The minerality, direct and incisive, piqued our appetite for the generous spread we found upon our arrival at Il Cancilliere. I looked over at Angelo as he raised a glass, a smile growing on his face, and I imagined him saying, “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Before long, we had all become great friends, sitting under a pergola of vines, noshing on olives stuffed with wild holy shoots and homemade salumi. Claudio, Il Cancilliere’s front man and resident music savant is the spokesperson for this triumvirate of Campanian winemakers, and he began opening verticals of their Taurasi without reservation. Taurasi is made from the Aglianico grape, the noble grape of Campania. In order to call a an Aglianico Taurasi, it must be aged in oak barrels for three years, not unlike the requirements for turning Sangiovese Grosso into Brunello di Motalcino. When young, Taurasis are big, bold wines that explode fruit and earth and a lumberjack’s grip. As they age, they soften in a way that lets you know all is right with the world. The earth, well cared for, gives this to us, naturally. This wines also pack a bit of a punch ringing in at higher percentage alcohol than the wines of the north and central regions.
Blessed bacchus and the laughter he brings, we drank and stared with awe and envy as the family’s nonna hand-rolled and cut tagliatelle that her grand daughters then boiled in a copper pot heated over a wood fire and tossed with fresh porcini in the family’s entertaining taverna. Swirling pasta, swigging fine wine, and cooling off with slices of zucchini tossed with mint and vinegar, I knew once I left I would not be able to taste this again until I returned. The only taste accessible is captured in that dark juice, an invitation to return, an invitation to nostalgia, and a story only the wine can tell.
Ross Bingham is the owner of Critical Mass Selections. CMS is an importer and distributor of natural wines, based in New York, distributing in select states across the country.
Zakary Pelaccio is a James Beard Award winning chef, restaurateur and author. His restaurant Fish & Game has an entirely natural wine list for which he has won Wine Enthusiast’s top 100 wine restaurants in the country 4 years in a row. Pelaccio’s most recent book is “Project 258: making dinner at Fish & Game”. He also produces The Peripheral Natural Wine Festival in Hudson, NY every fall.