Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Piedmont, Italy – DAY ONE: July 14, 2008

Enroute to the 4th International Wine Business Conference in Sienna, Italy, my good friend Janeen and I scheduled 3 days in Piedmont. She found a great hotel online in the hilltop town of Barolo, called – simple enough – the Hotel Barolo. It was family-run, quaint, and very friendly with an amazing view over the vineyards and the charming village of Barolo.

Several weeks before the trip, I began doing research on wineries and enotecas to visit. I also contacted my friend, Doug Cook, who knows everything about Italian wines and wineries for recommendations. He got me in touch with a couple of wineries via Internet, and I was able to schedule 3 confirmed visits to wineries and several drop in visits to enotecas.

I managed to find a passable airfare from San Francisco to Milan, then from Paris back to San Francisco for around $1500 on US Airways (I was traveling from Sienna to Champagne with a group of 7 other professors, so I had to fly back from Paris). As I had never flown on US Air and the stories I had heard were not positive, I was a little concerned about the trip. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was treated well, the planes were clean, and in every flight segment we actually arrived early. It also had the shortest flight time of any other airlines, with short layovers. On the flight from SFO to Philadelphia I was upgraded to first class, which was quite nice. When I boarded the Philadelphia/Milan segment, which was only 8 hours, I immediately took an Ambien and slept most of the trip. When I woke up, we were landing in 30 minutes and I was surprised to see that many of the seats were empty. I probably could have stretched out and slept on 3 seats if I hadn’t fallen asleep so quickly.

Arriving 30 minutes early in Milan however, was not a benefit, as I had to wait an hour and a half for the Hertz car-rental to open. I used the time to wash up, have breakfast, and eventually got my economy sized car. It was raining lightly as I left Milan and drove towards to Asti via the A4 and A26. It only took about an hour and half, and as I drove further south the sun came out. As I got closer, I decided to take the back roads to Asti and drive through the Monferrato on SR157 (I think?). It was beautiful with rolling hills, small villages, vineyards, sun flowers, and the beautiful snow-capped Italian Alps in the distance. No one had ever mentioned how beautiful Piedmont is. Instead I only heard about the cold and fog – or nebbia for the famous nebbiolo grapes. Now I knew better – I actually found Piedmont more beautiful than Tuscany (perhaps some people will think it is blasphemous to say so?).

Once in Asti, I stopped at the tourist center and picked up a map. Also grabbed some lunch and then headed into the hills to see the surrounding country side and try to find the Costiglione d’Asti, however when I arrived it was closed. Very disappointing. After that it was time to drive to Turin and pick up Janeen at the train station. Driving in Turin was NOT fun –but eventually I found the train station and Janeen. She loaded her backpack filled with Fruilian wine (she had spent the week biking in Fruili) into my car and we immediately headed back to Piedmont – about an hour drive.
Our first stop was the Enoteca Grinzane Cavour which is quite famous, because it is in an old Italian castle. In fact, most of the enoteca – places where you can taste and buy regional wine across Italy – are housed in old historic buildings. They are usually open from 9 to 5pm, but are closed one day per week – it is important to check in advance, because they all have different schedules regarding which day they are closed! We tasted about 4 wines. My favorite was an Arneis 2007, Deltetto S. Michelle with hay and grass notes and a refreshingly high acid. We also tried the 2004 Serralung-Massolino Barolo, which was light ruby color, like a pinot noir, with tart fruit and tar and rough tannins. A little too young to be drinking.

After that, we drove about 20 minutes to our hotel, checked in, and took a very fast shower. We wanted to walk to the Barolo Enoteca before it closed. It was a delightful 5 minutes walk up a cobblestone street from our hotel, and here we received much friendlier service and were able to taste 3 different Barolos side by side while sitting down at a table. The server also gave us a small educational lecture on Barolo and its 11 boroughs. She said there were 1200 producers with around 1400 hectares in vines. In general, they get 52 hectoliters per hectare, and the Barolos aren’t released until 3 years after harvest, with riservas released after 5 years. Most spend a minimum 2 years in older oak. Of the three wines we tasted, my favorite was Damilano Cannoloi Vineyard 2003 Barolo. It was spicy with dark fruit, earth and tar, as well as a nice long finish. Unfortunately it was also $56 Euros.

After that we wandered around the village and checked out the restaurants, but decided the one at our hotel had the best view. So we walked back and discovered we were an hour too early for dinner. Therefore we headed to the pool bar and found that they sold Favorita by the glass. I had read about this grape, but never tasted it, so I was very curious. It was a lovely pale straw color with a floral citrus nose and a high acid finish. I loved the nose, but found the bitter metallic finish a little strange. However, when we settled back into some lounge chairs near the pool with a beautiful view over the vineyards, and the waiter brought us a lovely plate of cheese, salami and bread, the wine was a perfect compliment. And as we sat there, relaxing in the now very sunny day, it turned into one of those perfect moments that you remember from a trip. Beyond the pool were the rippling green vines of Barolo, flowing up and down the hills. We could see small hilltop villages in the distance with castle turrets. The sky was a flawless blue and the air smelled crisp and fresh from the morning rain. Leaning forward, Janeen and I clicked glasses to make a toast to Barolo!

But the lovely day wasn’t over. Dinner on the terrace with the huge earthen ware pots of red geraniums tumbling over the wrought iron railing with the Barolo village and castle beyond was enchanting. As the sun slowly sank behind the hills, they lit candles on the tables. I ordered a beef dish to go with a glass of local Barolo, and Janeen ordered pasta with a Barbera. I thought about ordering a shaving of the famous white truffles with my meal, but they were an additional $22 Euros – yikes. I was glad I waited, because the next evening, we found a great free truffle tasting store in Alba. That night, however, I didn’t have any trouble falling asleep. We had packed a lot into one day, and it was amazing to think that I had arrived in Milan just that morning, and had also driven all the way to Turin and back – plus visited 3 enotecas!

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