Florence is the place most people go when they visit Tuscany. It is a city like no other, with ornate cathedrals, museums crammed with Tuscan art and artifacts, piazzas that demand a stop for coffee and contemplation and enough shopping to entice us down side streets and alleyways.
We (actually John and Laura) have found a gem of a hotel – the Relais Uffizi – on the Piazza del Signoria in the heart of Florence. I awake this morning to watch dawn creep over the Piazza, slowly illuminating Michelangelo’s famous David (the replica outdoor version) from my third floor breakfast room. The Uffizi Gallery, the old Borgia Palace and an outdoor gallery of impressive statuary await outside my door, the Duomo mere minutes away.
Unfortunately thousands of others wish to see all this too, even the pigeons seem frustrated with the hustle and bustle of tourists clutching maps wanting to see it all – NOW! I am part of the problem not part of the solution.
We console ourselves with a kilo of Bistecca alla Fiorentina; when in Florence…
I much prefer the Tuscany outside of Florence, the Tuscany of small winding roads, isolated hilltop villas and rolling vineyards – so perfect it feels like a movie set. Our visit takes us to the Chianti region south of Florence, on the way to Sienna.
The small roads are designed for color-coordinated Italian cyclists out for long rides; road bikes and motorcycles compete for space with OMTT’s (old man tiny truck) – little pre-war putt-putts with only one front wheel (don’t ask which war, Italians haven’t been winning any lately so they’re not counting).
We avoid traffic jams with the OMTT’s with a picnic in the shadows of Pieve Santa Maria Novella, a church that traces its heritage back to the 11th century. Jane, with help from Russell and Katy, treats us to an unforgettable al fresco lunch of humble Tuscan fare – sumptuous!
We’ve arrived just days before harvest, the vines are resplendent with grapes.
Our home for two nights is the Villa Barone, near the village of Panzano, a complex that has been in the same family since the 15th century. The Conte and Contessa are not there to greet us; they arrive on the weekend in their Ferrari from somewhere equally elegant (we’ve decided they were at George Clooney’s wedding in Venice).
Instead we are blessed to spend a delightful Tuscan evening with Fabrizio, a local wine merchant and restaurateur from the neighboring village of Radda. This is my Tuscan sweet spot – one of those special moments I know I will remember forever. It is late afternoon and the Tuscan sun is turning everything into luscious golden hues – soft, warm, mellow and gentle. We sit in a semi circle near a stone wall, a small trickle of water from a fountain offers melodious background sound as the shadow cools us into the evening. Fabrizio has provided us each with three glasses of wine, a few bottles of water and he is about to give us a wine tasting. Instead we are blessed; he tells us stories, a rich textured, deeply personal Chianti history lesson.
Fabrizio is from Chianti; he is a successful restaurateur and a wine merchant, buying the local wine and selling it into the cellars of discerning US oenophiles. He grew up here, emigrated to the US, worked in the restaurant trade. His heart and soul tugged him home; he came back to Radda, opened his own restaurant, traded a little wine to customers back in the States and raised his family in this little bit of heaven. He caught the crest of a growing wave of interest in Tuscany and Tuscan wines; his restaurant has grown from a few tables and a borrowed umbrella to a local tourist hot spot. He now owns a wine shop up the street (there is only one street in Radda) where he informs, educates and assists tourists and wine snobs alike.
He even manages to help us understand the intricacies of balsamic vinegar. He tells a delightful story of how parents start the long process of making Balsamic vinegar when their daughter’s are born; by the time they marry the Balsamic dowry is worth tens of thousands of Euros.
He has a mean motorcycle and a more utilitarian Vespa to help him make the rounds of vineyards and villages. Fabrizio describes each of the three wines as he would describe friends; his knowledge of the local Chiantis is encyclopedic. His passion and enthusiasm for the wine he loves is palpable; even my agua frizzante tastes better as the others sipped and enjoyed. He laces his wine tasting with stories of the region, stories of how Tuscans survived the hard times when their grapes provided simple sustenance – sugar and bread and a bit of wine was dessert – long before they were classified with a number on Robert Parker’s scale of success.
I haven’t had a drink of wine in decades; no matter, this evening is special and it isn’t about the wine. It’s about this place called Chianti, the Tuscan way of life, the history, the sense of family and friends and belonging.
It is about the land; nurturing it, teasing it and working it to produce something special – something so special that others will travel thousands of miles just to share it for a while. People ship wine to their homes, continents away, to recall and reminisce over their sweet spot moment in Tuscany.
At one stage, Fabrizio said that, to him, wine was bottled poetry. If so, Tuscany provides the paper, the pen and the ink to help wine write that poetry. And what poetry it is.