Thursday, October 28, 2010

Post Postponement

Hello all!

I am in Los Angeles at the moment, and will return one week from today with a new post and wine for you!

Have a great week!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wine for Pad Thai

As I mentioned yesterday, a reader, Kiki asked for a suggestion for a good wine to drink with Pad Thai.

I actually have two suggestions for this, depending on whether you want to go the complimentary route or the contrasting one.

This simply means that you can choose a wine that is going to have some similar flavor notes to the food that you're eating, or else choose a wine that provides a contrasting element to the food.

In the case of Pad Thai, if I was looking for a complimentary wine, I might go with something like the Kim Crawford 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. This New Zealand wine has a lot of nice tropical notes like grapefruit and pineapple, but it also has a very strong green, grassy component to it as well, and since many Pad Thais have a strong green flavor from lemongrass and scallions, the green in the food and the green in the wine will go nicely together.

Plus, this particular vintage of the Kim Crawford is lighter than the one I tasted from 2007, so it will be refreshing and won't overpower the food. And I just last week bought a bottle of the 2009 at Trader Joe's for $14.99!

If, however, you want to try a contrasting wine, I would suggest an off-dry, or slightly sweet Riesling. Since some Pad Thais can be quite spicy, a slightly sweet wine will help cool the heat, and the acid in the Riesling can be a nice way to clean away some of the oiliness that can linger in some Pad Thais.

A nice one to try is Willi Schaefer Riesling Graacher Domprobst Kabinett Mosel 2007. It has some nice minerality combined with honey, nectarine and pear. And it retails for $24. If you go to Trader Joe's though, they have a pretty decent selection of Rieslings, and if you want to try a slightly sweet one, just ask someone who works there which ones are off-dry and they should be able to point you in the right direction.

Let me know what you try, Kiki!

Monday, October 25, 2010


Today we moved from one temporary furnished apartment to another temporary furnished apartment. We will be in this temporary furnished apartment until November 9th when we will move into yet another temporary furnished apartment. We both desperately hope that that temporary furnished apartment will be our last.

I hate the first night in a new place. Let me say that again: I HATE the first night in a new place. I didn't used to, but after moving from one place to another, repeatedly packing and unpacking, adjusting to new beds, new pillows, new showers, new layouts, and new noises since June, I now find each new move unbearable. I cannot express how much I long for an apartment that is full of our own things: furniture, photos, bed linens, towels, books, etc.

This current apartment is very nice, quite large, in a part of town we really like, with a dishwasher and washer/dryer in the apartment. But when it comes down to it, it's not home, and I think when one is not settled in a living situation, one cannot be settled in life.

So we are home but not home. There is a smell in this apartment, like an old musty cellar, where rugs have gotten wet and dried again. I have about 6 candles burning throughout the apartment in an effort to banish the smell.

And I cannot understand why, in furnished apartments and many hotels, it is impossible to find a bed that does not have other people's hair in it. It baffles me. Needless to say, I re-washed the sheets and comforter cover.

We were supposed to move in yesterday (Sunday), but we had a bit of an adventure upon moving in which forced us to have to return to the previous temporary furnished apartment for one more night.

What happened was this: Steve had been given the keys to the outer door and apartment the day before. I had actually never seen the apartment. Steve came and looked at it without me one day when I was busy, and he saw it and he said that it was good.

We entered the building and climbed the stairs (multiple bags in tow) to the third and top floor. We tried the key. Nothing. We wiggled it. We jiggled it. We sang to it. Nothing. We surmised that she must have given us the wrong key.

Did I mention that it was a Sunday and that it was also pouring with rain outside?

Suddenly Steve wondered if maybe he had the wrong apartment, and if it was actually the apartment on the second floor into which we were supposed to be moving.

"You have been here before, yes?" I asked him.

He assured me that he had, but suddenly, in that moment, he doubted himself and wondered if maybe he had the wrong floor. Luckily, there are only two apartments to choose from.

Steve went downstairs and tried the key in the lock to the other apartment, and lo and behold, the door popped open. This would have been wonderful had it not been for the two half-asleep and bewildered people who were actually living in said apartment.

The male of the couple started yelling: "Who are you? What are you doing? Get out! Just get out!"

Steve apologized profusely and tried to explain, but the man continued to lose his mind.

"God damn!!" we could hear him shouting and stamping around. Have I mentioned he was kind of a big guy?

His female counterpart then opened the door and the two of them looked out at us as if we were a couple of ax-murdering-circus-freaks, and we tried again to explain what had happened. The lady-friend seemed calm about it all, but the guy still continued to stomp around in the background, cursing and shoving hunks of raw meat into his mouth.

We called the rental office and informed them that we had been given the keys to the wrong apartment. It was then that we were informed that no, we hadn't been given the wrong key, both apartments have the same lock, and therefore, the same key that works on one apartment will work on the other.

Well then it was our turn to lose our minds. Both apartments have the same key??!!! What is this, BIG LOVE, where we're all just one big happy family who just can waltz in and out of each others' homes whenever we like?!

How would I ever sleep knowing that Thor, the moody giant downstairs could just enter my home whenever the whim took hold of him, say, for example, if he smelled pie?

And isn't it, oh I don't know, ILLEGAL, to not have a separate lock for each apartment?!

My friend in the Sheriff's department informed me that, why yes, indeed, it is illegal, so Steve called the owner of the building and informed her that we weren't moving in until she changed the lock.

And you'll never guess what she did....she argued. She protested. She claimed it was fine, that it had always been like that, and that (and this one is my favorite) she knew the people downstairs and they were nice. NICE?! Isn't that what people said about Jeffrey Dahmer?

The man downstairs, she informed us, is a baseball player! As if that made anything better. Then all I could do was imagine this guy coming after us in a roid-rage swinging a baseball bat.

Steve essentially informed her that she was an idiot, and once he dropped the phrase "Our friend in the Sheriff's Department says...." she quickly changed her tune.

So now, here we are. Temporarily.

On another note:

My loyal reader Kiki asked for a recommendation for a wine to accompany Pad Thai.

Since I have babbled so much today, however, I will wait and answer that question tomorrow.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wine for Making Progress

Well I am happy to say that things are looking up after one week back in San Francisco. The jet-lag seems to be gone, so we are no longer looking at each other across the table at 8pm with our eyeballs spinning around in our heads, desperately trying to stay awake. This is a major coup.

We have found other places to live, all temporary furnished apartments, and though it still involves a couple more weeks of moving around from one place to another, at least we have an idea of where we will be laying our heads for the next month or so, which is greatly comforting.

Add to that a few glimmers in the job department, and things are looking decidedly...brighter.

I am once again writing tasting notes for wines that are being sold on a very cool website

The Wine Spies features and sells a different wine every day at considerable discount, so it is worth checking back in with them daily to see what they are offering. I will also alert you here if I feel there is something particularly yummy coming up, which is exactly what I am going to do now!

On Friday, October 22, the Wine Spies will be offering Balance by Heath Dolan, a 2007 Mendocino County Red Field Blend. There are quite a few cool things about this wine:

The first is that it is made by Heath Dolan, son of Paul Dolan, the pioneer of biodynamic farming and winemaking.

The second is that the wine is made from biodynamic grapes. Biodynamics takes organic a step further, whereby in addition to not using chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, it also strives for harmony with the land, nature, and in some cases, the phases of the moon. It seems to me that biodynamics is about having that close relationship with the land and what you are growing in it and producing from it.

The third cool thing about this wine is that it is delicious, which ultimately, is the most important element of all. This wine, as the name suggests, is beautifully balanced, with subtle tannins, juicy but understated acidity, a lush round smoothness in the mouth, and a lovely nose and palate of blackberry jam, black currant, raisin, cinnamon and dried plum.

You can certainly drink this wine alone or enjoy it with a juicy grilled steak or lamb chop. At $20/bottle on The Wine Spies it's lot of wine for the money.

Let me know if you try it!

Peter, you asked me for a rich fruity wine without any bitterness, and I think this wine really fits the bill. I contacted a wine shop in Fort Greene to see if they sold it and they don't, so I will try to come up with another option for you that doesn't have to be ordered online.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Help Me to Help You, Help Me to Help You!

First of all, let me apologize for getting off to a bad start this week. I promised a new post yesterday, but I didn't deliver.

I blame it on the fact that we are still very stressed out and distracted while we look for a place to stay. We have somewhere we're staying now, and then we have another place to move into on November 9, but between October 24 and November 9....nada.

Maybe we can stay with you, huh? What do you think? What's two and a half weeks among friends, right? We're delightful, I promise!

In any event, I have a new mission and I would like you all to help me with it. While I am looking for a job, I want to try and keep myself sharp, wine-wise and that's where you come in.

Tell me your wine needs...and I will strive to fill them! Tell me what you're looking for and I will find it for you!

Looking for wines under a certain price point? Wines for a splurge? Wines from a certain country or a specific varietal, or both? Looking for a wine to go with certain foods, occasions? Wondering what to serve at Thanksgiving or the holidays? Or looking for a wine gift for someone else, or for yourself?

Let me know and I will see what I can do! I will be your wine finder!

Either send me an email or post your request in the comments section.

Help me to help you, people!

Friday, October 15, 2010

The New Schedule

Now that we are back and no longer in trip-mode, the blog will return to its previous schedule:

New posts on Mondays and Thursdays with a wine recommendation on Thursdays.

Stay tuned!

We're Baaack

Hello to you from surprisingly warm and sunny San Francisco!

We have arrived home in the middle of a mini-heatwave, and I must say, it has been kind of nice, all the sun and warmth. I think the wave is over as of today, however, and the temps will return to more normal 60's, which are also nice in my opinion.

I am happy to say that it is lovely to be back in San Francisco. I really do love this city, and it has been fun to wander through our favorite neighborhoods and feel the comfortable familiarity of everything.

The trip now takes on that strange hazy quality, where it almost feels like it never happened, though i still have so many amazing memories.

The temporary apartment, I am happy to say, has been just fine. Everything seems new and clean and thus far, there have been no major noise issues, and it is located a couple of blocks from Fillmore Street, which is loaded with shops and restaurants.

Things are still on the stressful side. On top of the whole having-no-jobs extravaganza, we also have to figure out where we are going to live as of next Sunday. This temp apartment is too expensive to stay in for long, so we are trying to figure out what our next move should be.

Really we want to stay in San Francisco, but obviously rents here are high, and we don't really know what we can spend per month since we currently have no income and don't know what our income will be once we do have it. Since we don't know where we will be working, we also don't know where would be best to live as far as commuting goes. Plus, there's the issue of signing a one-year lease when we don't know if we will be able to stay here, say, if we can't find jobs here and have to move elsewhere.

We looked at a place in the North Bay, in San Rafael, about 20 miles north of SF. This has the advantage of being much cheaper and designed for more short-term stays, plus we can rent furniture which means leaving our things in storage for a bit longer and not having to move it twice.

The disadvantages of this are that it's very suburban, so there's no walking down the street to get a coffee, and if we wind up working in the city, the commute could be a bit of a pain, and the apartments all have that cookie-cutter, pre-fab thing happening. But, there is a washer/dryer in the unit and a second bathroom, all of which, to me, are heaven on a stick.

Nothing is perfect and we will figure it out, obviously. Hopefully. We will, right?

Monday, October 11, 2010

And Now, The End is Near....

Well, I can't believe it, but today is the final day of this incredible trip.

We spent a wonderful weekend in Monaco, sitting outside the cafe looking at the casino and the Hotel de Paris, people and car watching. I was alarmed by the number of men wearing pink pants and either sweaters tied around their shoulders or white scarves. It's a look, that's for sure.

Now we are in an airport hotel in Paris, waiting to fly back to San Francisco tomorrow.

I would be lying if I didn't admit that we are pretty petrified about going back. I think I am literally sick with worry, and I basically haven't eaten anything other than crackers and rice since Friday morning.

We have a place to stay, at least, when we get back, a corporate apartment in Lower Pacific Heights. Steve made the mistake of going online and looking at reviews of it and apparently they weren't good. I think the word "dump" was used several times. It doesn't inspire confidence.

We will try and find someplace better as soon as we are back, though it is hard to know what to look for in an apartment when we're not sure where we'll be working and what kind of money we'll be earning.

I keep telling myself to take nice deep breaths and trust that everything will work out. Send us positive vibes if you can-we'll need them!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Grappa-Fest 2010

Welcome to Grappa-Fest. Every night, at about 10pm, Luciano knocks on everyone’s door and invites us all into the veranda for shot glasses of his homemade grappa and Vin Santo.

Without a doubt Luciano (left) and I have a little Italio/Americana love-fest going on. This morning he even went so far as to pull fresh figs off the tree near our room and give the to me. If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is.

Luciano, without a doubt, is an Italian man through and through, and he LOVES women, so all of us ladies here get showered with attention every night, as does Luciano. His face went beet-red last night as the three women at last night’s Grappa-Fest all had our picture taken with him.

Carlo (his son) said last night that Luciano would rather arrive for Grappa after Carlo and Isa have left. Because then he gets all the attention for himself!

He has had a pretty amazing life, Luciano. He was a share-cropper when he was young, and then when communism infiltrated, he became a paid worker, and then a landowner, and is now the owner of Cretaiole as well as the family farm in Pienza.

There is definitely a very different idea of family here. It is much more traditional, much more communal. The men are still very much in charge, and Luciano and his wife, Carlo, Isa and their two kids, plus Carlo’s sister and her fiancĂ©, all live together at the family farm. I think if my family tried to do that, there would be physical violence after about two weeks!

It has certainly been nice to be a part of it, though, even for two short weeks. The day before yesterday we helped out with the grape harvest here at Cretaiole, and lunch was a massive affair, with everybody gathered in the verandah for a meal of pasta, sausage with chick-peas, plum cake and of course wine and vin santo! It was such fun to be a part of a big extended family meal like that, and we just had the feeling that that is something they do all the time.

Back to the evening Grappa-Fest, though. I somehow, have become the official translator; me with my ten Italian lessons back in May!! But I will say that I am amazed at how much my Italian has improved in these two weeks of just talking every day with Luciano, dictionary in hand.

I could never have improved this much by just taking classes or listening to CDs. There is no substitute for conversation, talking with him about the grape harvest, food, the weather, the cats stealing the steak, his cruise to Dubai, Steve’s and my travels. I feel like I have gotten a year’s worth of Italian lessons in two weeks!

In addition to being in charge of the family, Luciano also tends to his animals (pigs, chickens, rabbits), the garden, makes prosciutto, pecorino, red and white wine, grappa and vin santo. All at 70 years old.

We have eaten some extraordinary tomatoes and zucchini from the garden, and the day before yesterday he pulled a fennel bulb straight up from the ground and told us to eat it with oil, salt and pepper. The fragrance of that fennel was not to be believed. And the tsate of it, light and sweet, but full of that anise yumminess. It has made me hope that Steve and I might be able to get some kind of apartment with some kind of a yard one day so we can try to grow some of our own veggies.

Luciano has also brought me and Steve fresh eggs, straight from the chicken’s butt as well as this amazing fresh ricotta cheese. I have never tasted ricotta like this before in my life, so fresh and light. This is probably because I’m always buying fat free ricotta at home, which is like silly-putty.

Well no more! I have been converted. This ricotta is amazing on pasta, and, if you can believe it, Nutella!

When Luciano suggested ricotta and Nutella for dessert I thought he was out of his mind. Who would ever add cheese to my beloved Nutella? But then I decided to try it. I mixed equal parts Ricotta and Nutella in a bowl (maybe adding a little more Nutella), stirring until it was as smooth as I could get it. And I tasted it.

It was delicious. Somehow the ricotta lightened the Nutella, made it almost fluffy. But after a night in the fridge, it became this rich, dense delectable treat. Steve said it reminded him of a Toblerone.

I strongly urge you to try it, but do yourself a favor, don’t use low-fat or non-fat ricotta. Go for the good stuff! You won’t be sorry.

Big Daddy Steak-Stealer

These are the cats. The sweet, cute, precious farm cats. They run around the farm and the grounds surrounding Cretaiole, chasing bugs, mice and people to their heart’s delight.

They stand outside our door in the evening, meowing to be let in. They sit with us outside while we chat, eat, drink and read. They cuddle up, sit on laps and purr, taking us ever more off our guard.

And then….they strike. A huge chunk of pecorino cheese that Isa left out getting ready to take home? Gone. Taken away by one kitty and munched on.

The steak that Scott left sitting by the grill while he waited for the coals to be ready? The Big Daddy cat jumped up onto the table, grabbed that hunk of meat in its teeth and dragged it off behind the bushes.

From inside our apartment we heard Scott yell “You little shits!” When we came out to see what was going on, we saw two of the other cats hovering outside the bushes while from inside we could hear the sounds of Big Daddy growling that strange kitty yowl-growl while he devoured that raw meat like he had never seen food before.

Periodically, one of the other cats would risk sneaking in to try and grab a bite from Big Daddy.

Within a few minutes, that steak was history, as was Scott’s dinner plan.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


On Friday we had the chance to go truffle hunting with Massimo (left) and his two truffle dogs.

This entails walking through the woods behind Massimo and the dogs while they sniff and root around. Truffle dogs apparently take about two years to train, and it was fun to watch them nosing around.

The only problem was, this is the beginning of white truffle season and there just weren't many truffles to be found. Plus this was the first time Massimo led a group of peole around with him and the dogs and I think the dogs found us very distracting. Especially once they realized there wasn't much happening in the way of truffle-finding and decided it might be a better idea to just kind of run around, roll around in the scent of dead things and chew on an old deer skull.

At some point Massimo decided to give the dogs a little morale boost, and he asked Steve and the 11-year-old in the group to bury a previously found truffle that he had in his pocket, so that the dogs could have the satisfaction of actually finding something.

As I mentioned, there were two dogs with us. One of these was an old female dog, called Nice (as in Have a nice day), and the other, a young male dog, called J. Well J was definitely the faster of the two, and he kept finding all the truffles that Massimo had us bury. J was then beyond happy, and would run to Massimo for his affection and treat.

Nice had already started to get a little depressed that she wasn't finding anything, but when the young upstart started getting all the truffles and attention, that proved just too much for her to bear. Tail deep between her legs, she dramatically walked into the brush a little ways away from us and lay down. She wouldn't move, she wouldn't acknowledge petting, she wouldn't take a treat. She just lay there, with baleful eyes and sulked.

It was so hard not to laugh at how sweet it was. So dramatic, so calculated, so clearly done for our benefit. After a while, Massimo rolled her over, rubbed her belly at which time she seemed to decide she had milked it enough and she got up and trotted along with us again, tail wagging. A lady knows to never overplay her hand.

Pici Party

On Thursday after our wine tasting, we returned to Cretaiole for a class on how to make Pici, the local pasta, followed by a group dinner.

Let me just say that I am normally not a fan of trips where groups activities are organized, partly because normally when we take a week-long vacation, we like to just relax and keep to ourselves a bit, but at this time in our trip, it has been fantastic to have all these pre-decided group activities to attend.

Everything is voluntary, so nobody has to participate in anything they don't want to, but it has been really nice after so long by ourselves, to take part in things with other people. And as I have mentioned, Isabella, Carlo and Luciano have been wonderful. They are so energetic, passionate about sharing their lives with us, and about sharing what they love so much about this part of Italy.

Plus Luciano has been the best Italian teacher I could ever have had. He speaks slowly, using the simplest of words, always brings his dictionary, corrects me occasionally in the gentlest of ways, and most of all, he lets me make mistakes. As long as he can understand what I'm trying to say, it's all right if I've used the wrong conjugation or agreement. Especially since I can only speak in the present tense! But as long as I clarify today, tomorrow or yesterday, we're ok.

Anyway, back to the pici class. Pici, as I mentioned, is the local pasta, and it is kind of like a very long, very thick and chewy spaghetti. Pasta in Italy is a whole different animal to what I have tasted in The States; thick and chewy, cooked in water with a whole lot of salt. Isabella laughed at us Americans when we said we cooked pasta with no salt or a pinch of salt. She said you need "a bunch" of salt, and that if salt was so bad for you everyone in Italy would be dead. I have to say, she has a point there.

To make the pici, Isabella dumped out mounds and mounds of flour, and then scooped it out to make an oval wall of flour. Into the middle of this well she added a dozen eggs, water and olive oil. The original poor peasant recipe contained only water, but now they add eggs. The oil was added for us amateurs, to make the dough easier to work with.

She then blended the eggs, oil and water, while incorporating flour from the sides of the wall. The biggest challenge with this part, she said, is not breaking the flour-wall too early and having eggy water pour all over your floor.

After a little while, the mess of liquid and eggs became more solid and she was able to break the wall and incorporate the rest of the flour. Then she started kneading the dough in a way that of course looked simple, but once she partitioned the dough into four sections and gave us a try at kneading it ourselves, proved to be difficult.

Here we are with Phil, Ellen, and our dough baby. I'm afraid this might be the only baby our parents get from us!! Once the dough has reached the right consistency, it is pressed down into a slightly flat oval, then strips are cut. Holding the strip the left hand, you take your right hand and begin rubbing the palm across the dough, hard, while moving to the left. This is supposed to yield long, round strips of pasta, which are then coiled loosely, dipped in cornmeal to avoid sticking and placed in boiling water.

This is, of course, easier than it sounds, and to get a uniform length of pasta is almost impossible. We wound up with think, fat worms, or strands so thin they broke as soon as we picked them up, or lengths of twisted pasta link coils of rope.

In the end, however, they all tasted delicious. Isa boiled them and served them with her pasta sauce made from veal, beef, tomato paste, onion, carrot and celery ( I think that's what she said was in it), and Carlo grilled us up a massive amount of home-made sausage and ribs.

They were the most delicious sausages and ribs ever. The thing I've learned the most about Tuscan food is the simplicity of everything. Most dishes contain only a few ingredients, intended to highlight each ingredient rather than obscure. So bruschetta is simple bread and tomato, sometimes with basil or rubbed with garlic. RUBBED with garlic, not drowned in 15 cloves so that you can't taste anything else.

Pasta dishes are super simple as well, not overburdened with sauce, and often just sprinkled with pecorino and pepper. The sausage Carlo made contained meat, fat, salt and pepper, and nothing else. The ribs were just ribs, sprinkled with a lot of salt and rosemary.

Starting a meal with bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar? Doesn't happen. I haven't even seen balsamic here. The bread is made for dipping in the sauce of whatever else you've eaten and that's it.

And the pasta here, so much better than any I've had anywhere else; so dense and chewy, even the dried pastas are better. I don't know why it's so different. Is it the amount of salt in the water? The cooking time? I will have to experiment at home.

Fattoria del Colle

On Thursday we went to visit a wonderful winery, Fattoris del Colle in the town of Trequanda.

The woman who runs it, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, inherited the estate in 1998, and decided then and there that she was going to make her own wine. The next thing she did was revolutionary: she hired a female winemaker after which she decided to hire and all-female staff.

Thus, she now has the only winery in Italy completely run by women. I find this very cool, and also a little sad that in this day and age it is still such a rarity.

We had a tour of the lovely property followed by a tasting of four of their wines. My favorite was the 2005 "Cenerentola" ( which means Cinderella) Orcia DOC. The tech sheet for this wine draws similarities between the wine and the fairytale, saying "Both have step-sisters who are older and more famous. The step sisters of the iwne region are Nobile de Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino who are on either side of the Orcia DOC region."

The wine is a blend of 65% Sangiovese, and 35% Foglia Tonda. The latter grape has apparently been in disuse fpr along time, but Donatella decided to bring it back. According to Donatella, the Foglia Tonda gives power and the Sangiovese gives elegance.

I thought the wine was just lovely, full of dark red and black fruit, chocolate-covered cherry, violet potpourri, bramble and tobacco with a nice tannic/acid balance with a medium/long finish. Lovely to drink alone or with food like pasta with wild boar or rabbit sugo.

Reality Setting In

Now that we have out tickets back to San Francisco, reality is, unfortunately setting in. We are trying to be here in Tuscany in the moment and not worry too much about what awaits us when we go home, but it is challenging, to say the least.

The realization that we have NOWHERE to go when we get back is a little alarming. We have some wonderful friends who have offered us their guestroom for a few days, but I am loathe to take them up on their offer. They are some of our closest friends in San Francisco, and I want to continue being the people they want to see, not become the people they want to get rid of!

We are trying. long distance, and with no phones and sporadic internet, to find a corporate apartment for a week or two when we get back while we look around to find a short-term furnished rental which we will stay in until we find jobs and decide where in The Bay Area we actually want to live.

This is, needles to say, a lot to think about, and sometimes it catches up with us and sort of freezes us in our tracks. To not have jobs or a home, two major things that bring people a feeling of security and well-being, we are without.

I feel confident that things will work out fine, and I am trying to just relax, have faith, and just enjoy our last few weeks of travel. Wine helps with this, more than I can say.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wine For My First Harvest

Wednesday I participated in my very first grape harvest, and I have to say, I thought it was glorious.

Cretaiole had already planned a group visit to Icario Winery in Montepulciano for today, and the night before we found out that they were going to be harvesting the grapes and we were invited to join in.

We got very lucky in that the sky was clear and blue, but the temperatures were only in the sixties, so we didn’t roast. The Aussies in the group were telling us about their experiences of harvesting in Australia in temperatures of 110 degrees, and let me tell you, it did not sound fun.

We arrived at the vineyards, were taken by truck down to the vineyards and, armed with a plastic bucket and a pair of shears, we were sent out into the rows. These grapes don’t grow too low, so while there was some bending over required, there was not so much of it that you feared you might never stand up straight again.

The grape we were harvesting was a varietal I had never heard of before, but which they told us was usually grown in Northern Italy. Icario uses it in their entry level wine, blending it with Sangiovese.

I didn’t think about it while I was working, but afterward, Steve mentioned that it was therapeutic, working in the vineyard, and I have to say I agree with him. You can’t think too much when doing the work, you just get into a groove and move from bunch to bunch, cutting, looking to see if there is any mold in the grapes and either cutting it away or discard the bunch, place the bunch in your basket and move onto the next.

Periodically, the tractor advances through the rows and people riding along with it collect your basket, dump the contents into a big tray, and return the basket to you to be refilled.

There is something so beautiful to me about those bunches of grapes, so dark purple and full to bursting. The weight of them was something I didn’t expect, some of the fruit so ripe that it burst when you touched it. And the sweetness of them. Not cloying, but just so wonderfully….ripe. Like no grape I have ever tasted before.

After about two hours, we were taken back up to the winery itself where we saw the trays of grapes that we had just picked get poured out into a long tray which jiggles the clusters of grapes toward the de-stemmer, where the grapes are separated from their stems, partially crushed and funneled into large stainless steel tanks where they will begin the period of maceration (where the juice and skins and seeds all soak together to impart color, flavor, tannins, structure to the wine. Then fermentation will begin.

I will have to try to get a bottle of the 2010 wine when it is released, so I can drink it and say, “I picked this fruit!”

From there we were led to a long table where we had lunch and of course, some of Icario’s wines.

Lunch was pecorino cheese, prosciutto, salami, and bruschetta with what may have been the best tomatoes I have ever tasted. I am not a fresh tomato lover normally, but these were extraordinary: deep, ripe red, sweet, and mixed with fresh basil and olive oil.

I have noticed in Italy that none of the bruschetta we have eaten has contained any garlic, which I think is lovely. Bruschetta in The States is always screaming with garlic, and I think all it does is mask the taste of the tomatoes and olive oil. It is very possible though, that if a restaurant is using un-ripe tomatoes that maybe they need that garlic to mask the flavor.

The first wine we tasted was their white, NYSA 2008 Bianco Toscano, which is a blend of 60% Pinot Grigio, 30% Gewurztraminer, and 10% Pinot Nero (Noir) vinified to be white instead of red.

This was one of the most interesting white wines I have ever had. It is aged in oak barrels which imparts its dark color, and the little bit of Pinot Noir in it gives it a lot of oomph and body. I also found it fascinating that this Italian winery s making a white wine from grapes which I would much more readily associate with Alsace than with Italy.

The first whiff of it, when it was very cold still, yielded a lot of golden delicious apple and grapefruit pith and peel, but as it warmed up, the sweet scent of honey, caramel and apple cider started to dominate. On the palate, the apple was strong,er than the citrus, and a caramel/butterscotch flavor lingered.

We also sampled one of their reds, the Vino Nobile de Montepulciano 2007, which is a blend of 80% Sangiovese, and 20% Colorino, Canaiolo and Merlot. This wine was much more what I ave come to think of as a Tuscan wine, with black cherry, red cherry smoke, leather dried and stewed fruits, violets and that light tinge of iron all emerging.

It was an absolutely lovely day.

My New Diet Plan

I have been thinking quite a lot about food and diet lately. Partly because we have noticed that in Italy, it is impossible to get any other type of cuisine other than Italian. No Chinese, Thai, pub, American (whatever that is!), Indian…nothing.

Apparently, Italians just have no desire to eat anything other than Italian food, and when they travel abroad, they only want to eat at Italian restaurants!

I find this hard to grasp, since one of the great things about travel is getting to eat local food. More than that, though, is the idea of variety. I don’t want to eat the exact same type of food day in and day out. No matter how much I may love pasta or pizza or risotto, I just can’t eat it all day every day. After a while I want something that tastes totally different: sushi, or stir-fried noodles with tofu and broccoli, or steamed dumplings with soy sauce. Yum…

The other reason I have been thinking about food and diet is because of all the weight I have lost since starting this trip. I have been thinking about gaining and losing weight, and why at some times it is easier to lose weight than at others.

As I have already mentioned, I am sure that a lot of my weight loss has to do with no longer taking the anti-anxiety medication. I really believe that another reason why I have lost so much weight, is that I just don’t care about it right now.

We are always talking about the mind-body connection, and I think there is a lot to be said about the idea of “letting go” when it comes to weight loss, mentally more than physically.

In the US we are so obsessed with being thin, with losing weight, with not eating one food item or another. The guilt and shame so many of us feel when we eat something “bad” for us is astounding, and I think those bad feelings cause our bodies to clench, to clamp down, to hold onto weight.

How many times have I been out to dinner or lunch with friends and had the ordering and eating process become a discussion of what we shouldn’t order, shouldn’t have eaten. How often have you yourself been to a restaurant and agonized over what you “should” order vs. what you really wanted to order?

So often it seems that we feel we need to be punished for eating, for enjoying any food other than lettuce? For me. Certainly, this feeling like I have done something wrong when eat pasta only gets me on a loop of eating something, feeling bad about it, and then eating more because that is how I cope with my bad feelings! I know I’m not alone in getting stuck on that loop.

Right now, and indeed for this whole trip, I just don’t care about what I weigh, or how much I eat. If I want gelato, I eat gelato. If I want pasta, I have pasta. I eat what I want when I want . And there is something about this mental letting go that I think has allowed my body to let go as well, to regulate my cravings and body weight in a more natural, balanced way.

It used to be that I couldn’t have a jar of Nutella at home because I would sit by myself and eat the whole jar in two days, with a spoon, I kid you not. And the guilt I felt doing that….monumental. I felt like the worst person in the world; a fat, greedy, no will-power person. I would feel like I had just done one of the worst things a person could do.

Now, I have had a Nutella jar around for ever, and it is only partially eaten. Somehow, I have managed to remove all judgment of what I eat and how much I eat of it, and it’s like I have therefore removed the temptation. I have suddenly made the Forbidden Fruit unforbidden. Want Nutella? Then eat Nutella, who cares?! And as a result, I don’t really want the Nutella so much anymore. Or I can have a little taste and be satisfied, and not feel that I have just done something terrible by eating it.

Here food is life, it is community, it is social, it is family, and there is no shame in the consumption of it. Shame made me heavy, freedom from that shame has made me lighter, literally.

That in and of itself could be the most valuable insight gleaned from this trip, and I hope with all my heart that I can hold onto this mentality, because if I can, it will change my life.

Up, Up and Away

Sunday morning we got up at 6am, drove to a house near the town of Montisi, and went for a ride in a hot-air balloon. It was fantastic.

I had never been in a balloon before, and I really had no idea what to expect. Our “pilot” Chris, and Robert, who runs the balloon company (both men from England) prepped the balloon in the yard of Robert’s house.

First they stretch out the balloon fabric on the lawn and then “cold inflate” it by blowing air into it from a huge fan. One the balloon gets to a certain point, they switch to the hot air, which I believe is lit by propane tanks attached to the basket. The balloon goes from lying on its side to floating upright above the basket.

Steve, the pilot and I got in the basket, and, with a few more blasts of hot air, we left the ground. It was such a strange sensation to be standing in a basket, suddenly airborne.

We had a beautiful clear sunny day with very light winds. We floated, as you do, over houses, towns and fields. We saw a herd of white cattle running out to pasture, saw the different colors and patterns of brown plowed fields and rich green ones, stands of olive trees and grape vineyards.

The funny thing is that dogs apparently can hear the sound of the gas when it periodically is fired to blast hot air into the balloon, so as we floated along, we could hear a chorus of dogs barking in our wake.

Apart from the dogs below and the occasional noise from the hot air, being up in the balloon was incredibly still, quiet and peaceful. It was surreal to think there we were, floating 3,000 feet above the ground, in a basket. There was a bit of Willy Wonka about it.

After about an hour and a half we landed in a field with nothing more than a slight bump, tilt, smooth and easy. Chris told us that if the winds are stronger, you can have an “exciting” landing where the basket tips completely onto its side and drags along while the people inside of it fall on each other and get quite cosy.

Robert, who had been driving along following us, met us at the field and while Chris put the balloon fabric back into its sack, Robert prepared a breakfast for us all of local salami, bread, an amazing sheep’s cheese, melon, grapes, almond cookies, plum preserves, and, of course, Champagne!

It was a wonderful experience, and if you have the opportunity to go on such a ride, take advantage of it.


We arrived on Saturday at Cretaiole, our final destination in Italy, just outside the Tuscan town of Pienza. Cretaiole is what is called an Agritourismo. Agritourismos are essentially farm-stays, in which families allow guests to stay in rustic rooms or apartments on the family farm. Many of these agritourismos also run restaurants in addition to the working farms.

Cretaiole is owned and run by the Morriccione family, and in addition to running the Agritourismo, they also farm grapes and olives from which they make wine and olive oil.

The unstoppable Isabella organizes a variety of activites for the people who stay with them, from cooking classes and visits to Siena, to organized dinners, winery tours and the opportunity to participate in the harvest of both the grapes and the olives depending on the time of year.

In the five or six rooms and apartments available here, all but one are occupied by Americans. The other family is from Australia. It has been nice to actually be able to socialize in our native tongue, though I have been trying out my Italian on Luciano, the Morriccione family patriarch, who tends the family garden (the most amazing zucchini I have ever tasted came from this garden) and invites all of the guests to spend the evening on the verandah with him sampling his homemade wine, grappa and vin santo.

Luciano speaks almost no English, and he brings an English/Italian dictionary to the table with him so we can look up words as we try to speak Italian with him! I seem to be the most game to try it out, and I feel like I am getting better every day, though I still have only the most basic of vocabularies and can only speak in the present tense!

The homemade vin santo is actually quite tasty, and Luciano told us all that we should put our cantucci (small cookie like a biscotti) into the glass of vin santo and let it soak for a bit before eating it.

The grappa is so strong it will light your innards on fire, but Luciano insists that the first glass is rough, but the second glass is much better. Though he himself admitted that any more than two glasses and you’re in trouble.

Our apartment has a fireplace and since I can literally spend a blissed-out few hours staring at a roaring fire, we tried to light one our first night. We got it lit just fine, and as it was roaring away, I looked at it.

I noticed that it was moving; not the fire itself, but the area around it. At first I thought it was ashes moving and swirling, but as I looked more closely, I noticed that what was moving were legs; lots and lots of legs.

What began to take shape in front of my eyes were bugs. Green bugs about the size of my thumbnail. Lots of them. Lots and lots of them. They filled the hearth area around the fire, and some of them popped over the edge to squiggle around on the floor.

Steve, trying to be nonchalant, said, “It’s not too bad.” An hour later, though he was singing a different tune, as we scooped up these bugs by the shovel-ful and deposited them on the fire. Some of them flew around the room and we chased them down.

They just kept appearing, and we couldn’t figure out from where: the grate, the flu. Some other secret bug depository that we couldn’t see??

We spent nearly an hour scooping and chasing before the steady stream of them finally abated. When we went to the verandah for our well-earned grappa and vin santo, we learned that they are called stink-bugs.

Isabella and Carlo, who currently run Cretaiole (Luciano is Carlo’s father), said that our fire was the first of the season, and that probably the bugs had taken up residence in the flue and we had literally smoked them out when we lit our fire.

Subsequent fires have yielded no such deluge, so I think we got rid of the majority of them, though they still find their way periodically into the apartment. I have just seen that there is currently a stink-bug infestation happening in the US, with 29 states affected.

Looks like this (I am planning on including a photo of the bug here, but the internet connection is very bad, so I can't upload any photos at the moment. I will add it as soon as I can!) could be waiting for us on our return to San Francisco. Welcome home!