Little Old Ladies

I’ve been to Italy twice in my life. On each trip, I’ve witnessed the matriarch of a family shine and emerge happy for the first time in many years. Both had suffered the loss of a husband. My first trip was a Christmas gift from my grandmother to her entire immediate clan of 15 people including her.

She bought tickets to a Greek Isle cruise departing from Venice to a stop in Bari on the heel of Italy’s boot before our ship steamed across the Adriatic Sea to Greece. This was a trip my grandmother and grandfather had always wanted to do with the family, but were waiting until my cousins, sisters, and I was the appropriate age. Sadly, my grandfather was not able to make it on the trip. He passed away in 1995. I will spare you all the details of this trip and keep them between my family members and me, but I will say, whenever we are all together, the memories from this trip resurface in laughter and smiles from ear to ear. My grandmother, despite a few hiccups with her room on the cruise ship, came out of her shell and had some laughs and smiles.

 I was working for a wine and spirits shop when we left for this trip. I was a few years into the business and at the bottom rung of my career in wine. I was aware of the wine from Italy, but not in detail. The extent of my Venetian wine knowledge was predominately Pinot Grigio centric. We had a few evenings in Venice before our Costa Cruise line was set to embark. My sisters, cousins, and I pretty much ran the city after 6pm when all of the day tourist emptied back out of the canals to the main lands. The streets were quiet and pleasant, and the gondolas were tied up for the night. “Prosecco and Soave” was our mantra for the trip. It was pretty much all we drank as far as wine was concerned.  We would all sit down for dinner and would each order our own bottles of the Soave. It would really throw off our Italian waiters. Who cares, we were having fun and weren’t driving home. Nearly 10 years later, Soave still holds a special place on my palate and is one of my favorite white wines to drink, even though any given wine shop will have only one or two on the shelf. Soave is a wine region around the city of Verona, a bit north of Venice. It is made of the grape called Garganega. It is a light to medium style white and has bright acid notes, flavors of citrus to pears, and from single vineyards and be very pronounced in body and depth. If you have a local wine shop heavy on Italian specialties, ask them for assistance picking out a good one. This was a trip I will never forget.

On my second trip to Italy, I headed to Tuscany. This was a very wine educational trip for me personally. Everyone touts France as the hardest wine country to learn, but for me it has always been Italy. France came pretty easy for me. It isn’t until you walk the vines and countryside of Italy that you understand the artistry of the land and people. Between the hills of San Gimignano and Siena, Italy is the Cecchi family estate, nestled alongside the hills, at Villa Cerna. We arrived there after sampling wines at Castello Montaudo for dinner. As we were driving up to the estate, we were told that dinner was prepared by “Mama Cecchi,” the surviving matriarch of the family. The Cecchi wine estates began in 1893 by Luigi Cecchi. It is currently operated by his grandchildren, Cesare and Andrea. Cesare was at dinner with us and his mother was letting us into her home where she has had no guests in the prior four years when her husband passed away. It was pretty special to be allowed into this 120 year estate built of stone and by hand. It was dimly lit with a lot of candles, and Mama Cecchi was inside the entrance to greet us and after a few words before she shuffled off back into her kitchen to finish dinner. I peeked into the kitchen, which was behind a curtain, and it was no bigger than a kitchen a small one bedroom apartment. There was one other person in the kitchen with her. We drank wine and snacked of local cheeses and salami. The highlight of food was her homemade ribolita which Mama Cecchi had started in the days prior. It is a Tuscan-kale, white bean, and day old bread soup. I’ve had soups like it since then, but nothing really compares to hers. I don’t really remember what the rest of the meal was. There was salad, pasta, and a beef dish. I just remember it all tasting fantastic and hitting the spot. As dinner started, Cesare went to down to the wine cellar of the estate and grabbed three magnums of estate grown Chianti classic from 1988, they were unlabeled and covered in dust. He said it wasn’t what he planned on opening, but they were the last three bottles, and it just felt right that night.  I don’t believe the bottles had ever been disturbed since they were first cellared. The wine was brilliant. This 100% Sangiovese wine was popping with acidity and the tannins had not dissipated one bit. There was loads of blueberry, raspberry, and cedary notes. It was a special wine and a special visit. To this day, I have never tasted a Chianti Classico that even rivals that wine. Maybe it was the setting and the great food, but hopefully I will find one in the near future.

Mama Cecchi’s smile that night was reminiscent of my grandmother’s smiles from five years earlier in Italy. I felt very fortunate to be a part of two groups coming together to be a part of a family matriarch’s joy.