I knew my group would be in for a major learning experience when I scheduled our visits in Barbaresco. The first stop was Gaja, the most exclusive winery in the region, and the second a visit to Produttori di Barbaresco, the co-op that produces wines for a collective of 54 farmers. Angelo Gaja has done more to put Piedmont on the map than anyone. He is an ambassador that has promoted these wines and this region for decades. His single-vineyard Barbarescos are extremely hard to find and command prices of over $300.
Alessandra Forlani, Gaja import director, showed us around the winery, which is joined to the Barbaresco castle, an incredible building which they have restored into an incredible wine tasting facility and art gallery. Halfway through the tour, she took me aside and said that Angelo Gaja remembered me from last time, and would join us for the tasting. Turns out that Angelo is an avid cyclist, and rides some of the toughest hills in Piedmont!
It was back in February when I met with Richard and Ann Opper, a couple who asked me to put a bike and wine trip together for them and their friends. They said it could be in any wine region, my choice, and that the biking should be challenging, but not ridiculously hard. It took me all of a minute to come up with the Piedmont region of Italy. It is incredibly beautiful, I love the wines (Barlo, Barbaresco, Barbera) and the hills are more difficult than Tuscany, but not as crazy as the Dolomites.
As a student of Renaissance art, I’ve been obsessed for years with the following question: “Am I the only one that’s noticed there is nothing from the New Testament in the entire Sistine Chapel Ceiling?” Think about it. The most important work of Catholic art ever, in the Pope’s personal chapel, consists of panels depicting Genesis, Noah, Jonah … scenes entirely from the Old Testament. Surrounding these panels are prophets, sibyls from pagan mythology, and a frat-house-worth of nudes. 300 figures in all, and not one Saint, Virgin or Savior, the subject matter of 99% of the Renaissance art found in Catholic churches.
So there I was, my first night in Rome, mentioning this to my friend James Barron, an ex-pat art-dealer who has lived there from years, and he replied “Actually there’s a new book about it, a collaboration between a Rabbi and a Vatican tour guide. It made the NY Times best-seller list.” That night I googled it and found, The Secrets of The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican, by Roy Derliner and Rabbi Benjamin Blech. The book argues that Michelangelo, unhappy with the Church and the Pope that commissioned him, drew heavily on Jewish culture and the doctrine of Kabbalah in designing the Sistine Chapel.
I’m here in Rome, camping out between bike trips. While looking up wine bars, I happened across an entry in Hungry Girl, where she runs into Mario Batali and he tells her “I only eat at wine bars in Rome. That’s where the best food is.” So I decided to put my list of bars up against Mario’s. The research has been exhausting! In checking them out, I found some new favorites, found that some of my old faves had gone downhill, and verified that the tried-and-true great wine bars of Rome are NOT resting on their laurels! For this “best of” list assume fabulous wine selections and good food … wine bars with sh**y selections didn’t make the list. Each address below is linked to the google map.
Cul de Sac – This has always been my favorite. Why? Walls lined with bottles, outdoor seating, always crowded, perfect location, great array of cheeses and meats, darn good food, too. Along a cute sidestreet close to the Piazza Navona. Piazza di Pasquino, 73
Il Simposio di Constantini – Classy place connected to a very good restaurant. I was sitting at the bar, enjoying a glass of Pinot Nero and the free hors d’oeuvres, and I met a group of ex-pat journalists, which led to two more glasses of wine, which led to … Continue reading “The Best Wine Bars in Rome” »
My much-anticipated month of biking and wine tasting in Italy finally began last week. Five of my closest wine-loving friends joined me for a ride through the Veneto, which includes Lake Garda and the beautiful valleys of the river Adige, surrounded by the towering and dramatic Dolomites. Of course along the way we had to visit plenty of Amarone and Alto-Adige producers … When I lead a tour the wine is as important as the biking!
On Friday, our visit was to Tenuta San Leonardo outside of Trento, where they make a fabulous and world-reknown Bordeaux blend. A while back I heard of a story where a well-known wine collector from Beverly Hills, who claims to hate all Italian wines, was poured a glass of the San Leonardo and proclaimed it to be a great Graves.
I know my friends at Do Bianchi and MondoSapore are disapointed in me for liking a Bordeaux blend made in Trentino, but San Leonardo has been growing these varieties for over 100 (pre-pheloxera!) years. Insult to injury: the cute doggie in the picture is named Barique.
So we arrive at the estate, which includes the magnificent villa of the proprietor, the Marchese de Gonzaga (if you know your Mantuan history, you’re impressed). It sits among 700 acres of immaculately maintained vineyards, gardens and the forest that extends up to the surrounding mountains. The director of marketing, Fulvio is taking us through the vineyard when a Renault pulls up and out steps the Marchese himself. We chit-chat about biking in the region, the great weather, blah blah blah, but within a couple of minutes, in my broken Italian, I start sharing the story about the BH wine collector.
I got a lot of grief from people that wanted to hear about biking, not drinking! Here goes, while I’m still in Veneto after-glow:
Biking in the Veneto is, along with the Basque coast of Spain, my favorite place for biking in Europe. Why? How’s this for a short list: 1) you ride along bike trails, not roads, so there is no traffic whatsoever, 2) the scenery changes every day as you ride one day through vineyards, the next along seaside resorts (Lake Garda and Lake Caldaro), and then along the river Adige with the dramatic mountains of the Dolomites on either side, 3) it can be easy riding if you stay along the river, or some of the toughest riding in Europe if you decide to be gnarly and ride up into the mountains. 4) Three, count them, three wine regions: Alto Adige (wonderful whites and Lagrein, Pinot Nero), Trentino (Bordeaux blends), and Amarone Country.
And yes, in reply to those comments on the SL entry, we brought along plenty of Aveeno diaper cream. It really is the best kept secret among bike tourers. Nothing else works like Aveeno after a 75-mile day of riding!
Thanks to First Light Tours out of London. They did a great job outfitting our trip. Loved the bikes, the route sheets were easy to understand, and as we moved our base camp every two days, our bags would miraculously appear at each new hotel. We stayed in four-star lodging the whole way. All this, and for a third of the cost of a guided trip!
The Grateful Dead are like licorice, not that many people like licorice, but people that like it, really like licorice. – Jerry Garcia
Amarone makes me think of this quote by Jerry Garcia. Many of my friends who love wine (especially the Burgheads) don’t love this wine, which is made of partially dried grapes in the Veneto region of Italy. Amarone is one of the richest wines in the world … and it’s fig-like, bittersweet nuttiness reminds some people of Port, which turns off those who like their wines more nuanced. But people who love it, love it with a mad passion.