Drinking Sauternes like Budweiser

I’ve been enjoying Natural Woman by Arianna Occhipinti, the acclaimed Sicilian winemaker. Here’s a short excerpt I translated to practice my Italian.

It was February 2003, and together with my inseparable companions from the university, we took an educational trip, or so Marco called it, a low budget Grand Tour through the marvels of vinification.

The third member of our group was Ido. Ido came from Tel Aviv. He had served two years in the military and spent a year touring the world, and now he was enrolled in the university.

Seeing him from a distance, you wouldn’t be able to guess anything about him. Shaved head, tall like a volleyball player, perfect physique. A jerky gait typical of one who has very narrow hips and who’s been playing sports since he was born. A fair complexion, and eyes with details you can observe from close up because they are so luminous: eyes freckled with spots of green and gold. To see him, you would be certain that he worked in fashion (a suspicion confirmed by the elegance of his movements and a certain compulsive tendency to contemplate himself in every possible reflection). Probably, you would say, he passes evenings in a discotheque and on Sunday he’s at Parco Sempione with his friends playing frisbee, just putting on a little show and also satisfying his own narcissism. These allegations are confirmed by the women inevitably found in his wake. Looking at him, you would never suspect his unmatched spirit of sacrifice and his innate talents in mathematics and chemistry, nor his absolute sense (like perfect pitch) for wine. Really. Now, after two years in the south of France and some experience, Ido is a winemaker in Israel, teaching in the Enological School of Tel Aviv and working for a winery called Recanati. He has his own wine which is becoming more and more well known, and above all, he is going through the process of becoming a Master of Wine.

This Master of Wine thing is very difficult to understand for those who aren’t involved with wine. It is a designation born 70 years ago in England, and to put it in perspective, it’s like a spiritual guide to certain beliefs, a pure intellectual, a guru (but I can’t say that to Ido, who would get angry). In short, a sort of Steve Jobs of wine. There are only 300 Masters of Wine in the world, people who hyper-specialize in wine, on tasting, on its technical, chemical and nutritional aspects. They know wine a full 360 degrees, even 720 degrees. Only a Master can teach an aspiring Master (I know it’s difficult to believe, but I swear it has nothing to do with Star Wars). And obviously, not everyone who aspires will enter into the ranks of the elite, because there are many extremely difficult exams. In summary, in the world of wine they are like gods. When a Master of Wine arrives there is a religious silence. If a Master is also a critic and writes about wine, his words are sacred. If she is an opinion leader, her opinions become everyone’s, right away, like there’s an immediate transfer of knowledge.

Ido will do it, I am certain about that. Just as I am certain that he’s doing it because his need to know about wine will never be exhausted.

But back then, at the time of our travels, our dreams were not yet defined. There was only wanting to go. Going, traveling, listening to music. When we climbed into the car we only wanted to listen to Mina, for hours and hours. And not just listen to her, but also to sing along, sing along and then listen in silence, again and again, so much that in the end we hid the CD. Even so, I’ve never stopped listening to her at home and have counted her among my favorite singers.

We studied the route for months. Under the co-pilot’s seat there was a map showing the legs of the journey in red, a most decidedly beautiful red. We would cross the south of France, Montpellier and Arles, then the Pyrenees. We would stop in the autonomous community of Rioja, proceed to the Basque region, and then slide over to Gascony in Bordeaux, home of the most famous wines in the world, even though I was already dreaming of Burgundy.

We would be in the great wineries with their fabled anecdotes and legends, with Nick Cave and Janis Joplin in the background. For those who love wine, going to certain places is like reading Proust for a writer. Marco said that if everyone who dreamed of Ibiza wanted to go from one discotheque to another, we would do the same thing but from one vineyard to the other, and it would give us the same adrenaline rush and the same euphoria, giving a fast pace to our adventure. We would talk about it, we would exchange opinions on everything, especially after each tasting. Me with my obsession of having to feel in a wine the landscape, the language of the place, the aspects of its production; Ido with his chemical precision, the types and the molecules of the aromas that form in his head after every taste; and Marco with his capacity to see the landscape, of reading it like an open book, of pondering it like an artist struggling to capture a scene. The diversity united and enriched us. Biodiversity, or better, ego-diversity.

In that journey, observing the vines without fruit, I suddenly understood what reflection meant, the stillness that until that moment did not characterize an instant of my life, which was now one with the plants. That serenity, that dialog with the land that I felt there in that moment. A rapport between wine and me that was growing more intense, which until recently I hadn’t felt.

We went to Ysios, the most famous winery in the world, designed by Calatrava as a wave of land that rises from Rioja. In France we stopped (although the term clashes with the opulence of the place) at Chateau Margaux, we saw the avenue with the sycamores, and as we passed through, we remembered those who had told us about the avenue of the sycamores, with that ridiculous stupor on their faces, just like what we now had on board the Mitsubishi, unable to say a word. Then we met a man who made the barrels, who seemed to come from the 18th century, and suddenly we understood that making wine always short-circuits time. We were in the cellars of Rioja, where the odors of vanilla and banana that came from the barrels stunned us at every step. We passed through San Sebastian only to taste the sardines, with our hands, straight from the can, facing the sea.

Ysios Winery

But above all we there was Chateau d’Yquem. We were excited and arrived well in advance. In a winery on the street we bought a bottle of Sauternes and a wedge of roquefort. We sat on the banks of the Garonne eating the cheese — that cheese! — again with our hands, passing the bottle to each other like a Budweiser. We arrived at the appointment wobbling. And stinking.

Everything was perfect, it exuded tradition and nobility. Here we seemed to be in a period film, a period film with the odor of roquefort in the background, a dangerous mix of Sophia Copolla’s Marie Antoinette and Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I. They will throw us out, we could think only this, while an elegant gentleman escorted us to the tasting room. But no, instead he opened for us — we could hardly believe it — a 1998 Chateau d’Yquem. The tasting was even better than expected.

In that voyage of ten days, with Uncle Giusto’s bottles in the trunk, with Janis Joplin on the stereo, we felt truly on the road. It was our version, beautiful and tannic, of being gypsies. We tasted, went to bed early, and in the morning we left for another discovery. And then we talked about it all day.

My first year in the university taught me more than I could have imagined — that wine, above all, is friendship.