There’s something intimate about a wine tasting, something earthy, passionate and meaningful, especially when the winery is run by people who really seem to care about what they do. I would like to think that this could describe any number of wineries in Italy, so I want to describe for you our short encounter with one such winery: our own personal brush with perfection…
Coming to Italy without visiting a winery? Unthinkable! We got lost many times over trying to find our intended winery just a short drive from Polignano a Mare. A maze of narrow, dusty, country lanes, surrounded by beautiful vines on an overcast but warm morning; we drove back and forth, grinding the gears, narrowly avoiding oncoming vehicles, wondering whether we would ever find our intended destination.
We passed the large, wrought iron gates a number of times and the Sat Nav insisted again that we had arrived at our destination but, again, we didn’t believe it – there were no signs, no clues that this was our particular winery. We almost gave up the search until I had a brainwave – send Rachel to ring the bell and ask! I couldn’t possibly do it myself could I? I was driving, after all. Off she went, enthusiastically encouraged by me (she couldn’t have done it without me) and tentatively pressed the little button on the intercom on the gate post. To our horror, someone actually answered and I could only catch a few words as Rachel tried to explain why we were trespassing on their land: words like “hello”, “lost”, “wine”, “English” and “sorry”. Then there was silence – we were obviously wasting their time. Moments passed. We just looked at each other as if so say “what the hell are we doing?”
Rachel started back towards the car and just then, with a mechanical clunk, the gates began to open inwards and came to a stop when they were fully open. Silence returned and the only movement were little swirling eddies of dust dancing through the gateway, beckoning us onward. We had a choice – run away or enter the unknown and neither choice seemed particularly appealing. Back in the car we were still unsure as to whether this was the right place, or even a vineyard for that matter. I had visions of being taken prisoner, bound and gagged and later handed over to the police. We decided to enter.
Where were all the cars and visitors? The car park, such as it was, was empty and we circled a number of times, unsure of where to go or what to do. There wasn’t a soul about. We waited in silence for what seemed an eternity wondering whether we had made a big mistake. Then, out of the blue, a jeep came screeching through the gate on two wheels, circled the car park and came to a halt in a cloud of dust before us. Sheepishly, we got out of our car to see a tall, handsome young man climbing out of the jeep, his slick, groomed dark hair and cool Italian style was only surpassed by his command of the English language – humbling to say the least! For some reason he reminded me of a young Clint Eastwood, only more Italian! His easy, friendly demeanor helped to put us at ease as he welcomed us, explaining that although the winery was closed today we were welcome to stay and look around. Turning away, he spoke into a walkie-talkie and asked us to wait, jumped into his jeep and was gone. We were returned to silence and some further confusion until, down the narrow lane leading from the car park into the vineyard, we spotted what looked like a motorised golf trolley coming towards us, followed closely by a fog of swirling dust and a dog (let’s call him Ralph), running to keep up.
The trolley pulled up beside us and we were greeted by a quite elderly gentleman: a rough, lined, salt-of-the-earth sort of man who spoke not a word of English. He resembled Mike from Breaking Bad. He was dressed for hard, dusty work and Ralph seemed to be no stranger to some hard graft either.
“Bongiorno,” he said and gestured for us to join him in the trolley and soon we were off on a little tour of the vines followed by Ralph, running uncomfortably close to the trolley wheels but I could tell he, Ralph I mean, had done this many times before and knew exactly what he was doing. Before long we approached what looked like a farm house or barn and was once again greeted by Clint who beckoned us into the barn. We obliged, closely followed by Mike and Ralph. Inside, the walls were lined from floor to ceiling with wine bottles on expensive-looking timber shelves. Other walls glistened with bottles of olive oil, all of varying colours and opacity.
Mike had installed himself behind a heavy oak counter on which was a cash register, wine glasses in regimented lines and a few bottles of wine. Clint attempted to put us at ease by making some small-talk – if in doubt, just mention Manchester, anywhere in the world, and you will be greeted with “Ah, Manchester United,” plenty of smiles and nodding heads. We explained that we had come to try his wonderful wines and, without hesitation, Mike, like a magician, made 5 new bottles of wine appear out of nowhere and lined them up on the counter. Then, pointing to each in turn, Mike, in gruff, earthy Italian tones named each wine with an unmistakable pride and a precise, no-nonsense manner that spoke of a deep, easy knowledge and expertise born of years of hard labour and meticulous attention to quality and detail. You had to be there to appreciate what I mean. Then his gesture compelled me to choose a wine to taste and I chose a label I liked the look of. We looked on as Mike took a silver corkscrew, drilled it into the top of the bottle with a few deft turns of his wrist and, with a single, smooth movement, extracted the cork in an arc, the trajectory of which took it across his face just below his nose. For a moment, time stood still as the cork grazed the tip of his nose and Mike, with a perfectly timed sniff at the apex of the arc, confirmed with a knowing curl of his lip that this was indeed a very good wine, untainted by any defect or imperfection.
The show was only just beginning. Six glasses were lined up in a row along the counter and Mike poured a small glug of wine into the first glass. Then, taking the glass in both hands, caressing it tenderly he rolled the glass back and forth between his hands, gradually tilting more and more and coated the whole of the inside of the glass with the wine. When he was finished, he poured the contents of the glass into the next and repeated the whole exercise for each subsequent glass until all six had been prepared. He was not only coating the glasses but warming them in his hands. This was a man in his element, exactly where he was meant to be in this very moment and we had the privilege to witness his complete and utter commitment to his craft. It was mesmerising. He was ready to pour the wine and did so with skill, not losing a single drip at the end of the pour. We were invited to take a glass and, as we did so, two additional men appeared through the doorway, as if straight from the vines and on cue, received from Mike a glass each and with an audible salute to life and wine we followed their lead and raised our glasses in the air before taking in a good sip of wine. There were smiles all around the group, nods of approval, murmurs of satisfaction and, as quickly as they had arrived, the two men were gone. It was all a bit surreal. Just for the record, in case you will later wonder who drove home, Rachel doesn’t drink wine and left most of the tasting to me.
If we had stopped right there I would have been happy but we were invited to try another wine. Clint suggested something sweeter and Mike reached over and turned the bottle label towards me for my approval.
“Oh no, please don’t open another bottle for me.”
I felt a bit lame. Had we come to try wines or not? What did I expect? I was aware that each bottle cost somewhere between 30 and 100 Euros and I was frankly embarrassed that another expensive bottle should be opened just for me. There was no hint that we were being charged for this. There was no formality about it but instead felt spontaneous: a drink with friends, but I began to worry that we would be expected to buy a couple of crates before we left – I had no intention of spending hundreds of Euros this particular morning.
The cork was out in double-quick time and our glasses attended to. Clint and Mike accompanied us on each tasting until we had worked our way though each, leaving 5 expensive bottles of wine only partially used. Are you getting the impression that I’m no expert? You are, of course, correct. And we weren’t finished yet.
Next it was the olive oil. Out came some clean wine glasses and we were treated to tastings of a series of oils from the fields. It was the first time we had drunk olive oil from a wine glass. With each tasting, Mike acknowledged the different effects of the oil in the throat with hand gestures we all understood. Clint explained how to estimate the age of the oil this way. It was indeed an education.
For a winery that was closed, they treated us very well. We thanked Clint and Mike for their hospitality, bought a number of bottles of wine and olive oil (how could we not?) and were driven back to the car park in silence by Mike, followed closely by Ralph, who had suddenly reappeared out of nowhere. Once Mike had departed, we were once again alone in the dusty car park. Had it really happened or where we dreaming? How strange we felt – and it wasn’t because of the wine, although I did feel a little woozy. It was a brief but memorable encounter.