Saturday, April 16, 2016

Day 9: Collo Verde winery and farewell dinner

Wine does not make you fat. Wine makes you lean. Against doors, walls, tables, and occasionally,  ugly people.
                       ----- Anonymous
The vines of Collo Verde winery. They produce about 6000 cases a year, mostly sangiovese. 
Today we visited the final winery of the trip, Collo  Verde. The name means green hills and as you see above, it certainly is a verdant drive over. The trees are in bloom and there are flowers everywhere.
This winery produces 4000 liters of olive oil annually and also rents apartments short term.
Collo  Verde, like most Italian  wineries,  is a family owned, handmade operation.  In addition, to wine, they press extra virgin  olive oil on the property. Producing olives is a year round job. The whole time we've  been here, the surrounding groves have been pruning and burning the smaller  branches.  The big ones get stored for fire wood. 

A view of a "country villa" above the winery

They gave us a look at the sophisticated oil press which presses and separates components. They then store olive oil in stainless steel for several months for further separation.

The last step in filtering and bottling. It takes about a month, usually in April to bottle 4000 by hand. It's a wonder good olive oil isn't more expensive.  I just learned not to complain.  Each tree will yield about 4 bottles.

After  showing us how olive oil makes  its way to our kitchen, they gave us a tour of their winery as well. Below are the big barrels of sangiovese. These are large enough that you could literally stand inside of one. These they keep ad infinitum and just clean out between uses. The Syrah barrels are replaced every 3 to 7 years.

No matter where we've gone, the flowers have been stunning and plentiful. I could write an entire blog just on the flora. 

The wine guide also showed us a plant called cedro, a member of the lemon family , but larger, sweeter and definitely  on steroids! 

Paul received some cat therapy as well. This guy took an extreme liking to my honey bunny, but some other cat was not enamored of Paul's buddy. He had a large wound on his neck. 

One nice thing about visiting a winery here, is that you get lunch along with your samples. They set the table beautifully. Fortunately the lunches are very light and fresh.

We tasted the sangiovese and the reserve Syrah.  Both were highly drinkable. Then we were off to the driver, Mauro's private home which is in an old church. He wanted to serve as a special type of Limoncello which is made by his mother. It has cream in it. I'll have to say it was very tasty. Also we got to meet his aunt Uncle cousin and other extended members of the family as well as their seven-month-old Giant Schnauzer. He was a rambunctious puppy that is approximation the size of a horse. The photo below is members of the group enjoying limocello on Mauro's uncle's porch.

When we got back, Paul took a nap to treat his allergies which has probably been caused by all the beautiful flowers and Blossoms. I took a walk back up to the Cross because I knew we were going to get a big dinner prepared by the gentleman below. His name is Gimmi. He used to own a restaurant in Verona, but we got the pleasure of having him as a private chef.

Fortunately, it was only a four-course meal but we were all stuffed at the end of it. We had spring pea and mint soup, asparagus risotto,  braised  veal and mashed potatoes, and sabayon vin santo. Crazy luscious! 

Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to our new Walla Walla buddies who were leaving at 430am for Florence's airport. And in the morning,  it will be a sad goodbye to our view from the Villa Leonidas.  

But I am grateful for 10 days of fun, education, relaxation,  and quality time with my hubby.

" Open my heart and you will find engraved inside of it a single word: Italy."
-----Robert Browning

Paul's  ponderings:  The winery visited today was similar to the others, very small and family-centric, which is delightful to see.   It was particularly interesting to see how the olive oil is prepared and bottled.   The cream limoncello at our driver Mauro's place was also great -- not everyone gets to live in a former church and (Italian bonus) it has plenty of parking!   We continued our steady reign of warm and sunny weather as well.   It was all capped by a dinner on the terrace made for us by a local chef and wine steward, Gimmi.  Tomorrow we have to be out "early", which means 10 am here!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Day 8: Marvelous Montechiari

"Wine is the most healthful and hygienic of beverages. "                       -----Louis Pasteur
The family has lived on the property for 800 years and in this house for 200 years. It used to be a customs house.
Early in the year, Balboa Winery, a family owned boutique winery out of Walla Walla,  Washington, wrote Paul an email stating they were conducting a wine tasting tour in Tuscany.  This blew Paul's cork completely and he signed us up. He even bought me airfare!! That's how thrilled he was. So he's been looking forward to the last three days of it in which we visit boutique family wineries here.  And this is sort of the crown jewel, Montechiari.

The owners, Moreno  and Donna Catherine are in their 70 and so sweet, informative and full of enthusiasm!

They gave us a great tour and you can tell this is a hands on, handmade operation.  Grapes are organically grown, hand harvested and inspected, fermented in French Oak and steel, and bottled and distributed on the property. Moreno is the winemaker and he guided us through every area of the winery set in the gorgeous foothills at about 200 meters above sea level. The breezes keep the vines cool year round.
Fermentation  in steel and oak

This Pinot Noir prosecco named after the winemakers wife is outstanding. 
After touring the facility,  we were served a light lunch and generous samples of their wines: prosecco, Pinot noir, samgiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. There wasn't an average wine in the lot. They were all crazy  good. We liked them so much, we are shipping some home. There is a distributor  in Chicago that handles a few bottles as well. This winery produces only 9000 cases. We saw dozens of magnums in the distributing house and Moreno told us those were special orders for China  and Isuzu.

our appetizing lunch
I have to say this was one of the best winery tours ever and I highly recommend  it to travelers in Tuscany.  The owners were so full of life and love and somehow,  they put it into the wine, too.

Paul at winery Montechiari

We really had a great tour. From there it was back to the villa, out for a walk and a dinner!, (what a surprise. Pasta & pizza pulverizer Paul Parris  offers no complaints. )

"I love France. But I am in love with Italy. "
                             -----Robin Locker Lacey

PAUL'S Ponderings:  The tour of Montechiari was probably the best winery tour I've had over the years.   The operation is very old school as far as attention to detail goes (mostly by hand where it really counts, like shaking the bottles), but using modern equipment where appropriate.   The owners clearly love what they do as well and the wines reflect their care and attention to detail.   I can't wait to taste them again when we get a shipment at home.   

We've been blessed with a string of lucky days weather-wise as well and this one was no exception -- once again around 65-70 degrees and sunny with a bit of a breeze.   Sadly tomorrow is our last day in the Lucca area, but we've accumulated a great set of memories while here!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Day 7: Winery, Hiking, and Death by Pizza

"Great is the fortune of he who possesses a good bottle, a good book and a good friend.
The Devils Bridge
From the villa today, we wound down the valley for the reason that snapped Paul up from the beginning--wine tasting. Most of the wineries in Italy are very small and family owned. In fact, most just make wine for the family. The tasting rooms are mostly by appointment only.
On the way to Podere Concori

To visit today's  winery,  we passed the Devils Bridge seen above. It's arched  and the arch isn't symmetric. The locals also refer to it as the donkeys back. The story is that the Builder paid the devil to teach him how to make the arch. The price that the devil exactly was that he wanted the first soul to cross the bridge. The architect agreed. Then he made a beautiful arched Bridge. Unfortunately the first soul passing there was a pig. This made the devil very angry, but instead of destroying the bridge he shifted the arch to make everyone who crossed it labor walking uphill over the crooked cobblestones. Maybe the real story is something different? Like two Italian tool time Bubbas  built it? It became a very important bridge in the area, because the others were controlled by the archbishop of Lucca who collected a toll. This one was free to cross. I don't  think the devil would have objected.  :)

On modern times, it is still used, pedestrian only, and very scenic.
Paul couldn't keep his hands off the Syrah.

From here we traveled narrow one lane roads to the winery, Podere Concori. This is a small family-owned Winery. The original owner only made it for the family and his restaurant. The sun has taken over now, and he's making it for the General Public. They specialize in the old vines which are nearly 70 years on the property and have planted new grapes such as Syrah and Pinot Noir which do well and a slightly wetter climate. They only produced about 6,000 bottles per year. Most of the sales are export at this point. The tour guide at the winery told us that about 30% of their sales are also at the Cellar Door. They ferment in French Oak and also a second fermentation in steel tanks. All the great pickng is done by hand and it's a very Hands-On Family Affair from The Vineyard to the bottle.
They served us a really nice lunch.
The table was as pretty as the food

The welcome banner is out
We were able to sample their white blend which is mostly chenin blanc. We also sampled a blend that was 70% Syrah and 30% of old vines mixture. This was a big favorite among this group. Several of them comment that it tasted like wine from Walla Walla. We also tasted the syrah 100%. They make an award-winning Pinot Noir but they would not give out samples. Fortunately, one of the ladies on the tour bought a bottle to enjoy at dinner.
Wines are fermented in French oak and stainless steel

Library wines

Lunch. YUM

Thank heaven we only visited one winery because it was noon and I don't really enjoy it drinking in the middle of the day.

We returned to Villa Leonidas and from there Paul and I decided to walk to the Cross which is built at the top of the hill from the Villa. It's about a two and a half miles all uphill excursion, but all downhill thankfully on the way back. The road grade was actually pretty gentle for climbing.

A plaque recognizing US military during WWII is seen on the way to the Croce di Brancoli

Beautiful views on the way to the cross
Something that we were surprised to discover along the way is that the Germans had actually dug in here during World War II. We even saw some bunkers and a plaque dedicated to the allies.
Remains of a German bunker

That's a big cross!

A different perspective
There was not a battle here. Apparently the Germans were being surrounded in this area and retreated. However, the original cross erected in 1900 was razed by the Wermacht because it could serve as a marker for Allied Forces. The current cross was built in 1958. As you will see from the pictures, it's not too cute of a cross. But I'm sure the people who made it put a lot of labor, love and effort into its construction and into bringing it up this mountain which is no small feat.

There are Stations of the Cross all the way up from the Villa to the top of the mountain. One additional attraction is that once on the grounds of the Cross you get a 360 degree view of various parts of Italy including the Alps. The View alone made it worth walking up there.
We are told that on a clear day , you can see the French and Italian Alps

When we got back to the Villa, we discovered that we sorely needed to be walking up that hill because a man named Ivano had fired up the wood pizza oven external to the kitchen and was about to stuff us for the slaughter.
Ivano stokes the oven

Getting ready for pizza

Sunset view. We ate outdoors, but who wouldn't if this is what you are looking at!

Vegetarian pizza. One of about 10 that he made including dessert pizza

My favorite---grilled veggies. This had a spicy sauce sort of like chimchurri.
I don't know how many pizzas he made but I can say with confidence that it was way too many and included all sorts of meat pizzas, vegetarian pizzas and even a pear and gorgonzola pizza and a chocolate pizza. Unfortunately, I didn't have the gonadal fortitude to sample all of them. But the ones I did were really good. He also grilled Florentine steak, ribs, and a spicy grilled vegetable. Apparently he was expecting the American Army to eat this. I think we did a reasonable dent in it but there were plenty of leftovers. Death by pizza. What a way to go!

"Really all I care about in this life is pizza and about four people."

Paul's ponderings:   A varied day out with a visit to a very small winery, some hiking, and lots of food at the end!   The winery facility seemed like it was about the size of our house and they make only a few thousand bottles per year.   The white we tasted was quite good and I liked one of the reds better than the other (blend better than Syrah).   As noted above, we did a up/down hike once we got back to the villa.   My father was in WWII in Italy, spending time in these types of mountain areas in the Army Air Force, so it's nice to see some of what he might have seen 70 years ago.   The Germans had what was called the "gothic line" here with a series of bunkers and such that was to be their last line of defense to hold Italy.  Obviously and thankfully it did not work out, but seeing the scale of it is interesting.   Finally, we continue to be blessed with great weather here.   Thursday and Friday we are off to a couple more small wineries and no doubt more eating and such.   

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Day 6: Volunteers in Volterra with a side of Pisa

"Italy and the spring and love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy."
                                                                            -----Bertrand Russell

Wisteria along the arbor of the villa. We hear bees buzzing in it all day long.
Today we slipped the surly bonds of Villa Leonidas for a visit to Volterra. I frankly had not heard of it, but followers of the vampire series will recall it is where Edward planned to take his life. (I am told. I have no idea what this means, but some of you will.) This city of 11000 people was also built by the Etruscans and has been around since at least the eighth century BC and some believe as far back as 15th century BC. It's old! As you may recall from the prior posts, the Etruscans fought bitterly against the Romans, but ultimately were defeated and enslaved. 

One of many great things about journeying to Volterra from our perch is the drive through the beautiful Tuscan landscape in the spring. It's very green and you can appreciate the rolling hills, vineyards, olive trees and rustic buildings and palazzos.

Some of our wine snob compadres: Sandy,Jim and Kim

Paul found a means of espressoing himself.
Volterra has many attractions such as the Etruscan walls, tall buildings and narrow streets with many little shops and restaurants beckoning you inside. This is another town where auto traffic is minimal.

Typical Volterra street view 

The facade of the Palazzo Priori which housed the government and the church.
There are many tourist attractions to see here including the cathedral and the government house seen  above built in 1206. Paul and I marvel how this construction could have taken place during those times with the equipment available, but then again, enslaving people was popular.

The inside of Cathedral Volterra

A grotto of the cathedral
Many of the cathedrals we have visited have lighting now, but Volterra has not gone out of their way to update most of the building. Even on a sunny spring day, the inside is dark and cold and rather uninviting. There were other attractions in the city center, but we wanted to concentrate on the Roman and Etruscan aspects in our time here,so off we went to the acropolis.

The archeological park near the acropolis. 

The remains of the Etruscan acropolis.
The acropolis is in general not very well preserved, but it was still inspiring to walk where the Etruscan's hung out 2500 years ago. This structure is just outside the medieval city walls and worth a visit. What is well preserved is the Roman cistern. This was built to supply water to a city of about 1000 people. We were asked to don hard hats to enter it. It was a voluminous and impressive structure which collected rainwater.

Paul is walking inside a very large cistern.

this gives you some idea of how big it was.

The stairs down were very narrow. Looks like DNA to me !

The opening into the cistern.

We exited here and walked to the Medici fort. We wanted to visit it, but apparently it is now a prison. No need to go to jail in Italy, thank you.
the Medici fort at Volterra. 
From here we were fortunate to have a little time to go to the Etruscan museum. It's really amazing what is there. Most of it is funerary caskets or urns with decor. We were very impressed with the volume of the urns as well as how they were preserved. 

Etruscan funery urn.

Something we noted was the usual urn was decorated with a figure holding something that was shaped a lot like a plate. We were not sure what this represented and haven't found anyone yet who can tell us.

A funery urn with two dolphins. 
We would recommend this museum as a place to see some amazing ancient art. It was well organized. No English though. 

From here we were off to lunch and we ate at da Beppino.

Lunch break

Lovely local wine.

Mauro,our guide and driver. Yes. he is actually sober.

My lunch entree--Nude ravioli
After lunch, we had two treats. One was this magnificent Roman amphitheater. Unfortunately, folks got fed to the lions here. We enjoyed seeing despite the reasons for its existence.

roman amphitheater
From here we were treated to a demonstration of work in another Volterra craft--alabaster. I did learn that alabaster is calcium sulfonate which is GYPSUM, the same stuff that makes up White Sands in New Mexico. We watched the gentleman below carve a candle holder from scratch. 

An alabaster craftsman
From here it was to the van to move to Pisa. And the views of Tuscany were great along the way.

Beautiful Tuscany

a look back at Volterra
Fro Volterra, it was approximately an hour to Pisa.

University of Pisa
I remember learning about the leaning tower in approximately the third grade.  And since then, I literally dreamed of seeing it. So today, a dream came true. I never realized the tower was the bell tower of a cathedral and that the church, baptistry and bell tower sat on one site. But I learned today. 

The leaning tower, church and baptistry. All are a little cockeyed.

He insisted
The church was beautiful as always with gorgeous ceilings and altar. They had someone playing the organ which was lovely. Great acoustics.

Pisa cathedral view.

We topped off a great day with a meal Orti di via Elisa...typical Lucca food and wine. Delicioso!

Today was amazing. Volterra was an essay in history of the region in one small  walkable city with multiple historical attractions set in the beauty of Tuscany. It was hilly for anyone who thinks they want to visit.  Viewing the tower at Pisa was a lifelong dream fulfilled. How could you not be pleased with a day like this?

Traveling is the ruin of all happiness! There's no looking at a building after seeing Italy. 
                                                                         ----Fanny Burney

Paul's Ponderings:  A long but great day out....Volterra was a fabulous medieval town and then the mother of all USA 3rd grade views of the leaning tower of Pisa.   Jocularity aside, seeing the tower was pretty great, given that I figure I learned about it at least 45 years ago with respect to both the science experiments done there by Galileo but also the mere fact that the thing leans over at such a notable angle.  The other large monuments in Pisa also lean a bit, but are not as tall, ergo they are not as impressive if leaning is your point of interest!  Looking back at my poor 3rd grade memory, the tower was both more white than I expected (very white marble) but also a bit larger than I would have conjured it up from photos.   Actually it's huge and leaning fairly notably, which is awesome in person. It's also very ornate -- clearly someone spent a lot of time building this thing.  The other central monuments were also interesting, but it's hard to compete with a worldwide icon.  We are told the subsoil in the area is the reason for  the leaning -- it can't support the weight of these buildings.  Towers excluded, we had a nice ride thru this part of Tuscany to both Volterra and Pisa.  This was topped by a wonderful meal in Lucca with some local wines and great food.   A very satisfying day.