Wine & Travel Tips
Learning about Wine
The world of wine is very confusing these days. I have worked in wine for twenty-five years, and I see new labels every time I go out to a large wine shop. How can the average (or above-average) wine drinker keep up? The specialist wine press (such as the Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate) can be helpful, but the real goal is to develop your own palate and tasting skill so that you can decide for yourself. There are a number of wine tasting courses available, and the Wine and Spirits Education Trust courses taught at various centers around the US are excellent. (In California they are taught at Copia, in Napa, and run by Peter Marks MW, an outstanding taster.) If you've really been bitten by the bug, start a tasting group with friends (the Broadbent book below is full of tips).
The other key is to find a good retailer, and get to know the people who work there. If you tell them your likes and dislikes they will help you find your way around the maze. Be open to new suggestions; a Nero d'Avola from Sicily may be a much more interesting wine than a branded Merlot, and cheaper to boot. Keep an open mind. Everyone is drinking the same types of wines, and if you go in a different direction you can find some fascinating flavors (and bargains). Finding the best deal on a branded, large-production wine won't give you as much satisfaction as finding something new and delicious at a great price.
Oliver’s Favorite Wine Books
The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson (indispensable)
The World Atlas of Wine, edited by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
Vino, by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch
The Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting, by Michael Broadbent
The Pocket Guide to Italian Wine, by Burton Anderson (get the most recent edition; there's a date on the front cover)
Italy Travel Tips
Where to eat in Italy
Unless I know an area really well, I always use the Gambero Rosso guide to the less formal restaurants, Osterie d'Italia. I don't know if it's possible to have it sent to the US, but any good bookstore in Italy will sell it (and the Autogrill shops along the autostrada sometimes carry it). It's in Italian, obviously, but easy to understand. The cost will give you a sense of the atmosphere (more Euros means more formal), and the house specialities are highlighted. Get a copy as soon as you arrive. The Gambero Rosso also publishes the 'Ristoranti d'Italia' for the more upscale places.
Visiting wineries in Italy
Although most Italian wineries are very welcoming, the American visitor will often be surprised by the lack of the formal tasting room and staff that we are used to here. Most likely the producer or a member of his or her family will be your 'tour guide,' which means it is always a good idea to call ahead to make sure they are there and available. During the vintage (roughly mid-September to mid-October) it will be hard to arrange visits, for obvious reasons.
Piedmont Travel Tips
Where to stay: I love staying in the farmhouse Bed and Breakfast places collectively called Agriturismo. Not fancy, as a rule, but the best of them offer very nice rooms, excellent breakfast and a connection to the community that you'll never find in a hotel. Two examples I've tried and liked:
Agriturismo Ceretta, Serralunga www.germanoettore.com
Run by the Germano family, who also produce Barolo just north of the village of Serralunga. Gorgeous view of the village of Castiglione Falletto, and the Alps behind, from the three upstairs rooms.
Agriturismo Barbarossa, Dogliani www.comune.dogliani.cn.it/turismo/schedaMD.asp?IDAzienda=83
Right in the country, five minutes from the market town of Dogliani. Wilma Rolfo and family are very welcoming. Wilma's brother has started making wine, so this is a working winery too.
I always stay out in the countryside. Alba is a nice enough town for a visit, but I'd rather see vineyards out the window than motor scooters.
Where to eat in Piedmont (an opinioted listing, in no particular order)
I have never known an area to have so many outstanding restaurants, particularly simple ones, as the part of Piedmont known as the Langa. To whet your appetite I strongly recommend Matt Kramer's book 'A Passion for Piedmont,' which is full of recipes and tips. The best suggestion, with which I completely agree, is to stick to the selection of antipasti and the pasta course and avoid the main course ('secondo'), unless you're ravenous. Piedmontese antipasti are usually a selection of as many as five dishes, served seperately in small portions, and they are often the high point of the meal, with the fresh egg pasta close behind. I often finish with a cheese course, to absorb the rest of the wine. Nothing like Barolo and local cheeses.
Ristorante Moderno, Carru
Carru prides itself on being 'La Patria di Bollito Misto,' so order a light antipasto and the bollito. And a bottle of Dolcetto di Dogliani. (Bollito Misto is a very traditional dish of various boiled meats, served with a wide choice of different sauces. I love it but it's not for light eaters.)
Locanda dell'Arco, Cissone Roots
Piedmontese cooking in a beautiful room in the Alta Langa, a few minutes from Dogliani. Terrific cellar including some older bottles, and the proprietor really knows his wines. Agriturismo also, including some newer rooms.
La Coccinella, Serravalle Langhe
Outstanding restaurant in the Alta Langa, not far from Dogliani. Three brothers run both kitchen and the dining room; terrific food (very flavorful but not heavy), with a wine list that gets better every time I go. Two simple rooms upstairs for agriturismo.
Verde Rame, Castiglione Tinella
If you're in the Asti area, this is a small, very informal place with a surprisingly good wine selection. Limited menu which changes often. Castiglione is the heart of Moscato d'Asti country.
Enoteca di Canale, Canale
Despite the casual-sounding name, this is more formal, and more expensive, than my other suggestions. The food is superb, refined and inventive. The list features the wines of the Roero, so at the very least you should start with a bottle of Arneis.
Ristorante Antine, Barbaresco
After the obligatory aperitif at the Bar Baresco (really), Antine is an excellent spot right in the center of Barbaresco. Polished food and service, but friendly nonetheless.
Unusual Italian Grape Varieties
Italy's unique quality as a wine-producing country is the variety of different indigenous grape varieties that are grown there. Some very good examples of the 'classic' (i.e. French) varieties are produced (Chardonnay in Piedmont, Sauvignon in the Alto Adige for example) but for me the excitement are the native varieties. If you haven't tried Vermentino, Barbera d'Asti or Teroldego you have a treat in store for you. Take a chance!