The Perfect Marriage

Wine and music. I can’t imagine life without them.  Of course my family and friends push them out of first and second  place – but really they’re so much a part of my greatest memories: Sunday dinner, Lucia party (A Swedish Christmas celebration), graduations, birthdays, travels or a gathering of great friends.

A Perfect Marriage

I’ll create a playlist for most special occasions, whether it’s a trip, a workout, music to cook by, laid-back tunes and most recently wine-tasting and wine-studying. My husband is my fiercest critic and greatest fan. He loves telling people my playlists degenerate towards the end – but he always downloads them to his iPod, so they  can’t be all that bad.
Every once in a while on a Friday or Saturday night, I will pick a few bottles and wrap them up in a paper bag after they’re opened. All  I need is a few minutes to forget which is which – but if you want to be sure, get someone else to mix up the order. I started by trying three wines, each from a different country and each a different kind of grape. A Rioja from Spain, a Cabernet Sauvignon from California and a Chianti.  If you have never done it before, get a few details about each wine and see what you can pick out from the appearance, aroma and taste. If you know you’ve practiced, challenge yourself and get three California Cabs  or three Australian Chardonnays from different regions.There are lots of great web sites to give you the ABC’s of Wine Tasting from Wine Spectator, bottle notes, or the Wine Doctor.  IYellow Wine Club founder Angela Aiello sums it up for first timers with 5 easy steps:

  1. sight
  2. swirl
  3. smell
  4. sip
  5. savour

If  you do it with friends and each brings a bottle – then you can afford better wine. Experimenting  is a lot of fun definitely worthy of a playlist or two. Building your own is also one of the great pleasures of life so give it a try. Here is mine:

Lis’ Wine-Tasting Playlist

  • Your Body Is a Wonderland – John Mayer (as is the body of a great Cab)
  • Your Song – Elton John  (great swirling music)
  • You Really got a Hold on Me – Smoky Robinson and the Miracles (tried a great Barolo lately?)
  • You Can’t Make it  Love – Michael MacDonald ( who has a voice like the deepest Shiraz)
  • You Are so Beautiful – Joe Cocker (frightening, but I have thought that about a great glass of wine)
  • Humble Me – Norah Jones (I could be thinking about the great winemakers Antinori and Gaja – more or likely their wine)
  • How Deep is Your Love – Bee Gees (or how deep is the  colour in your glass)
  • How Do You Keep the Music Playing -Tony Bennett and George Michael
  • So Right – Paul Simon
  • Sara Smile – Hall and Oates
  • This Guy’s In Love With You – B.J.Thomas
  • Up on the Roof – James Taylor and Carole King (because they go together in perfect harmony like wine and music)
  • Into the Mystic – Van Morrison
  • Sitting on the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding (because it may be one of the most perfect songs ever written)
  • Landslide – Fleetwood Mac version
  • Drive  All Night – Bruce Springsteen ( because anyone who would drive all night to buy his woman some shoes deserves toasting)
  • Heart of Mine. – Boz Scaggs
  • Through the Fire – Chaka Khan (because I can hit the high notes in my dreams. Or in my car. Only if I am alone..I promise)
  • Tiny Dancer – Elton John ( because you might have had enough wine to sing along – though watch the wax if you hold up a candle instead of a lighter- concert style) Also a favourite of my blogging partner whose name is Tina Daenzer and back when well-known sportscaster Rod Black hosted Canada AM he would sing to Tiny Daenzer when she arrived at the studio (minus the wine in the mornings of course)
  • Still Crazy After all These Years – Paul Simon (because Paul Simon is such a genius)
  • Thunder Road (the acoustic version or any version for that matter) – Bruce Springsteen ( because he could be the greatest songwriter of our time. This is his greatest song and this is such a powerful  version that it can pair with a wine that’s rough around the edges or smooth as silk).

And if you are exploring Italian – throw in a little Andrea Bocelli,   Chris Botti’s Italia CD is divine, and Chiara Civello, the best Italian-English  singer you have never heard of will keep you coming back for more.

Whatever you choose to  add to your playlist, whatever memory it brings back, whatever wine you pour in your glass, so long as company is selected with care, you will have the perfect blend.

The Big Chill meets Under the Tuscan Sun

Friends Italian Style

Take twelve people. Most of them strangers to one another.  Entice them with the promise of winning wines,  primo pastas and the other tantalizing tastes of Tuscany.

What do you get?

The Big Chill: Italian-style

When I turned  50, instead of shrinking from the F-word, my 50th year would be nothing short of F-F-Fabulous. I pitched a dazzling dozen of dynamic wine drinkers a villa vacation – and it proved to be an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Google tuscan villas and you hit about 1.5 million matches – everything from luxury villa retreats to castle apartments.  My group of seasoned travelers included hostel hoppers, cottage couples and travelling teens – old friends and new. Most had never been to Italy.

Our pool under the Tuscan sun

I gathered their preferences and narrowed it down to three properties: one about 20 minutes of Cortona, the stunning hill town made famous by Frances Mayer’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the second near Siena and the other in Chianti – the heart of Tuscan wine country. The group voted and  committed with cash.

Our beautiful villa

I will admit to moments of trepidation. What if it was a scam? What if the pictures were of another villa surrounded by landfill? Or maybe there was no villa at all? How could I be sure?

Even worse, what if the villa was perfect and everyone didn’t get along?

We planned to meet in a parking lot outside Cortona. One thing you realize quickly – even when you speak Italian, getting directions is not easy. It’s more of a state of mind – like getting a recipe from my mother – a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  Invest in a GPS. In this case. no one had to pave paradise , you were surrounded by it.

A place of unbelievable beauty

Andrea, son of the villa owner, and most gracious host – met  us and accompanied  us to the villa. We never would have found it ourselves. The address was something like turn right after the bus stop at marker 232 and continue along the third dirt path until you are absolutely sure an axe murderer will pop out of the bushes and there’s no one to ask for help just chestnut trees and the odd family of wild boar.

But when we turned the final corner, it was obvious, the pictures on the web site didn’t come close.

Our villa turned out to be a 13th century treasure. Six bedrooms, each with its own separate bathroom over three floors, a huge dining room table where we ate every night and a living room with overstuffed couches  in front of the fireplace, with enough space to dance up a storm.

A villa fit for kings

The main kitchen was big enough that the wannabe Italian cooks never had to compete for space. Then there was the pool, the view and the price.   $2500 for the week or about $500 per couple.

My wonderful band of strangers bonded on the first night over the freshest salami, ripest tomatoes, most fragrant cheeses washed down by local wine. We brought our own music and danced until 3am. Nice start to wash away any worries.

A breathtaking view from the pool

But renting a villa with a group of people forces you to make all kinds of decisions.

Take a wine tour or a cooking class, a bike trip or feign jet lag and relax, visit  places with names that you’ve probably read on wine bottles. Montepulciano, Montalcino, Chianti, Orvieto.

We took the slow option and hung around the pool most of the first day.

A taste of Tuscany

Blame  Marcella – mother of our host Andrea. She arrived with her cheerful assistant Valentina to cook us a five-course dinner. And we didn’t want to miss a second. I was the only one who could speak passable Italian, but where there is a will there is a way. Johanne and Lynn watched as  the kitchen was transformed into a haven of heavenly smells. Marcella and Valentina whipped up three kinds of appetizers, spinach pie, two kinds of homemade pasta – yes made right then and there – one with fresh mushrooms, the other with fresh tomatoes and a chicken roasted with something delectable, all topped off with a fruit flan of some sort. Did I mention it cost 30 euros a person WITH wine?

Friends and family

There are moments in life when it feels like you are being rewarded for any good deed you have ever done in your life. That’s exactly how I felt. Graced with my daughter and her best friend who is like a daughter to me, my best friends who have been through the best and worst of times, and new friends who have become such an important part of my landscape – we all sat together around a table as families do. How could I be so lucky?

I knew I had nothing to worry about when Johanne one of my oldest and wisest friends said after the first night – there will be tears when we say goodbye.

The rest of the week just kept getting better. Picture the Big Chill – Italian style.  The kitchen became the hub. A few of us, standing around the centre island, one whipping up a salad, another a plate of antipasto – with the freshest ingredients bought that afternoon, another trying out a favourite pasta recipe as familiar to them  as breathing.

Our walking tour of Tuscany

We walked, we talked, we wine toured and talked more. We solved the problems of the  world. Any problem we had a world away.

And on the very last day – we had lunch outside the villa Under the Tuscan Sun – we drank too much – danced on tables and threw rose petals at the wind. But most important we got to experience that something special with people and a place that you will never  forget.

If you are going:

  • 6 months before departure date – confirm with potential housemates. You will find everyone wants to go, but when it comes time to commit, the group shrinks.
  • Get the group to rate their priorities: price, ensuite bathroom, close to town or in the country
  • Look for a recommendation.  We worked with rentvillas.com and our most gracious host Andrea who has a number of villas available info@casaleruffignano.com

 

A Super Tuscan Virgin

The words Super Tuscan evoke a certain reverence among wine lovers.  I first heard the term as a young news writer in Montreal. Apparently the Hells Angels were big fans. They fought the spiraling unemployment rate by hiring people to wait in line outside the SAQ when Super Tuscans went on sale for astronomical prices. I knew nothing about these warriors of wine with names like Tignanello, Sassicaia and Ornellaia. I was a 24-year old  beer drinker.

A lovely view of the Chianti region

Turn the clock forward 15, ok, more like 25 years, and at this point I have been to Tuscany. I visited a small winery located on the property and run by a God-like handyman named Arc-Angelo ( not kidding) and a raven-haired beauty named Allesandra who gave us a barrel tasting and explained what a Super Tuscan is all about.These wines produced by some of the greatest winemakers in Italy actually carried the same designation as simple  Table wine because they did not meet the specifications of Italy’s DOC and DOCG system. Enter Giovanni Goria, who in 1992 created a a new category – IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, which denoted a designer wine of sorts – a winemaker’s creation that did not follow a set formula. It was more  about a passion and drive for excellence and individuality.

And the thing about a passion – it opens up a world of experiences with other people who share it.  Tina and I were taking a wine course a while back and one day I was studying out loud, reciting the multitude of wine producing regions of Spain.  My dear Chilean friend Adriana, who happens to be an awesome massage therapist, helped me through my pronunciation. The next day she called me and said one of her friends/clients was opening a bottle of Vega-Sicilia and because we were taking this course, would we like to come sample?  I said where and what time.

1996 SASSICAIA

I will spare the details of an incredible house tour, including the “Hunter S. Thompson for Mayor ” poster in an upstairs bathroom and more books that I could ever read in a lifetime. But it was the first time I visited a wine cellar that made my heart flutter. What I saw first in that room of beauty were case upon case with the names of the Holy  Trinity: Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello. And  then there were the cases of California’s Opus One – the marriage of the Old and New World brilliance  of Robert Mondavi and Baron de Rothschild. I thought this must be what heaven will look like if I am really really good.Witnessing  our excitement (it may have been our wide eyes or the way we lovingly stroked the bottles ) our most gracious host asked if we would rather opt for an Italian than the Vega-Sicilia. I couldn’t help it. I was too close.  And I was a Super Tuscan virgin.

Tina and the Super Tuscans

The  four of us started with a bottle of Tignanello and I have to say, it was everything I dreamed it would be. When we toured the house, I took my glass with me. It was like the  Christmas when you got that present you wanted more than anything and refused to put it down for a second.  But this time, the presents kept getting better. We tasted  Sassicaia and Guado Al Tasso. We changed continents, moving to Chile’s finest Almaviva.

Then came Opus One.

The evening  was a life-changing experience. No offence to anyone,  but it was much more impressive than my other first time when I secretly wondered what all the fuss was about. As early as I was in my wine education, I  understood clearly  what all the fuss was about. I understood the meaning  of perfect balance, perfect complexity and what  separated great  from spectacular. And I understood that all the days going forward on this wine journey would be defined by the days before The Super Tuscans and the days after.

Discovering Gaja

Piedmonte’s Langhe Region

Discovering Gaja

Just when you thought all roads to Italy’s greatest wines end in Tuscany, welcome to Piedmonte’s  Langhe region.  This is home to two of the country’s greatest wines and some of its  greatest producers. Where the B’s that get  straight A’s are Barolo and Barbaresco.  My initiation to the Shangri-La of wine was no less breath-taking than the family vineyard responsible for putting two of Italy’s Super B’s on the map.

The history of Gaja is wrapped around the history of wine in this region.  Its ancestral tree belongs on a vine. Above all,  Gaja is about family.
Five generations of Gajas  have  produced wine here, each improving, innovating, and invigorating the vines, the grapes, the techniques.  They were equally committed to improving  the lives of families living in the region, giving them a trade, pride and most  important, a way to support their own families.
The valley, 40 minutes outside Torino,   looks like a postcard for  Lost Horizon, the novel by James Hilton published in 1933.  The lush green valley was once the pathway of pilgrims and warriors. Legendary military general Hannibal led his war elephants and  troops 40,000 strong from Barcelona down this valley to Rome in 218 B.C.
Today the only conquering that happens in this valley is in the field, nurturing  only the best quality grapes to create wines   celebrated around the world.
Gaja shares more than the Alps with  its French neighbors.   Patriarch Angelo Gaja’s grandmother Clotilde Rey brought style and a business acumen that helped secure the future of the winery.  Clotilde pushed her son  Giovanni to savour the tradition and focus on quality. She encouraged her son to  use the skills and techniques honed over generations to make only the best wines. Like a good Italian son, Giovanni listened to his mother and never looked back. But  it was really Giovanni’s son Angelo who took his grandmother’s principles and changed the industry.
Today the Nebbiolo grape (named from Nebbia or fog which descends on the valley) is one of a select few known for producing unforgettable wines.
My discovery of Gaja came accidentally. At a random wine-tasting, I sampled Ca’Marcanda – a wine produced in Tuscany’s Bolgheri region and sold at the LCBO. I felt like my taste buds had come home. I actually dreamed of this wine. It was when  I looked it up and learned about the legend that is Angelo Gaja and his influence on two of my favourite wines.  Since I would be in Northern Italy  visiting family in the next month, why not ?

Sonia Franco, personal assistant to Angelo Gaja

We could not have been made to feel more  welcome by our most gracious guide Sonia Franco, personal assistant to the man himself.  We  toured. We tasted. We bonded over the history of the region, the story of a family and wines that I will never forget.  Wines named after Angelo’s daughter Gaia and grandmother Clotilde Rey – the best of the past and the best of the future. A white wine so full-bodied it felt like a red. Or a Barolo  named Sperss, after the Piedmonte word for nostalgia, another coincidence since I had just left family members who I had not seen in a decade.

Angelo’s house overlooking the vineyard

Or my favourite “Darmagi” – the expression meaning “What a Pity” which apparently exactly is what Angelo’s father said when he found  out his son had replaced a field of beloved Nebbiolo grapes with, how dare you,  Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
I came away with one more thimble full of wine knowledge.  And I learned that wine will always be a  journey of discovery and if you are lucky enough to stumble upon a place like Gaja and a guide like Sonia you understand it is full of people only too willing to share.

Ode To Maine

Maine Friends

Holding your  friends close can be tough to do in these busy times. Not enough time for visits, calls or catch-ups.

For the past 22 years, I’ve been so lucky to be able to spend this calendar week  with a stellar and eclectic group of people in the state of Maine. And during the week I would hold  them very very close because that week  (which eventually became two) would last me the whole year.

We refer to each other as  the Maine friends, not because the friendship exists only on our sandy beach, (and  none us of actually comes  from there), but because the Maine friends believe there is no better place to spend this  week each year.

Yes, the water turns your lips blue, the traffic on transit day means the drive from Montreal could take you 5 or 10 hours and the weekly fee for the cottage keeps creeping up  steadily.  There were years of the 60 cent dollar that left you wondering if there was a point where it didn’t make sense (or cents) anymore.  After all, PEI is beautiful.

When we moved to Toronto eight years ago, the driving time doubled, but who cares?  This was OUR week, on OUR beach so OUR kids could grow up with blue lips, powerful waves and a beach that stretched for miles.

I always loved the fact the kids would pick up where they left off. The blue-lipped gang would explore the rocks, spend hours body surfing and run at the sound of the ice cream truck. Of course there were also the dramas. We even used to bet how long before the first kiddie meltdown.  But the dramas never lasted long. It was Maine.  And Maine never lasted long enough.

Two years ago, my girls, now in their twenties,  carted down a load of books, a bottle of sunscreen and  counted their blessings because they love it every bit as much as they did when they played in the tidal pools.

Friends for Life

Other beach  regulars would call us The Canadians. They watched our kids grow. That’s what the woman from Connecticut told me every year when we exchanged  reading suggestions. She also loved watching the  compound grow. There were always the drop-ins, those invited guests who easily slipped into the relaxed pace of the week. It took at least three summers before they could  be called regulars proving they were more entranced by our beach Big Chill  than scared off by the big chill of the water. Then they had to take the Pledge not to reveal more about the location other than it was near Old Orchard.

This is  the first time in 22 years my husband and I can’t be there. No illness or depressing reason other than being kept home by a work thing that couldn’t be changed (try explaining to the IOC that you would really appreciate it if they held the Olympics a couple of weeks later). I am handling it like an adult. It’s been put in perspective, and my often Pollyanna-like optimism reminds me that “I’ve been so lucky to have been able to go for 22 years and we will definitely be back next year”.

Time flies and I’m sure by Monday, I’ll stop thinking about what I would be doing this very minute on my beach   – whether I would be helping to take  orders for Goldthwaites for “arrival night”  dinner on the beach or arguing what Billy Jo Macallister really threw off the Talahatchee bridge. I would have mused at least a dozen times that it doesn’t get better than this.

I would have  already unpacked my 24 interesting bottles of wines picked up in tax-free New Hampshire and my dozen books for beach reading plus the selections I’d have picked for others because after 22 years you get to know the reading preferences. I would have made the bed with my sheets ridiculously-ironed and spritzed so when I crawl into them and look out window at the ocean and hear the sound of the waves, I would sigh. Because this is my happy place. It’s the place where I am most true to myself. It’s the place where my children will take their children, and it’s the place where I can hold my dearest Maine friends oh so very close.

Every Family Has A Story

After attending the Cool Climate Chardonnay conference at Brock University yesterday we accepted an invitation to visit the Colaneri Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-lake.  We’ve been to Niagara-on-the lake many times but never to this particular winery so we were interested to take a look.  We knew it was a family run estate and assumed we would arrive at a lovely house on a vineyard like many other small wine makers in the area.

“Photo by © F.G. Couch”

To our great surprise as we drove up the road we saw a large building that resembled a cluster of homes in a small Italian village.  Even though the building is still under construction the winery is open and promises to be an amazing venue once it’s completed.

The front of the building forms a semi-circle that reminded us of a traditional Italian piazza where guests can mingle in the afternoon sun, sit and enjoy a lovely glass of wine and even snack on a slice of pizza from the outdoor oven.

From design to construction to the tiniest detail this winery is all about family.  Sitting on the original plot of land purchased by Italian immigrants Maria and Joseph Colaneri the estate today, shows what can be achieved when family works together.   We had the chance to meet Betty Colaneri, the daughter-in-law of Joseph and Maria, who took us on a tour and told us the family’s story…how she and her sister fell in love with the Colaneri brothers and raised their families together.

“Cavallone”

She explained how the artwork on the walls of the estate was the same design used for the labels on the various wines.  There’s a drawing for each family member based on their passions and personality but there was one drawing in particular that had us close to tears.  Called “Cavallone”  a nickname given to Betty’s sister, Angie by their mother, the drawing depicts two children clinging to the back of a beautiful horse.  Angie’s illness and recent death is one of the reasons the building is not yet finished because when family means everything you stop what you’re doing to look after each other. Now the drawing prominently placed on an easel with candles surrounding it, is a fitting tribute to a woman Betty says was a driving force behind this amazing winery.

We sampled a selection of wines, all delicious if I may say so myself and then Betty took us to see the rest of the winery that was still under construction.  Passion was written all over her face as she explained the family’s dream and how everything would look upon completion.  She talked about how they would be able to hold weddings and dinners and how she would be the first to cry when a bride finally stood on the balcony overlooking the vineyard.

Colaneri Estate Wine Cellar

Finally she took us down to the cellar where she kept her babies, row upon row of beautiful oak barrels filled with the wines lovingly produced by this family.  We couldn’t leave without buying some of the wine for our own cellars (ok maybe just a wine rack in the basement) and decided on the ’09 Corposo a Cabernet made in the traditional ‘Ripasso’ style and the ’09 Insieme, a rich red blend of Cab Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

As we left it was like saying goodbye to family and we knew we would be back to visit again.