I have wondered lately how my feelings about the wines of Italy would change if I had never been lucky enough to visit. How much of my love for those wines is tied up in my memories?
The COVID-19 crisis affecting Italy right now is especially cruel. Their economy, so dependent on tourism, will certainly struggle in the wake of this. Those of us who love the place all dream of visiting when this is over and to at least alleviate the economic side of the crisis. In the meantime, I’ll reach for wines from Lombardy and Veneto.
My mother’s greater Neapolitan ties frayed and finally broke decades ago. For third and fourth generation Italian-Americans, identity is only loosely tied to Italy. We consider her extended family to be Italian in their attitudes to familial relationships, zest for food and family gatherings, and general volume. These are Italian behaviors and affectations from 80 years ago brought over and warped by the pressure of time into something new.
So it seems fanciful or even silly to put such a weight on a place where I have no direct claim to anything or anyone. But a life is built of a series of moments that, unlike all the others, don’t fade with the passage of time. These memories instead burn brightly, evolving into the story we tell about ourselves. Too much of my own story unfolded in Italy for me to discount it and turn away.
I was seventeen when my father took me to Italy for my last high school spring break. I now realize that it was by far the most time we ever spent together, just two of us. We flew up and down the Autostrada at speeds that would have revoked my license back home.
Dad saw it as his mission to ensure his bemused and jet lagged teen saw the greatest works western civilization had ever mustered. My wonder at each duomo and fresco varied, but I was always bewitched by the pasta and pizza. As we sampled the local wines for the first time, we shared the secret that drinking was OK, or at least a little better for you, if done in moderation with people you love.
We have now been to Italy four times together. My dad’s years of work and sacrifice have earned him the ability to go anywhere in retirement, but like me he keeps going back to the peninsula. He and I share a weakness for Italy. And we will always have those rainy two weeks together in March 2002.
I minored in Italian in college, planting the seed for a study abroad semester in Rome. I never considered another country or city. Those four months of wandering the eternal city in broken Italian brought more firsts and breakthroughs than three years of dorm life. I struggled and learned to cook for myself alongside American roommates and an Italian grad student. I enjoyed unfettered freedom of travel as I navigated the trains from hilltop town to renaissance city and back to Rome.
Ten years later I came back with the love of my life. Despite having only been briefly to Italy, she saw my zeal for the place and insisted our wedding had to be in Tuscany. From halfway across the world she planned a three day party for a merry band of friends and family. Despite never seeing the farmhouse venue or meeting the planner in advance, the beauty and hospitality of the place stunned us. Italy gave me the happiest day of my life and asked for very little in return.
In May 2019, a time that seems eons ago, I took a trip to Puglia and Lake Como with my parents, brothers, and our significant others. Even then the trip seemed to pass in a dream-like halo. We saw new things, blown away by the caves of Matera. But the days seemed to unfold more slowly than on previous trips.
As the days passed we planned less and less. Instead, Italy’s little joys and pleasures seemed to reveal themselves to us. It was the trip of a lifetime with the people I love most. Once back in the states, all we could do was debate when to plan the next one and which part of Italy to visit. We had no reason to doubt whether and when we would return.
Even if my broken accent someday improves, I know I will be never be Italian. I cannot claim the place and I will not try. But when I go there, Italians are kind enough to lend me a bit of themselves, their country, and their way of life for a few days at time. It stops short of citizenship but its far more than anyone should expect. I’ve taken that generous gift and rightly or wrongly, built part of my identity on top of it.
It’s a common cliche to point out that wine is the only agricultural product with its own unique story. I choose to promote Italian wines because they tell the most interesting stories. Somewhere hidden among all the others, is my story too. Salute!