The summer before last, I met some friends for what should have been the perfect vacation.
It was August in Italy and we were being graciously hosted in a beautiful fourteenth-century stone farmhouse. You get the picture: Red shutters, tall Cypress trees, a bocce court, and a swimming pool. When you opened a window and gazed into the magical (yes, magical) patchwork of the Tuscan hills, the smell of sage blew in. In the evenings before dinner, we gorged on plate after plate of cheese, smeared on fresh, crusty bread and covered in truffle honey. In between slices, there were countless olives and every fatty rendering of pork imaginable.
Despite all this, the trip was a series of near disasters. Even on vacation, even in Tuscany, there are logistical stresses and social fault lines. Do we sleep in or get an early start? Stop and dwell or attack the next hilltop? Make a plan or let it be? Beneath it all was one underlying problem: We each had different definitions of what it meant to relax.
The only thing that saved us was good wine. Not just the taste (or the alcohol), but the experience of seeing the vineyards and meeting the people who produced and worried over it — fellow obsessives in pursuit of undefinable perfection. On one afternoon, just outside the town of Montepulciano, we pulled off of a dusty road into Valdipiatta, a small, family-run outfit.
We were met by Miriam, the daughter of the father-daughter team. We didn’t have an appointment, but she immediately dropped what she was doing to welcome us in and tell us everything she knew about her wines. And, of course, to get us the drink we all badly needed.
As she explained about the estate grapes and the oak barrels, we all kind of softened. After all, we were sampling glasses of Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano, one of the oldest known wines in Italy. Quickly, it felt like we had found a common cause. Or maybe we were like a blend of Sangiovese and Canaiolo nero grapes that had finally learned how to relax together. (It probably didn’t hurt that the alcohol content was somewhere north of 13 percent.)
Every so often, I drink something that refashions my understanding of what quality is. It makes me believe that every thing I ever tasted before was…well…kind of a waste. Valdipiatta’s “noble” red was one such experience. I bought as many bottles as I knew I could fit into my luggage. And I remember each occasion I opened a bottle. One was for the massive snowstorm that hit New York last Christmas. Another was for a friend’s going-away party in the spring. The last one was in September; I paired with it a rack of lamb, the best dish I know how to make. And, to much eye-rolling, I’m pretty sure I bragged about the trip each time.
Adam Chandler is Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, New York, The Awl, Tablet, and elsewhere.