MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, I thought, as I stood by the window that night. The moon rose slowly into the darkness, glowing like a giant, golden biscotti, lighting the forested hillside and vineyards below. . . .
Earlier that day I had fulfilled one of my fantasies, driving a car, a modest but zippy 1997 Opel station wagon, through the heart of Italy, from Piedmont to Tuscany, on the autostrada. . . .
These toll roads connect this country like a series of arteries and they're famous for their high-speed, pedal-to-the-metal driving theatrics. . . .
I've been a passenger in cars in many European countries, but never had I held the wheel and watched the speedometer climb to 130, 140 or 150 kilometers80 to 90 milesper hour, which is mere cruising speed for many in the fast lane of the autostrada. . . .
OFTENTIMES BEING a passenger on the autostradaor autobahn, in Germanyis a harrowing if not downright frightening experience. You look out the window and see the world whizzing by. . . .
Sometimes you're going so fast you wonder whether your wheels are still touching the ground. . . .
The closest I'd been to driving in Italy was years ago, as a passenger in fellow Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer's rented Fiat, which he drove through the busy streets of Verona. I can only compare it to a trip on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland. . . .
When I've driven with Piedmontese vintner Angelo Gaja, or seen his sleek, dark Mercedes bend and twist through the narrow, rolling hillside roads of Barbaresco, the first thing that comes to mind is Batman's Batmobile zooming into Gotham City. . . .
Thanks to the autostrada, I was able to crisscross Tuscany several times in June to take in the scenery, visit small wineries and learn what's new in the land of Chianti Classico. . . .
THE PACE IN Tuscany is much slower than in California, where it's not uncommon for a new vintner to buy land, rip it up with a tractor, plant it and build a new winery, all within a year or so. . . .
In Italy, tradition dictates the pace. Families hold on to their land for generations. Laws restrict where new vines can be rooted and dictate wine styles as well. . . .
This snail's pace can be very frustrating to some of the more ambitious vintners, such as passionate, dark-haired Paolo de Marchi, of Isole e Olena, which is in southern Tuscany near the ghost village of Olena. . . .
Thirty years ago, some 300 residents inhabited this area near his vineyard and worked as sharecroppers. Grapes, olive trees, vegetables, hay and livestock all shared the same rolling hillsides. . . .
FOR THAT GENERATION, wine was nothing more than a daily beverageno more or less important than zucchini, tomatoes, beef or poultry. . . .
With time, the sharecroppers moved on to the cities and vintners such as de Marchi began to slowly focus on higher-quality grapes and wines, applying art and science to them as a means for survival. . . .
At the time, Europe was awash in cheap wine and the huge cooperatives that had bought the grapes no longer paid decent prices. . . .
Vintners such as de Marchi had little choice but to strive for greater quality in their wines. . . .
For years, he recalled this past summer, the family tried to sell the land, but there were no buyers. . . .
FINALLY, DE MARCHI'S father decided to let his son have a go at it with wine and Isole e Olena was born. . . .
It took another full decade before the winery was profitable and de Marchi made many experiments with his wines. . . .
While his spicy, flavorful Chianti Classico is one of Tuscany's finest, his 100 percent Cepparello captures more richness and body. . . .
He has also toyed with Chardonnaybut because the climate is too hot and quality too erratic in this area, he will no longer produce it as a wine. . . .
De Marchi also has a few acres of Syrah, making him the first to plant that popular Rhone varietal in Tuscany. . . .
BUT EVEN THOUGH he continues to make strides with his wines, bureaucratic red tape has stalled his new winery plans for nearly six years. He works in tight spaces, with rows of barrels spread throughout a scattering of old stone buildings. . . .
He is optimistic that he will finally be able to build the winery of his dreams, even though by world standards it will still be a modest undertaking. . . .
But it's important to him as he strives to make even better wines, knowing that even if he didn't have a burning desire within, the competition would force it. . . .
It is in many ways survival of the fittest, both in the vineyards and on the highways that connect them. . . .
James Laube, a senior editor of Wine Spectator magazine, has written three books on California wine. Check this space every Monday for his views on the latest in the wine world. And if you missed a week, or want to reread a piece, back editions are available in the Column Archive.
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