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A Tale of Two Towns

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 29, 2007 12:20pm ET

This morning I began preparing my daughters for college, even though they're only three and six years old, by serving leftover pizza for breakfast. They were delighted. In fact, if any of you are in the area, stop by. It seems like we have enough leftovers to feed 500.

Last night my colleague James Suckling, who lives in Tuscany, stopped by for a casual dinner at my villa. He had a little trouble finding the place, so I had to drive down to the bottom of the hill and show him the way up.

“Helping James Suckling find his way in Tuscany—now that’s a blog entry,” I chided. 

“This isn’t Tuscany, this is Albania,” he quipped about our rural locale.

After knocking back a few bottles of Panizzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano, we quickly pulled the corks on some bottles that he brought: Querciabella Toscana Camartina 2004, Tua Rita Syrah Toscana 2005, Bibi Graetz Toscana Testamatta 2004 and Fattoria Petrolo Toscana Galatrona 2004.

From his selections, it was obvious he was pulling out all the stops to try and convert me into a Tuscan wine lover. The wines were all super fresh and elegant, with racy structures that were perfectly meshed with their respective fruit profiles. I particularly dug the Bibi Graetz and Tua Rita, which were both distinctive and very long. I can see why the Petrolo Galatrona is a hot wine, too—it’s about as good as Merlot can get. As for whether or not the conversion was a success, I'll have to hold back on that for now.

Before Suckling came over yesterday, we visited San Gimignano. Today we went to Bolgheri. If there were ever to be a case study on how you shouldn't judge a book by its cover (or pre-conceived notions), these areas would make the perfect subjects.

I couldn't wait to see the beautiful town of San Gimignano and walk along its small, charming, narrow streets. But as I walked through the large stone archway into town, my heart sank. The streets were lined with cookie-cutter porcelain shops and enoteca, all selling the same items. For example, a store with martial arts equipment (swords, knives and toy guns loaded up in its window) was followed by several other stores with the same items. Simply put, it was a disgusting display.

The main piazza, on the other hand, has some of its charm left, and lunch at Ristorante Bel Soggiorno was good. The menu was very limited but the wine list was solid, and the restaurant offers a beautiful view of the hillsides.

As we were walking out of town in the early afternoon, tour bus after tour bus was unloading at the city gates, and swarms of people were entering the town. They all seemed taken by the banal shops. It was a sad state of affairs for what should be a beautiful spot in the heart of Tuscany.

Unlike some parts of Tuscany, Bolgheri still has charm.  
I was apprehensive about going to Bolgheri, where I would be visiting with Piero Incisa della Rochetta of Tenuta San Guido, which produces Sassicaia. I was admittedly leery of the experience I might have visiting a large winery owned by such a prominent family. But as it turned out, my visit to Bolgheri and Tenuta San Guido was completely different than I expected, and it helped stop my growing disdain for the overwhelming tourist culture here.

The drive from our estate was short as the crow flies, but the road was very windy as it rolled over some barren landscape. (I was almost expecting to pass Sergio Leone along the way, working a casting call for his next movie.) As we approached Tenuta San Guido, the land became more verdant, and a gentle ocean breeze helped alleviate the stifling heat. Instead of being greeted by a manicured driveway and well-oiled PR machine, I got to see a big estate that runs like a small winery.

Though the winery cranks out 15,000 cases of wine per year of an easily recognizable wine label (Sassicaia), it has taken the well being of Bolgheri to heart. The estate's massive tract of land works as a natural defense against urbanization, with the della Rochetta family eschewing any further development. So its just their vineyards, some hunting grounds and a bird sanctuary running from the hills down to the coastline about 10 kilometers away. 

While the facade of the estate house is impressive, there is a ramshackle garden of fig trees, a woodpile for heating in winter, and a gaggle of geese roaming around behind it. Piero, whom I met through his Argentine project, Bodega Chacra, was even more laid back and relaxed than when I first met him in New York. The complete opposite of what you would expect to find here.

Bolgheri isn't flooded with tourists, though there are a few more restaurants now than there were 15 years ago. We stopped by a café for an espresso, and Piero greeted a few of the locals by name. No hustle and bustle here—just a quiet, easy-going town.

From a small town that has lost its charm, to a big-name winery that is still in touch with its soul, the last two days in Tuscany have proven to be quite the experience.

Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  August 30, 2007 11:40am ET
i have met piero here in monterrey mexico and he is a perfect gentleman and a delightfull person. He proudly represents his familly wines and i cant wait to go to Bolgheri to visit him and san guido. It is always a pleasure to read you james!!saludos Ludovic
Michael Culley
August 31, 2007 4:56am ET
So James,When you went to San Gimignano what did you think of the architecture, the city hall room, the top of the tower, the back streets, the famous ice cream? Jan Parker
James Molesworth
August 31, 2007 11:15am ET
Michael: It's got some beautiful things in it, to be sure - the frescos in the church are terrific. But the tourism there is stifling...
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 31, 2007 12:34pm ET
Thanks for all the details James! We'll be visiting all the same places as you've been in exactly one month from now, and this is very timely indeed.
Vishal Kadakia
December 15, 2007 1:14pm ET
Querciabella Camartina 2004 is one of the stunning wines I have tried this year!! wow, super tuscans cannot get any better than this, cheers

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