"You're going to Vini Veri, aren't you?" inquired Luca di Vita, the owner of Alle Testiere, an eight-table restaurant that boasts some of Venice's most pristine fish and one of its finest wine lists.
I looked at him in a stupefied way (and this was before the grappa). "Luca, I have no idea what you're talking about," I said.
With that, he leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "It's a kind of counter-Vinitaly," referring to the giant wine trade show that takes place in Verona every April. "You'll love it. It's all about your 'Crazy Club.'"
I commented that I hadn't read anything about a wine show called Vini Veri, literally "True Wines." "Oh, no," exclaimed Luca, "it's strictly by word of mouth." Only in Machiavelli's native country could you have a wine show purposely not publicized, the better to ensure its success.
I was hooked. Over the months I've grown to appreciate, courtesy of wine-loving Venetian restaurateurs such as di Vita and Cesare Benelli of Al Covo, oddball yet profound wines -- mostly whites -- made in untraditional ways.
I've come to call this group of independent-thinking winegrowers the Crazy Club. These growers are challenging—and expanding—our idea of what wine might be or should be. And the Crazy Club is growing.
The Vini Veri show, housed in the elegant 18th century Villa Favorita near Monticello di Fara, midway between Verona and Padova, on April 4 and 5, was their chance to meet each other, like a Boy Scout jamboree serving free wine.
In Italy, the epicenter of the Crazy Club seems to be Friuli, which lies north of Venice. There you'll find such producers as Josko Gravner, Edi Kante and Stanislao Radikon, among others.
Certain features bind the members of the Crazy Club. They are naturalists in their winemaking, rejecting cultured yeasts, filtering, fining and the use of any sulfur at all in winemaking.
The Crazy Club cocks a snoot at the modern insistence in white winemaking on avoiding skin contact, the better to create pale wines. The Crazy Club celebrates honey-gold whites, the result of leaving the wines on the skins for six months or more.
"Take a look at this," chortled di Vita. "It just came in. I don't know how I'm going to sell it, but what the hell." He held up a bottle of Friuli producer Edi Kante's white wine made from Vitovska, a grape variety indigenous to Friuli and neighboring Slovenia that Kante single-handedly revived.
Kante's original version of Vitovska was straightforward: pale in color, crystalline and delicate. But what Luca was holding, called Vitovska Extró, is Kante's renewed application for membership in the Crazy Club. The back label instructs you to shake the bottle five or six times before pouring. Out comes a wine that, if you didn't know otherwise, you'd think was unfiltered apple cider.
Yet appearances are deceptive. The wine was delicious. Better, in fact, than Kante's more conventionally made version. It was fuller, richer, more resonantly flavorful. It was shocking, yet rewarding.
Or take, for example, the Tuscan producer Massa Vecchia, located in the hills near the town of Massa Marittima, which is southwest of Siena. Owner-winemaker Fabrizio Niccolaini owns just 12 acres of vines, from which he makes seven different wines, red and white. Its Vermentino is like no other version in my experience. Deep gold, it nevertheless has no trace of the oxidation its color would lead you to expect. (It shows you how brainwashed we are as to what's "correct" in white wine.) The flavor is intense, with a gush of bitter almond.
Massa Vecchia presented this Vermentino, along with its exceptional red wines, at the furtive Vini Veri show, which was thronged, by the way, with hundreds of visitors.
Sixty-seven producers poured their wines, many from France. The Loire Valley is a hotbed of Crazy Club members, with the likes of biodynamic guru Nicholas Joly of Coulée de Serrant in Savennières, Guy Bossard of Domaine de l'Ecu in Muscadet and Marc Angeli of Domaine de la Sansonnière in Bonnezeaux. All were in attendance. Not everything made by these iconoclastic winemakers is persuasive. Some of the wines can be downright weird.
Like idiosyncratic art, these wines require a bit of looking—and thinking. But the reward is nothing less than seeing the world differently. And that's as good as wine can get.
Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator since 1985.