I owe my daughter big time for this one.
Friday we had big plans to head north to the Caserta area for a day of touring. First stop was a tour of the Reggia, the palace complex of the Bourbon kings of the Kingdom of Sicily and Naples. Most Americans like me don’t realize that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this kingdom was perhaps the most powerful in the world, and that Naples was a world capitol. A crude marker of that status is the fact that the Reggia is actually larger than the complex at Versailles. The rest of the day was to be devoted to a tour of a local winery and then, if time permitted, a side trip to a Roman amphitheatre discovered only 15 years ago near Caserta and only recently completely excavated and opened to the public.
The best laid plans, etc….The palace complex opens at 8:30 am and Caserta is some 80 miles north of Agropoli, so we were up early and in the car by 6:45. But as we pulled out of the driveway, an alert signal appeared on the central panel of the dashboard, the one that shows a motor, and a message crawled across the top of the screen, which I will (probably incorrectly) translate as: “Hill Holder not available. Be sure to control the motor!” Not exactly reassuring. What to do, what to do? If it were any other symbol but the motor symbol, there might be a bit less concern, but heading out on the autostrada with limited language proficiency and a bum motor in a rental car—seems like a recipe for disaster, right? We toodled around town looking for a mechanic open at that hour when any sane Italian is still sound asleep, finally found a gas station and asked a kind attendant there to interpret the message, and he was as clueless as we. But he checked the fluids (all perfect), listened to the motor (purring like a kitten), consulted with an older colleague, and advised us that the best course of action was to take it to a mechanic who could hook it up to a computer and read the diagnostic from there.
So, we reluctantly headed home. But as we turned into Via Fuonti, I noticed that the warning had disappeared! And was substituted by an equally cryptic one, “7.42 Ven Sett. 23”. We returned to the apartment and as I was searching the internet for some explanation of these coded epistles, Sandy said, “You idiot, 7.42 Ven Sett. 23 is 7:42 am on Friday September 23!” And of course she was right. I’d been driving the little car for almost a month and never noticed that it continuously updates this information. So, what to do now? My internet research had disclosed that Fiats are notorious for such phantom messages, almost all of which are false alarms. We decided to postpone the Reggia and salvage the rest of the trip.
Flashback: our daughter Amy is a bartender and aspiring sommelier in a fancy restaurant in New York City. Last year she had met one of Little Park’s wine purveyors, a couple from Alois Vineyard in the region of Caserta. Amy had been completely smitten by the couple who partially own and are totally responsible for marketing for the winery, and had mentioned our interest in wine and the fact that we lived in Agropoli from time to time. Massimo Alois and his wife Talita de Rosa insisted that we call when we came so that they could arrange a tour of the vineyard. I confess when she first mentioned it to me, I was a bit skeptical. We have no connection to the wine industry—two retired teachers?—and salesmen are salesmen, but Amy was adamant that this wonderful couple were perfectly sincere.
And they were! We e-mailed and Talita soon responded that they would be delighted to have us and if we showed up about noon, we could have some ‘nibbles’ and enjoy some wine. OK, so we’ll ditch the Reggia, do a quick tour of the Roman amphitheatre, not at Caserta but at nearby Santa Maria Capua Vetere, a storied city from at least 700 BCE, and then head to the winery. All went according to schedule until we hit the streets of Caserta, and there was near gridlock from one end of the city to the other. I won’t bore you with the gruesome details, but it took us roughly 40 minutes to travel the 3 miles through the northern part of the city to reach the road to Capua. Nope, not gonna show up an hour late for these gracious people who have made such a generous offer, we’ll reach the winery a bit early and just hang out.
We accessed the road north of Caserta, wound our way through the beautiful countryside of northern Campagna, and crept up the narrow streets of the cute little town of Pontelatone, wondering if we should call or just ask for directions. As we pulled into a parking lot to make the call, Sandy spotted the Alois / Villa Paolina sign, and we decided to wing it. Some two miles up a gorgeous country lane with the runners of trumpet vine hanging down and creating a sort of tunnel effect, we came to the gates of a large villa complex which opened to a sinuous allée of cypress trees which led to the Villa. I called on the speaker phone and a young woman, who turned out to be Talita, buzzed the gate open and invited us to drive down to the winery. We drove down past a gorgeous villa and a fantasyland of landscaped grounds, parked before a modern, industrial-looking building where stacks of grape crates and a huge pneumatic press indicated the nature of the business. We hopped out, asked for Signore Alois, were met by a very distinguished older gentleman, and I explained in my bad Italian that we were the parents of the young Americana he had met in New York City. “You want Massimo,” he interrupted when he heard the name of the city, and led us around to stairway to the upstairs business offices. Oops! It seems there are two Signori Alois, father Michele Alois, who planted the vineyard and whose vision has made it one of the most prestigious wine appellations in a part of Italy which is producing some of the most exciting new wines in the world. More about that later. And son Massimo Alois, who soon appeared with his beautiful wife Talita. And we felt instantly welcome.
I am not waxing poetic when I say that this is a beautiful couple. Massimo is forty-something, tall and slender with a touch of grey at the temples. Talita is drop-dead gorgeous, with that classic southern Italian panoply of dark hair, brown eyes, and a flashing smile. But what really makes them attractive is how gracious and charming they are.
They were a bit non-plussed by our premature appearance. It seems that Talita’s e-mail suggesting we meet at 1 pm at the Reggia had arrived while we were on the road and therefore had missed it. And Talita had business that had to be attended to, while Massimo was on Dad Duty and needed to drive to Caserta to pick up the son at school. Italian schools dismiss at 1 pm and what we call extra-curriculars are strictly family business. We explained our problem with the car and our scheduling dilemma, apologized for our early arrival and assured both that we were perfectly content to stroll around the grounds for as long as they needed.
Thus began one of my favorite days in many years in Italy. Massimo assured us we could poke our noses wherever we wished—the winery, the Villa, the vineyards, gardens, grounds—then led us up to the Villa and showed us how to access the kitchen, the salon and the huge terrazza, then popped a bottle of white into the frigo, showed me the little box with the waiter’s friends in it, and encouraged us to enjoy some of the fruits of his labor while he was away.
|Cleaning the de-stemmer|
|The modern bladder press|
|Temperature-controlled fermentation tanks|
|French oak barriques|
|Temperature-controlled aging in oak|
The wine needed to chill a bit, so we strolled around the Villa admiring the huge salon with its period pieces and panoramic views through huge plate glass windows, examined some of the family ledgers from the 1930s, then strolled around the grounds and down to the winery. Massimo had explained that the crush of the vineyard’s star white grape, Pallagrello Bianco, was in process, and we were shown through the winery by Enzo, the winery’s capo, a quiet, friendly man whose English was great and who, Massimo later ruefully confessed, gets none of the credit when things go well but all the blame when they go wrong. I suspect with Enzo in charge, they go well far more than otherwise. The modern ‘crush’ in a prestige winery of this sort is not much to see; next to human feet, still the absolute best way to crush grapes without crushing stems and pits which contribute bitter tannins to wine, is a so-called ‘bladder press’. It’s basically a long cylinder with a deflated rubber ‘balloon’ in the middle. Grapes are plucked from stems and peduncles in a de-stemmer, which was being cleaned when we toured, and fed into the cylinder through a port at the top. The port is cranked shut and the bladder is inflated, in this case to two atmospheres of pressure, a very gentle ‘press’ indeed, and the grapes are squeezed against the inside walls of the cylinder to express their juice. Then the juice, called ‘must’ is pumped through closed hoses and pipes to huge fermentation tanks without ever being exposed to air. Oxygen quickly strips wine of its most delicate elements and also encourages all sorts of aerobic spoilage organisms.
Enzo showed us one tank which had been recently filled with Pallagrello Bianco grapes which were macerating under their own weight at 50° F for two days. This is what’s known as a carbonic maceration and allows the grapes to ferment within their skins and creates a wine that is incomparably fruity and aromatic. The free-run must, the juice that is pressed out under the weight of the grape mass alone and is the sweetest and fruitiest component, is taken off the solids, which are then pumped to the press, and expressed must pumped back to separate fermenters to be fermented by a yeast culture. Remaining solids, the vinaccia, are used to make grappa, Italian brandy. Then the wines which make the cut are partially aged in wood, either the classic French oak barriques or the huge Italian botti or both in succession.
|The automatic bottling operation|
|And the labeling apparatus|
|Pomace to be made into grappa|
Enzo also showed us the bottling operation, completely automated, and a large warehouse and shipping dock.
We figured we had interfered with Enzo’s busy schedule far too long, so we thanked him profusely and headed out to the vineyard. Background: the Alois family is of French extraction but have been in Italy for more than five hundred years. They were part of a select group who were brought from France when the Bourbon king Ferdinand established a thriving silk industry in San Leucio, a frazione of Caserta. The Alois ancestors became leaders in the industry and were ennobled, but were almost wiped out financially when Italy was unified under the House of Savoy in 1861 and the Bourbons and their retainers were exiled. The family returned some fifteen years later and started over from scratch, gradually expanded from a single set of looms to an internationally famous concern. Alois silks are still among the world’s best jacquards and they have redecorated parts of the White House no fewer than five times. But about twenty five years ago, Michelle had had enough of corporate life and sold out his portion of the extended family enterprise in partial exchange for some of the lands which now form the heart of the vineyard.
Michele is one of those persons I admire so much, a visionary in a country which so often stifles innovation and rewards conformity. Not content with a comfortable income from the Chard and Cab of this part of Italy, namely Falanghina and Aglianico, he was determined to rescue some of the rarest and most historic vines of Caserta province. One of those was our Pallagrello, another a red grape called Casavecchia, “Old House” because it was reduced to a single eighty-year-old vine at an ancient villa in the area, a vine which had not succumbed to the terrible New World vine scourges of phylloxera root louse and oidium fungal disease and was therefore still growing on its own root system, unlike the vast majority of the world’s grafted vines. Some of these cultivars were perhaps introduced by the French and hybridized with local ones, others, such as Trebulanum, may well go back to Roman antiquity and beyond. And they are all a bit strange and absolutely wonderful if you are an adventurous wine drinker. Massimo, meanwhile, was at the top of the corporate structure and was initially reluctant to leave it, until a major schism with some of the cousins convinced him that life was too short for that sort of drama and it was time to move on and help Papa. Massimo's vision has been to make the vineyard an international player, and in that capacity he travels the world tirelessly.
|The Vigneto Audelino|
|Almost ready for harvest|
|Casavecchia, rarest of cultivars|
|Manicured landscape at the Villa|
We wandered through the 20 acres of the vineyard, awestruck by the wonderful aspect and the terroir—gentle slope, perfect sun exposure, the volcanic soil that vines absolutely adore, and the beautiful Caiatini Mountains on all sides. Sadly, the Casavecchia crop is scant this year. The weather in the Mezzogiorno has been dismal, and Massimo explained that they had lost at least 40% of the crop to weather and another several acres to a marauding band of wild boars! Fortunately, the 2015 vintage was spectacular, and smart farmers of every stripe learn to take the long-distance view of such misfortunes.
We strolled back to the villa, I popped a cork on that lovely Pellagrello, Alois’s Caiatì, named after the mountains we were admiring, and we sat on the northern terrace and drank in the crisp, refreshing taste of that remarkable little grape while our eyes were feasting on the prospect. If there’s a place closer to paradise in my fantasies, I can’t imagine what it would be: sitting on a terrace in perfect weather, kissed by an Italian breeze, looking out over a beautiful vineyard with the mountains of the Mezzogiorno in the background. I have dreamed for years of buying a small hobby farm in western North Carolina where I could make goat cheese and grow a few acres of grapes to vinify. Imagining such a life in Pontelatone was overwhelming.
|The eastern terrace|
|Sandy with Pallagrello Bianco|
|Talita's wonderful antipasti|
We soon heard Talita bustling in the villa and she appeared with the rest of our bottle and an inviting antipasto of classic bruschetta, provolone cheese, two local sausages, one a salsiccia picante, rustic bread, and cubes of cassava melon. Talita apologized that she had to leave us again to prepare lunch and we assured her we’d be perfectly content to sit on that same terrazza for the next week soaking up those views and sipping her wine.
Shortly after, Massimo appeared with their son, Gianfrancesco, named I assume after an ancestor who was a famous humanist and intellectual martyr during the Inquisition—Massimo is a passionate devotee of philosophy. With Gianfrancesco was his schoolmate Antonio, both of whom greeted us in the English they had practiced to perfection on the trip home from school. But they soon left the boring oldsters to practice their real passion, what the locals call ‘basket’ and which will require no further explanation to any true North Carolinian.
Pranzo (lunch) was served along about 2:30, the proper hour in Italy, and what a feast it was! The primi piatti or pasta course was a delicious spaghetti con pupkin e tonno, spaghetti with pumpkin and chunks of tuna, a combination which I suspect will sound a bit strange to American ears but was, I assure you, absolutely delicious. With this we had more of our Pallegrello Bianco. The entree was another pasta dish, in this case tortellini with ham and fresh tomatoes, accompanied by a relatively young Trebulanum. Like most young reds it was a bit rambunctious, and Massimo decided it did not pair well. To my untrained palate it was a charmer, a bit like an awkward teenager who shows all the signs of a promising future. Next we had a Casavecchia called Cunto, ‘Song’, which Massimo assured us had been renamed for the American market. Lots of depth and tannic structure. The next course was snowy-white mozzarelle di bufala from the local herds, and tomatoes dressed simply with basil. Caserta is one of the two famous regions for buffalo mozzarella, along with our beloved Paestum. With this we had a 2013 Caiatì, and to belabor my bad metaphor, the difference in this and the 2015 was that between a charmingly gangly teenaged girl and the elegant young woman she becomes only a few short years later: beautiful straw color, wonderful notes of pome fruits, an oily texture (I mean that as a compliment), and a soft finish. Dessert, as so often in Italy, was sweet espresso and fruit, our melon again. And then a special treat, slices of uncooked, cured pancetta from a special breed of pig indigenous to this region.
|Spaghetti with pumpkin and tuna|
|Local mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes|
|Massimo carves pancetta and serves Trebulanum|
As often in Italy, the conversation was more delicious than the food. We talked of family history, of our experiences in Italy, of all the things we loved about the South of both countries and the remarkable parallels between the two, of the political status in America which has so much of the world concerned, of family, friends, aspirations—perhaps it was the wine, but I don't think so; we told Amy afterwards, only half jokingly that Talita and Massimo are our new best friends.
Talita had to scramble to take the boys to ‘basket’ practice, so we made our Facebook and What’s-App connections and kissed her goodbye. Massimo gave us a tour of the cellar under the villa, well stocked and containing two more of those huge botti, these for the absolute premium wines to age in this perfect environment. But my favorite part of the cellar was the museum of terroir along one wall. Massimo has traveled all over the world visiting the finest vineyards, and everywhere he goes he collects a sample of the soil and now has, neatly stored in glass jars and properly labeled and described, soils from at least a hundred vineyards, from Bordeaux to Napa and parts in between. He took us back to the winery, where he and Enzo allowed us to sample the musts at various stages of vinification from raw grape juice to young wines, a particular luxury to the academic who has read so much but sampled so little. The highlight was definitely making arrangements for a return visit and for a visit by our new friends to our area to see the ruins of Velia, home of the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. Our departure was highlighted by a proper introduction to Michele, who insisted on saying good-bye to the Americani. Hugs and more kisses and we were off for a very happy return homeward.
|Sandy and Talita|
|Part of the cellar under the Villa|
|With my buddy in the cellar|
|Massimo and Enzo|
|Enzo draws a free-run must, the most luxurious of all|
|Some of the family pets|
|Giorgio the free-range pony...|
|and King Arthur, the free-range pooch|
Look, I know these people entertain on a regular basis and probably do so relatively effortlessly, what with buyers and visiting vignerons. But the thing which touches our hearts is the fact that they so graciously opened their home and hospitality to two almost total strangers who offered them nothing in return except friendship and appreciation, and did so for the pure, unsullied joy of sharing themselves, their culture and their bounty. How can you NOT love a country that produces such people?