It was a dark and rainy late winter night in the Italian city of Siena. We had arrived late to our hotel and the patrona had frowned when we asked about a place to eat. It was low season, she reminded us, so dining might be difficult. She made a few calls and sent us back out into the night. We wound up in a tiny restaurant off some stone steps that seemed to be carved out of the massive stone buildings on either side.
Because it was late, the owner of the restaurant told us he would simply bring us dinner – no selecting from the menu this time. A moment later he returned and put an open bottle down on the table. At first I was taken aback, but then I saw that the small amount of wine missing from the bottle was in a glass in the owner’s own hand. He was giving us the wine he had opened for himself.
That was 20 years ago, and I have never forgotten it.
Start with the name, “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.” The noble wine of Montepulciano – a noble town in its own right. The grape, he told us, was Prugnolo Gentile (which I later found out was the local name for Sangiovese). The producer’s name, Avignonesi, also had an unmistakable ring of authenticity. This supposition was confirmed when the restaurant owner told us the winery’s cellars were some of the oldest in Tuscany – which meant some of the oldest in Italy and therefore Europe.
The wine itself was the sunlight of Italy in a bottle, with the red cherries and summer heat still shimmering in their warm sweetness. Yet there was also a serious earthiness that bespoke history, tradition, and rocky hillsides trod by simple men and their beasts of burden. I can remember that wine in my mouth like it was yesterday – and I can well understand why the restaurant owner chose it to end his long day.
For years I would make the rounds of the handful of winesellers in the Italian quarter of San Francisco to see if they had the wine, but I was disappointed far more often than satisfied. Or the wine would show up on a restaurant list at an absurd price. Somehow the handful of lire I once spent on a rainy winter night for this wine stuck in my mind as the price I should pay, so I could rarely bring myself to fork over a fistful of dollars.
But now the drought has ended.
Brian Larky has signed Avignonesi to his Dalla Terra Winery Direct business, which cuts the importer out of the mark-up chain that pushes prices relentlessly up as wine moves from foreign producer to U.S. consumer. Avignonesi Vine Nobile di Montepulciano is now available stateside for around twenty bucks, which means when I want to dress up dinner on the weekend, I can relive one of the happiest wine moments of my life without breaking the budget.
Larky’s working the same magic with a number of other Italian producers who used to be priced past the $20 point where consumers are often reluctant to go. He's also bringing in plenty of great wines around $10 - or less. The wineries he selects are small, family-run, and expert at producing heavenly wines without hellishly high alcohol. So ask about Dalla Terra at your local wine shop and give both yourself and Larky a boost.
Now if he could just do something about Napa Cabernet…
- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.