We are late for lunch. This is not a good thing. It is a terrifying thing.
At the wheel is Sergio Mionetto, world-renowned maker of some of the finest wine in all of Italy, and arguably clinically insane (though, of course, I put little faith at all in the classifications of clinics; I only mention this as a desperate attempt to put the man into some sort of perspective). He drives faster and tries to whistle carelessly, but is unconvincing.
We haphazardly wind through the pre-alps, speeding on concrete roads that frequently and unexpectedly fold into sudden hairpin turns. Every so often we break out through the trees, at which moments we are firmly hit, flat in the eyes, with a vision of the whole gigantic panorama of the verdurous, sprawling valley of Venezia, before it is snatched away as we again speed back into the dense forest.
Of all of Julian’s relatives to leave waiting Zia Pia is, by a large margin, the one about whom a wise man would say, “never, ever, ever…ever…ever!…stand up Zia Pia.” She too, I am quite sure, could also acquire the classification of clinically insane, and she knows it, and, I think, would look upon such a prognosis as something of a trophy. I suspect she would frame the doctor’s official diagnostic forms, and place them in a prominent spot in her house for all to admire, and point it out when visitor’s came over to lunch as anyone else would proudly showcase their child’s honour roll certificate.
We are keeping Zia Pia waiting. Sergio, a man of infinite assurance, has begun to surreptitiously sweat blood. “No wine…no wine!” he says, turning about to the four terrified squires. “Traffic!”
The four of us look uneasily at each other. It is a Saturday afternoon, in a remote region of Venezia; we haven’t seen another car on the road for ten minutes. Traffic, it seems, is an excuse that may border on untruth, and is, to boot, quite unlikely to get by the shrewd Italian matron who is Zia Pia.
The simple fact is that we are late because of wine; albeit very, very good wine, though I suspect that fact won’t serve to mitigate the guilt. We wonder just how far mental reservation will get us in this case. Sadly there is no Mr. O’Herron around to answer the conundrum. For a moment I stop and wonder how any man can ever safely navigate this life, in all its infinite variety and flavour, without a personal moral theologian standing close by. I knew I should have brought one with me.
Today has not been a typical day. It began at ten o’clock when I gently and pleasantly slid into consciousness. Sauntering over to the blinds, waiting for Geoffredo (Geoff Turecek) to finish showering, I thought I might give them a tug. I did. They slid open, and for the second morning in a row I was stunned by the blaze of light that afforded me a distant view of the tips of the spires of Venice, sixty-something kilometers East; I breathed a sigh of satisfaction.
After an enormous breakfast served by Bicche, one of Julian’s great aunts, who is so accomplished in the practice of Xenia that she makes one feel as if one is doing her a favour by eating her food and staying in her house, Sergio picks us up.
As we weave in what some might consider a slightly-too-rapid fashion through one or another of the dozen towns we pass through, Sergio explains that he has been pulled over four times on the main drag of this town alone. Each time the police officer has let him off the hook. That’s the sort of man he is. He is Sergio Mionetto; his very name graces the bottle of one of the most affordable, finest, and most delicious of the effervescent wines the region affords.
We arrive at our morning’s destination. It a large warehouse wallowing in a sea of vines. The parallel lines of the vineyards that race along the mountainsides give the impression of a long series of Mesopotamian ziggurats, and one can’t help but wonder if the ancient architects of those mystic constructs took their inspiration from such vineyards. The vines here all produce the prosecco species of grapes. This rare species can only be grown in this relatively tiny region of Italy, with the Alps on the West, and the Mediterranean on the East, one producing the moist and mild air needed for the grapes, and the other acting as a colossal trap, catching the precious air in its Westward movement, and forcing it to stick around long enough to breathe life and vitality into the vines.
It is our difficult task, for the next hour and a half, to follow Sergio through the towering rows of twenty and thirty-thousand liter tanks of vinifying, divine liquid. With each new tank we purify our wine glasses by pouring a little of the wine into them from a tap in the side of the tank. We swish it about a little, and dump it into a bucket carried about for the purpose. And in this manner each new wine, all with their own distinctive flavours and nuances, all at a different stage of the process of vinification, is poured over our palate, unsullied and pure.
Americans, North Americans (to include my native turf), I feel compelled to point out, do not understand wine. They do not understand drinking on the whole really.
I once had the pleasure of working at a five star restaurant in Toronto. It boasted one of the most accomplished sommelier’s (professional wine-tasters) in the country, and was filled with the sort of men who know at what temperature wine ought to be served, and in what type of glass, and all such sorts of cryptic etiquette.
And yet I am not sure that even they understood wine; more than anything, they seemed to think it was the focal point of a game, or a pseudo-religion, with ornate and secret, Masonic-like rituals. More than a drink they seemed to think or imagine it a deity, and often these men appeared to me, with all their posing and posturing, as very silly people. I often laughed at them in secret.
But to experience the sincere joy with which Sergio uncorks a bottle of Mionetto wine at the dinner table is itself a an experience; to note the evident pleasure with which he sniffs the cork (a sure means, so I am told, of assuring the quality of a wine for a wine-taster in the know) is itself a pleasure. “This is my spirit,” he says about the bubbly liquid. He smacks his lips, and gleefully pours you a glass. And his strange claim is easy to believe. Especially since, as I have said before, the bottle declares in plain, block letters: SERGIO. It is his wine; it is, truly, in some mystic fashion, his spirit. It is his genius that has created it; he has poured his whole self, and the whole accrued stock of knowledge of the last hundred-and-something years of his family’s wine-making tradition, into crafting it in all its glorious inimitability.
I have known many an alcoholic, and in North America I think there are many alcoholics, and that, because, as I say, North Americans do not understand alcohol. To see an alcoholic drink is like seeing a man having an asthma attack, gasping for air and unable to force enough into his lungs. The drunkard drinks for the drink itself; his body craves the drink, and his sole end is to satisfy the thirst of his body. But the true drinker is concerned with something altogether different than that.
As we make our tour through the wine-making facility—or cantina as it is called—enjoying the varied and delicious wines, one of my fellow squires turns to me and mentions how strange it is that wine seems to have such a muted effect upon him here in Italy. All of us agree; we have noted the same effect. And certainly it is strange at first, but not, I think, entirely inexplicable.
This evident phenomenon, I would argue, is certainly not as a consequence of any lessened potency of the alcohol here. Rather it is a direct consequence of the fact that the act of drinking is here inextricably and always intertwined with greater things than the drink itself—with camaraderie, with tradition, with family, friendship, and yes, with religion. For there are two ways to treat a thing unjustly; one is by lifting it above its rank and worshipping it, and the other is by debasing it and treating it as a mere servant or slave when it is greater, both of which make us, and the thing, look foolish.
But in Italy wine is not as my North American connoisseur friends, or my alcoholic friends, have made it: as an end in itself. It is neither the deity nor the tyrannical slave. It is, rather, the happy, humble steward.
This is, after all the continent in which some of the finest liquors have been distilled and brewed and vinified by monks and priests. This is the continent on which once flourished the Catholic religion with all its love of the good things of this earth as gifts to Man and foretastes of the kingdom to come. I would like not to have to quote the oft-cited fact that Christ’s first miracle was the transformation of water into what, we are told, was a spectacular wine, but the fact is that those are the facts, and I think that they mean something. I think Christ knew what he was about when he did that. And I think that Europe, with its thousands of years of Catholic tradition, is, despite its reckless pursuit of its greatest apostasy yet, still steeped through and through, inescapably, with deep spiritual undercurrents that inform everything its inhabitants do.
Sitting about the dinner tables of the remarkable relations of Julian’s, savouring three-course meals that extend for two, three hours, or more, the wine, which flows abundantly and continually, is something other than alcohol. There is something spiritual about it, a deep river of tradition that informs its consumption, and there is something natural in its plentiful presence; in fact, I only really stop and take notice of it and ponder it because I am a writer, because it is my job and my vocation and my passion to notice things, and, better yet, to delve into their significances.
I feel that I could go on at much greater length about this topic yet. I believe in many ways it touches on some truly fundamental questions about the spirit of Europe, and especially Italy, the spirit with which I have had the chance to commune for the last month and a half. But alas, I am out of time, and probably long ago out of space.
Perhaps I shall end this segment with this significance. In the introduction to my last article I promised to delve into to the origins and the secrets of Julian, to try to come to some conclusion or explanation about the strange creature that is my roommate and my friend. And I think I have discovered something. I think I have discovered that, just as the effervescent wine fermented from prosecco grape flows through the veins of Sergio and Zia Pia, and all the others of Julian’s relatives, filling them with a passion for life that I have rarely, if ever encountered, so too has it made its way down through Julian’s parents and into the blood of Julian himself.
Julian’s heart pumps blood that is infused with the effervescent prosecco liquid and it bequeaths to him the sweet insanity so common here in the mystic town of Valdobiaddene.