When I was 16 years old, my parents took us on a five-week vacation out West across the United States. I was aware of the rare opportunity I was being given and so I dedicated myself to keeping a daily journal in which I would recount all of our stops: the stupendous sites of the national parks, the clouded towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the magnificent peaks of the Rockies. The highlights of my journal ended up just a bit different: the pages were donned with detailed descriptions of fresh sopes smothered in pulled chicken from a tiny hut in New Mexico, the basket of brisket that won my heart in Texas, and the fresh berry pie my northern Californian cousin whipped together for the Fourth of July.
Since this adolescent adventure, I have discovered that I am not alone in my wandering foodie ways. Simply turn on the TV and you can find scores of shows based fully around food-focused journeys. People have made careers, have become famous, because they simply like to see new places through eating. And for every larger than life alcohol-pounding, Rocky Mountain Oyster-eating Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern, there are millions of everyday tourists who similarly craft their itineraries around a destination’s cuisine.
Experiencing new worlds through food (and wine) is not a concept that was born with the television era. For as long as there have been tables to sit around, people have explored terrain through enogastronomical events. Culinary traditions have always meant so much more than simple nourishment — they are expressions of the people, social relationships, history, and land, and sitting down to a meal with natives in a foreign country is experiencing the most quintessential extension of the culture. This rings especially true for a certain boot-shaped country located in southern Europe, a country that won my heart through my stomach. This is the country in which cuisine is culture, the two are mutually inclusive for the Champion, the King, the Maestro, if you will, of Food and Wine: Italia.
The multifaceted story of Italian wine and food extends far beyond the reach of the kitchen table. Its pervasiveness is found in every aspect of the Italian way of life. Take Italian sayings, for example. Someone who is “good as gold” is buono come il pane, or “good like bread.” People who are blinded by something, such as love, can be said to have prosciutto sugli occhi, or “ham over their eyes,” and are unable to see something that would otherwise be evident. I named my own personal blog after the dialect version of nella botte piccola c’è il vino buono, “in small barrels is the good wine,” or our English “good things come in small packages.” The Italian sentiment is: if you can create a metaphor using food and/or wine, why not? It’s always on your mind anyway. Which leads me to my next point.
Food is also always on the lips of Italians when they are not speaking metaphorically. The most popular verb, the one that rolls off the tongues of Italian women, men, children, and would roll off the the hordes of Italian cats if they could speak, is without a doubt mangiare, “to eat.” Strolling the streets of Rome, I walk past Vatican guards discussing what they had mangiare-ed for breakfast and what they hoped awaited them to mangiare for lunch. Women bustle about on their way to work chatting into a cellulare about what they will mangiare for dinner tomorrow (tonight’s meal has already been planned), and small children beg to mangiarsi un bel gelatino. Even Italian Americans who are no longer fluent in the language know this verb. Ever had a friend whose Nonna told you to mangia, mangia?
This absolute inescapability of food in the Italian culture is what makes food and wine experiences in Italy so unique. Italians are their food: their past, present, and future is in every gram of homemade marmellata, every forma of artisan parmigiano and every bottle of a family’s wine. Especially in every bottle of wine.
Italian Wine: A culture of bottled self-portraits
It could be argued that the hottest buzzword in the international world of wine is “terroir,” the concept of which means that a winemaker was able to convey a sense of place with a wine. Grapes, earth, surrounding foliage, people, and climate are all factors included in the fundamental concept of terroir, and a wine is considered to be excellent if it is able to express these factors. When applied to Italian wine, the idea of terroir thrives and multiplies with the fact that Italian cuisine is already an embodiment of where it’s from, and so every bottle, every drop of Italian wine that achieves terroir achieves it doubly, resulting in the ultimate expression of a wine’s people, history, and culture.
It is precisely this depth and profound nature of Italian wine that beckons so many travelers to explore each unique story behind every glass. The bottle is so connected to its place, so very much belongs there, that it becomes transformative when experienced in its home. A bottle of Italian wine opened anywhere in the world plays a pleasant melody of the place from which it came; a bottle of Italian wine opened on its land, with its people, envelops its partakers in a symphony of time, place, history, and people.
My life as a foodie traveler has substantially grown since my time writing accounts of China Town in San Francisco and homemade ice cream in Door County when I was 16. My pages journaling about a destination’s cuisine have become more focused, more descriptive, and better written. Over the years, I have written entries on midnight tapa dinners in Spain, street food in London, and Biergärtens in Germany. But time and time again, the place where I truly change, the place where my heart is touched through the food, the wine, and the time spent with the people who made them, is Italy. Italian enogastronomic tourism is the ultimate gift that the country and people give their visitors: it is the gift of themselves.
And so, dear Italian travelers, when you find yourself in Italy and are a bit bored of gilded churches, masterpiece-filled museums, and lifeless monuments, when you are looking for a complete, authentic, and alive experience of the Italian culture, stop by a winery. Listen as the winemakers walk you through the process of creation of this liquid piece of themselves, share a glass with the people whose lives are poured into it, and when you get home, write about your glimpse into the heart of Italy in your journal.
Most Italian wineries are available for a visit. Almost all require an appointment. To discuss which Italian winery best fits your personal travel needs and interests, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.