La mia bici (my bicycle)

My favourite instrument for getting to know the wines of Southern Italy, just after a cork screw, is one of my bicycles. I close my school for a few months each year in fact and travel around the south- la Sicilia, Calabria, la Basilicata and la Puglia- talking with producers, consumers, marketers and  all the folks in between. And I taste and I taste and taste.

In the day time I spit but I tend to buy a bottle of the day’s favourite to drink that night, someplace haunting beautiful. In front of a 9th century church. Or while listening to the sing-song of the waves on the shore.  A pocket knife and an aged salami and a couple of peaches can be dinner, if the wine is right. And, of course, if you’ve chosen the proper church.

Travelling long distances by bicycle is a different kind of tourism. And in Latin Europe, where cultures, grape varietals, climates, immigration patterns, language all change in a matter of a few kilometres, the slower pace tends to amplify your sensitivity to those differences.

It may take you longer to arrive somewhere but you really notice the changes that took place over the land during the trip. You notice the shapes of the grape leaves, ‘these are different, we’re now in a different DOC’. You notice the differences in dialect, ‘more Greek influence here’. You notice the agriculture, ‘Artichokes, thus saltier soils here, we must be nearing the coast’.

And of course the other benefit to bicycling wine Southern Italian wine country?

The fact that they tend to put vineyards in the most beautiful of places on earth.

Most I talk with suggest autumn as the best time to travel the south of Italy, for anyone charged with getting a good sense of our wine. Grapes are harvested in Europe after all, in the autumn (mostly in September, although primitivo can be in August and aglianico and gaglioppo can be in October or even November).

But anyone that knows the industry knows that you’ll never really have the attention of any wine maker come September, not more than for a few seconds at a time. Arrive in April or May though, and you’ll have their attention for as long as you want it. Maybe lunch too. And contact numbers for the next producers. I’ve been offered beds, meals and more corks are pulled than you’d even imagine. And in general, the quality is very high. The generosity of the producers, something that never fails to surprise.

May is when the real conversations happen, most producers not only openly sharing intimate knowledge of the year’s production, but curiosity over the last places I’ve been. Or where I’m going next. And over the years I’ve found that many producers treat me like flowers treat a honey bee: Fixed flowers curious about the daily practices of the other flowers, with no real means to communicate, had it not been for the cross pollinator.  (I’ve made peace with the fact that while up Etna or Vulture- two massive volcanoes in Southern Italy, one active, the other spent- that at least half of the questions local producers ask me will be regarding the practices I’ve recently seen conducted up the other hill).

Professional cyclists often cite that it’s ‘not about the bicycle’, and it isn’t. I bicycled Trieste to Lecce on a 20-year old mountain bike, taking 32 days to do it. But in the last 7 years, I’ve been bicycling the Italian south each year, from Marsala back home to Lecce. And now, even after logging almost a year combined total bicycling the roads and streets of Southern Italy, it’s clear that a lifetime will never be enough, a thought that renders me both happy and sad, in equal proportions.

The bicycle that use for these long distances is my new Bianchi Camaleonte, a hybrid, rigid enough to carry all my stuff: bicycle clothing, street clothing, three lenses, a camera, a computer, an Ipad and all the replacement tubes, chains, pumps, etc., the stuff you need when you know that you ARE going to break down and that it won’t near a bicycle shop. I prefer German bags, which is why so many mistake me for one, until I open my mouth.

But I often cycle alongside locals for hours, those just out for the day. Their faces always, always light up when they see my bags: most passionate cyclists dream about leaving it all for a few months to see the world from the saddle of a bike.

Them; ‘Dove dormi?’ (where do you sleep?)

Me: in hotels, sometimes nice ones too.

Them: ‘Emmeh, e come mangi?’ (and how do you eat?)

Me: ‘Really well, actually. Lunches are mostly picnics produced by passing through local markets or that old guy selling his cheese and honey from the back of his car that we just passed. And dinners in restaurants, half the time in family-owned little typical ones, half the time in up scale famous ones. And every few days I stop in a cook with some older local women, contacts that I jealously keep as though they were written on bank notes’.

Slow to adapt to the joys of GPS, I carry the same map almanac each year in my front basket, a basket that the bike shop refused to install, claiming that it was going to ‘destroy the silhouette’, ‘your new bike, the ‘Ferrari’ of bicycles’. (Unlike most European cyclists, I have an aversion to fetishism over gear, clothing and equipment).

Two years ago I graduated as a nationally-certified sommelier here in Italy (a three year programme, my diploma came from the desk of il presidente della repubblica). Anna my house keeper sewed AIS (associazione italiana di sommelier)  patches onto the front of my bicycle clothing, to great effect. Where as upon entering a winery I used to have to present myself and explain about my cooking school in Lecce, now I simple walk in, they see the patch and the conversations begin at a high level, right from the start. And, well, by now most quality producers already know me, a fact that opens even more doors.

Wine tourism is slow to develop in Southern Italy. While there are chrome and smoked glass tasting rooms, most wineries blow clean dusty glasses before pouring tastes. There are no spas, no giftshops. Many if not most wineries lack signs out front. You’re nearly always first greeted by friendly dog, the back half of her body waging back and forth as she approaches.

And each year for the last three years, aside from my wine content that I publish here, I’ve also written major feature articles for Wine & Spirits while out on the road, my editor in New York honing the drafts sent from various hotel beds, all across Southern Italy.  From bicycling up an active volcano- nerello mascalese– to the red soils of Puglia- Salice Salentino– to this year’s, the wines of Cirò in Calabria, my editor coaxing my writing into legitimate wine journalism. (I’ve approached journalism like I have most things in life: fervent tenacity can compensate for most short comings, in this case, a complete lack of any journalistic training whatsoever). And my editor is kind not to lament all the extra drafts that he needs to put me through.

And when interviewed, all of this is the answer I give in regards to what makes our wine programme so compelling. My formal wine training, the fact that I travel the south each year, extensively, that I have a sober yet passionate editor that forces me to think succinctly about wine, that I still make wine each year, all of this together gives us insights and privileges, in real ways that benefit our students. Southern Italian wine is not something we teach. It’s who we are.

Take a look at our calendar. You’ll see when I’m off on my next trip. Even if you never come to our little school, please check out my wine content and consider learning more about Southern Italian wine, which are some of the most intriguing wines being made today.

And keep an eye out for cyclists too. You never know when it will be you on that seat.

Self-portrait taken in front of traffic mirror, Le Murge, Puglia.