I spent last week in Siena and San Gimignano, Italy, missing the Italian festival in Hampton Bays, but enjoying a wine tour throughout the region. I also took a cooking class on how to make homemade gnocchi with an Italian chef named Maria, met the mayor of San Gimignano, Giacomo Bassi, and had dinner with two Italian Princesses at their family’s vineyard.
It was quite the trip.
On the first day, my group had dinner at Enoteca Italiana restaurant in Siena with our tour guides Benedetta and Filippo from Le Baccanti Tours, which does wine tours throughout Italy. Inside Enoteca Italiana is a 17,000-bottle wine cellar housed underground in massive cave-like structures. It is the second largest wine cellar in the world. For dinner we were served stuffed zucchini with ricotta cheese, pici pasta and pork on a bed of roasted vegetables along with Chianti Colli Senesi. For dessert we had apple cake and a glass of grappa. It was ridiculously good.
We spent the day at Castel di Pugna winery, getting a tour of the vineyard, which has been passed down from father to son since the year 1,000 A.D. Olive trees were everywhere, set high on a hilltop overlooking Siena. It was just gorgeous. We had lunch there of pasta and salad, cooked by the chef of the vineyard and the owner’s daughter, and again had the Chianti Colli Senesi, which is now my favorite red.
Soon it was time to tour the city of Siena, which sure is a beautiful city. I kept saying over and over on this trip, “this is what I always thought Italy was like.” Here it is. We toured a gorgeous cathedral known as Duomo Di Siena, and viewed art from 1,000 years ago. Afterward we climbed to the top of Torre del Mangia, a Tuscan tower in Siena used during the Middle Ages to spot incoming enemies. It was such a stunning view, I felt literally like I was standing in a painting.
After spending the night at the Hotel Garden, we went to the Agricola Campriano Vineyard, the Fattoria Montepescini Vineyard and the Fattoria Campopalazzi Winery, with stops into two for some Merlot. Each vineyard had its different types of charm; all of them were set up high on a hillside, overlooking incredible landscapes of Italy.
Members of the tour group offered our differing opinions of the wines we tasted. Toffee, coffee, buttery, earthy, flowery were words I found myself saying. At Campriano Vineyard, we met the vineyard’s owner, Ranuccio Neri—a pleasant Italian man living the dream—whose personal chef, Maria, gave us a cooking class on how to cook gnocchi. The homemade potato pasta combined with Campriano wine melted in my mouth. I was sad to leave because I knew it would be a long time before I ever have such an incredible meal.
At Fattoria Montepescini we met the winemaker and his girlfriend, and learned that concrete tanks were originally used over steel tanks for wine and is considered the “old school” way of making it. This vineyard was incredibly small, but was the main vineyard for the little town of Montepescini.
If there was one place that blew my mind though, it was the Town of Murlo, which consists of 12 people, several cobblestone streets and an ancient water well where villagers used to get their water. One woman who worked in the small museum there had emigrated to Italy from California after falling in love with an Italian man on a trip while she was in college.
A highlight of the trip was Fattoria Campopalazzi Vineyard, where I felt like I was having dinner with family. All of the vineyards provided family-style dinners, but here, the vineyard dinner was a celebration because the harvest was ending, so all the workers were invited as well. I felt I was in a scene from an Italian romance novel. The children were running around as the wife of the owner cooked for nearly 20 people—we ate quiche, lasagna stuffed with ricotta and vegetables, ragu sauce with pici, and of course all the dishes were paired with their local wine, as well as cheeses from a farm right down the road. Amazing.
The following day we toured San Gimignano, a very small walled city built during the first century for protection from raiders. We went to its wine museum for a tasting where we tried what is now my favorite white wine grape, Vernaccia. At the museum, the mayor of San Gimignano was present, and I shook hands with him and got a picture. After a bit of relaxing and conversation about the wine and fresh cheese, we visited Montendidoli Vineyard, considered one of the most famous vineyards in San Gimignano. It’s owned by this adorable elderly Italian couple. The owner found out I was a writer and passed me a poem he had written. Drinking wine and reading poetry in Italy written by the owner of the vineyard was pretty damn cool.
That night I had a crazy experience. The owners of one of the vineyards we visited that day, Guicciardini Strozzi, were two Italian Princesses named Natalia and Irina Guicciardini Strozzi. I would love to go back to this vineyard, not just because it’s owned by hot Italian princesses, but because it’s almost like a Walt Disney movie castle, but the real deal, set on a vineyard. They toured the vineyard with us and then, because they knew our tour guide, Filippo, stayed for dinner with us—an incredible affair with lasagna, cooked rabbit and peas. It’s not every day that you get to be served by a Princess of Italy. According to a little research, the two Princesses are descendants of Mona Lisa. HOW FREAKING AMAZING IS THAT? It was a magical night.
Our last day we toured a massive wine co-op called Cantina Sociale di Certaldo, then did a quick stop by Vineyard and finally had a tasting on the side of the road at Teruzzi & Puthod’s (which you can buy in Bridgehampton at the liquor store next to TJ Maxx) tasting house, enjoying Vernaccia wine, made from a fabulous grape that really doesn’t get enough credit in the wine world.
Then, sadly, came our final dinner. It was at a wonderful restaurant called Leggenda dei Frati. Chef Filippo Saporito prepared us roasted tomatoes with pesto and ricotta, zucchini cake appetizer and cooked pigeon. All of it was incredible.
Truly, this was a trip of a lifetime, and although I’m not of Italian heritage, I think I came back a little Italian. What a trip.