In the Summer of 1998 I woke in the dark on a train barreling somewhere through the odd landscape of Calabria in Southern Italy. I had spent most of the evening playing my guitar with a gaggle of young Italian students and drinking red wine. They had food with them as well; and they were excited about sharing. We ate arancini (fried balls of risotto with a center of tomato sauce) drank the wine (from the bottles, passed from one to the other) and sang old Italian folk songs… “Bello Ciao” was one I remember rather perfectly… At this point in my young life I didn’t care for wine or even good food, for that matter… at this point, I thought of food and libations as nothing more than fuel, as the thing that kept me moving and, therefore, alive. But that evening, on the train, as we sang, ate and drank, I have to admit, I think I was changed, altered, transformed. The wine was SO good, the food was SO delivious, the friendship was SO amazing… I had never experienced anything quite like this. As my new friends left my sleeping cabin and went their seperate ways, I fell to sleep easily, clutching my little $30 acoustic, nylon six-string in my arms. And, I just felt so good… When I awoke later on, I looked out the window to a stark, alien landscape of flat, rolling plains and saw little villages emerging under the white moonlight like phantoms… I got out of my bunk and put bare feet on the cold floor of the cabin. I could see several other people sleeping soundly in their bunks. I opened the cabin door and stepped into the hallway of the train. I stood there for a couple of hours and looked out the window at the amazing scene flashing before me. The sun rose, delicately and fully, over the distant horison. We were headed far south, destination, Sicilia… I was so out of my element… in fact, I was truly lost… I was outside of reality… I had ventured into unknown territory. I was without money and as content as ever. I had been living basically off of friends and playing Bob Dylan covers on my guitar for roughly the equivalent of $6 to $20 a day… which was, at that time, just enough to eat a piece of pizza a taglio and drink a bit of wine each night. But as we crossed the straight, and I looked out at the twinkling lights of Messina and the steady glowing neons of the Martini-Rossi signs on the far shore, I was struck with a sense of amazement… Was it possible that all this had been going on in the world while I was studing Latin in school and thinking about the next month’s rent and the grocery bill and Doctor Cerigioli’s mid-term exam? Indeed, it was. Indisputably.
Jump forward about 6 years and it was I, sitting at the bar in an Italian restaurant in Austin, Texas. I had ordered a pizza and a bottle of red wine for my dining companion, Brian, and I to share over dinner. I was non-specific about the wine and had only asked the bartender for “something red, good and under $30.” I remember the way her presented the wine perfectly: “This is Gagliopo from Calabria… it is dry and acidic with a fair amount of dark, plummy fruit… perfect for pizza margherita…” Calabria? Oh, my god! I had been there before. I once gazed out of the window of a fast-moving train heading south towards Sicilia and remarked to myself how odd and weird the landscape was… I was instantly transported to that moment. As the bartender opened and then poured the wine I left myself for a moment and went all the way back to that trip to Sicilia… Brian noticed. He asked me what was wrong. “Nothing,” I said. And that was all I could say; because too much had just happened to me. I was transported to a distant past and reminded of a particular moment that was important to me. That night, after we finished our pizza and the wine, I went home and fell to sleep much the same way I had fallen to sleep years before… in a sleeping cabin of a train barreling through the alien landscape of Calabria.
This is what makes wine something special to me. When I open a bottle of wine from some strange part of the world, I am forced to think about where it came from, who made it, who typically drinks it, what forces of wild Nature shaped the growth of the grapes that make this wine? What strange sun bathed these vineyards and created the juice that is now sitting, innocently, unassumingly, in my glass?