When I had the chance to travel through Piemonte this year on a tour with the Piemonte Land of Perfection group, I didn’t realize that in addition to my American colleagues, I would also be travelling with a group of Chinese nationals. At first they were a sedate group: polite, professional, loaded with notebooks and photography equipment. They were “led” by a perfectly tri-lingual gentleman named Francesco Ye, a knowledgeable young man whose Italian and English skills would help us break through that professional veneer, and let us truly get to know each other over the following week.
As the week wore on we learned who among the group spoke Chinese, English, Italian, or even Spanish We communicated by translating for each other, through wild hand gestures (also very Italian), and by grunting our approval at the amazing wines were tasting.
There is that moment when you stick your nose in a glass of particularly great wine, and you look up at the person across from you who is doing the same thing- you connect, and smile at each other. No language skills necessary. Wine is a great communicator.
We broke off into smaller groups at times, 6 or 7 of us descending upon a little wine bar to order what were for us, obscenely well-priced local wines.
On one such adventure we tasted a panel of 1998 Baroli one night in Alba. Chinese, American, Italian. It doesn’t matter. These are truly stupendous wines.
What struck me were that these Chinese people seemed to know just as much about the obscurities and esoteric facets of Italian wine as we did. They asked me if I had ever tasted the whites of Fiorano or Valentini. They knew all about the various clones of Nebbiolo and the soil types of the Langhe. These were our people- our enological soul-mates. I know many of us will stay in touch and hope to cross paths again in the future. All thanks to love and passion for Italian wine.
Of course there were moments of pure hilarity as well. I will share one of my favorite anecdotes from the trip which highlighted a cultural particularity that just didn’t translate.
As my American travel-mate Ted Glennon recounts at one point he “had to explain the method for traditional risotto to our Chinese friends in Alba. The chef produced a lovely risotto with very strong flavored Castelmango cheese: he wanted the flavor of this local cheese to shine through, and so he only used water instead of stock. Our new Chinese pals all started laughing at this: how else do you make rice than with water?”
Non importa. Lasciamo stare il risotto, amici. Parliamo del vino!
(It doesn’t matter. Forget about the risotto. Let’s talk about the wine!)