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In search of her Italian roots, and a shopping bargain in Sienna, an American writer finds that one of the oldest, most prestigious wineries in Italy, Biondi-Santi, is the originator of Brunello, Tuscany's signature wine in Montalcino
By Joann Biondi
For me, my father's rural old country boyhood symbolized hardship, purple feet, and stale bread prudently turned into soup. But as a woman with olive skin and unruly hair who has been known to throw plates amid emotional outbursts, I know that Italy courses through my veins.
Wanting to get in touch with my long-lost Italian roots, I recently took part in a weeklong cooking program in Tuscany-bellisimo! When the classes ended, I had one free day during which I had planned to drive to Sienna to shop for shoes. But first I had a mission-to find the Biondi-Santi Winery.
Yes, my name is Biondi, but no, we are not related. My father died 25 years ago and although he never told me much about our family's background, I know that they didn't own a winery. I had learned about the Biondi-Santi Winery from my sister, who lives in upstate New York and makes her own Finger Lakes wine, and I had promised her that I would find it. Visitors need an appointment weeks in advance to get in for a tour, I had heard, so I decided that a picture of the sign would have to suffice. After all, I had shoes to buy in Sienna.
After driving around in circles on the outskirts of Montalcino I spotted a small wooden sign marking the entrance to the winery and pulled over to take my photo. Afterwards, I noticed that the wrought iron gates were left invitingly ajar. Hmmm? I got back in my car, drove up the road surrounded by manicured grapevines, and came upon an ivy-covered villa perched on a hill. A rustic wooden door beckoned-knock, knock, knock.
Olivia Anthony, an American-born opera singer who worked for the winery, answered the door.
"Scuzzi, mi chiamo Joann Biondi..."
Well in no time, I was being introduced to Franco Biondi-Santi, the 84-year-old owner of the winery. Tall and lean, Biondi-Santi had a serene and stately presence with eyes the color of robin eggs and skin so fair he could have been a Swede. Dressed in khakis and a blue plaid shirt, he was gracious yet humble, revealing not even a hint of his family's revered status in Italy.
One of the oldest, most prestigious wineries in Italy, Biondi-Santi is the originator of the famed brunello, Tuscany's signature wine.
Aligned with Italy's "slow food" movement, the winery is a family-run effort devoted to holding on to time-honored techniques, and serves as an homage to a bygone era when winemaking was an art rather than a business. It has no qualms about forfeiting a year's production should a season's grapes be not up to par, rendering the wines a scarce and elite commodity.
During good harvests, the winery produces about 70,000 bottles a year, with prices ranging from $70 to $600 per bottle. Special collector's vintages dating back to the 1940s and 50s can cost upwards of $4,000 a bottle. In 1999, Wine Spectator magazine declared Biondi-Santi's Brunello Riserva of 1955 one of the 12 best wines of the century, right alongside chi-chi Chateaux Margaux 1990.
This living, breathing Biondi-Santi legacy began with Clemente Santi, who experimented with grapes grown on his family's estate and made award-winning wines in the 1850's. Santi's daughter Caterina married Jacopo Biondi and they had a son whom they gave the new, hyphenated name of Ferrucio Biondi-Santi. Ferrucio was an artist, a Garibaldian as well as a viticulturist who isolated a potent clone of the sangiovese grape that he called brunello, because of its dark color. He then cultivated his entire vineyard with this particular type of grape, and in 1888 produced the first great vintage of this rich, deep red juice. Soon after, wine aficionados around the world were paying attention. Ferrucio's son Tancredi continued the family's tradition, and then turned it over to his son, Franco Biondi-Santi. Franco will eventually pass the torch to his progeny, Allesandra and Jacopo.
And there is me. A Biondi with no weighty lineage at all.
"Where are you from?" Biondi-Santi asked me after shaking my hand.
"Miami by way of New York City," I told him. "But my father, Giovanni Giuseppe Biondi, was born in Abruzzi."
"Biondis from Abruzzi," he said, mulling the thought over in his mind. "Come, I must show you the winery."
As we headed down to the cantina, a chubby dachshund named Camilla circled our feet and yapped for attention.
Cold, damp and dark, the cantina contained dozens of old oak barrels the size of Volkswagon Beetles. Nearby were ancient, dust-covered bottles stored in a pad-locked vault, and a big wooden table used for applying labels by hand.
A heavy aroma hung in the air-a distinct melange of fruit, roasted chestnut, coffee, anise, and tobacco. This was wine produced the old-fashioned way, with lots of love, care, and coddling. No artificially controlled temperatures or corporate chemists with clipboards. It was earthy and real and organic.
Next came the tour of Il Greppo, the 14th century stone villa that has served as the family home for generations. Decorated with soft satin sofas, antique maps of Italy, and Old World paintings, the grand 25-room house felt very lived in and homey. Hanging on the walls in the family room were photographs of the Biondi-Santi children being baptized at the Vatican by the Pope. By the Pope!
It was from this house that the family fled during World War II, hiding in the woods for weeks, foraging for food, in order to escape the Germans. But before abandoning the house, they hid the older, age-worthy bottles of wine inside the walls to make sure they survived.
As we were admiring the baptismal photos, Maria Biondi-Santi, Franco's wife, came in to say hello and welcome me to her home. Tagging along behind her were three bright-eyed grandchildren. When introduced to me, the boys kissed my hand and the girl curtsied gracefully.
Settling back into a blue wingback chair, Biondi-Santi motioned to the walls around him.
"My grandfather lived here, my father lived here, and I live here because as winemakers it is most important for us to stay in touch with the land, the climate, the soil, the sun, and the grapes," he said.
"You see, our family owes everything it has to wine. Wine is in our blood, it is our heritage, it is our way of life. And although the road was already paved for me, I feel that I have a great responsibility to uphold the tradition, to conserve the indigenous methods, and to continue to cultivate our grapes as my grandfather did 100 years ago."
"So many foreign speculators are coming to Tuscany now, from California and elsewhere, and they are buying up the old vineyards and trying to produce modern wine. This is dangerous, because they have no connection to the land, no sense of history of the place, no interest in preservation. The Tuscan earth has many stories to tell, from ancient Etruscans to recent times, and it is the earth that produces the wine."
The sun was beginning to slip into the Tuscan hills, and Biondi-Santi insisted that I join him for dinner-ravioli smothered in white truffles and grilled wild boar that smacked of garlic. And of course, a bottle of Biondi-Santi wine.
I asked Biondi-Santi if he thought his winery would survive another 100 years.
"Of course," he said. "I have faith that the legacy will continue because my son is in perfect synthesis with me. He loves the wine, and is very protective of what we have. Also, his son Gregorio at the age of 13 has already shown an interest. Like all of the children in our family, Gregorio started tasting wine when he was a baby, just a tiny teaspoon full while he was still in his mother's arms. We do this to help them develop a palate for tasting. And I'm sure that when Gregorio becomes a man he will do the same with his children."
By this time, Biondi-Santi and I had totally relaxed in each other's company, we set formalities aside and were being playful and impish. I called him Franco. Actually, I called him Uncle Franco, and he loved it. But it was getting late and I had an early flight home the next morning.
As I was readying to leave, Biondi-Santi gave me a gift to take home to America-several bottles of Biondi-Santi Brunello Reserva, and, a special bottle of family-only ros� with a blank label affixed on which he hand-inscribed a note of thanks for my visit. "You must come back," he said. "Come for the fall grape harvest, or anytime you want."
I gave him a big bear hug and kissed him goodbye. "Uncle Franco, you are being far too generous with me," I said. "I came here only expecting to take a picture of your sign. Not to be taken in and treated like family. Remember, we are not related. I'm a Biondi not a Biondi-Santi, and my grandparents were peasants with purple feet." He wagged his finger at me and laughed.
On my way back to the hotel, my head was spinning. I was overwhelmed by this man's warmth and generosity, by the food, the wine, and the serendipitous joy of the day. A joy that was unsought, unexpected and as sweet as a freshly plucked fig. And far more precious than a new pair of shoes from Sienna.
(Joann Biondi is a Miami-based writer.) Photos: