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Celestino Gaspari is standing in the entry of his architecturally avant-garde winery, dug into a centuries-old sandstone quarry outside Verona, in northeastern Italy. He greets me with these words: "I am not a normal man. I don't like to live easy."
At 53, Gaspari is certifiably not "normal." He is a rare perfectionist who is both a devout adherent to tradition and a restless experimenter.
"I start one project and, just before I am finished, I start another," he explains.His Zymè wine label, founded in his home garage in 1999, is regarded as a regional leader of quality and innovation, with two divergent lines of wines: One with staunchly traditional Valpolicellas and Amarones and another featuring peripatetic experiments and cult wines from unusual combinations of local and international wine grapes.
"I don't want to repeat the same things others do," laughs Gaspari, a smallish, compact man with graying hair and lively blue eyes. "I am a protagonist to myself...read the full blog at winespectator.com
This new year is momentous for me: I'm starting it in my new home of Verona, Italy. A couple of months ago, my wife and I moved from the south of France, where we had lived nearly 15 years.
Why? Why not? Doesn't everyone want to live in Italy? Despite its problems, Italy has some of the world's most beautiful places, my favorite cuisines, a very agreeable lifestyle and an ever-dynamic wine scene.
Verona, a city of 250,000 straddling the Adige River, isn't as cosmopolitan as Milan, but it is in the modern North. Importantly, things tend to work here. The trash gets picked up. The place has a civilized feel, typified by the sometimes-dapper men and the often-elegant women riding bicycles along cobblestone streets in which most cars are banned.
Verona is also heart-stoppingly beautiful—laced with Roman vestiges, including its impressive 1st-century Roman arena, along with well-preserved medieval and Renaissance palaces, towers and churches.
Our first dinner invitation came through family friends.
As a young enology student less than a decade ago, Christian Zago learned that most Prosecco was akin to beer.
"They taught us that common Prosecco was something you drank and then pissed out," laughs Zago, 29, at his family's 91-year-old Ca' dei Zago winery in the hamlet of San Pietro di Barbossa.
His blue eyes widening, Zago counters that, within the gorgeous sloping hills of Valdobbiadene in the Prosecco Superiore zone, "We have some fantastic terroirs. The problem is that, to the public, it is all Prosecco."
Prosecco's image is changing, if slowly. And in a very short time of only five vintages, Zago has established himself as an important producer of what is known as traditional col fondo Prosecco.
Prosecco Road Part II: Talking lifestyle and Prosecconomics with Bisol
On a balmy fall morning in the main square of Valdobbiadene (pop. 11,000), Gianluca Bisol swirls a large wineglass with a few mouthfuls of what has become Americans' preferred sparkling wine.
"It is not impossible to drink Prosecco with breakfast," says Bisol, 49, elegant with his Clark Gable mustache and jacket pocket square.
"Especially Cartizze," Bisol enthuses about Valdobbiadene's most revered steep hillside terroir. "Cartizze is creamy. In the morning, you want something delicate."
Almost three decades after joining his family's near century-old Desiderio Bisol & Figli winery, in the heart of the Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore zone, Bisol is a Prosecco leader—both at its high end and in the mass market. In those years, Prosecco has boomed from a footnote in Italy to the leading sparkling export in the world by volume.
Primo Franco, now a white-haired Prosecco statesman, recalls the moment the world changed for him.
More than 35 years ago, he was dining at legendary chef Gualtiero Marchesi's Milan restaurant. A customer had left an unfinished bottle of classic white Burgundy, and Marchesi offered it to Franco.
"Gualtiero said, 'Would you like a glass of Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 1969?'"
"I said, 'Why not?'" Franco shrugs.
Today in his Nino Franco winery in Valdobbiadene, Franco doesn't even try to describe the complex sensations, flavors and feelings he experienced with that glass, though he says it changed his life. At the time, Italy's white wines didn't reach the quality levels they do today, and he had never tasted anything like it.
It was only a matter of time before I climbed Monte Sant'Urbano.
The ascent started at the dinner table in the heart of old Verona, where my wife and I supped with a velvety, complex Valpolicella Classico Superiore Sant'Urbano 2012 from Fratelli Speri, one of the oldest families making wine in this zone.
Two mornings after draining the bottle, we are on the small Monte Sant'Urbano, covered with 10-foot drywall terraces that climb to 1,100 feet. Tall pergola-trained vines dangle the dark grapes used in blending Valpolicella—Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella—above our heads. The views over the Fumane Valley stretch to Lake Garda on the southeastern horizon.
The Speris' history here in Valpolicella Classico dates to the mid-19th century, and the winery is now run by the sixth generation. Since the early 1980s, the Speris have produced a Sant'Urbano cru—their most prized vineyard—using grapes that are partially dried, but less so than those for Amarone.
See the Video Trailer for PALMENTO on You Tube....
Robert reads from and discusses Palmento at McNally Jackson books in NY Sept. 2010.
Robert on radio