Growing up, I was one of the lucky ones whose mother, some days against all odds, always prepared a homemade dinner for my dad and me. I was equally as fortunate because there weren’t many rules in my house, maybe for the fact that I was an only child or maybe because my parents were easy-going after all, except a few simple ones, all centered around the kitchen, our sacred place:
- Chew with your mouth closed
- Pasta is made on Sunday’s
- Dinner is always eaten together as a family, absolutely non-negotiable.
Sometimes, rather bothered by these rather few and far between “rules” I would ask “but whyyy” and without hesitation, my mom and dad would reply: “Because we said so, that’s why” in-sync, almost like a song they had rehearsed a million times… maybe they had, because I may have asked this question one too many times.
At dinner, my mom was always the last to sit down, making sure everyone had what they needed, including herself. Once my dad and I were settled, out of the corner of my eye I would spot her reaching above into a cabinet, pulling out a vintage crystal-stemmed wine glass, maybe even older than she was, and then below, reaching for what she said “tasted like gold”: red wine. Sometimes it was a bottle from the store or rather more often, a big glass jar, without a label or name, only a date written in a thick Sharpie marker to indicate when the jar had first been sealed. If it wasn’t in this specific glass, that sparkled when the light hit it, it wasn’t worth having.
This was a habit for my mom, or rather a ritual, as there was no great dependency. When I asked her why she chose to accompany her meal with this deep red-colored liquid, barely ever filled up to halfway, she replied “because it’s good for your health and your soul” taking another sip, ever-so-slowly.
Living in Italy, I’ve had many full-circle moments from my time growing up in America in an Italian household. Despite my naive youth, all those quirky things the Italian community around me did, I see now they are seamlessly connected from there to here in the mainland. There are many proverbs in the Italian language, but one I love, full of nostalgia, relevance, and maybe even some mystery is “Buon vino fa buon sangue” or “good wine makes good blood”. This old-school proverb, originating from Latin, has been around for 100s of years, still not as ancient as wine and the craftsmanship of Italian winemaking which dates back 4,000 years. Like most, my family believed in this proverb wholeheartedly. A belief rooted in the fact that the natural antioxidants in wine, those widely celebrated polyphenols called resveratrol, may actually help protect the heart. Something my grandfather and family members advocated for as long as I can remember, and I know for certain they were not the only ones as I have met many other nonni who believe in this truth like it’s their religion. But does drinking wine actually make our blood purer, heart stronger, thoughts sharper, words softer? Or is it the history, narrative, production behind each glass of wine, each sip experiencing thousands of years of Italian culture? Or is it the people you spend it with or the environment that makes our blood so good? Somehow and someway, I have found that it always comes back to that beautiful lifestyle Italians have somehow effortlessly mastered, no wonder it remains one of the most beloved cultures in the world. To the Italian people, wine is not only a part of the culture but a part of their identity, a part of life each and every day, from the way they view wine, to the way they drink it, or my favorite, learn to appreciate a wine in its entirety.
First, there is the art of making wine, undoubtedly the art and history of this country, because after all, wine in Italy is as old as society itself, even the Greeks named the country Oentria, or “the land of wine” in pre-historic times. Region after region, from vineyard to basement, the mastery of artisanal wine has withstood time. Italians create wine with many things in mind, but the most important has remained at the heart of it all: passion, quality, appreciation, and tradition. With harvesting, there is endless opportunity to preserve Italian culture, it’s important to never forget our roots, the land of the Italian people. There is the richness of the soil, the abundance, and the variety of grapes, the most various and unique in the entire world, combined with vineyards and family techniques passed down generationally, in some cases even 9 generations. It is a gift waiting to be received, or in this case, drunk, and there are stories waiting to be told with each glass. I remember one of my first wine experiences, it wasn’t at a vineyard or at an enoteca in the middle of Veneto, rather a no-frills Roman eatery for an aperitivo. I was with a friend and the waiter asked us, “un bicchiere, un quartino, un mezzo litro?” and then there was the million dollar question, “vino rosso o vino bianco?” He brought us each a glass of white, as he began to swirl and swift an extra glass in hand, me watching as the wine went round and round and round. There was passion and dignity in his voice as he told us the local vineyard the wine comes from, right outside of Rome, the aromas you can taste, and the best dish to pair it with. At that moment, it became more than the notion of drinking wine just for the sake of drinking it. It became about the taste, the smell, the story, the experience of sharing and connecting with one another.
Drinking wine is more than the wine itself, it’s about the experience we have with it. It is the same feeling my mother had shared with me years ago, it’s good for your soul, it’s the connection to the people. Evidently, wine is everywhere, from lunch to aperitivo to dinner to dessert, it’s a part of the Italian la dolce vita that makes it that much sweeter. But this is not an invitation for overindulgence, but rather an invitation to enjoy life. One of the many quirks I love about the Italian people is how they seem to have made the biggest pleasures in life simple. Wine doesn’t have to be associated with drunkenness, although sometimes when the wine is that good, it happens! There is the pairing of wine and food, a never-ending love affair, the perfect match made in heaven. There is the enjoyment of taste, smell, education, discovery. And then there is the enjoyment of the people with whom we imbibe, maybe the most important quality of them all. There is laughter, time, love, enjoyment, celebration, relaxation. No wonder our blood is so good after a glass. And last but not least, wherever the time and place is spent with a wine in hand, there is the cin cin, an Italian toast to “la salute” (the health) Ironic? I think not.