Unesco art project – the towns of Roero.

My first question to our art group was why, amongst all the towns of the Roero, Piobesi d’Alba was the last on the list. The one that no-one had chosen, that I picked by default. What was so unremarkable about it that nobody else wanted it?

And so I started my mission to paint Piobesi. We have to produce a 100 x 80 cm or 100 x 100 cm painting of each of the towns of the Roero (there are 22 in all), for a Unesco art initiative that may or may not get off the ground. I am new to this art gig and haven’t painted since my first year of high school, about 25 years ago. Just the size of the canvas is enough to make me go dry at the mouth, let alone having to find appropriate subject matter in a town that everyone else who’s in the project passed up.

My first step was to visit Piobesi d’Alba and at the very least see where it was and get a feel for the place. We visited on a hot day in June, on our motorcycles, when they hadn’t finished some building work in the town and the sun was beating off the dust and gravel. We stopped for an average lunch in an average bar where there were some signs in the local dialect and no wi-fi.

At first glance Piobesi is quite unremarkable. Certainly no match for more famous towns of the Roero like Guarane with its lovely castle, or Castagnito, or Canale or any of the others for that matter.

Piobesi seems about as close as you can get to suburbia in Italy – average houses, an average layout, average surrounds and everything else you’d expect in suburbia, from plastic play equipment to hedges in neat little gardens. There doesn’t even seem to be that quintessential of Italian things – the piazza. Or even a bar where eldery locals go to play cards. This was going to be quite a challenge and any romantic ideas I had about loving this town at the end of my art project started to dissipate.

But then we got exploring. The truth is I love a challenge. Any kind of a challenge and I was going to find something to paint whether first appearances turned out to be true or not. There is a stubborness in art that means that things get expressed whether they were originally considered as worthy of expressing or not.

Piobesi is an average town, akin to suburbia with its modern town houses and the fact that it’s a satellite town for Alba. Extremely quiet at lunchtimes during the week when people are off at their elsewhere jobs as the town waits to receive them back to their homes again in the evening. But despite its nondescript appearance, we found little gems around the place and I was determined that something would turn up as paint worthy…. see you for the next chapter, in the meantime I have some painting to do.

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Briggs and Stratton – a lesson in the value of a second-hand mower

“Can I sit on it?” he asked. A question from a 15-year-old interested in buying our old ride-on lawn mower, affectionately known here as the “trattorino”. Red, cuts grass. “It’s the 11hp Briggs and Stratton, right?”.

We confirm and the next question is almost inevitable – “what’s its top speed?”. We’re not really sure, and there is some disappointment as they realise we only ever used it to cut grass. We did have plans at one stage of building a Briggs and Stratton snow plough but we never got around to it. Other than that it’s been a relatively faithful part of our set of garden tools and we’ve never really explored its full potential in terms of speeding around the garden.

I’m sorry to see it go, the trattorino. We have quite a large block to mow and it made gardening fun. Apart from more recently when the hole in the cover has gotten ever bigger and it was like taking a grass shower. People pay a lot of money for fancy hay bath treatments in spas, but at our place you could just take the trattorino out for a whizz around the yard and the effect was similar (I guess).

There was a time when we spent a lot of money trying to get it fixed, but no-one seemed to have the right touch. So not too long ago we bought a new carburettor, new filter and a few other bits and pieces. We watched a few videos on YouTube about how to carburate it properly (thank God for the americans who posted these videos!) and fixed it as best we could. It came back to life, but we knew its days were numbered.

So we put an ad on the internet to sell it. I had my doubts – who would be interested in an old pile of rust? It still did the job but in this day and age of consumerism where everything is new and must work at the switch of a button, or even talking to an app (Alexa mow the lawn…), I thought our chances were slim.

In three days we had 59 views on the ad, which put to shame our other ad to sell a high performance motorcycle. We were getting calls and messages like there was no tomorrow. Our humble trattorino it seemed was in high demand. One prospective purchaser asked if he could come with a van, and if he liked it, could he load it and take it away on sight.

And so it was we found ourselves in the heat of an Indian summer, standing in our yard with a 15-year-old, his father and his grandfather, taking a look at our Briggs and Stratton trattorino. I had thought of what I assumed would be all potential purchasers – from old farmers, to gardeners, to field workers….

Except for this trio, thrilled with their purchase who didn’t care about the hole in the grass cover, or the seat repaired with black duct tape by the previous owner years ago. Why the question about the top speed? It seems our young purchased races Briggs and Stratton – or turns them into go-karts and posts videos on YouTube.

We have since explored the world of lawn mower karts, and Briggs and Stratton racing mowers. We’re thrilled about the renaissance our trattorino will soon experience and hopefully our young purchaser is too. So it just goes to show that a pile of rust can still win over a high performance motorcycle.

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My palette – spring in Langhe

I love this world of fluffy, palette spring. It’s amazing to see the transformation mother nature undergoes during spring. In the Langhe, you can’t walk out your front door without being taken aback.

Where I live, on the cusp of the Langhe and the Alta Langa, I can enjoy everything from little fruit orchards, to some of the best roadside banks you’ll ever see, covered in violets or little yellow flowers, budding vineyards, strikingly green hazelnut groves and green meadows.

This was a day of rain, and moments of sunshine, on the road from Serravalle to Bossolasco and back again. A beautiful day and unfortunately an incoming storm meant my rambles were cut short. I plan to do some walking in the Langhe in coming weeks, so more photos to come. To see more spring beauty from the Alta Langa, I recommend GiorgioGraziano60‘s Instagram gallery.

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To dare is to write good copy – how our farmstay agriturismo just got creative

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Per osare di più – to dare. I have dared to write and honestly, I’m quite satisfied with the result. It may never go online, but it’s important to practice and hopefully, improve. I am now wondering if I will write my best copy for my clients, which is not a bad thing if I’m to write anything good at all. But surely I should lead by example? Which means I’ll be changing the very exciting ‘about page‘ copy and home page copy I have on this website. Stay tuned, it could be electric stuff.

Thanks to Hospitality Days from Teamwork (on behalf of the Langhe Experience Consorzio Turistico), I sat through the excellent Andrea d’Angelo‘s sessions on pricing policy and cost management in the hospitality industry; then I sat through the even more excellent Martina Manescalchi‘s sessions “vorrei ma non posto” content writing and Instagram; I also attended the experience marketing session as a kind of motivational speech by Edoardo Cognonato on emotive marketing (fascinating stuff, I can recommend to a public who doesn’t read me but are probably already avid followers of Simon Sinek).

But to dive back into my degree days of Arts (Media and Communications), the top session for me definitely had to be Maria Antonietta Pelliccioni‘s conversation on writing online. I use the word conversation as a compliment to her, because her style was as good as the stuff she was teaching (and she’s just plain funny, too). I once tried to get a job in journalism (industry publications, dull stuff) by saying I was a good writer. I didn’t get the job, but I was, and with a little effort, still am (will be!) a good writer.

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This session was the perfect refresher for someone who is out of practice, and was at uni before social media really took off. We were learning about blogs like they were the next revolution in the world of journalism. It was like a kind of power to the people medium, breaking barriers and giving to the masses what the BBC once was to the opinion makers. These days it’s old hat. In any case, thanks to Maria Antonietta who won me over somewhere between Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway, my client now has a “traditional” version of his copy to choose from, and a “daring” or “osare di più” version.

The latter probably has a few mistakes in there, my Italian isn’t perfect, but it is by far my favourite of the two. Unfortunately I got no tips on how to sell my beautiful, creative new copy to my client. So if he were to choose the “traditional” one, it will be a reflection on my skills as a salesperson and not my writing skills, somewhat like that job interview I had years ago.

And all of a sudden, I understand more completely the artistic dilemma. Selling your creativity to someone, or selling it on behalf of them, when you know you just put so much personality in it. The dilemma of art and marketing and I am definitely buying and reading the book Steal Like an Artist!

Steal like an artist

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Judging a wine by its label a valid consumer choice

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I have broken the first, the one-and-only, the golden rule of being a sommelier – never purchase wine because you like the label. I have broken this rule twice when it comes to this lovely Dolcetto di Dogliani, Pettirosso from Romana. Which proves that buying wine because of the label can sometimes work. In fact, the second rule is probably don’t buy wine from the supermarket, and I broke it too, because that’s where I found this.

So while the conclusion might be that I’m not much of a sommelier (and I’d agree with you), it’s okay to buy wine because you like the label. It’s a valid choice and if the winemaker is good, they know how to package wine according to the product and more importantly, the consumer. This bottle retails for about four euros at my local supermarket. Rule number three – don’t buy wine because it’s cheap.

I’m happy to say I have broken all three rules, twice, and have been pleasantly surprised. Dolcetto is a great wine for a daily drink. Last year, when I was taking tourists on our winery tour and tasting in Monforte, I had all types, from budding sommeliers, to importers, to serious wine buffs, to the Sunday wine expert (a bit like a Sunday driver and sometimes they combined the two) and the people who would admit that the only thing they knew about wine was that it was red or white. Often people who would buy because the wine label looked good.

I embrace those drinkers and I defend their choice (as well as defending Dolcetto). Buying a wine because you like the label is a valid consumer choice, just like any other, and if the winemaker is smart, you can get good product in pretty packaging. Just like this Romana Pettirosso Dolcetto di Dogliani. DOCG at four euros and with a cute red robin on the front? I’ll have another glass.

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Plum tree – spring in Langa

It’s been blowing a gale but so far our blossoms have resisted the wind. Fingers are crossed there’s no frost in the Langhe this year as chilly mornings give way to beautiful days.

This plum tree is my favourite. Outside my window I watch it from being snow-covered, to the first of its buds, then flowers, then bearing fruit.

It’s an old tree and its fruit is precious. Wise, pretty old thing, we will see what summer brings.

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Chionetti – dolcetto cru and that tremendo kind of wine

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“When it comes to Dolcetto, you have to be a professional,” says Nicola Chionetti. And he adds that you have to be passionate about this variety. It’s difficult to grow and, he says, it’s “tremendo” to vinify, too.

My first stop on my more in-depth exploration of Dolcetto, is at Chionetti, where they live and breathe Dogliani DOCG. The ancient roots of this area are in the hands of the young Nicola, who talks with passion and wisdom about Dolcetto, the soils of his property, altitude, dolcetto cru, the sands of time and what they have brought to his vines. It’s like listening to the voice of an age-old sage, but sitting opposite is actually a young man, confident in his knowledge and with a vision for the future.

Chionetti is a Langhe winemaker who respects the tradition of dolcetto, creating wines that are a full expression of the terrior of this area and the potential of dolcetto. It’s a process that requires dedication, respect for the past without living in it, and a deft hand in the cellar.

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We start with Chionetti’s San Luigi Dolcetto, which is a perfect example of this wine. Aged only in steel, it has beautiful fruity notes, like sticking your nose in a jar of jam, well-balanced, young drinking and just generally pleasant. The famous almond-like aftertaste – that sourness that Dolcetto can sometimes have – is almost imperceptible.

San Luigi is this particular area of the Dogliani DOCG – hills nestled between Monforte d’Alba and Dogliani. Driving through in the car, I pass the old San Luigi chapel and school and I know I’m in one of those once-upon-a-time places where local children from hamlets walked miles to school, and when the snows came, there was just this world and none other.

From the San Luigi Dolcetto, we move on to Chionetti’s Briccolero, the first cru from this San Luigi area and one of Chionett’s organic wines. I love this wine – big, powerful and tannic. My dolcetto exploration has become surprising – I was not expecting this kind of personality from a Dolcetto. It has nothing to a Nebbiolo’s complexities, but Briccolero’s lack of subtlety is what makes it stand out from the Dolcetto crowd. I mentioned in my previous post the unapologetic sass of Dolcetto…. Well Briccolero has that and some.

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And then Nicola serves what could be considered his family’s current flagship wine – La Costa, Dolcetto di Dogliani DOCG. The La Costa vines take us back in time, planted in 1956 by Nicola’s grandfather on the top of the Briccolero hill. Nicola says they make this wine because they want to show their history and their traditions. They want to show what Dolcetto is capable of. Made only in the best years, it has ageing potential, great structure and body and a slightly more complex nose as it spends some time in big barrels.

While we’re tasting and talking, we conclude with the Chionetti 2015 Barolo – Pianpolvere from the Bussia vineyard. It’s like a golden cleanskin. No label yet, and Chionetti’s first Barolo. This will be a Barolo producer to watch. 2015 was a favourable year for most, but the Chionetti Barolo is a truly beautiful wine – smooth, well-integrated, complex, fruity, easy to drink. It’s a special project for Nicola, who has inherited the dream his father didn’t manage to complete in his lifetime, of producing Barolo from their own parcel of vineyards.

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We discuss altitude and acidity, and the problems of marketing Dolcetto. The area dedicated to Dolcetto growing is an ever smaller patch and if we enter the realms of niche product, we could be on the road to invisibility. Nicola says unfortunately the problem with Dolcetto is one of perception. The international market isn’t favourable and Dolcetto is seen as a low-quality product. If one ever needed convincing otherwise though, a visit to Chionetti is all you need to discover that Dolcetto can be a beautiful expression of terroir, a high-quality product from a tradition with its roots steeped in these legendary Langhe hills.

 

 

 

 

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Don’t mention the ‘D’ word – in defence of Dolcetto

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“It’s a blood pressure issue” my friend says at the mention of the dreaded ‘D’ word….. Dolcetto. And I can well believe it when I hear that Dolcetto is prone to disease, difficult to grow and difficult to vinify. The devil child of the Langhe area, so I understand. Devil – another ‘D’ word.

I’ve said before that I like Dolcetto. In this world of Barolo cru, world famous sophisticated wines, Alta Langa DOCG, and spectacular Nebbiolo d’Alba…. admitting to liking Dolcetto is like admitting to the fact that you yearn after bad 80’s music. Or would really like to wear socks and sandals around the ritzy seaside resorts of Liguria.

But still…. I LIKE DOLCETTO. Okay, I don’t have to make it myself and am therefore in the privileged position of being able to insist on ensuring it still has a place on the map of Langhe DOCGs, but I like it. I like a challenge, I like the idea it matures early and you have to be more in sync than ever with seasonal changes, and that delicate time at summer’s end when you’ve got to get your grapes in. Such a tortured choice for Dolcetto growers and makers.

I like how fruity it is, and then tannic, and slightly tart on the finish – that unapologetic sass it seems to have, despite its age. It has a kind of “take me or leave me” attitude. I also like how Dolcetto has been the daily drink around this area for years, nourishing old guys in trattorias on lunch breaks and families around the dinner table.

I like how old it seems – the wise, unsung hero of the Langhe, from the town of Dogliani, a hard knock, ancient town on the wrong side of the tracks (on the wrong side of the Barolo hills in this case). At the recent Grandi Langhe event, I attended the seminar on Dolcetto, quieter compared to the previous one on Nebbiolo. The Italians would probably describe the attendance as “pochi ma buoni” with quite a few young people attending too – pleasing to see for a variety that has nowhere near the earning potential of Barolo.

Dolcetto notes

Dr. Edoardo Monticelli described Dolcetto as a powerful, rustic variety, capable of re-flowering after traumatic events. It requires more care in the vineyard, the window of opportunity to pick Dolcetto is difficult as the vegetative cycle and the ripening of the fruit must reach their peak at the same time. It has great potential and is capable of expressing marked terroir when at its best.

It can produce lovely fruit, even in difficult situations and is of great fascination for agronomists – not to mention the challenge it poses in making great wine. The question is what is the nobility of Dolcetto? Not an easy question to answer. Dolcetto now has reduced cultivation around these parts, but its niche presence is one to protect and nurture, especially if you visit wine makers in Dogliani, the passionate cradle of this variety.

There is a Dolcetto vineyard not far from my house that is being replaced, likely by the Alta Langa DOCG varietal of Pinot Noir. Seeing the various stages of its removal has made me sad in a small way. The evolution from plants to stumps has given birth to a series of black and white photographs I have taken that I have named “The Graveyard Series”. Vines are beautiful things, even the fallen ones. It is a choice, not an easy one, to remove one vine and plant another. It’s breaking a life cycle, giving life to one thing, where you take it from another.

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Dolcetto will always be part of the map of the Langhe DOCG and I’m on a journey to understand it better, starting from the local producers of Dogliani. I want to know what makes them tick, what is it about Dolcetto that makes them want to keep making this devilishly difficult wine.

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The great wine and grammar debate – barbera

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I have been corrected – that it’s “IL barbera”, not “la”. I have heard that barbera is definitely female, to the point where there is even a book “La Barbera è femmina”, by Marzia Pinotti (I’ve yet to read it). Recently, on day two at the Grandi Langhe fair, I attended the afternoon session on “The historical vines revived between myth and new business opportunities” in which one partecipant insisted again that Barbera is definitely female.

So as I helped (or hindered) my friend in pruning in the Bussia cru vineyard of Monforte d’Alba, struggling with the twisting vigour of Barbera, I put the question to him. Is it il Barbera, or la Barbera?

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He said, good question, and then gave me quite a nice explanation of “la uva Barbera” but “il vino Barbera”, unless you’re in the Asti barbera region where it’s definitely female.

I am going to stick with the above although it’s curious that when conducting cellar tours and wine tastings last year, I found that often the Barbera was quite a feminine wine, that also appealed to the female palate. Could there be a connection? I’ll have to read the book to find out.

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Making tracks – the loss of laughter in Langhe

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I haven’t used my ski blades in about ten years. And in that time, I’ve been skiing probably only three to four times. But when the snow comes….so do the itchy feet. And memories. Lots of memories that as I strap on my ski blades and head down the hill, come back. Memories of views and giggles on chair lifts and lunches and that time we were the first down in the fresh, falling snow. The only ones on the mountain.

What do you do when you don’t know where the closest ski resorts are, and you only have an hour or so on a Monday afternoon to enjoy some snow? You borrow your neighbour’s hillside. I threw my ski blades and boots (handy from a recent move and conveniently located in the garage “just in case”) in the back of the old car, drove five minutes up the hill and parked outside the old barn on my neighbour’s property.

It was thrilling in that childish sort of way when you’re probably not doing anything wrong or illegal, but it’s likely not a usual sight to see people skiing down a Langhe hillside on their own. The hill wasn’t steep enough for the descent to last more than a minute (I go slowly too), but certainly hard work on the way back up in fresh snow and ski boots. I have already put in a request to my neighbour to install a ski lift.

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And so it was that I was laughing, taking pictures, a video (my first ever video on skis as thankfully smartphones and gopros were not a thing when I used to ski), and giggling like I hadn’t in years. The sound of the skis skidding through the fresh but icy snow, the breeze on my face, and the late afternoon light on the snow reminded me of carefree and good times. The push off that despite the relatively flat hillside I didn’t want to exaggerate like in years gone past when learning, any little hillock looked like a black run.

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Yesterday evening, catching up with friends, I chatted with Irma, an elderly lady who reminisced about her times as a young girl on the snow, when they used to go sledding. The girls would attach their stockings to their knickers to fashion pants, and she laughed at the memory of her sister getting a bright red bum from sledding down the snow (actually she used the word “arse” which surprised me for a lady of her age).

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They were the days when Barolo vineyards were not yet covering the hills around La Morra. When they were dirt poor and cultivated wheat and hay. Days when people would laugh and whistle while working, and the sledding competition involved grabbing a chicken’s or rooster’s neck on your way down and then the festival with something simple and hearty, like bagna cauda. A kind of idyllic country theme where happiness is the privilege of the poor, before the days when Barolo became big business and Unesco globalised the vineyards.

Irma lamented the loss of happiness. She says you don’t hear people singing or laughing in the vineyards anymore and the young ones…..they don’t laugh anymore. She may be right. But as I skied down that slope, laughing out loud for the sheer fun of it, I know there is hope. We can have nostalgic moments that are very much part of our present, though, symbolic of throwing off the shackles and unhappiness, head high, laughing in bright blue skies with white crystals at our feet.

 

 

 

 

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