I've been fielding a lot of questions about how Umbria was and what I was there for so I thought I'd try to make a clearer explanation. You can read through below....or just watch this video I made of myself drinking Glenmorangie and eating potato chips!
I was in Umbria for 5 days, including the day I arrived. I drove 900 miles in a flat black Abarth Spider and gave it a real workout through the mountains. I ran 70 miles across Umbria via a 34 mile run toMoretti Omero in Montefalco, a 12 mile fun run with Danilo, and then a 25 mile run with Danilo from Magione to Tiberi. I visited 7 wineries in total. I helped Omero Moretti bottle olive oil. I opened and re-sealed barrels with Danilo and pressed grapes with him. Here's why;
I wanted to visit those little family wineries one on one and get to know them better. I wanted to better understand why these different individuals are rebelling against mainstream wine making and going their own way. By building more personal relationships it opens up more possibilities for business in the future. I doubt most of the people I visited knew where Maine is, and they still may not, but they definitely remember that there's a really passionate guy from there with a big mustache who showed up in a ridiculous sports car, or ran to them. That's useful for me and getting more cool wine into Maine in the future.
I wanted to learn more about Umbria, wine making in Umbria, Umbria's history and landscape. Running and driving in a convertible, connecting with that many local people and relying one them, that allows me to get an idea of the land and plants and culture in a much quicker space of time than if I was riding on a bus or a tour.
There's a lot of marketing value in a trip like that. The photos are useful, it get's attention, and those videos are handy. I also have better stories and first hand knowledge of those wines now and that's really useful to sell more of the wines here and pass on those stories.
Maybe the biggest reason was that I needed a good opportunity to get myself out of my comfort zone. Portland is super comfortable for me, so dropping myself into Italy without really having a plan or trusting the Italian Hertz to actually give me a car worked pretty well to scare myself a little. It's good to push your limits and force yourself to improvise sometimes.
Back in March 2017 on a visit to Italy with Matt Mollo I decided to run the long way around Lake Trasimeno (50K) from Montemelino to the winery of Danilo Marcucci. I got there and immediately jumped into a wine tasting and Danilo didn't even realize I'd run there until the next day. He was so surprised that he decided that he had to go do long distance runs as well and said that when I came back he'd be ready.
So after a few days of helping him make wine at Conestabile Della Staffa he said that Wednesday was the day and we were going to run to Tiberi, a small family winery that he's helping make wine. I should have realized I was in for an adventure when, just before departing on the run he said he needed to consult the GPS and his friend Marco to figure out how to get there. The route Google suggested was just 16 K. "No!" Danilo said "That's too short for us, we need somewhere further and more exciting!" I told him that after my 7 hour run to Montefalco I didn't feel up for too long a run.
We set off at a comfortable pace of about 8 min per mile.
I think these are about an hour in as we were running along the 599 beside Lake Trasimeno.
I know. Danilo's eyes are closed. But it's the best pic we got.
Here's a video I took right as we hit the half marathon mark at just about 2 hours in. Notice Danilo says just one more hour to go. That was decidedly optimistic.
This was about when the dehydration was setting in and I could feel my body starting to shut down, heat up, and sweat less.
Here's what dehydration looks like. Something a bit over 3 hours in. We finally found a little convenience store and bought Gatorade, water, sodas, and more Gatorade. I sat on the pavement outside and drank about a litre and a half of fluids and started to feel functional again. I think we'd run about 20-21 miles at this point.
We finally made it to Tiberi! They were out in the driveway waiting with bottles of fizzy wine and water as we ran up the hill to their house! Danilo collapsed by the house but I choose the shade of this tree to collapse.
That 2016 Tribulato was pretty awesome!
The second bottle of Tribulato
Tiberi is an awesome little farm winery in central Umbria. 2017 is the fourth vintage they've made and bottled themselves. They have some really ancient vines on their little hill top and farm completely naturally. The wines are made completely traditionally with no additives. It took a while for the blood to leave my legs and lungs and really be able to taste wine and eat, but the 2016s we were tasting were great! I particularly liked the l'Rosso: their more simple representative red blend. Of all the wines I had in Umbria it smelled the most like the rich ripe landscape I was running through.
After an awesome lunch Federico gave us a ride back to Danilo's. He was getting into their Audi A3 when I saw this Fiat Mini Truck and said "I'm going in the back of that!" They didn't believe me at first but here's the proof.
Late last night I got back from a ridiculous trip through Umbria. A primry reason for the visit was to hang out with this guy pictured above: Danilo Marcucci. Here's how it went.
I wanted to do Italy right so I rented a Fiat Abarth 124 Spider: a loud, rear wheel drive, turbo charged convertible with lots of flat black on it. I pulled up to Danilo's winery (a 400 year old stone warehouse) at about Noon and he couldn't get enough of the car! That was the plan, that aside from being super fun to drive, the Abarth 124 would certainly help make me memorable to all the wineries I was visiting.
Danilo grew up in the hills outside Spoleto where he started making wine with his Grandfather at 6. He didn't stick with it and became a wine salesperson instead. He sold a lot of super expensive Burgundy and Bordeaux until after a multiple Bordeaux tasting left him really sick. He had a physical and blood work found traces of pesticides in his blood. Knowing haw industrial grapes are grown and how many chemicals get into mass produced wine Danilo swore wine off and became an architect. But a chance tasting of a no sulfur wine from a nearby legendary farm winery (Collecapretta) changed his life. He dropped architecture and started learning how to make wine, reviving the early lessons his grandfather had tried to impart.
Danilo started out working with Collecapretta and soon at an old vineyard way up in the Appeninnes called Campanino. Danilo sought out other older traditional farmer wine makers to discover more old traditional ways of making wine and solving different problems that may arise as wine ferments and ages. He's a very passionate, driven, and charismatic guy.
It wasn't long until Danilo had learned a lot from a lot of people and was starting to make waves in Umbria. Making wine without sulfur, pesticides, additives like tartaric acid or coloring, avoiding even temprature control in the winery is pretty revolutionary and challenges the very large industry of modern conventional wine. A generation of wine makers across the world had been taught that they couldn't make wine without expensive equipment and chemicals. Generations had learned in Oenology school that the old ways of farm wine making were dangerous and would only result in wines with flaws. The idea that you could make great wines with out all that expensive equipment and education makes wine making accessible to smaller lower capital family farms who always thought exporting wine was out of reach, but it also challenges a huge industry.
Danilo makes wine himself at Della Staffa using only ancient technology that wine makers from a hundred years ago would recognize. Those wines are great and shock people when they learn they're made with no modern technology. But that's not what makes Danilo so noteworthy. Danilo is a noteworthy figure in the wine world because he actively wants to pass on and share all this knowledge! At this point he's working with about 10 wineries including Collecapretta, Tiberi, Campanino, Rabasco, Ceppaiolo, Ribela, Furlani, etc. That's a lot of other people who are now making wine in a very natural no chemicals way and it exponentially increases the spread of these ideas. It's a kind of a revolution and it's amazing for me to be able to see it in real time.
Back to actually working with Danilo
Danilo pretty much immediately put me to work:
That's me stirring a vat of fermenting Colorino grapes with a 100 year old tree branch that his grandfather had used and passed on to Danilo.
Tangentially, here's a video of Danilo and I driving around in an Abarth 124 Spider. It's not too relevant but it shows more of what Danilo is like out of the cellar. In the cellar he's all business.
Making wine with out using any chemical additives, sulfur, or temperature control, takes a lot of manual labor on the part of the wine maker and constant attention to detail. In this kind of wine making there's no safety net. In addition to fermenting with wild yeast and using no additives Danilo defines true natural wine making as wine making in which the wine maker invests a piece of themself and their soul in each wine.
Here's a video of Danilo opening up a 150 year old cask to clean it from the last vintage that aged in it and prepare it for the new vintage.
The analogy we both kept coming back to is that having a small natural winery like this is very similar to having a whole lot of kids. Danilo was very focused and quiet all the times we spent in the winery. There were always 5 or 6 things happening at once. We would be cleaning and preparing a barrel while at the same time aerating some fermenting wine and at the same time transferring wine from one tank to another. If you put all your attention on one of your children you run the risk of another one making some kind of trouble while you're distracted! They all need to be watched all the time so that you can do each wine making step at exactly the right time.
We pressed all the colorino grapes that were in the primary fermentation and it was a whole afternoon of slowly scooping them into that ancient wooden basket press until it was full, pressing them down enough to make more room, scooping more in, then pressing, and repeat over and over until all the grapes were pressed and we had the wine in two open vats.
Here's a super attractive pic of what fermenting grapes in an old wood press looks like. It's not too pretty but let me assure you, at least it smells great!
As we pressed the grapes the fermenting juice drained out of the press and through a metal colander to catch any large solids and we then pumped it off into the open vats to keep fermenting for a couple days.
After the wine had had a couple days to continue fermenting we put it into a pair of old wood casks to finish fermenting and to evolve. Wooden wine casks have to be kept and treated in very particular ways to make sure the bacteria you want stay active in them and keep any other bacteria from colonizing them. A trick he told me about was to leave behind a few litres of the wine you had most recently aged in the cask so that the yeast stays and has that wine to live off of until the next vintage when you put more wine in. Generally you don't want to leave a cask empty for too long anyway.
After you take the door out of the front of the cask you have to clean it thoroughly with water, scrub it, and then remove all the water. Once it's all cleaned out you need to re-install the door.
First you clean all the putty from around the door.
Then you clean all the putty from around the inside of where the door will seat.
Then you prepare the door by putting fresh putty holding in some kind of long vegetable fiber (I don't know my Italian isn't that good), and some waxy lubricating substance around the edges of the door. Also, check out that shot of my mustache!
Once you fit the door back in as much as you can, you re-install the yoke that sits over a bolt protruding from the front of the door. With the mechanical force of the nut on the bolt you can draw the door back up into place. The door gets larger on the back side so that it wedges tighter and tighter as it is drawn forward.
Once you get the door seated you start putting wine into the cask. Then it's a process of waiting and watching to see what leaks develop. Like an old wooden boat taken out of the ocean casks dry out when there isn't wine in them and then they take some time to re-expand and seal once you put wine in. But you don't want to let them leak too much, so Danilo and I spent a good hour watching, and then sealing small leaks with bits of more fibre and putty until he was satisfied.
I have pretty good video footage of all this and will eventually get it all edited and up on Youtube.
Danilo has had a huge impact on natural wine making in central Italy and I'm super lucky to have been able to go spend that time with him and see some of how he works. Look out for more info and videos as I get organized now that I'm back!
I landed in Rome at about 7 Saturday morning. It took over an hour to go through customs and then almost another hour to pick up my rental Abarth spider with just 3500 km on it. Sure I'd reserved it in advance, but still, I was surprised when they gave it to me. I immediately put the top down and hit the road!
It took me about 2.5 hours to drive over to Danilo's by lake Trasimeno but my GPS worked well and I had no trouble.
Danilo had to run out to am appointment so we toasted my arrival quickly and then I had about an hour to try to not pass out from lack of sleep.
Danilo got back and it was into the winery!
It was tine to press all the Colorino grapes after their initial fermentation on the skins.
It was a long process of scooping up buckets of fermenting grapes and dumping them into the ancient basket press. Then we'd press them enough to make some room in the press and add more. At the end we were almost totally out of room but we managed to press it all without having to empty the must from the basket press.
Sunday I woke up at 7 after staying up too late and drinking too much wine with Danilo. I was supposed to be in Montefalco that evening and I'd told everyone I was going so I strapped on my running back, said goodbye to the Abarth spider and hit the road. Or hit the trail was more like it because Google sent me on some crazy dirt tracks through private property at the start.
How did Google even know that was there!?
Anyway eventually I got onto more believable roads. It was a lot of fun for the first couple of hours. Umbria has beautiful rolling hills, cool little valleys, and beautiful old palazzos and monasteries.
This gravel road was at least a mile long! Somewhere around four hours into running I started to feel pretty sore and my knees hurt a lot. Whatever, that's not important to wine. So I kept running as best I could and then a classic car rally passed me! That was cool.
Here's a beautiful Lancia Fulvia passing me!
Anyway, it took me 7 hours to run 33 miles.
I was really happy to stop. I hadn't run or trained at all. The only running I did over the summer were three different races. So I was very happy to get to Moretti Omero!
And here's Omero! It's too late at night to edit this picture on my phone and deal with the monumental hassle type pad makes that do Omero is sideways.
Here's the Moretti Omero Vignalunga Sagrantino vineyard.
Here's a Sagrantino leaf beginning to change color. It's early this year because it was so dry. Not as fry as up in Montemelino, but in Giano they'd gone at least a month without rain.
Moretti Omero founded the winery in 1992 on his parents property. They had ground grain and he started out farming pigs, but apparently the neighborhood complained too much to the authorities about the smell, and anyway the property was too small to raise enough pigs to really be successful. So in '92, just after the Montefalco DOC was created Omero decided to go into wine and olive oil. He was certified organic that year and set about slowly establishing the Domaine by planting vines and trees and also buying old olive orchards. Today they have about 30 ha split between olives and grapes.
Omero's daughter Giusy grew up in the vineyard does most of the sales. However that night she had to host a cooking class about an hour away. So it was just me and Omero out for a night on the town! It was pretty awesome. Omero is a serious old school paesano farmer, always working, always looking to see how things work, and how he can learn to do what he does more efficiently. He didn't speak any English, so I got to practice my Italian. That's ok: sometimes jokes are even funnier in broken Italian! We talked about cars, kids, life, business, etc. He gave me an Italian wine dictionary to help me learn Italian.
I got up the next morning, sore, and wandered downstairs into the cantina to find Omero already at work racking wine so that he could rake out the left over fermented grapes in the bottom of the tank (la feccia in Italiano), re-press them, and then ferment and make more wine from that rougher and more concentrated must. You never waste anything on a farm! I watched and tried to help. Not too much.
Once the transferring of feccia was under control we went upstairs and bottled olive oil for a while. Eventually it was time to go. Omero had to take a pallet to his distributor in Perugia so we hopped in his utility van and took care of that and then he ran me over to Danilo's.
Check it out! Here's an award he won for helping to study and improve the use of natural yeast!
Omero is an example of an OG farmer working naturally because it actually just works better. He's down to earth and cares about the bottom line but also he cares about leaving the world a better place and finding satisfaction in doing the best job he possibly can. I really admired his work ethic. Organic farming and natural yeast help him make better wine so that's how he does it.