Our first night in Catania, Sicily, we settle into a dinner on a warm June evening at a trattoria. We’re guests of Ciro Biondi, a winemaker in the famous volcanic region of Etna. We’re traveling with a group of wine buyers who are moderate in comparison to the gluttonous spirits enthusiasts with whom Craig—my right-hand man—and I often visit distilleries. Craig has had escalating gastrointestinal issues, which have manifested boldly on our last three international trips. We’ll forgive each other if we pass on a third bowl of tajarin, wild boar with blood sauce, or that last bottle of wine at 2 a.m.
Biondi, intense with his G.I. Joe haircut and beard shorn to a long salt-and-pepper stubble, owns that kind of caged sexuality particular to certain Western European men. He’s sitting at the center of one side of the long table; four people on either side of him incline in his direction as he leans toward us in a scene reminiscent of the Last Supper. Satisfied with our complete attention, he holds court, interrupting himself frequently to ensure we are all tasting his wines and eating well. He finishes a story about a dining companion who had ordered a wine by the grape and not by the region and ended up disappointed.
“My friend, I told him… ‘My friend, you did not want a nerello mascalese, you wanted an Etna!’ The soil takes complete precedence over any variety of grape. We drink the area. This is how we feel about wine…” He pauses and looks to his left, then to his right, discreetly making eye contact with each of us—just for an instant. He breathes calmly through flared nostrils before raising his glass. “To Etna!”
Though a particularly rich example, this kind of talk is common in the world of wine, which is why I enjoy visiting the people who make it. Provenance—most often invoked as terroir—is generally the primary concern with wine; in the world of spirits, it’s seldom discussed. You are lucky to learn what a liquor’s base material is, let alone who grew it or where. Barley for Scotch is grown in Eastern Europe; molasses to make Puerto Rican rum comes from all over the place; rye for American whiskey comes from Germany; and on and on. The spirits market is a litany of apocryphal stories of ancient recipes and rustic family traditions, all acting as camouflage for the truth: that nearly everything you see behind the bar is owned by multinationals that have no allegiance to any place. This is why, more often of late, I travel with wine importers. They understand what we’re looking for.
Starting from Catania, we stop at more wineries, visiting an amari producer in Sicily that relies on the blood oranges of the region to produce a bitter elixir that could only be made there; then, we head to Sardinia to taste mirto, a kind of digestivo made from myrtle leaves and berries. But our main focus is a place all the way to the northwest of the country, where Italian vermouth found its voice.
Piemonte, bordering the Alps, used to be under the auspices of the Duchy of Savoy, which also contained French Chambéry, another esteemed vermouth-producing region. We’re here to spend time with Bordiga, who makes traditional Torino-style vermouth. Riccardo Molinero, the manager of the distillery, gathers us at the Cuneo International Airport and takes us into Turin for a traditional lunch of bagna càuda, vitello tonnato and tajarin. (Lucky for me, Craig remains of frail appetite and I get to finish two of his courses.) Right from the antipasti, Riccardo is educating us. He is tall and thin with a light complexion, as is typical here in the north. Sitting silently beside him is Mario Cerri, who runs production. A wiry 60-year-old, Mario smokes incessantly and wears his thinning grey hair long and swept straight back, accentuating his high, furrowed brow. He looks capable of great profanity, and his gravitas lends credibility to Riccardo’s continental chatter.
According to Riccardo and others from the region (which does not ensure that any of this is true, by the way), the aperitivo tradition began in Turin, which was once a great theater town. People hurrying from work in the 19th century would need a drink and a bite before moving on to the evening’s planned entertainment. The aperitivo accomplished just this by offering a finger sandwich (tramezzino) alongside a drink comprised of the vermouth from the region. These vermouths are aromatized wines, meaning producers macerate herbs and spices from the area in neutral spirits before redistilling them and adding them to wine. This stabilizes the wine, but also augments it with the articulated flavors of the distilled botanicals. As with most things booze-related, these heady potions have sadly devolved over time into amalgams of cheap wine, “essences” and “natural” flavors, or aromi riddled with caramel. Bordiga stands vocally at odds with this trend, using foraged botanicals and eschewing the use of additives.
The next morning, our walk through the mountains to see the botanicals used at Bordiga begins early. Riccardo, clad elegantly in lightweight trousers and a fleece, had described the trek as a gentle hike along country roads lined with wildflowers and aromatic foliage. Instead, it’s more of a forced march that lasts for eight miles up and down steep mountain grades. Along our route, he points out each of the wild elements harvested by professionals known in English as “mountaineers.” We pause at the apex of the hike and look out over the expanse of the mountains that connect France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. I take a photo of Craig standing at the end of an outcropping of rock that extends like a crude diving board over the mountain-valley floor, thousands of feet below. His arms are outstretched like an ambitious diver surrounded by flowers, génépy and wild juniper.
The next day we enjoy more of Riccardo’s impeccable instruction, including an opportunity to taste the base wines of the vermouths, which are excellent and of the area: cortese, moscato, nebbiolo, all replete with lovely fruit-based acidity and floral secondary characteristics. We travel back down the hill and head toward the stop I’ve anticipated most: Caffè Mulassano, a tiny bar in the theater district that Bordiga makes vermouth for. The jewel box space is about 300 square feet in total, and every inch of its marble, glass and metal was shaped by hand. Craig, Michele and I order vermouth-based cocktails from the elegant drinks card and contemplate them with tramezzini served on a mounted silver tray.
In the most evolved, metropolitan setting we delight in what’s lovely about booze. Alcohol guards the Alpine origins of Bordiga’s meticulously sourced botanicals, and protects its delicate wines, so that we are left to enjoy it in the splendid interior of this bar. We look across the table at those with us and wonder, Are you getting what I’m getting? Liquor is time travel, and we are not only wondering if our experience matches our colleagues, but also those who came here before us.
If I were less self-conscious I would raise a glass here in Mulassano and say, “To Torino!”