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Current topics, themes, musings and travel notes

September 14, 2022

Getting nostalgic for the future

Being a conservative progressive isn’t a contradiction when it comes to food, wine and life in Italy

Last week in Naples, fellow American wine writer Alder Yarrow asked me this :

Was not my latest book, South of Somewhere: Wine, Food and the Soul of Italy based on a kind of nostalgia for a way of life that was dead or, at least, dying ?

No, I said.

It was late. We’d been drinking, and we were sharing a ride back to our respective hotels in the crazy volcanic landscape of the Campi Flegrei. In the following days I thought about his question some more.

First off, I loathe nostalgia — that dangerously deluded mindset that ignores the way things really were in the “good old days.”

Rather, I think it’s important to look back to understand the present. Today’s 21st century wine scene in Italy — to me a golden age of wine quality — didn’t come out of nowhere but was built on the shoulders of past generations.

Let’s be clear : up until very recently old-world wine growing was mostly misery. What are dead — thankfully — are the oppressive systems like sharecropping existed across much of Italy years after World War II and the use of arsenic as pesticide that persisted decades later. 

In South of Somewhere, Elena Fucci’s father, Salvatore, recounts the 1960s : “People here sold the grapes, and they starved.”

What I see across Italy today are new generations of producers intelligently taking up the work of their grandparents with a respect for the better traditions, nature, and others. These neo-contadini (farmers) and wine entrepreneurs have degrees and smarts and are savvy about how to bottle their own wine and connect to the world.

Now, more than ever, it is possible for contadini to live a life of dignity.

I am as optimistic about the present and future generations as I am disappointed in my own generation of Baby Boomers for failing to live up to our promise. (In many cases willfully embracing denial and — yes — nostalgia.)

When I see young people here willingly — joyfully — taking up the hard task of cultivating and vinifying in their towns and villages — that gives me hope.

Nostalgia for the Future means taking the lessons and the good of the past and carrying them forward with a vision of tomorrow. 

As the composer Gustav Mahler said at the turn of the 20th century, “Tradition is not the worship of the ashes, but the preservation of the fire.”

I say: Viva the flame.

Looking back and forward

It was a great joy this last weekend to present the Italian version of South of Somewhere, called Altrove a Sud, in the place where Italy began for me : my maternal grandparents’ beautiful Vico Equense on the Sorrento coast.

Robert and journalist Fosca Tortorelli before the presentation

Luigi Tecce

Taurasi Maestro Luigi Tecce (left)

It was for me, and I hope for those present, a “bella serata” in the stately atrium of Vico’s old City Hall – beginning with a discussion led by Campania journalist Fosca Tortorelli and followed by an “aperi-vino” with wines from the Amalfi Coast’s Marisa Cuomo, the Fiano whisperer Sabino Loffredo of Pietracupa, Aglianico maestro Luigi Tecce, and Campania’s modern leaders Feudi di San Gregorio.

Public speaking in Italian to an Italian crowd can be taxing—my brain often aches as it searches for the right word at the same time that my mouth is moving. So, part of me couldn’t wait to “wrap” this one. Another part of me didn’t want it to ever end.

The adventure continues in my twice-monthly column at Dive in!