Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Booze Tourism Tuscany Part 2: Don't Worry, Be Grappa

Feed us!!

Do excuse my lateness this week. I had stag dos to attend at the weekend and I've barely recovered. I'm back now though, and I'm delighted to bring you part two of the Tuscan adventure. Enjoy.

Siena and Chianti

On our second full day we had planned to brave the roads once more and head to Siena. We’d thought of getting the train, but Simone our host, had said the road route was beautiful and there would be farmers by the side of the road selling wine; we could just stop, try it, and buy it if we liked it.

So off we went, the satnav was programmed and we headed down into the valley. If you’ve got a satnav, you’ll know they’re very good. You don’t need a map and if you take a wrong turn it just recalculates and figures out a new route for you. Occasionally though, that’s not what you want.

Fairly early on we missed a left turn and watched as the satnav recalculated and displayed another left turn up ahead. We figured that would be fine, but started to wonder 20 minutes later why we were driving through industrial estates and alongside motorways, before joining a motorway for a sizeable portion of the journey. It was clear by this point that we had missed the beautiful scenery and were probably driving around a mountain instead of over it. And we didn’t see a single farmer selling wine the whole way. We determined to be more careful about the route on the way back.

Yeah, Siena’s very beautiful and everything, but when you’ve seen one medieval Italian city, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the next one’s going to be like. We walked around and even went into the Duomo and some of its subsidiaries, but our hearts weren’t really in it. It was just nice to be there. Chapels, domes, cathedrals, sculptures, frescoes… how interesting are they really? I mean, really?

Oh, excuse me, were you trying to get… aw.

On queuing to buy a ticket for the various attractions I noticed a middle-aged lady trying to sneak ahead of me, on my left. She was pushing right up to the lady in front who, while annoyed, wasn’t doing anything to help me stave off this intruder. Obviously I couldn’t really muscle her out of the way, but I did see that maybe Mrs Cake could swoop in from the right and get to the kiosk first. It all depended on which way the couple in front chose to exit after making their purchases.

The tension was building and Mrs Cake got ready… as we had hoped, the couple went to the left, thus causing a slight delay to the middle aged lady’s advance and enabling Mrs Cake to step up. I nearly laughed out loud as we made our way past. You see, I could tell the lady knew that I couldn’t take any action myself, and was using that to her advantage. Ah, but she hadn’t figured that I have crafty techniques of my own and a willing and able accomplice.

We stayed in Siena until early afternoon and decided to head through the Chianti region, saving San Gimignano for another day. The route was a lot more appealing this time, but as the driver I wasn’t seeing anything I haven’t seen in the Peak District. The weather was a lot nicer, mind.

As we drove, listening to Radio Subasio on which we heard the Italian Pink, the Italian System of a Down and the British Robbie Williams, we kept an eye out for agriturismos. Mrs Cake had been told that these are B&Bs that also provide food. You just look out for a sign, follow it and (in theory), provided it’s lunch or dinner time, you can get a nice, rustic, home-cooked meal. They are supposed to be everywhere, but as we were driving through Gaiole in Chianti, Radda in Chianti and all the various other in Chiantis, we weren’t seeing any. It didn’t help any that we’d been told it needed to be a meal time and that had we found any, we would have felt uncomfortable rocking up and asking if we could join them…

Politico-litico-litico, physico-physico-physico, solido-solido-solido…” went the Italian rap song as we wound our way up and down, round and round various mountains, passing vines, and generally being passed on blind mountain bends by crazy locals. It was fun, but when you start to get hungry and you’re not sure when you’re going to get to eat, things can get a little strained.

…dementico tutto, dementico tutti…”, sang the Italian Pink for all she was worth, and we continued our quest, stopping along the way to stroll around villages, looking for places to have dinner, sample wine, peruse stocks of grappa and the like. It soon became apparent that, while wine is the golden child here (to grappa’s wayward cousin), it wasn’t going to be difficult finding grappa to buy. There was loads of it, and it was very reasonably priced. Over the week I saw so many varieties in special bottles I started to become grappa blind – how was I supposed to pick one (or two) over any others?

In contrast, Mrs Cake’s quest to buy wine directly from a farmer was going nowhere but finally, as the satnav guided us up a white gravel road on the side of a mountain – the kind of road that makes you skid if you get above 10mph and makes the car go PING and POP every couple of seconds as a boulder bounces off it – we saw a sign that said ‘direct sales’ and a car park.

Fuck it, let’s go in here.

Castello San Donato in Perano

It didn’t exactly look welcoming from the outside, looking as it did like a small factory in the middle of nowhere, but we walked in and were greeted by a guy who was delighted to let us sample a few wines. We made it clear from the outset that we weren’t there to buy cases or anything, and he didn’t mind that, but we knew we’d feel compelled to make some purchases. This is Castello San Donato in Perano

We were led into a back room that was decorated with bottles of wine (and grappa) and various certificates proclaiming that this particular vineyard had won prizes – quite a lot of prizes.

We were given a large wine glass each and some information about the wines they produced. Three samples of red wine followed, along with an aged dessert wine, and then three of four varieties of grappa. Our guide couldn’t comment on the quality of the grappa as it wasn’t really his thing. This was a recurring theme throughout the week – they produce a lot of grappa, but they’re more into their wine.

There were four varieties; a standard one, one with some merlot in it, an aged one and then one that I don’t recall anything about and that I didn’t get to try. They were all 15 euros (for 50cl) and I opted for the merlot variety.

Mrs Cake was a fan of the wine – it was nice enough, to be fair, but red wine is all much of a muchness  for me. She bought a couple of bottles, one of which was the last of a certain production run, and wasn’t ‘typical of the vineyard’s style’, though ‘the americans like it [slight sneer]’. We didn’t try that one, but at a bargain price of 4 euros, we figured we may as well stick it in the bag for drinks later. We drank that one back at the apartment, and it was perfectly fine.

I thought the dessert wine was excellent – far more interesting than ordinary wine - so we went for one of those too, as well as one of their more expensive red wines – though not the most expensive.

With our direct sales cherry well and truly popped, we headed back out onto the roads of the Chianti region for some more exploration and later, dinner in Rada in Chianti, overlooking a typical Tuscan vista, where the soundtrack led us to discussing the dangers of dancing in the dark – such as falling down some steps, or tripping over a sleeping dog. Later, back at the apartment, in the dark… Mrs Cake banged her thigh on the bed frame, as if to illustrate the discussion.

Oh, I also picked up a couple of grappa steam glasses, so that I can enjoy my grappa properly. The only problem with them is that they hold only one measure instead of my preferred two.

Once dark had well and truly settled, it was time to drive home – a slightly daunting prospect, but you know, I like a challenge. Martha the Satnav told us it would be a 45 minute journey (that was assuming, of course that we would be able to make it the whole way at those Italian speed limits), so I wasn’t looking forward to that. The first night’s drive back from dinner had been only 18 minutes, but it seemed like an hour and a half. There were sections where I swear the ‘time to destination’ didn’t move for 15 minutes at a time. Fer serious.

Nevertheless, I was more relaxed about this one, even though we soon found it required us to drive down a mountain in the dark. It was all hairpin bends and steep gradients, but I don’t think we met another vehicle coming the other way – during the maddest part at least. And now that it was too late we started seeing signs for vineyards and agriturismos. Where were they when we were looking for them?

Achievement unlocked: drive home in the dark.

Back to the Agriturismo Search

Having failed so miserably on the previous day, we decided that on Tuesday we would not fail in finding one of these agriturismo gubbinses. Mrs Cake had become determined that eating at one of these places was an absolute must, and having been informed by a colleague who had been in the region just a week previously that they were everywhere and easy to find, had come to regard failure as unacceptable and something that would reflect very badly upon us indeed.

 So before leaving the apartment this time we did a bit of planning. Simone had left us an A4 sheet with some details, and I looked them up to see which were nearby. It looked like there were a few we could aim for.

What followed was a nice drive but once again we were denied fulfilment. It started out ok; we programmed the satnav as far as we could and followed it to a sign that pointed to the particular agriturismo we were looking for. We celebrated that something had finally gone as planned, as we turned onto the track. We followed the white gravel path, past a house that didn’t have a sign outside it, to a gate that did. We followed further, alongside some fields where the grapes were bulging on the vines. We passed another house that didn’t look like it was what we were looking for.

Finally we came to a car park, though the track carried on to the right. I parked up and had a look… the track was starting to get very thin at that point.

I tried communicating in very poor Italian with an old fella who didn’t even have very poor English – beyond a shrug. Eventually he pointed down the track, so I got back in and drove round… into a farmyard… still no signs, this ain’t working.

So it was back up to the first house we’d come to where Mrs Cake tried her luck and found a lovely lady who didn’t speak any English but was very helpful and confirmed that what we were looking for was where we’d just been. She was very confused that we hadn’t found it. It’s amazing what you can communicate in two completely different languages.

We gave up, and headed back to the main road. We had passed a few signs for other agriturismos on our way, so we thought we’d just try those.

One led to a “private road”, which we followed for a bit… to some massive gates. And turned back.

A little further on we came to another and went driving through fields where men were working. None of them looked up as we came along, and we even met a guy coming the opposite way in a tractor at one point. It was a steep incline for us, and the track was only one vehicle wide. He stopped and waved us on, so I took that as a sign that they welcome visitors.

At the end of the track was a house, with a couple of cars parked at the back. I pulled in and Mrs Cake got out to investigate. In a building to the side she found a leaflet about wine tastings, but there was no one around.

After a couple of minutes a grey haired man could be seen approaching from a barn to the other side. Mrs Cake went over to say hello, and found that he was very welcoming and friendly. This was his vineyard. He told us that the grapes were all ready for harvesting, so everyone is very busy at the moment – that’s why we weren’t finding any agriturismos open for meals or vineyards open for tours.

Nevertheless, he invited us down to his barn where we would be able to buy some wine. Once again we made it clear early on that we couldn’t buy much as we didn’t have the capacity to take it back with us. He didn’t mind at all, and we had a nice chat and bought a couple of bottles, totalling about 20 euros… so not really the kind of bargain you’d be looking for, but presumably this wine would be a lot more expensive if you bought it from a retailer. One of the wines, the farmer said, he had bottled just a couple of days ago and hadn’t even got a label on yet (or, indeed any sealant over the cork). Since it was so recently bottled he said we would have to leave it for at least three months before opening. It was red wine again. He said he produced some white, but eh, it was not so good.

Achievement unlocked: buy wine directly from a farmer.

We headed back to the nearest town to find some lunch, but had to recalculate when the road in was blocked off for some kind of international cycling championship (it turns out it was the 2013 UCI Road World Championships). Instead we went back to Loro Ciuffena.

We crossed paths with the bike race again on the way back to the apartment when an official looking guy on a moped signalled that we should stop by the side of the road, and back up a little. I reversed into the mouth of a driveway by a sharp bend and waited.

Nothing happened for a while, then a couple of cars with bikes on the top went past. Then a few more mopeds. Then a guy on a moped stopped in front of us and signalled that we should continue waiting.

How long are we going to be stuck here for?

At this point an elderly couple wanted to come out of their driveway, but of course we couldn’t let them. We could only wait.

“I presume”, I said, “that when this guy rides off, we can go…”

A group of cyclists suddenly emerged from nowhere, bookended by support cars, and passed on up the road. The moped man rode off without providing any kind of signal as to whether we needed to stay or whether we could go.

“What do you think would happen if we went?” asked Mrs Cake, not more than a few moments before a larger group of cyclists appeared and whizzed past.

I laughed. “It would be absolute carnage,” I said, imagining famous world class cyclists bouncing off our bonnet and potentially tumbling down a mountainside. “We’d be on the news.”

After a few more stragglers a car passed that looked like it might be signalling the end of the race procession. We couldn’t be sure, so I looked at the old couple in their car, who must have seen this before. They signalled that I should go, so I gave them a thumbs up, and away we went.

Rounding the first bend we almost collided with three more cyclists who can’t have been part of the race, but were probably trying to take advantage of the race’s organisation. Luckily for them they had chance to get out of the way before I ploughed into them. And that was that. I wonder if we were on the telly…

Don’t Worry, Be Grappa

I continued my search through the city of Florence and the walled town of San Gimignano, with its famous towers. Gift shops are everywhere of course and, wine being such a famous export, booze shops are ten a penny. Mrs Cake had her handbag to seek out, and I had scores of grappa varieties to somehow select one more purchase from.

 It was frankly getting far too difficult. I had no idea which ones were supposed to be particularly good, but in the end I did make a choice. There had been a direct sales shop in one of the Chianti towns that had two varieties. I just decided it would be more appropriate to buy something through direct sale from the producer than some random brand from any of the scores of wine shops, so I went back for the more expensive of the two. It was still only 25 euros, and it was the more aged variety. When I got it back to the apartment I found that they only produce 2000 bottles a year, and each one is numbered. Mine is 394. I suppose I could have found one with a lower number if I’d looked, but it doesn’t matter because I’m going to drink it anyway (achievement unlocked: accidental numbered bottle purchase).

The man had asked if I wanted to try it, but it had taken me so long to decide on my purchase that I didn’t want to be put off. I also thought that trying it might diminish the moment of fulfilment, whenever I came to open it.

Bringing it all Back Home

Too many grappas, not enough CCs (of luggage space)

When our last day came around we still had about 6 beers, a bottle of wine, a quarter of a bottle of grappa, and some complimentary fizz (that turned out to be the Italian equivalent of Lambrini, and only 6% ABV) to drink. We had decided the last day would be spent lounging at the apartment, drinking and smoking cigars. I’m pleased to inform you that we made it – all except for one beer, and most of the fizz.

I had been concerned about bringing all our purchases back home, since we only had one bag between us, but needed to safely get 5 bottles in there – 2 wine, 1 dessert wine and 2 grappa. We planned carefully and Mrs Cake packed. I came in and expressed concerns about her methods, which annoyed her, then she packed in a way I was more comfortable with. Everything got home in one piece (achievement unlocked).


My last day was soured a little by the fact that I started to get worried about speeding tickets for some reason. You see, as my confidence in driving grew, my speed crept up a little (more in line with the locals), and though the satnav kept warning us of speed cameras, I never saw any. On top of that, the speed limit given by the satnav was often in direct opposition to the signs I was seeing from time to time. So gradually I just came to ignore the warnings and drive at a safe speed – which was fine, except that sometimes the speed limit signs seemed too high, and sometimes ridiculously low.

Anyway, on our penultimate day I finally saw a speed camera… and then I started seeing them everywhere, and I started thinking, there’s no way I haven’t been caught on one of those. And then I thought, if I’ve been caught once, I could have been caught 2, 3, 4 times… what happens then?

I had visions of being banned from driving because I’d amassed more points than you’re allowed, all in one week (I’ve never had any points on my licence before). I didn’t know how it works in foreign countries. Presumably notification goes to where the car is registered – the car hire company – where they have a record of your licence details, then presumably there is some liaison with the DVLA in Swansea…

I’ve just done some research actually, and it turns out that there is no standardised system for points, so you won’t get any on your UK licence, though any fines will be forwarded to your UK address. It’s been several months now, and nothing has come through, so once again all that worry was for nothing (achievement unlocked: no speeding fine).


One of my procurement targets for this holiday was Italian brandy. I’d done a bit of research before departure so, while grappa was very much the focal point, brandy was still on the radar. As things transpired, I pretty much forgot about brandy once we got started – knowing of course that luggage space was limited. Nor did I see much (any) in the various shops we visited (on the occasions when I remembered to stop looking at the grappa for a second).

I finally found two cheap brands in Pisa airport’s duty free (10 euros for a litre), and I couldn’t make up my mind there and then. I figured I could decide later, when we’d gotten through to the other departure lounge, but it turned out that I’d missed my last chance. Let’s be honest; I wasn’t that bothered.

The John Grisham Game

One final, but non-booze related thing I’d like to mention is the John Grisham Game. This is built around the fact that many apartments, villas, hotels or whatever have a stock of books that presumably previous occupants have left behind. They’re never very intellectual in all fairness – for some reason, people who go on holiday like to read shit. Anyway, if you find a John Grisham book there, you can guess the title with your partner. Nearly every John Grisham book is called The something. And the something is a word you would associate with legal things.

Mrs Cake was checking out the books and I instigated the game.
“Is it The Juror?”
“The Trial?”
“The Witness?”
“The Murder?”
“The Kidnapping?”
“No, but that was quite close.”
“The Abduction?”

…and back home

One day, it was all over. Another excellent holiday, another fascinating booze tourism adventure, some more booze for the cabinet. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it. I highly recommend you go and find out what it’s all about for yourself. I could actually see myself doing this holiday again sometime, and I don’t say that very often.

Don’t forget to keep checking back to the blog every week. I’ll have something else for you next week no doubt, and eventually there will be more about the various purchases we made on this trip.

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