Article By: Jonathon Alsop
Wine, olive oil, cheese - these delightful products are all the same answer to the same dilemma of abundance: now that I've had the good fortune to harvest a few tons of fresh grapes and olives or 1OOO gallons of cow's milk, what exactly am I going to do with it all? In the millennia before mechanical cooling, this question came up a lot, and people's answers grew diverse and interesting. Grapes aren't like other fruit. They absolutely will not ripen further after they're picked. If you buy a few hard green pears and put them in a paper bag on your kitchen counter for a few days, you get a bag of nice ripe pears. Try that with grapes, and they just start to shrivel. From the moment a grape is picked, it begins a relentless descent into spoilage and disintegration. Stepping in and making the grape juice into wine is a great stabilizing act for the liquid. It doesn't exactly freeze it in time, but it slows its aging down considerably. Raw grape juice at room temperature will last a week or so before the corks start to pop. In the form of wine, it can persist for years, even decades.
Cheese is what you do with 1OO gallons of milk to make it into 1O gallons of something you can eat later, in some cases, much later. A couple of weeks ago, while teaching a wine and cheese class, I got to taste a four-year-old Gouda that was inspiringly delicious. The color was dark, almost tawny. It smelled like oak and tasted like walnuts. The body of the cheese was dotted with crunchy sugar crystals that had formed in the years this Gouda had spent aging. As we ate it, someone in class started doing the math: in 2OO3, this had been a cow and some grass somewhere near Holland. Thanks to cheese, we were eating 2OO3 calories 2OOO miles away in 2OO7, and that aged Gouda could have lived another couple of years easily.
Olive oil is another product that's both a preservative and an extractor of maximum calories. The meat of an olive obviously contains plenty of oil and juice, but 3O percent of the oil from an olive comes from grinding and pressing the hard pit. That's a lot of calories that you'd be really happy to have if there was a famine stalking the land. The process of extracting the oil, separating the non-oil parts like sediment and water, then clarifying it renders the oil long-lived and resistant to deterioration. Turning 1OOO tons of olives into gallons of olive oil also makes those calories easy to move around. Once you throw away the 8O% of the olive that's waste, olive oil is comparatively light. You could include bread in this list of products too, in that it renders wheat edible, but it also sets it on its course to ruin. Before you make it into bread, flour will keep and keep, but once it's cooked into a loaf, the clock starts ticking on its shelf life in a different way. It's no real surprise that wine, cheese, bread, and olive oil go together in ways that some people describe as otherworldly. Ancient people called these sensations gods.
VENI VIDI MONINI Everything about the Monini olive oil plant looked surprisingly identical to what you see at every vineyard or winery. The PowerPoint presentation: superb, and even better to me for being about something other than wine. The views of Italy's sprawling Umbrian hillsides around Spoleto made you want to plant grapes, except it's so much work. On the ground, even more similarities. Giant steel tanks, their temperatures controlled by refrigerated cores and icy jackets - hoses running along the floor, low-velocity pumps whirring and pushing liquid from tank to tank, or barrel to barrel - bottles of precious juice trundling down the bottling and labeling line without much dignity into the waiting hands of shippers.
Everything is almost exactly the same as a winery, as if you could in theory convert the whole space to making wine overnight. Except it smells so entirely different - like ground nuts, dusty spices, olives of course - and I'm wearing a white lab coat and a surgeon's cap and little lacey boots over my shoes. This is different, I think to myself, I've visited a lot of vineyards and wineries, and we've had a lot of fun, but it's never involved a lab coat.
Monini was founded in 192O and is run today by Zefferino Monini, the third generation of the family. Monini would like to see itself in the 21st century as more of an artisan olive oil producer than an industrial olive oil company, although its industrial size numbers - almost 25 million liters produced a year - make that hard to do. Monini is probably the highest quality and largest olive oil producer from Umbria. Frantoio del Poggiolo - Mill on the Hill - is a restored building that's now an educational center and wine lab in the hills not far from the Monini headquarters. It producers only extremely small quantities of olive oil from 55OO old trees and 15OO young trees on the property. "We compete, not with other industrial producers," Monini says, "but with small artisans." Gran Fruttato is the flagship Monini product that you and I can hope to get our hands on here in the US, though everything they make is worth looking for. "Gran Fruttato is like Chanel No. 5," he says. "You don't know what's in there, but you like it!" Although the color is extremely light and very clear, Gran Fruttato is full of flavor, very forward and citrusy and fresh tasting. "It is a marketing myth of authenticity that an olive oil should be full of unfiltered solids," Monini says. "In fact, the clarity is a sign of quality and consistency that allows us to be a national brand."
Wine people are obsessed with appellations, name and places and geographical features where wines are grown. These olive oil folks are too, and they also seem to possess a sense of agricultural place that is exactly like what the French call terroir and what we call a sense of agricultural place. Monini produces a series of oils called DOP: Denominazione Originata Protezzione, or Protected Original Domain, a fancy way of saying the DOP Puglia really is from Italy's heel, and the same for DOP Sicily, Tuscany and Umbria. It would be simultaneously easier, cheaper and more profitable to blend all these oils together to make one big easy-to-sell batch of oil. That the Monini family chooses not to is a sign of their individual faiths in the value of appellation identified olive oils from Italy.
MIXING OIL & WINE Not far away, Farchioni family headquarters is a playful expanse of arcing glass looking out on the Umbrian hills. The bottle for their most popular oil in the US, Il Casolare, is similarly beveled at the top. It's so hard to believe a person could maintain a design motif from a building to a bottle that I can't stop thinking about the possibility that Tosca Sibella, wife of owner Pompeo Farchioni, might have designed that along with almost everything else in the olive oil factory.
Up the hill is the Farchioni winery called Terre de la Custodia - Keeper of the Land - that appeared to be about 99% complete. The conjunction of wine and olive oil is almost complete here. The whole line of Farchioni oils that are distributed to the US in a very delimited way represents decades of relationships and agricultural partnerships representing their best character in the bottle.
The new winery is producing reds from Sagrantino, a hearty carnelian colored grape that grows almost exclusively in Umbria. Grecchetto, a grape so old the Greeks who left it behind are still present in its name, is the basis for the Custodia white wine. Free from lab coats this time, we sat down at Farchioni for a real technical oil tasting, and I got a little taste of what it must be like for the beginning wine lover when they find themselves in a wine tasting. I got the impression from several of the more advanced tasters there that the olive oils I loved most, the ones that were the most buttery and delicious to me, were really not that great, and that I was seduced by dumb deliciousness. One of the instructors urged me on to smell tomato leaf, as I know I have urged so many others to smell oak or creme brulee or hamster cage in wine class.
STRABO'S MERIDIAN If you leave Italy by pretty much the same route the ancient Romans took and drive north from the Mediterranean into southern France, wine grapes grow thick as a carpet all around you. This is the oldest wine making part of France, the first place the Romans reached and planted hundreds of years before Burgundy or Bordeaux to the north and west. It is a jumble of a dozen-plus different grapes with fanciful medieval names: Grenache, Mourvedre, Bourbelenc, they could all be players in a Commedia dell'Arte farce for all you'd know.
Grapes and olive trees ahead, behind, to the left and right, north past Avignon, past the Roman theatre in Orange, north to Monthelimar, where it all stops. The grape vines and olive trees simply stop, and if you're going 1OO klicks an hour through there, the sensation is like driving out of the thick woods into open ground. Suddenly, ahead and behind, left and right, no grapes, but hillsides similar to the hills just a minute before, but exposed in full to the open air. If you were a rabbit running through here, you'd be afraid of some big carnivorous bird snatching you from above.
Another 15 miles of pretty much nothing follows, past places that grow no wine. Then the grapes start back up again in the town of Valence, the beginning of the northern Rhone, followed by the giant Beaujolais, even bigger Burgundy, and all the rest of the European wine world. This line - between Monthelimar and Valence - is approximately the 45th parallel. In about the year 1O, a Roman geographer named Strabo designated this the official scientific northernmost limit of humankind's ability to grow olives and grapes. Strabo's Meridian - this part of France is still call France Meridional - is their Mason-Dixon line. It separates the Mediterranean world from the Gaulic world along the geographic line between olive oil and butter.
South of the 45th parallel, the grapes are diverse and the wines highly blended. North of the line, there's a focus on single or dual grape wines: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are almost never blended, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot often, but usually only with each other. Strabo was simultaneously right and less than right when it came to drafting rules about geographic limits to certain crops like grapes and olives. He was right that they have their limits, but he missed that they grew their very best at those limits.
Being at the limit of viability is good for grapes - where the 45th parallel meets the Atlantic Ocean. 3OO miles west of here is Bordeaux, home of the most famous, expensive, sought-after wines on the planet. Instead of drawing a line, seeing it as a real delimitation, and forbidding anyone to cross it, imagine to no avail if Strabo had drawn his map and this had encouraged grape farmers to plant along this line for best results. A few small olive oil producers persist in Provence, Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Rhone, but French cooking has been about the butter ever since.
DUE FOR AN OIL CHANGE After almost 2O years of writing about wine, I have successfully kept myself from becoming a wine snob. Believe me, I've had my opportunities to grow so uppity I wouldn't drink anything I could afford. Once, I was left for dead by stuffed veal and Valpolicella Reserva, but I had to come back to planet earth and eat grilled cheese with a glass of Gewurztraminer the very next week. And I did it. But my olive oil tour has left me changed. The giant gallon-plus of oil I'd had living in my cabinet disgusted me suddenly, and I dumped it. Out at restaurants, I resisted the urge to say, "You call this olive oil?" when I was served the thin substitute we get here in northeast America. I confess it: I am an olive oil snob now. I only buy it in small quantities - it goes bad so fast, I whine, as everyone around me rolls their eyes. I carry the cold-pressed Australian olive oil through the store as a badge of honor. Australians everywhere probably laugh.