ine and skiing are two vices that can snare you for life. Once you’re hooked, cost and risk don’t matter. You just want more wine and more skiing. You also want to be an expert in both.
Wine you know about — I’m a sommelier — but how I fell for skiing is another story. People in Rome don’t “get” snow because they hardly know it. Rome was hit with a blizzard on Feb. 9, 1965 (I was four days, old so my memories are fuzzy) and there were storms in the winters of 1971, 1985 and 2010. Waiting for snow in Rome is all about patience.
My boys were lucky. They were ages one and three for the 2010 storm. Like lots of Rome kids, they got a rare chance to bask in a winter wonderland.
Minus the Rome blizzard of my infancy, I wasn’t exposed to snow until age 13, when my uncles took me to Abruzzi for my birthday. Some Italian families swear by the so-called settimana bianca, or mountain week. Every winter they pack up and go skiing. Not my parents. Skiing didn’t figure as an activity for my family or friends.
But things changed in the work world. At that point, the settimana bianca was a winter badge of honor. Everyone needed a worst skiing experience story or at least the name of a mountain they went to for sun and sausage panini.
My own death-defying experiences somehow didn’t fit in. My inventive Abruzzi uncle Umberto, a blacksmith, once concocted a kind of ski-bike with razor-sharp metal skids in place of wheels we supposed to ride down icy slopes. Only our own ineptitude kept us from slaughtering whole populations. Umberto’s “sled” would have easily sheared off limbs, whether ours or someone else’s. We’re lucky we didn’t end up serving life terms in a Himalayan prison.
Anyway, a young, ski-loving couple worked in my office. There was another Umberto, from Paris, and Sabrina from Rome. One winter they invited me to join them on their ski week. I agreed mostly because Sabrina had a cute girlfriend who loved skiing. I knew her cute friend had to stop skiing sometime, so I checked up on possible hiking, chalet and dining opportunities.
But I’ve never exactly been lucky.
Two days before our departure the cute girl got sick and had to be hospitalized. Nicola took her place. Except Nicola was a guy. So much for my hiking and dining plans. I now had no choice but to try to learn to ski.
We got to Marilleva in the Dolomites in March 1990. Everyone immediately parked their bags and dressed up for a polar expedition. The only problem was the snow: there wasn’t any. Here we were, the great Arctic adventurers, promenading through daisy-covered fields. Most people around us wore warm weather gear, which made us good for a few laughs.
Those were pre-web, pre-web cam days. All we’d had to go on before heading north was innkeeper’s word — and he’d probably have sold his mother to fill up a few empty rooms. He’d promised us winter when in fact it hadn’t snowed for months.
But there we were. We had to do something, like pray maybe. Truthfully, all anyone really wanted was to take a few snap snowy snapshots to prove they’d been on their settimana bianca.
That night I shared a bed with Nicola, who at least didn’t snore or kick. By then we were all disheartened and focused on discovering local dining spots. The next morning, I was the first person up and went to make coffee. That’s when I saw what looked like grey light. When I pulled up the blinds my jaw dropped: a blizzard. Snow was swirling. People were dancing jigs outside. We’d brought luck and saved the day (and our week). A few minutes, some of the guests gathered under our window in homage. They’d have brought us incense and myrrh except that they had to get to the slopes.
Veteran skier Umberto walked Nicola and I over to get our gear. Lessons? Who needs them? I just pushed off. And facedown. A meal of snow doesn’t taste good in the morning but at least it was freshly fallen. I was soaked, mad at myself, and my feet hurt. Cursing, I told Umberto and nearby Sabrina I couldn’t wear ski boots for another three minutes, let alone a week.
Umberto grinned at Sabrina who grinned back. I’d put them on backwards. Get that straightened out and attend a beginner’s class, Umberto told me. I did. And I became an addict. I didn’t take my alpine boots off until 2005, when I found myself in the back of an ambulance after tearing up my right knee in a bad fall.
But the mountain muse beckons again, thanks to my sons. Maybe this time I’ll put the boots on right.
Great landscapes produce great wines, and the Dolomites offer lakes, peaks, meadows, and vineyards. Back at the hotel after a long day on the slopes, all I wanted to do was relax with local food and wines. We ate Canederli alla Tirolese (Knödel), steamed bread dumplings packed with speck and cheese and simmered in meat broth. Savory, calorie-rich treats require sumptuous, refined, and aromatic wine. A natural choice is Pinot Noir. I recommend Alto Adige Pinot Nero DOC 2011-Franz Haas (100% Pinot Nero; 13,5%; €22).
Franz calls this his “white wine among reds.” Its shading depends on age. Though intense and ruby red, it’s not overly colored — typical of Pinot Noirs. Cherries, raspberries, prunes, rose petals, spicy vanilla, clove and mixed berries are all present, along with the earthy smell of underbrush. It’s fresh and lively with soft, velvety tannins, and a long, seemingly endless and incredibly elegant finish. Beware the addiction.