My budding intrigue with wine remained closeted until one fateful night at an Italian restaurant in Frankfurt. I was dining with a dear friend and colleague. He’s about my age, but with Italian-Uruguayan heritage, he was more culturally savvy than I’d ever hoped to be, given what my Dayton, OH. upbringing had provided. Naturally, he took control and, to accompany our Italian meal, ordered an Italian wine. Without taking notice of what it was, I took a drink to get the evening going.
And that’s when it all started. Or, more accurately, stopped. All movement in the room seemed to cease as I savored the entirely new nuances dancing over my tongue. I no longer heard my friend or the waiter. Didn’t see the surrounding tables or menu in front of me. I was solely focused on the glass in my hand and the flavor in my mouth.
When I finally snapped out of my self-induced trance, with the seriousness of a surgeon, I inquired, “What did you just order?”
To which my friend replied, “Brunello di Montalcino. Is like liquid velvet, no?”
Damn right, and Voila! The light bulb above my head was shining brightly. As the taste still lingered in my mouth, I ordered another bottle. Even the name was seductive… Brunello di Montalcino. What did it mean? Where did it come from? I had to know more. This thing had grabbed me by the so-called palate and wouldn’t let go. At that point, I was fully seduced – or worse, hooked. Even as we left the restaurant, the thought was unshakeable. “Brunello di Montalcino.” There was no turning back.
Not long after that dinner, NBC News transferred me from Germany to Italy. Rome, Italy. I would be just a stone’s throw from the city of Montalcino, home to my beloved Brunello. But this proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Yes, Brunello di Montalcino would be much more accessible. Yet, the Italian shops and restaurants featured not just one Brunello, but 20 or 30 different Brunellos from a variety of producers and vineyard sites – offering many separate vintages for me to choose from. Making sense of it all was almost as maddening as deciphering that first German label had been.
Somehow, I mustered the courage to tackle the course, and with a glass in each hand I tasted my way through the many producers of Brunello. The legendary leader was Biondi Santi, whose winemaking roots could be traced back to the 1800s. And there were others, many others, of whom I would become a lifelong fan – like Ciacci, Il Poggione, Col d’Orcia, and Sassetti to name just a few. Being employed by a television news network has its perks. Occasionally, we’d take a well-deserved break from the hard news of the day to file ‘feature stories’ from scenic locations like… say, Montalcino. Visiting picturesque wineries was a photographic must for these assignments. Our Italian hosts would insist on educating and sampling us on the local grape. Persistence pays off, as well, and I was just beginning to learn one piece, the Brunello piece, of the much bigger puzzle.
(Editor’s Note: This story is broken into four parts, please return to this website on the same weekday next week for part three.)
Tim Ortman is an Emmy Award-winning cameraman and producer and author of the new book, Newsreal: A View Through the Lens When… He is a certified Sommelier and member of La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Connect with him on Facebook, @TimOrtmanWriter.