In the spring of 2013, Henderson Productions was proud to travel with the experts from the restaurant chain, Olive Garden to explore as much about food and Tuscan life as possible.   We’ve created this series of blogs which, like the region, should remain relatively timeless.   Bon Apetito.

Olive garden tour guide in Tuscany

Georgetta in the olive grove

In the morning, we were introduced to the chief sommelier for Rocca delle Macia Vineyards of which Fizzano is a small part.    The Zingarelli family has owned the vineyards and winery since 1973 when the patriarch invested his income from producing all the Italian spaghetti westerns in something more substantial.    His son, Sergio, now runs the operation along with his family who we met at lunch.   Utterly charming.

In any case, the inspirational sommelier Georgetta was immediately engaging and informative not to mention stylish and beautiful.    She speaks five languages and had been a political refugee from Romania in the mid 80’s having escaped at the age of 21 via Prague to Vienna where she was granted asylum.   Her grandfather had escaped the pograms in Ukraine with his daughter/her mother just before the entire village was ravaged and destroyed.    Her German grandfather on the father’s side had stayed after the war and married a Romanian so her parents were both stranded away from their extended families in a dictatorship.   Her mother had died and she, on a school trip as a tour escort just didn’t return from Prague and spent more than 5 years before she could even communicate with the family left behind.    She had come to Sienna for a rare Western European university who would honor her credits and gotten an internship working for the Zigarelli family as a language specialist with the ability to explain the processes and work with tourists or business representatives on their behalf and had been here for 18 years.

Tuscan fresh olives for sale

Fruits of the tree – only one lifeblood of the region

Olive oils in Tuscany

Locally made olive oil at Fizzano

We began our day with an understanding of the limited olive oil production process by Rocca delle Macie, mostly for their own and local purchase.   They do not sell it outside the country as they produce such a small amount.   Each of their trees yields only 2 bottles worth of oil and they take great pains to filter and maintain a high standard.    She does warn that any olive oil with sediment is capable of turning rancid quicker so that should be what you look for when shopping.

Then we set off through Castellini de Chianti (oh how I wish we could have stopped for a quick walk about because the views were astronomical!) to the Rocca della Macie winery and vineyard.    This small-scale winery now rivals the much larger neighbors who’ve been in production since the 1300s.    All of the equipment is “modern”, and technology has been continuously implemented to keep them cutting edge in production.   It shows.

Tuscan scenery in the Chianti region

The view from Villa Rocca

There is nothing “new” about making wine.   Virtually the same principles everywhere.   Truthfully, I didn’t even pay complete attention to all the details.   What I did catch was there are 6500 vines per acre with each vine yielding 6 bunches of grapes or 1 bottle per vine.   6500 bottles per acre.    We have passed a bazillion acres in just the Chianti region.    Wow.

Chianti is comprised of 80% San Genovese grapes and 10% each of merlot and sauvignon grapes.     The grapes are picked by hand.   With 100 staff in the full-time operations, hand pickers are brought in from universities during the harvest season and all the grapes are brought directly to the winery for quick production.    Select students – those who have shown promise in previous seasons – are given the responsibility to choose the best, select grapes which are set aside for the special reserve Chianti run.  Once pressed and processed, the less “select” versions are aged in huge Yugoslavian oak barrels while the more select are in smaller French oak barrels.   French oak is perceived as giving more flavor but also the smaller size exposes more of the wine to the oak.

wine barrels in Chianti, Tuscany

Barrels at Rocca delle Macie

We proceeded into the large dining room which had been set for our group and the extended family to join us.   Sergio, his wife, Daniella, their son, Andrea and nephew Fabio arrived just as we were settling into the appetizer of broccoli soufflé on tomato sauce.   Sergio and Daniella are in their mid-50s.   He is currently the President of the Chianti Wine Council and represents the region internationally.  He is a marathon runner headed to the NYC Marathon in a couple of weeks and just returned from Vancouver.   Charming and conversational.

I learned his son is about to complete his four year university degree in Economics (which he prefers the theory to actual business as a degree) from Sienna.   He is a nationally ranked referee for football/soccer and had a game last night in Napoli.    He is 21, tall, a runner and pretty.   Likely a desirable catch for any number of young ladies in the region.   He expects to complete school and move straight into full-time work for the family business and is currently in charge of all the vineyards in Northern Italy – mostly Lombardy.

Olive gardens and vineyard in Tuscany

Trees and vines grow nicely together in the region – even if there are panthers around

His cousin Fabio is hulkier and a little older – around 25.   Even taller he towered over everyone in the group and is more personable and chatty.   He told us he is here for a couple of months with the assignment of gathering all the “old, historical documents and photographs” for a winery history.    Being as how the historical record of the vineyard and winery date from the mid-1970’s we had some fun at his expense.

Our menu after the appetizer: ribolleta (Tuscan vegetable and bread soup), cannelloni with mushrooms, beef stew, stewed potatoes, mixed salad and tiramisu.    Three of their finest wines were served – Bianco Bianco, Sasyr Toscana (a mix of sauvignon and syrah grapes), and Chianti Classico Riserva.    WOW.   I was still maintaining my eat-half-of-what’s-presented plan and did NOT waddle away from the table which is a major accomplishment.

Rainy view of Tuscan landscape

Even in drizzle the views are spectacular

I was so very grateful to be able to directly thank the family and Sergio’s assistant, Micheala, who arranged all our accommodations and food and tours so far.   It was just a wonderful family welcome into their way of life.    One example was the story Sergio told at the table.    We had been warned if we were out walking or running in the morning hours to be aware of deer and wild boar in the vineyards.    Not that they would not run away if they saw us first but to be cautious.   Several of us had seen deer but no one a wild boar so it had become a bit of a joke amongst us.    In hearing our simple joshing of each other, Sergio announced a local hunter had come to him on Saturday to make him aware he had killed a deer and come back for it with a vehicle only to find it had been dragged away.   The speculation was a panther was loose in the region and it had created some excitement via word of mouth.    Sergio had sent out some trackers on Sunday and Monday who had determined it was much more likely to be a killer wolf which, while less dangerous than a panther, was still worthy of caution.   Now how would we have experienced that sort of news if not connected to someone’s family table?

A little visit to their gift shop and we were off back to our cooking assignments in a light drizzle.

Rocca delle Macìe – Wines & Hospitality in Chianti Classico Area