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montebenichi

Montebenichi.... you won’t find it on anything but a local map. The Michelin map of Italy doesn’t have it. The nearest towns of map size are Ambra and Bucine. The village is at about 1,500 ft. elevation on a hill with a killer 270 degree view. The population is 50 which has gotta include pets. There is one restaurant that exists mainly on the trade from the Castelletto although other locals drive up the rather narrow road for dinner.

La Bottega del Trenta

Only one night did we venture out for dinner…..to La Bottega del Trenta, so named because it seats thirty. It is owned by a woman who is the chef and who adds a French touch to the Tuscan fare. It is located in the hamlet of Villa a Sesta about a 30 minute drive away from Il Castelletto.

The meal there was one of the two or three best of the entire trip. Not wishing to end up with the Italian equivalent of a DUI, I took it easy on the wine (you can carry the undrunk portion home) which was a good thing because we needed to navigate the Rosenanno dirt road and the Alfa’s headlights were terrible. So bad that we darn near collided with a giant porcupine on the way home..

castelletto di montebenichi...

The interior of the place is decorated with Marco & Arnaldo’s personal art collection. Behind the village they have a terraced garden about as long as a football field. It includes a pool, exercise room, sauna and a bar and refrigerator with snacks. It is also very carefully landscaped. If you get a chance, look at their website and you can see that of which I write. And if you miss that we have several hundred photos we’d be pleased to show you next time your myasthenia kicks in and you can’t escape.

Marco and Arnaldo serve a truly wonderful buffet breakfast with some of the best pecorino cheese I have ever had.  Arnaldo's cousin, being a baker extraordinaire, there was always something wonderful for breakfast. 

The Castelletto serves cocktails and aperitifs daily at 18:00.... make your own from the well-provisioned bar tray. The lounge is a meeting place for the other guests.... mostly Yankees though we met a delightful British couple.

After cocktails one can walk a minute to the Osteria Orcacia (in the village) or else drive down the hill to somewhere else far away. For the most part we ate at the Osteria which was owned and cheffed by Gino Biagi and was excellent both as regards ambience and victuals. Gino made great bruschette, a wonderful country soup called Riboletta, some great spinach with cheese and an interesting dish of tripe, among others. He also kept a giant haunch of proscuitto from which he whacked paper thin slices when anyone ordered it. His wine list was good and reasonable but his house white wine was ghastly. His waitress was Eva, a young Polish woman who is married to his son. Eva spoke five languages and handled the ten tables in the place by herself with unbelievable grace and efficiency.

From the Castelletto we drove on day-trips to Montalcino and to Urbino as well as to several of the local wineries. Montalcino is the home of Brunello, arguably Italy’s finest red wine variety, or not. Unfortunately we headed out on 2 June, a national holiday and before we were done we had driven through a marathon being run in one town and a parade in the next. Took us a minute to understand why people in buildings along the road were waving at us.

Urbino was the home of Duke Federico Montefeltro who was one of the most important early embracers of the Italian Renaissance. It is now a university town but has a lively tourist trade. While there we popped into what looked like a quiet ristorante for lunch only to find ourselves dining in the same room with a huge Italian extended family who, it appeared, had taken over the place for a post-christening party. Best bowl of ‘minestrone’ (vegetable soup) award went to this place. It was really good!

winery tours ...

With the help of Barbara from the Castelletto and Amy (our guide through the Cinque Terre) we secured several winery visits in Tuscany. Understand that these are not like wine tastings in Napa. These are visits by appointment. In three wineries we were greeted by the owner or by his representative and were shown around the property alone. No giant group here. After all our questions were answered we were offered a tasting of the products, often including olive oil in addition to wine. These encounters generally lasted 2 hours and it was just us. I would like to think that our experience as fellow wine makers made us more challenging and interesting guests but, who knows.

We visited Cappanelle, Felsina and Colle a Lecchi which are three very different properties but all offered a hospitality to be envied in California. Interestingly, the Brolio (Ricasoli) tasting room was much like Beringer or one of the other large Napa wineries…..belly up to the bar and hope someone notices you.... we walked in, sized it up and walked out without tasting anything.... a disappointment. But, an education. With the help of a guide, someone who knows the territory, private arrangements can be made and they are much more pleasurable for the guest and for the house itself.

Colle a Lecchi is a rustic property run by a lovely woman, Mrs. Myrhe and her husband. She sounds exactly like Victor Borge speaking in the alto register and, sure enough, she is Danish having moved to Tuscany about 40 years ago. Boy do I love a Danish accent. And she loves Tuscany and her life there but, sadly knows that she and her husband are getting on in years and that the rural life style may not be sustainable for them. Her wines, under the San Cosma label are really good, solid, inexpensive Chiantis and her olive oil is excellent. She, Martye and I sat and talked and tasted in a first floor room of her home.... it was built sometime in the 1200’s. It was like being with family.

Felsina and Cappenelle are more upscale properties with big bucks in back of them, Italian in the former case and American in the latter. Their equipment was remarkable in its complexity and completeness. The bottling line at Felsina was truly amazing.... wine comes in one end and exits the other bottled, corked, capsuled, labeled and boxed without being touched by a human hand. Cappenelle was a little less tech-up but they had the ‘vault’.... I kid you not, a James Bond vault complete with a security guarded sliding stainless steel door and weird Star Wars UV interior lighting. There, in a presumably ultra controlled environment free from temperature fluctuation, light, noise, vibration, worry and the Christian Right or Islamic Fundamentalism sat Cappenelle’s finest wines for the finest hotels in Europe. Each bin had an illuminated small sign…e.g.,” Hotel Kaiser Wilhelm, Dussledorf” or “Hotel Richedude, Monaco”.... you get the picture. And I did too.... I have pictures of this. Wow! I am so sheltered. Before we left on our trip I went to True-Value Hardware Store and bought a new Kiwk-Set lock for my little cellar and thought I had created Fort Knox.   Dumb.