Wine Country, USA

Yesterday we enjoyed a relaxing, sunny afternoon in beautiful Wine Country, sipping on whites and reds while sampling fine cheeses before taking an outing through the vineyards lain across the rolling green hills without a care in the world. Tuscany, you may think? Maybe Napa Valley? Oh no. We were in scenic Pittstown, New Jersey, located in northwest Jersey just a little bit off of the beaten path.

At first, the idea of visiting a winery, a beloved and precious place that now makes me think of Italy in the way that tattered old photos make you think of your angelic passed dog, made me wonder if I could even take it, if I could enjoy a place that was so magnificent across the Atlantic but seemed like it could only be a cheap and sad imitation in the US of A. And to be honest, it actually wasn’t half bad.

Tuscany

Beneduce Vineyards was one of the few wineries in the area I was able to sniff out that wasn’t an obscene distance from my house in the Middle of Nowhere, New Jersey (only about 45 minutes away) and had a pretty down-to-earth deal concerning wine tastings and tours and such, because let’s be honest, you can’t drive that far just to gulp down some wine. Unlike many other wineries I was looking at, you didn’t need an appointment to come to a tasting or 11 other people or an extra $150 bucks.

Instead, for $10 and from 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm on Sundays, my boyfriend and I sampled a pretty humble amount of four different wines, which I guess I couldn’t complain about for $10.The girl at the desk who poured each wine for us had a pretty extensive knowledge about how each was made and bottled and the quirks and its appropriate pairings. Which was made even better because with the four wines, we received some meat and cheese, which we maybe sort of substituted for lunch that day. Whoops.

Beneduce Winery

After the wines and the free glasses we received with them and the food, for some odd reason, the workers at Beneduce Winery then handed us over some keys to their golf carts to cruise their winery on their own doing. They offer a tour by one of their own workers, but I think everyone felt the same way as we did (who needs a tour of a vineyard?) because as we were cruising around in a semi-drunken stupor (after figuring out how to drive the cart, which they don’t bother telling you about either) we saw many other yippity groups giving themselves tours (AKA going as fast as they could in a golf cart without running over any plants).

Cruisin

Mostly, the vineyard part is just a nice photo op, since without someone telling you about each one, the only info is a sign saying what kind of grape each plant is. It’s still fun to cruise around in a real live vineyard, and maybe stop at the hammock on the outskirts too for an afternoon nap. Hey, why not?

It may not be my beautiful Tuscany. It may not be France or Napa or any other places that house wine country. Jeez, it’s just New Jersey. But I think there is something to be said for finding gems in your own backyard. It doesn’t require a full wallet or a plane ticket or a pompous sense of what’s high class. All you need is a little research to see what’s hiding right before your very eyes.

Photo Ops

We Have Come for the Chocolate.

Yet another reason why I believe that Italy was made for me– the Perugia Chocolate Festival is a real, in-the-flesh, once-a-year occurrence.

Ever since I heard about this mystical being, I made it my quest to get there. On my list of “must-see” places that I keep, alongside Transylvania and Oxford University, is the annual Eurochocolate of Perugia, located in Umbria, where this gourmet chocolate is famous. So when the last two weeks in October came around that the Festival fell on and my grandma Sissel and my cousin Kristin happened to be visiting me in Florence, I literally begged them to come (not that it takes much begging to get people to come with you to eat chocolate all day long).

A two-and-a-half hour train ride will get you from Florence in Tuscany to Perugia in Umbria, often with a transfer in Terantola-Cortona (because for some reason, Umbria is lacking in a lot of public transportation). This doesn’t sound like too much. But when you’re hungry for chocolate and you’re sitting on a dirty bus, it kind of is.

When we first got to Perugia, I was feeling a little sorry for my friends who have studied abroad there, because the ground near the train station isn’t very pretty (but then again, when is it near public transportation). However, after taking a bus to Piazza Italia, where the Festival takes place, the views get some better.

Unfortunately, the sites that I read about the Festival didn’t lie when they said it was a bit commercialized. There really aren’t any free samples so it’s not like the free-for-all I was imagining, and it’s more or less just a ton of booths with overpriced goodies lying about. REALLY overpriced. We walked up and down the streets the Festival resides on (doesn’t take more than an hour, really) and then decided what we wanted and went back and got it. One chocolate splurge while you’re in Perugia is worth the seven or eight euros, even though I wouldn’t have minded a Triple Chocolate Meltdown from Applebee’s, either.

However, one thing that is cool about this Festival is that even if you can’t afford to buy it all, you can see all the mouthwatering things they can make with chocolate, all of the huge bars of it swarming with bees, stuffed with hazelnut and coconut in a variety of colors. And there’s also the grandiose displays– the classic Chocolate cars, the giant Lindt dancing bears and the boxes of Baci chocolate that are as big as my house.

Unfortunately, this too sticks out to me as extra touristy– why not give the little family shops a try, a chance to make something really cool for us all to see? This is what Italy is about– kicking the big bullies out and keeping the quaint and quality-ridden shops in. This is why you won’t see too many chain restaurants or other chain companies roaming around Italy. Instead of boo-hooing your way about the cliche tourism that is Eurochocolate, though, eat your chocolate bar, shut up, and then get back on the train.

The Wine Country

Florence is a beautiful place. It is bustling with Renaissance architecture, ancient museums, yellows and greens and grays. Siena, however, which is really only a short drive down the road (about an hour and a half, which is nothing compared to the 12 hour bus rides I’m used to) is not like this. I’m actually not totally sure why everyone told me that Siena has always been in competition with Florence.

Unlike Florence, Siena doesn’t really look very Renaissance-esque (but then again I’m not entirely sure what this would look like, besides having Florence as an example). Siena is a city of the Medieval, a place that looks like it would be best friends with Edinburgh, Scotland.

 

Siena is a little place, however, and there doesn’t seem to be a ton to see. Our Bus2Alps tour guide, Tiernan, took us to the city center, Piazza del Campo, which literally looks like a big stone field. This is also the site of where Il Palio takes place. After roaming up one of the city’s many hills (it overlooks the Tuscan countryside) we find the Duomo, which looks remarkably similar to my Duomo in Florence, although a little smaller. Apparently, this Duomo was on its way up to being bigger and better than mine, but then the Black Death came around and people had a lot better things to do than build ginormous churches.

After this short little tour of Siena, Bus2Alps took us to our next destination– a local winery called Tenuta Torciano. When I see all the pretty horses roaming about in their fields alongside the squares and squares of grapes, I know that we have come to the right place. We are led inside to a little house where a man who speaks very little English literally serves us eight glasses of wine each. And this isn’t the three euro wine that I find at the cheap grocery store down the street. I can taste the alcohol in this wine. But I’ll be damned if I have to spit it out before the next glass is served– I chug that wine down along with our meal of oily bread, salad, some kind of potato dish, lasagna, and biscotti.

The drunker we all get, the better friends we are. I make best friends with every person sitting within a five foot radius and I start to actually wonder if I’m going to vom on the bus and why I can’t see anything and it’s 1:00 pm. After we stumble out of the winery and the Italian man tries to sell us wine, we all wander the grounds for a little bit, running in and out of willow trees and playing with the geese and ducks that hang around in the sunshine.

We all shuffle back on the bus and I’m still not sobering up. What a surprise. Our bus tries to crawl up the hills, but it seems we have a lack of oil, so Tiernan, our guide, and the owner of Bus2Alps have us come outside and we begin to walk to San Gimignano. If I was sober, I may or may not be frustrated by this. But instead, I am PSYCHED, as everyone else seems to be. We run up and down the ninety degree roads and take pictures, our sobriety coming back in the sunshine. It is a beautiful day for a bus to break down, let me tell you that.

Finally we get to San Gimignano, which is another medieval city similar to Siena. We climb up some more hills to get to the wine museum/castle and we take dopey pictures as the Bus2Alps crew buys us more wine from the museum, which we sip overlooking the countryside.

Back down at the main square, we eat gelato, which is supposedly the best in the world (I think Florence’s is better). As we eat our gelato next to the fountain in the center, it begins to pour and pour and pour. I wonder if anyone even noticed.