It seems like yesterday; it seems like a lifetime ago. Our summers making breakfast in Italy.Read More
When we sold our B&B and moved away from Italy, people couldn't believe that we were giving up life there. But we saw it differently. We knew we were finished with being innkeepers. It was a great run, but there are only so many years you can host in the summer and renovate in the winter before you completely burn out. But during those years we had met so many wine makers, and Michael had become pretty much of a specialist on small producers all over the region.
But making a wine business work in Italy is next to impossible - for a variety of reasons: bureaucracy, taxes, the lack of internet use in the country, and the general notion that small, entreprenural businesses are not supported by a government mired in decades of corruption and lethargy.
We're not the youngest, and we sure don't have time to waste trying to bend a system that has broken so many. So when we decided to leave Italy, our eye was on Michael's native Germany, with its booming economy, sound economic structure, and clear rules.
So we moved - lock, stock, and wine cask - to Southern Germany. Between the Black Forest, the Swiss border and Lake Constance (the largest natural lake in Europe), we found a small piece of paradise in the form of an exposed timber house with plenty of room to expand, but with no requirement to do so. The house was perfectly liveable as it was, and we've done a bit of structural work, but mostly cosmetic facelifting since moving in during June of 2014.
We decided to keep a very small presence in Piedmont, in the form of a sweet little apartment we could escape to and use to build our wine business. It's in the middle of the Langhe, the most prestigious wine region in Italy and one of the best wine regions in the world.
In mid 2015, we decided to start building our business, called Babarolo. We had no idea what it would take, but our idea was clear: we wanted to start a niche on line shop selling artisan, small production Piedmont wines in Germany and if possible, throughout Europe. We wanted it to be professional. And, of course, I wanted it to be beautiful.
Although I can handle a blog with a small on line shop and even cope, begrudgingly, with WordPress plug-ins if I have to, I knew I was in way over my head with the idea of a 130+ product international website with different shipping requirements for different countries. We hired an agency and enlisted help from Eva (a former guest turned friend turned babarolista), and dug in.
We brought our friend and neighbor in Italy Nicolas Schot on board, as he happens to be a professional photographer (I mean, just look at these photos...) and hired Ashley Bartner, a buddy from our innkeeping days who had a place with her husband in Le Marche and now make amazing promotional video, and we got busy.
Because until you dig into a project like this, one built on passion and competence and business acumen, you have no idea what's really involved. At least I didn't. It's like combing out a tangle of thickets. Some days you make no progress; some days you fly like an eagle.
We're giving wineries a platform that really suits them. We'll sell their wines all over Europe. We're doing it in a creative, dignified way that respects the creative wine making process. (We wish we could sell to the USA and Canada, but legally it's impossible.)
We're telling their stories. Writing about their histories, their production methods, their families. Every wine you find on our site will be explained, in detail - the grapes, exactly where in the vineyard the grapes come from, which hill, how they are harvested, how they are fermented, how the wine is aged. How, in essence, it is created.
I am firmly of the opinion that you cannot be an expert in everything. We don't pretend to know much about wines from Uruguay, from Hungary, or from South Africa. We do know, however, a great deal about wine from Piedmont, and every trip, every visit to a winery, every walk in a vineyard, every conversation with winemakers who have become friends has deepened and stretched and widened our understanding.
We are in the presence of greatness when we are with these people. The thing most striking about Piedmontese winemakers is their humility, their modesty. The work is hard, and nature can be cruel, but their products are so special and created with so much heart and passion.
Every winemaker has a story. Every winemaker has a gift to give the world.
Babarolo launches in time for the harvest in Italy. Until then, we'll be squirreled away, working like matti!
Italy is a place where one loses and finds oneself in equal measure. It has long been my contention that people feel so drawn to Italy because we are all vulnerable to seduction. With natural wonders that border on the sublime, a gastronomic and enological culture that defies every imagination of what food and wine can be, and a sense of kindness that grasps the heart, Italy is not short on seductive tricks up its very beautiful sleeve.
We spent a decade here, drawn by a calling to eschew the boardrooms and city life. We worked harder than either of us ever thought we could doing things of which neither of us thought we were capable. We came to understand that you can feel physical pain from the top of your head to the souls of your feet simply by supplying yourself with firewood - if you have to cut it yourself. We learned, from people who kindly befriended us, what it means, truly means, to live with the seasons and never to underestimate the power and wrath of nature.
We learned how to be with each other, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, without pushing each other's buttons to the point where one of us would actually leave. Believe me, that is no easy feat, even in the best of relationships.
We came to learn that hard work comes in no relation to money earned, and that the hardest workers in the country side don't feel as though they are owed anything. We came to learn that we were no more or less entitled to anything simply because we came to fulfill a certain desire to be independent in a beautiful place - we would have to work just as hard, if not harder, than the person who makes his sustenance by planting potatoes and harvesting a couple of acres of grapes.
We learned that people have always struggled, and will always struggle, and it's what you do with that struggle that will determine what kind of person you are. We learned that people who struggle the most often have the greatest sense of empathy for the struggle of others, and are the most willing to make a plate of pasta and pour a glass of wine for others in need of it.
We learned we didn't miss boardrooms, or meetings, or getting up in the morning to have to go to a place where we had no real stake in the process, other than what it paid us. We considered ourselves inordinately lucky as a result.
But Italy pushed us. It prodded us, and sometimes, it tortured us. We were willing to throw ourselves into the task of being students, and often, too often, it ate up large parts of us. As time went on there, we knew that the lifestyle we lived would too challenging for us to continue forever.
But that doesn't mean it didn't hurt like hell to leave.
I will never be the same person I was before I went to Italy. It took me right up to the very edge of my limits. Sometimes I stepped beyond my own limits, and I dealt with the consequences of it. My health, both physical and emotional, suffered. Now, almost two years after selling our home there, I have had a time to rest and distance myself from the hard work, the brutally equalizing nature, the unending uncertainty of the harsh economic situation the country still finds itself in, and I can see, with ever increasing clarity, the magic that seduced me so completely.
And I miss it. I miss it in the depths of darkest and brightest corners of my soul. And just to be able to know that kind of longing makes me eternally grateful that Italy seduced us in the first place.
We leave in a few days for Piemonte, and I will once again be able to hold the hills in my closest heart as the farmers harvest the grapes.