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!
We've just returned from two weeks of sun soaked, warm fall days. The vendemmia, or harvest, was in full swing when we arrived, and was finishing up as we left. The lighter and medium reds - Dolcetto and Barbera - were picked earlier and that last beauties to leave the vines were the Nebbiolo grapes, of Barbaresco and Barolo fame. The sweetness of the grapes, after the excruciatingly hot summer, was akin to honey. Most winemakers agree it will be "un'annata stupenda"... a very good vintage.
We spent a good deal of time visiting wineries, because we are starting a new business selling Piemontese wines from small producers in Germany and the rest of Europe. This idea started six years ago, when we were in the middle of a full season at our B&B. Micha and I were walking down our long steep driveway with Max - it was hot and we were booked. He had just returned from having taken guests on a wine tour, and he spoke of the wish he had to help some of these wonderful producers - and human beings - to sell their wines outside of Italy.
That initial idea never went away, and Micha recorded and documented almost all the bottles he opened from that point forward. Once we made the decision to change our lives and sell the B&B, it was clear that we would start a new endeavor - and that we would do it from Germany.
It took us some time to get our feet back on the ground after what was a difficult and traumatic move. Changing everything, from the project and home in which we were completely invested, to country, culture and language is challenging for anyone.
We sifted through various business concepts and decided that an on-line wine business was where we would start.
We're in that very exciting, very scary business development stage where we are planning the initial orders from our hand-chosen wineries (all of whom we know personally) and creating a gorgeous website with an awesomely cool agency. We're running financials and talking about our mission and making sales projections. All of those things you do to launch a successful business.
But at the heart of this project is a mission - and that mission is to give an international platform to winemakers who make exceptionally wonderful wines, from a region to which we lost our hearts over a decade ago.
It's scary to be starting something at an age where most people would be counting the days to Social Security. It's not easy to learn about SEO and renting pop-up stores and the best way of planning events throughout the country. We could, conceivably, just not do it.
But what fun would that be? Where is the learning in that? Where is the joy of possibility?
So we're going for it. One day at a time, one grape at a time.
I'm proud of us for trying, and for creating something that touches on all the things we have ever done or loved or lived through. Our goal is to work at something that isn't really work for us, and through that to create something special and beautiful and meaningful. And to do that until we can't anymore.
After all, what is better than living your passion?
p.s. I of course am still creating art. It is my ying to all of this business yang. I am one lucky girl.
When I come to Italy, I am immediately overtaken with the desire to eat simply. We've intentionally kept our kitchen here very basic - no food processor, no fancy utensils. We only have what we need to prepare available ingredients in the most basic of ways.
This suits me fine. I don't come here to cook. I come here to recharge, to work on our wine business, to write, to meet friends, to walk. And because ingredients available here are of the highest possible quality at fair prices, food preparation can be reduced to the minimum.
I have a favorite fish stand at the organic market in Alba who we visit every Wednesday when we are here. The fish is brought up from the Ligurian coast just hours before we buy it. My favorite ingredients are always the least expensive and are the classic Italian favorites: fresh anchovies, mackerel, sardines, herring and trout.
People often turn their noses up at what they think are "fishy" fish. I challenge anyone who has never had anchovies or sardines or mackerel that did not come out of a bottle or flat can to resist a fresher than fresh filet of these extremely delicious and super healthy fish, marinated in just a touch of olive oil and lemon, sprinkled with sea salt.
I rarely bother frying mackerel any more. I just marinate them. Today, at lunch, I served marinated mackerel with a salad I made from shaved fennel (shaved with a cheese grater), cut tomato and lettuce leaves and a loaf of freshly baked bread. It was sublime.
Food like this is a gift. It is a balsam for the body and the soul.
Dinner can be just a panful of slightly over-ripe cherry tomatoes fried gently in garlic and olive oil over pasta or rice or polenta with a little pancetta. There is really no need to get fancy when you can wallow in flavors like this.
This is a country where construction workers sit at tables in local restaurants at lunch, drink red wine and eat steaming hot linguine ladled with delicate, fragrant sauces underscored with slow roasted meats and cooked vegetables. It is a country where children, little ones, can be seen downing anchovies and porcini along with their pasta and chunks of 24 month aged Reggiano Parmigiano.
In short, it is a country of food experts who understand that quality ingredients, simply prepared, give life meaning.
It is one of the things I love most about coming here. Eating like this.
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.