Every time we engage the navigation system in the rental car, it reminds us that it's not perfect and we should use common sense. In other words, don't make a left turn off a cliff even if the computerized voice sounds really confident that it's the right direction. The navigation system in our rental car has done a remarkably good job of getting us where we need to be, but yesterday it screwed up. We were about three hours into the French Alps on our way to Valle d'Aosta, Italy when the navigation system tried to send us back from whence we came.
We tried to re-enter our hotel's Italian address a few times, but no matter what we did, the car insisted we should go back to France. Slightly panicked, we resorted to a map. We found the perfect scenic mountain road-- the Petit St. Bernard Pass-- and started up the steep, winding incline into Italy. Several kilometers into the pass, we decided to try the navigation system one last time. It flashed an electronic map of our location, and said "make a U-turn as soon as possible!" We pressed on, but we had a "light bulb" moment when we passed a few cyclists: the Tour de France blazed through the Petit St. Bernard Pass the day before, so the road was closed. The navigation system just hadn't caught on that the stage was over and the road was open.
We arrived in the small town of Saint-Vincent at around 6PM and checked into our hotel. We opened up the window and gasped... we were right above the action in the town square, with views of the mountains in every direction. We enjoyed the view for a bit and then set out to explore Saint-Vincent.
We've been (mostly) satisfied with our ability to communicate basic needs and requests in French, but we were confident we'd do better in Italian. We didn't. We bombed in a big way. Italian may look like Spanish on paper, but the spoken word is Martian to our ears. Thankfully, almost everyone we encountered was willing to speak with us in the universal language: gesticulation.
We bought a few postcards from a very nice shopkeeper who spoke English, and asked him if he had a favorite restaurant in town. To our delight, he suggested the place we had our eye on anyway-- a tiny Osteria with a "menu staggioni" featuring fresh porcini mushrooms. It was a delicious, inexpensive meal, and we were happy to find a wine on their list from the producer we planned to visit the next day-- Grosjean.
Tangential aside: we had the freshest, creamest buffalo mozzarella either of us has ever seen, and we learned that the Italians call heirloom tomatoes "tomatoes". Imagine that!
We went for a walk, checked out the Church, people-watched, and then decided to turn in for the night at about 11PM. We opened up our window and listened to the soundtrack of Saint-Vincent four stories below: Children play. Dogs bark. Mothers call to them both. Fathers laugh, a bit buzzed. Water spills from the fountain. An a capella choral group practices in perfect harmony. The sounds continued for another hour or so, and then faded one-by-one until the fountain stopped and the square was silent.
Italy, part due.
After a quick breakfast at our hotel, we set out to find Frères Grosjean in the town of Quart. In a fortuitous moment shortly after we planned this vacation, we spotted a Grosjean wine on the list at one of our favorite restaurants in Portland. We'd never even heard of Valle d'Aosta wines before, but it seemed like a fun thing to trace this bottle back to its source in the hills above Aosta. With a few Google Translator-assisted emails, we confirmed a visit.
Although Grosjean bottles manage to get all the way to Portland, they are a fairly small producer, creating a portfolio of about 10 wines, all produced from grapes grown on their adjacent properties. The wines include several varieties indigenous to the Aosta Valley and rarely seen in the US.
When we arrived, after twisting and turning through narrow lanes in the small town of Quart, we were greeted by an old fellow who looked like a charicature of an Italian winemaker: dusty trousers, suspenders, a sun-wrinkled face, and toting an enormous triangular spade. He smiled, greeted us, and asked us if we spoke Italian - we said no. He asked if we spoke French - we admitted to un petit peu. He gave up, grinned widely at us, and pointed us into the winery where he introduced us to a couple of younger people who spoke some English.
A bit later on our tour we saw a family portrait of three generations of winemaking Grosjeans, and realized that the old man we'd met was the patriarch of the family: Vincent Grosjean himself. Our English speaking guides were Vincent's grandson, granddaughter, and their cousin. We took a brief tour of the winery, tasted the Grosjeans' current line-up of wines, and then hopped in their car to visit their vineyards.
Grosjean doesn't make blockbuster wines: only 25-30% of their production goes for export - the rest is consumed in Italy. Prices for most bottles were around 10 Euros. This isn't special occasion wine, it's wine meant to be consumed casually,with food and friends. And on that it succeeds very well: the wines are well-balanced and easily approachable. We particularly enjoyed trying the ones we've never seen in Portland: Torrette, Premetta, and Petite Arvine.
This was another wonderful visit, and as we walked through the vineyards with the younger Grosjeans, we realized something: every winemaker we've encountered in Europe is far more animated in the vineyard than in the tasting room. Perhaps it's because we've chosen to visit producers who make unspoofulated wines, but they really do seem to treat wine as a natural agricultural product and not a chemistry experiment.
We thanked the Grosjeans for their hospitality, and pointed ourselves down one mountain and up another. Next stop: Zermatt, Switzerland.