story + photos by Michael Housewright
Brunello di Montalcino is perhaps the finest wine produced in Italy. It is made entirely from Sangiovese grapes, grown just outside the hilltop town of Montalcino, in Tuscany. It was the first wine I ever loved.
I met Mario Bollag at a wine bar I curated in Houston, Texas. He spoke impeccable English, and was easily the most charming winemaker I had met in all my years in the business. In addition, he made outstanding Brunello at his winery, Terrlasole. We hit it off immediately, talked, and tasted wine for several hours. He invited me to visit him and the winery as soon as I could make my way overseas.
Less than two months after Mario’s visit to Houston, I took him up on his offer, and went to Italy. With my wife in tow, and a rental Volkswagen Golf procured, we set out from Rome airport in search of Mario Bollag. Being a frequent traveler to Italy I assumed finding Mario in tiny Montalcino would be a cakewalk. I was wrong.
I had sent Mario at least five emails explaining our arrival times. He responded with short enthusiastic notes that stated his eagerness for our visit, and that he would be there waiting for us. He never really offered much detail other than to meet him at a gas station/bar on a corner, after the first roundabout entering Montalcino.
When we arrived at the yellow service station, on a Thursday afternoon, at the prescribed meeting time, there was no Mario. I asked the clerk inside the bar if she knew Mario and if she had seen him. She said no, and that Mario had not passed that way in several days. I ordered two coffees and 2 waters while we waited, assuming he was just a bit delayed. After an hour, and with the clerk leering at us hoping we would leave, we decided Mario must have overlooked the time and we needed to call him. He had never offered me his phone number so I asked the clerk if she had it. She smiled wryly and said, “No.” I decided we should proceed to the beautifully restored Fortezza, in the center of town, and inquire at the very fine wine shop inside as to Mario’s whereabouts and phone number.
We reached the Fortezza, where beneath its hulking ramparts sits the beautiful Enoteca la Fortezza. Inside this venerable shop, one finds great Brunello going back several decades. In addition, it is easy to order a plate of local salumi and cheeses to enjoy along with a glass or a bottle of other lovely, local wines. It is rather rude to ask for a service in Italy and not offer some remuneration, so I thought it wise to have some meat and drink a glass of lovely Tuscan white wine while devising our next move.
This little courtesy presented us with our first clue to finding Mario. Our food arrived along with a paper map that crudely illustrated the locations of every official winery in Montalcino, as well as their phone numbers. Eureka! We sped back to the yellow station hoping Mario may have come searching for us. He had not, so I asked the Negative Nelly clerk if I could use her phone. She reluctantly gave me the bar phone so that I could try to call Mario. I was so proud of myself for working out this little snafu, but when no one answered the phone at Terralsole, my pride turned to disappointment. It appeared I was going to have to explain to my wife that we would have to give up. Instead of staying at a beautiful villa, we were going to be stuck in an overpriced hotel, and the dream of meeting Mario would unceremoniously end before it had begun.
As I hung up the phone, and before I could say a word, my wife looked at the map and said, “Let’s go find this guy.” We tore away in our trusty GOLF and started down a series of country roads, each leading to progressively less pavement and increasingly steeper grades. After several wrong turns and bottom-outs, we saw a small sign for Terralsole which pointed straight up to the top of a ridge. I revved the engine and pushed the rented VW as hard as it would go, kicking up plumes of white dust behind us from the rocky driveway. As we neared the top of the hill the twin buildings, of the most beautiful winery and villa in Tuscany, came into view.
Frazzled from a 3-hour drive from Rome, and an additional 2-and-half-hour search, we parked and got out of the car. A beautiful woman in her early thirties met us in the drive. It was Mario’s wife, Athena. She said nonchalantly, “You must be Michael; Mario is down in the cantina.” I am certain Athena had no idea Mario had told us to meet him in town, and she certainly was unaware of the triumph of curiosity that had led us to her door.
Moments later, Mario came bounding up from the rows of vines, wearing shorts, hiking boots, and carrying his laptop. He was overjoyed to see us, and when I mentioned that we thought we were meeting him in town, he simply smiled his amazing smile and said “Here you are” and began to show us the property. We have been dear friends with Mario and Athena ever since that day.
I was inclined to believe our adventure finding Mario had been a test to see just how much we wanted to be there, and how resourceful we could be. However, I know Mario believes that all situations will ultimately work themselves out, and that plans, schedules, and emails serve only to outline the possibilities. After all, this was Italy and he makes an outstanding Brunello di Montalcino.
Michael Housewright is a full-time travel writer and photographer celebrating 21 years traveling to Italy. Michael curates The Blissful Adventurer and this fall is leading an 8 day and 7 night exploration of the iPhone and Puglia in Southern Italy. Join Michael for a chance to create your own extraordinary story in pictures.