Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Glorious Tuscany: Wine, Biking, and Philosophy

I had never really thought about the philosophy of wine. Then I met Vittorio Innocenti. Not only is he a vintner-extraordinaire; he’s also very much a thinker, and not the barstool-type. I first met this remarkable man as I planned our cycling vacation through Tuscany, and recently had the chance to visit him again when I joined our guests on that same trip.

In the hill town of Montefollonico, our group strolled the narrow cobbled streets to Vittorio’s cantina to sample his Vino Nobile, one of the world’s rarest wines because it can only be made in Tuscany’s Montepulciano region, which we had been exploring by bicycle that day.

When we stepped into Vittorio’s cantina, we were immediately embraced by the perfume of 700 years of aging berries and damp earth. Dust-covered bottles were stacked in corners alongside winemaking equipment from another age. Vittorio greeted us with a quiet warmth and gentility. And I thought, if he handles his wines with the same kindness, they are probably very well nurtured indeed.

As a fifth generation vintner, Vittorio has wine coursing through his veins. But he wasn’t always focused on viniculture. In his younger days, he studied philosophy in Italy’s Renaissance capital of Florence, then taught the subject to high school and university students. Winemaking called him back to Montefollonico in the 1960s.

We learned all this through an interpreter as our host guided us through his barrel-laden cellar. Some of the casks had years scribbled on them to mark when they were filled—2005 or 2002. And that simple detail—chalk on a barrel—revealed to me everything about Vittorio Innocenti’s philosophy of wine.

When I asked which philosopher he most identified with, Vittorio told me St. Francis of Assisi, whose revered namesake city clings to a hillside on the other side of Lake Trasimeno. St. Francis embraced the natural world, God’s created world. And he had faith in man’s ability to take joy in nature.

Aha, there it was. I nodded in unison with the other guests. That is precisely what guides Vittorio’s winemaking. He makes wine for love, and for the joy of creating an excellent bottle. At heart, he remains a traditional wine producer steered by time-tested oenological wisdom, picking grapes by hand and forsaking the computer monitors I’d once seen in Napa for things like good old-fashioned chalk. And though he appreciates and respects the strict governmental standards of winemaking that put Italy on the oenology map, the most important economy for this rare breed of vintner is the economy of reputation.

We continued our tour through an arched passageway and were soon in the vintner’s back gardens, on a bright and sunny terrace along Montefollonico’s ancient fortress wall. Surrounded by fruit trees and flowering beds, he began to pour samples for us. All around me, the faces of my fellow travelers lit up with wonder at pleasing bouquets and oaky complexities. Of course, the glorious setting added to our inspiration. Perched here high above a blanket of vineyards, many of which belonged to our host, it felt like all of Italy was stretched out before us, all the way to the Appennines.

So you see, for my friend Vittorio, the philosophy of wine is the philosophy of simplicity and tradition, and it was all right there in front of me. It was in the gracious man who dreamed an ideal life for himself and gave up the trappings of academia to create was on the happy faces of his guests, each of whom felt as if they were touching a true slice of Tuscany (and they were) was in the ancient stone walls of the cellar that led us to that garden. But mostly, the philosophy of wine was concentrated in my glass, and in the ruby red elixir within.

Find your own philosophy on one of our new cycling tours. Choose Tuscany, Rioja, or Burgundy.

Click here to take a virtual tour of Washington, D.C's own Franciscan Monastery.

Click here to learn more about wine closer to home, at a competition in Vermont.