As the year and the decade — a tumultuous one! — come to a close, it’s only natural that we let a little bit a nostalgia creep into our lives.
Just as it we do every year, we look inward and backward at the stories that delivered us to this point in our lives. After attending my niece’s graduation from college last week, my mind and memory drifted back to my college years. And in particular, to my first year living in Italy, my “junior year abroad” at the University of Padua, which was part of an exchange program with the University of California Los Los Angeles, otherwise known as U.C.L.A., my alma mater.
Growing up in California, it was only natural that I would have had at least some experience with wine. California was one of the few states that had genuine “wine culture.” And even though I grew up in San Diego, where beer and spirits are to this day much more popular than fine wine, I loved and drank wine regularly — even though I knew or understood little about it.
Some of my strongest memories from that first year living in Italy are of meals that I shared in the homes of my friends, mostly fellow students. On the weekends, they would invite me to Sunday lunch with their parents who were always welcoming and eager to help support a 19-year-old college student who found himself far from home.
It was at one of the Sunday lunches that I first tasted a Barbera d’Asti. I can remember it so well! It was served as pairing for a pasticcio di radicchio trevigiano, an oven-fired dish made of sautéed, tender radicchio trevigiano layered with pasta sheets, béchamel, and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. It was delicious, as was the pairing, bright and lively in the glass, with fresh red and berry fruit flavors.
Over the course of that first year in Italy — the country that would become my second home and the source of my livelihood — I drank a lot of Barbera d’Asti. So many of my friends’ families regularly served Barbera d’Asti as their house wine. Even though I spent that first year mostly in the Veneto region (aside from the occasional trip to Florence and Rome), I probably drank more Barbera d’Asti than any other red wine (aside from the swill we used to make sangria at dorm parties).
I learned then that Barbera d’Asti was and is one of Italy’s quintessential “gastronomic” (food friendly) wines, as the kids say today.
Today, I know a lot more about Barbera d’Asti and wine in general. Back then, I was just a kid trying to understand the world around me and soaking it all in — food, wine, and culture. That meal is one of my most cherished memories. It really is.
And just like the friend whose family hosted me on a cold winter’s day in 1987, her name was Barbera, too…