Friday, October 13, 2006

Day 4 - Men of Culture

Perugia is hopping. Today is Thursday and in two days the annual Eurocholate, Italy’s largest, perhaps only, chocolate festival begins. The old town’s main street, the Corso Vannucci, is filled with piles of materials that will be transformed into a dozens of white tents, erected by numerous Italian chocolate manufacturers and retailers, and filled with cases of chocolates to be sold and, in some cases, given to the tens of thousands of acne-ravaged chocoholics that come from all over Italy and western Europe to accelerate their own tooth decay. Suzy and I quite by accident were in Perugia for a Eurochocolate several years ago, and although we had a wonderful time, I can honestly say that I’m thrilled to be leaving Perugia on Friday, before the caffeine-crazed hordes clog every medieval and renaissance street and passageway.

Besides, my imagination is fixed firmly on this morning’s program (as the Italians like to call your day’s itinerary). We are going on a journey to Montefalco, a town in the mountains about a half hour to the south and east of Perugia, with Javier and our good friend Giuseppe Fioroni to meet Arnaldo Caprai, the patriarch of the Arnaldo Caprai empire.

Today’s plan grew unexpectedly from a casual question I had posed to Javier a few days earlier when he had inquired about our program in Umbria. I mentioned to him that I would like to visit the Caprai vineyard in Montefalco if possible, to taste some of their wines, particularly the Sagrantino di Montefalco, Umbria’s most renowned wine and the one that has really put the area on the wine map. I was familiar with Caprai only because it is available in the U.S., and thought it would be fun to taste some wines from around Montefalco, whether at the Caprai vineyard or somewhere else in or around the region.

Upon hearing this, Javier immediately phoned Maestro Fioroni, a long time friend and mentor of Javier’s, who Javier suspected might know Sig. Caprai. Within a few minutes Maestro Fioroni called back to say that the four of us were going to Montefalco on Thursday to meet Sig. Caprai and to visit the vineyard. Mussolini may have got the trains to run on time, but he had nothing on Maestro Fioroni.

I refer to Giuseppe Fioroni as "maestro" because he is a renowned man of arts in Perugia and more broadly in Umbria. His work has been exhibited throughout Europe and he has won awards in Italy and abroad. Last September, Bella Italia hosted an exhibition of his work at our store in Bethesda, Maryland and over 150 people attended a reception in his honor at the Italian Cultural Institute in Washington, DC. Such accomplishments merit the title "master." But in addition to being a great self-taught painter, Maestro Fioroni has built a major grocery store consortium throughout Italy, making him a well connected and important businessman as well. It is both as businessman and artist that the Maestro developed a relationship with another of the region’s important business and cultural leaders, Signore Arnaldo Caprai.

We find the Maestro waiting for us at his offices outside Perugia, looking like a jolly Santa Clause, his flowing white beard and red suspenders unable to draw attention away from a sensitive countenance with gleaming eyes. We have not seen each other since he hosted a dinner for Suzy and me in Perugia in February, but it feels as though it was just yesterday. After exchanging greetings, the four of us climb into his SUV and we head toward Montefalco.

Or so I think. As it turns out, this is not just a wine tasting excursion. For although I am familiar with the Arnaldo Caprai name only from seeing it on the front of a wine bottle, the Caprai family, it seems, is actually engaged in many other businesses, all of them set around the valley near Montefalco. So we set off for the D.O.C. (Denominzatione d’Origine Caprai), an outlet store and factory in nearby Foligno to meet Sig. Caprai.

We pass by a number of beautiful hilltop towns, including Trevi, where Bella Italia’s Torre Mattige olive oil is produced, memories of previous visits to this area flooding back. Finally we pull into the parking lot of D.O.C., a non-descript looking building from the outside, and wander around until we find the main reception area. A receptionist seems unimpressed by our arrival and announces us, but when Arnaldo Caprai appears, he is most gracious in acknowledging us, particularly his old friend Giuseppe Fioroni whom, it seems, he has know for hundreds of years. Sig. Caprai is smartly dressed in a blue blazer, gray slacks and an open neck dress shirt, all of the finest quality. He exudes an aura of Italian chic without overdoing it. He is clearly the capo of the Caprai family.

Then begins an hour-long tour and education about some of the finer things in life, including Caprai’s trademark merletti¸ top quality lace made from cashmere, silk and other fine materials, silk and cashmere bedsheets and other fine fabrics. Sig. Caprai shows us the production facilities, machines that spin thread and that weave thousand foot long strands of cashmere into sheets or silk and gold threads into tablecloths and bedspreads. Other machines stitch delicate filigree patterns of lace on nearly transparent backgrounds that are later removed leaving a delicate and intricate merletti for which Caprai is rightly famous. We squeeze our way through rows of clanking mechanized looms that stitch and weave under the control of complex computer programs. But when asked, Sig. Caprai replies dryly that it is not the antiquated machinery that accounts for the elegant output, it is use of the finest inputs – expensive silks and luxurious cashmeres, and the relentless pursuit of the most distinguished and beautiful patterns, gleaned from historic research, that, when instructed by modern software causes these archaic looms to produce these luxurious fabrics.

To stress this point, Sig. Caprai takes us into several rooms, including one resembling a bank vault, complete with a foot thick door, comprising the most important private library of fine fashion in the world. Included are hundreds of samples of lace from the sixteenth and seventeenth century and beyond and an extensive private library of the history of merletti and other fine fashions, original volumes of which stretch back hundreds of years. The tour continues with rooms filled with ancient sewing machines, irons and boxes of thimbles dating to the time of Caesar.

When we return to the D.O.C. shop, an outlet store containing discontinued patterns and slightly imperfect samples (still well above my price range), Sig. Caprai makes an interesting comment. Neither he nor his company is interested in selling products. Rather, he says, he sells culture. The difference is that the customer should not just end up with an object, but an appreciation for that object and everything that came before it and on which it is based. While this may perhaps sound pretentious, it is clear that this man has devoted his professional career to developing and selling culture.

As we arrive at the Caprai vineyard, the place exudes this culture of which Sig. Caprai spoke. The main building, housing the cantina as well as the production facilities is beautifully designed and decorated. The vineyards stretching in all directions as far as the eye can see are neat and tidy. We walk under a blazing sun and clear skies as freshly picked bunches of grapes are unloaded from trucks that have brought them to the machinery for cleaning, separating and crushing. Sig. Caprai takes us on a complete tour of the facilities, describing every step of the process, leading us, finally, into the cantina where hundreds of bottles of all of Arnaldo Caprai’s offerings are displayed and where we are treated to a new I.G.T. offering. In the aftermath of the tasting Sig. Caprai offers to host groups we bring over from the U.S. for wine tasting and other cultural courses and hands me his card. Under his name is the term cavaliere, literally a knight or horseman, but more commonly used as a designation of a board chairman in Italy. It is clear that this man is indeed a cavaliere.

We depart the Caprai vineyard and drive to the nearby town of Bevagna, a tiny walled town that Maestro Fioroni claims has the most beautiful piazza in all of Italy. We park outside the walls, walk around a picturesque pond with waterfalls that power a grist mill and enter what is indeed a most perfect piazza, flanked with several perfectly preserved medieval churches and civic buildings. In the hot afternoon sun the clean, white stone buildings and stone square glimmer. We enjoy a little repose in the square before heading into a local trattoria, the Ottavius Ristorante (via Gonfalone, 1, 06031 Bevagna (PG), tel. 339.225.33.57), where we enjoy a remarkable steak and grilled porcini mushrooms that literally explode with flavor in the mouth. The Maestro is excited to offer us a Sagrantino di Montefalco and the velvety rich wine is indeed memorable and a perfect accompaniment to the meal. We emerge from the restaurant feeling cultured and satisfied but a feeling of shock and horror invades as I look in the sky and see the first cloud of the trip. Alas, perfection can not last forever.

* * * *

How strange is it to be strolling down a street in a foreign city and hear your name called out? Strange indeed. But later that day as I am walking in Perugia before dinner I hear my name called out repeatedly. Looking around I spot Michele Fioroni, the Maestro’s son whom I had met when he accompanied his father to Washington last year. He is taking a walk with his three year old son, Rodolfo, and their au pair. I round up Jeff and we wander up the Corso Vannucci with Michele and company, stopping at one caffe for a beer, being taken to "the most beautiful spot in Perugia," being shown a church with an important work of Raffael and finally being invited into his home for "a good Italian coffee." It's nice to be recognized in a foreign town!

* * * *

A maestro and a cavaliere. Strange sounding titles to Americans. But these are men of culture, men who have spent their lives creating, enhancing and sharing things of beauty, who passionately love and value their cultural heritage. But it is not just this older generation that impresses. The younger Javier and Michele, so willing to share their time and the pride they feel for who they are and where they are is as great a gift as one can give to a stranger or acquaintance. Being able to spend some time in the company of these men and men of culture like them is, and continues to be, an honor. It is one of the things that keeps me coming back to Italy.

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