Driving north from Venice, Italy, you leave the relatively flat planes of the Adriatic coast and enter the mountainous region of the Italian Pre-Alps. As the mountains loom closer, an abundance of healthy grape vines, precariously gripping steep terraces, come into focus. Inaccessible by grape picking machinery these grapes are hand picked by teams of workers to produce the only DOCG Proseccos on the planet (DOCG Prosecco can only come from a small region between the towns of Valdobbiadene or Conegliano). At 247 meters above sea level the fresh air tempers the bright sun producing ideal conditions for Glera, the Prosecco grape, and other indigenous varieties of the region. Entering the town of Valdobbiadene it is clear that not one inch of dirt has been spared the vine.
We are on our way to Ca' Salina (Ca meaning "Casa" or "house"), a prominent winery and B&B. A local farmer crossing the road with a donkey on a leash directs us to a narrow road winding its way to the peak of a mountain that skirts this town. As we climb towards Ca’ Salina mirrors along the road warn us of impending cars or caravans of livestock and an ancient monastery looks down upon us. We are delighted by remarkable views of the valley below, our bird’s eye view highlighting grape vines and the majesty of the area. The “vendemmia” or harvest must be quite challenging here since machinery cannot navigate the steep slopes. Instead grapes are handpicked by laborers, ensuring that only the best grapes end up in the bottle!
Ca’ Salina (http://www.casalinaprosecco.it/) was founded by Ricardo Bortolin in the 1950s. It is currently run by his son Gregorio and a third generation of family members. Gregorio says that he is the "PR person" leaving operations to his children, but it was his vision that brought winery operations in-house and that transformed a small local winery into a world-class establishment with a sprawling tasting room, bedrooms for guests, and an outdoor tasting “temple” with glorious views of the valley that is a monument to the success and status of Prosecco. Its motto, Gaudium Hospitis, the Joy of the Guest, says it all. “We produce great wines,” Gregorio says, smoothly shifting from English to German to Italian, as the mood requires, “but that is not what is making us rich. No, it is the popularity of Prosecco which has taken the world by storm, that has made us rich!” Gregorio speaks four languages and charmingly uses words from whichever language best suits him at the time. He will gladly revel you with stories from the region, such as how the hotel heiress Paris Hilton inadvertently saved Prosecco from becoming a marginalized product.
“Indeed we need to thank the famous Paris Hilton for the protection that Prosecco now enjoys as both DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata Guarantita) wines,” says Gregorio. Some years ago Paris Hilton was hired to represent a Prosecco that was sold in a can. This shocked the local wineries and woke them to the need to protect the name and pedigree of Prosecco. They did not want their carefully matured product to end up as a commoditized alcoholic soda in a can! They rallied to protect it thus generating the DOC and DOCG designations.
Ca' Salina's tasting temple overlooks the Valdobbiadene valley and provides remarkable views from which to enjoy some Prosecco or other fine wines. See http://www.casalinaprosecco.it
Traveling south and east from Valdobbiadene, passing Conegliano, we ventured out of the DOCG designated area for Prosecco to Mansuè, a town still within the DOC designated area for Prosecco housing the luxurious hotel Villa Almé (http://www.villaalme.it/). With its four season veranda, bar and common dining room, it is a definitive escape for tourists and Venetians alike. Surrounded by medieval villages that are themselves works of art, if not inhabiting them, Villa Almé can be an excellent repose from the crowds of Venice which is but one and a half hours away by car. Giuseppe di Vizzotto, impassioned owner of Villa Almé, is a world traveler and entrepreneur, but it is here, in the vineyards of Villa Almé that he rests his feet and enjoys good conversation and food with his oenologist (Renato De Nani), family, and friends. In fact, he is expanding Villa Almé to be able to accommodate additional visitors with excellent accommodations including a Jacuzzi and pool.
But first and foremost Villa Almé is a winery, producing an excellent Prosecco (I Gai Prosecco Treviso DOC) and a unique and excellently crafted Raboso Piave (el Rásego Raboso Piave DOC), an indigenous varietal. Concentrating on their relatively small production of 300,000 cases, Giuseppe and Renato focus on crafting the best possible Raboso despite the fact that Raboso Piave has a reputation for being difficult to tame. Villa Almé also produces a Manzoni Bianco (el Casteir Manzoni Bianco) and a pink Petal Rosa Manzoni Moscato Spumante Extra Dry which rivals any Prosecco. Manzoni was produced by professor Luigi Manzoni during the thirties in cloning experiments to improve grapevines by crossbreeding. The result, a cross between Riesling Renano and Pinot Bianco is a delicate and refined grape that produces a full-bodied and balanced wine.
The wines from these two excellent wineries, as well as other wines from the Veneto region are being exclusively marketed by importer and distributor Progetto Veneto, a partnership between Philip Schiavoni and Lucia Sardi. Lucia was raised in Conegliano, one of the two Prosecco DOCG areas, while Philip's family originated from Venice. Lucia brings with her the many contacts and multi-generational contacts necessary to do business in Italy as well as a sound background in business and law, while Philip, an engineer by training and a business consultant, brings the entrepreneurial and negotiating skills needed to do business in the U.S. The venture essentially started when a cantina in Conegliano begged Lucia to find a way to market his wines in the U.S. Philip was a student of Lucia's, learning Italian at the time in Connecticut, and the rest, as they say, is history.
"We intend to expand our portfolio carefully," says Lucia, "because we want to ensure that we can meet quality expectations." Their distinguishing characteristic as distributors is that they make it possible for small boutique wineries to find a market in the U.S. where larger distributors would not even touch them. They currently distribute only in the state of Connecticut but can sell directly to consumers in many states through their retail partner. They may be reached at ProgettoVeneto.com.