Renewing a friendship at Saio Winery in Assisi

When Pall took me as his guest and credentialed “personal photographer” to VinItaly in April, 2011, we visited the pavilion of Umbrian winemakers more than once, seeing and speaking with Mark Stafford, the British “Umbria Wine Tours” guide each time, and sampling a few more wines from productions near Spello, from the region of Umbria (like a “state” of Italy—Tuscany, Umbria, Puglia, Lazio, etc.—there are 20 regions—“regioni”). As our day was winding down, we spotted the Saio Winery display and tasting area, and introduced ourselves to the father and daughter who run the wine production. Pall began tasting their wines, and made a comment that shocked the winemaker: Pall said that one of the wines had an aftertaste like mortadella, a specialty processed meat from the area near Bologna, and tasting just like our bologna (although mortadella has specks of white fat and green pistachios included, and is sometimes up to 12 inches in diameter).

The winemaker rushed to grab a glass, and reluctantly agreed with Pall after he tasted the same wine. We started up a lively conversation with both father and daughter, and Pall gifted them with the last big Swiss chocolate bar in his backpack—which delighted both of them. I did not know that later Pall would buy 800 bottles of one of their wines for his co-op in Switzerland—not a stunning wine, but a very low price for a reasonably good one—their white Grechetto varietal wine. This was not just a “social visit,” but a visit to one of his suppliers for the co-op in Switzerland.

The winery tasting room, near the Assisi basilica

With the mobility of the car, Pall was eager to build the relationship with the family, and wanted to see if we could find them in the tasting room, which he had visited once before by car. He found the winery right away, from memory, but there was no one there. He called the number on the door, and the daughter replied that she would be there shortly to let us in, and pour wines for us to sample. Meanwhile, we wandered through the surrounding vineyards while we waited for her, where none of the grapes had been harvested and were falling rotten to the ground. (When we were able to ask her later, we were told that the first five years of production from new vines are not harvested, until the vines can produce bigger bunches with more sugar, and more of the specific desirable varietal grape qualities. Tasting one grape from the wilting bunches, Pall could tell the grape variety was cabernet franc—and he was correct. Amazing to me, that palate of his!)

Two bunches of cabernet franc, left on the vine unharvested until the sixth year

In no time, the daughter drove up to greet us and let us in, and quickly disappeared to prepare some crostini with olive oil, and some sliced salami to consume as we tasted the Saio wines. Then, with the glasses all set up for each of us, we tasted the entire line, while Pall made comments and took notes, as usual. We purchased several bottles from the tasting room, and were then were invited to follow the daughter to the vineyard, located between the Assisi basilica of St. Francis up on Mount Subasio above, and the huge basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in the valley below—a very beautiful location for both their vineyards and their family home.

Some of the bright red vines, with Santa Maria degli Angeli basilica in the background

Above the vineyards, the basilica of St. Francis of Assisi atop Mt. Subasio--and the many arches that inspired their label

The vines were turning color, with many of the leaves already a brilliant red—part of the stock of varietals for blending some of their wines. Pall and the daughter spoke extensively about the cultivation of their vineyards, and she took him over to see some specific vines, so that she could point out their pruning methods to him. In addition, she told us that they prune using a rechargeable electric shear, with enough power to cut off a finger right through the bone. As she pointed out to us, if they had to prune all of the vines without the help of this tool, many of the workers would be crippled by the immense job of cutting through mature vines all day for several weeks each winter.

Pall getting some private instruction on the cultivation methods used at Saio

We also learned the meaning of the winery’s name, “Saio.” I had assumed it was the family name, but a “saio” is the simple brown habit of the monks of St. Francis, tied around the waist with a rope. Their label features the many arches of the basilica in Assisi, which seems to float over their vines, and we were treated as special guests by the daughter—a tour of the vineyards, a glimpse of the family home, and an open tasting room just for us.

Pall sharing one of his photos with 0ur friendly hostess, in the tasting room

Birgit and Pall prepared to sample the wines, in the tasting room

A quick pose for this perpetual photographer, with Birgit and Pall

I’m a big fan of the Saio sangiovese wine, and regret that I only bought a few bottles when I was there and had a car to do the transport of heavy bottles back to Spello for me (way too far away for me to walk to the tasting room, I assure you). Pall introduced Birgit to their wines, he and I got to see the daughter once again and have her host us and teach us more about their production methods, and we left with some good wines for our own pleasure from the Saio label, as well as a renewed acquaintance with the daughter.

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