Wine is one of those things. Like beer and pizza on a lazy Friday night or The Bachelor host Chris Harrison’s voice blaring through a sorority house TV room, wine brings people together. Brings my people together. This love affair started in spring 2015, when I spent four months studying abroad in northern Italy—the DOC certified wine region.
Yes, I am one of those forever-changed-by-my-study-abroad-experience people who seizes every opportunity to talk about traveling. I occasionally sound like a jerk, but there is no low-key way to say, “the time I walked across a castle bridge to get to school for a semester was amazing.” Hyperbole aside: The experience changed my life and, invariably, I always reminisce about it whenever I sit down with friends and family to drink a glass (or a bottle) of wine.
Each bottle means something different to me. Each label a different memory. I often think about the very first glass I had in Verona, the city where I studied.
That day, my parents and I had just arrived at our hotel after touring Rome and Florence earlier in the week. Our legs were aching, our brains battling the time change, and nervous excitement was building as we waited for my Italian host family to meet us for the first time. A glass of the regional Valpolicella red wine (recommend by an enthusiastic hotel bartender) took the edge off.
The bartender pointed with pride to a light blue DOC certification visible around the top of the mini bottles we held. She didn’t have the English words to explain what it meant, but her wide-eyed smile was enough to signal the sticker’s importance. I learned later that a DOC quality assurance certification is the second most difficult to achieve in Italy, meaning the vineyard followed very strict grape, aging, and alcohol content regulations.
For the rest of my time in Europe, I dove into wine culture. I needed to know where each and every bottle I drank was made and what specific fruits were used. I wanted to know why certain years tasted better than others, and, most important, how the hell to safely bring bottles back to America. (No bottles were harmed in the transportation of my foreign-purchased wine, thanks to four tighter-than-tightly packed suitcases and rubber rainboots that served as buffers.)
Looking back, I see now that for me it was the start of appreciating, as they say in Italian, “Il dolce far niente,” meaning the sweetness of doing nothing, relaxing, enjoying each moment. It sounds easy, but for an American with sights set on the rush of a big city, it took some getting used to.
When I think about those four months, the memories come back to me through the bottles we drank. I remember the 1 Euro reds we enjoyed while sitting by the Adige River at sunset (one of the most beautiful views I’d ever seen) to plot our upcoming adventures. I remember the sweet white table wine we had during a seafood dinner in a small nearby town that introduced me to escargot. I think of the hidden Veronese Osteria that looked more like Olivander’s wand shop with wines lining the walls floor to ceiling. It was the spot my Italian host brother and his friends took me to before nights out on the town. I remember the potent Sicilian red gifted to my father in Florence when we made friends with restaurateurs alongside the famous 18kt gold retail bridge, Ponte Vecchio.
Growing up in a large Italian family, wine was always around—but I didn't give it much thought. After learning how bottles were made in Italy, visiting vineyards, and falling for varieties that accompanied my favorite meals and moments, I was in deep. There was no breaking my love for wine. I even went so far as to email my uncle, a wine distributor in the U.S., to ask how to best get into the business. (He walked me through the process, and though my original career path has since taken off, I still consider distributing a compelling backup option.)
The D.O.C. certified bottles I brought back to the states are now reserved for special occasions. My favorite Amarone (made in the same Venetian region and lauded as one of Italy’s greatest reds) for graduation, a bottle of Valpolicella for landing a new job (holla, InStyle), another Amarone saved for my wedding some day.
Wine continues to serve as a bookmark for some of my memorable moments. Now, when I see rosé, I remember Valentine’s Day senior year in college that I spent hosting a Galentine’s Day party for my best girlfriends. It was one of the last times we were all together before it would take trains, planes, and buses to get to see one another. When I see Sauvignon Blanc, I’m reminded of the way my friends showed up to comfort me with wine and sweets while I dealt with my first bad breakup. When I see red blends, I think of the brand that’s so dark it stains your lips for hours; it’s an easy-to-drink red that’s helped me convert even my most wine-opposed friends to try and love a taste.
I still have that very first mini bottle from Verona. I hold out hope that one day I will craft it into a chic bedside lamp or convert it into a treasured flowerpot. But the half-bottle will likely remain on my windowsill forever–a reminder of how far I’ve come, and a promise to live life with as much zeal and curiosity as I did during my four months in Italy.