Vino sfuso: Buy it in bulk, enjoy like the Italians

Neighbors come weekly to the Toffoli winery near Refrontolo, Italy to fill their demijohns with bulk wine to enjoy later at home. The tradition slowly is disappearing as younger Italians drink less wine.

On an afternoon in late February 2009, Sante Toffoli beckoned me out to his winery located on a spring-verdant hill near Refrontolo, Italy.

In an airy, three-sided shed offering protection from the spring drizzle, near a stainless steel tank holding the newest vintage, a handful of local men were filling demijohns with wine.

Using a hose and nozzle like something you’d see at a gas station, the men steadily filled the lineup of wicker-wrapped, flat-bottomed glass demis, each holding 5 gallons of what some simply refer to as the red wine of Conegliano, a blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and marzemino.

“It’s for their home use,” said Sante, general manager and official translator for his family winery in this hilly region of northeast Italy better known for its production of the elegant sparkling wine, Prosecco.

We were continuing a conversation that began almost six months earlier during a meeting in New York City where we talked about the changes in Italian wine consumption.

“It’s less and less they drink vino sfuso,” said Sante at that time, referring to the old Italian tradition of buying bulk wines at the winery and lugging the demijohn home to fill bottles for day-to-day consumption.

“Today, those who still drink wine buy it by the bottle, just like you Americans,” he said, with a tinge of sadness in his voice.

This is the stuff we all read and dreamt about years ago when we thought about Italian wine. It is the lore of generations of Italians growing up on wine sold right out of the tank, later to appear on family tables or on the tables of trattorias everywhere.

They call it “vino della casa” or “vino la tavola,” and we know it as house or table wine, the inexpensive stuff you purchase by the carafe that goes well with whatever the local cuisine might be.

It’s the ultimate in locavore eating and drinking.

Some people will tell you that vino sfuso isn’t very good because it’s in bulk and molto economico, so cheap (maybe 1 or 2 euros a liter) and often made with inferior grapes.

And in some cases that might be correct.

But not always.

“We take a great pride in our wines, and this is no different,” affirmed Sante, cheerfully bantering (in Italian, so I missed most of it) with the handful of neighborhood men, standing around the fattoria (farmhouse but often meant as a place to make wine), waiting their turn at the (vino) gas pump.

“Oh, I’ve known them my whole life,” he said, and he yelled out, “Un gornalista delle stati uniti,” and all the men looked closer.

“So, how’s Obama doing?” one asked in faultless English. “I hope he’s better than that (scoundrel) (Italian prime minister Silvio) Berlusconi.”

And all the men laughed.

They seemed to be doing a lot of that.

Vino sfuso isn’t expensive because it’s made that way. Inexpensively, that is.

“We don’t use barriques, and we sell it young so there’s less cost that way,” Sante explained. “It’s a simple wine, made to be drunk now and not aged. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good.”

In fact, vino sfuso can be very good.

Of course, there’s something to be said for sitting in a small trattoria in the Italian countryside, drinking in the view and the culture while sipping a locally made wine accompanying the local cuisine.

It’s possible that most vino sfusos don’t travel well, meaning they lose likely their great appeal when they are removed from their home territory.

I think you’ll miss much of the delight if you tried to pair a vino sfuso from the Trentino region in northeast Italy to the local cuisine in Tuscany or Sicily, where they have their own style of vino sfusos.

The website for the Florence enoteca diVino Sfuso (which is loosely translated as Divine Loose since sfuzo means bulk as in bulk wine) boasts of 18 types of vino sfuso, from reds to whites, ros&233;s and dessert-style wines.

“You can bring your bottles, flasks, carboys, or you can purchase them from us and together we will choose the best wine for you,” promises the website

It’s curious how Americans visiting Italy will flock to these places and there’s no end to the “I was there” blogs boasting of enjoying vino sfuso fresh from the gas pump.

But it’s anyone’s guess if these same Americans would dare even to sniff something coming from a hose at a U.S. winery.

In Italy, though, it’s quite appealing. Maybe its the allure of being so daring as to drink something that bears no label, no vintage date, no Surgeon General’s warnings.

Or perhaps, as one man said, pointing the nozzle at a visiting American reporter, it’s the simple fact that “you Americans worry too much.”

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