Destination: Italy : Crush on the Piedmont : Regal red wines, gracious growers are the toast of this lush region

Broom is a metropolitan reporter at the Seattle Times.

In her 86 years, Carolina Ferrero hadn't met many Americans, and she was determined not to let a little thing like a language barrier stop her from getting her point across to this one.

"Say-SAHN-ta CHEEN-kway," she enunciated, nodding as I wrote "65" on a scrap of paper.

ARBARESCO, Italy--In her 86 years, Carolina Ferrero hadn't met many Americans, and she was determined not to let a little thing like a language barrier stop her from getting her point across to this one.

"Say-SAHN-ta CHEEN-kway," she enunciated, nodding as I wrote "65" on a scrap of paper.

" Anni ," she continued, and now I nodded, since the term for "years" was one of the two dozen Italian words I knew.

Then, squeezing her husband's hand and smiling into his eyes, she completed the thought: " Matrimonio . "

Thus did I learn that Carolina and Domenico Ferrero, in this small but elegant brick home amid steep vineyards, near the village of Barbaresco, had together weathered the chill of 65 winters, the heat of 65 summers, the hard work, demands and uncertainties of 65 harvests.

My wife and I had come halfway around the world to meet people like the Ferreros, to see these knobby green hills in northwestern Italy and the vineyards that sweep across them. For here in the Piedmont region, nestled against the Alps, are born some of Italy's boldest red wines, Barolo and Barbaresco.

It had been a year of planning and saving since the night Judy and I sat at an Italian restaurant back home in Seattle, lingering over a deep, rich Barolo and wondering what it would be like to see the countryside and people who produced it.

It wasn't the first grand notion that ever came to us over a glass of wine. Most schemes so inspired had disappeared the next morning in a flurry of workaday concerns and economic realities.

This was different.

True, Europe seemed as far away as the moon, and true, we spoke no Italian. But I remembered that 23 years earlier, when two friends and I made a whirlwind tour of Western Europe with our student Eurail passes and youth-hostel sheet sacks, Italy stood out as particularly warm and welcoming.

I saw that warmth again in the faces of Carolina and Domenico as they walked in the midmorning sunshine in their tidy garden, patiently following my gestures as I sought the right light and setting for a snapshot. With each pose, Carolina offered a comment that sent me to my Italian-English dictionary. With pride and patience, she recited the names and ages of her grandchildren.

Half an hour earlier, with a friend as interpreter, Domenico, 93, had told of his eight decades in the vineyards.

He remembered rains so intense, the clay-rich slopes became seas of mud; snows so deep, paths had to be cleared for the oxen; hail so fierce that a friend, grazing goats on a hill, was killed by the fist-size balls.

In Piedmont, which reaches west and north to touch France and Switzerland, wine grapes have been grown since the 1200s.

But Domenico said that only in the last few decades, as Italian wines rose in global popularity, has he been able to make a living growing only grapes. For most of his life, this has been a farm producing corn, wheat and cattle, as well as Nebbiolo grapes for Barbaresco.

During our visit with the Ferreros, the interpreter was Aldo Vacca of the local wine cooperative Produttori del Barbaresco. In the shadow of an ancient stone tower, the cooperative's winery transforms grapes grown by the Ferreros and 60 other families into wines shipped all over the world.

Vacca, 36, was a key to our exploration of the Piedmont. While our trip was still in the "maybe" stage, we'd met him at a dinner at Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, a suburb of Seattle, where he showed off the Produttori's recent vintages.

If we went to Italy, we asked, would winemakers take time to talk with us?

Do they enjoy having visitors?

Would he point us in the right direction?

Yes, yes and yes, were the answers that turned a possibility into a red circle on our calendar.

*

It was in Tuscany, another important wine region to the south of Piedmont, that our exploration got off to a shaky, yet delightful, start.

As we headed north from the medieval hill town of Siena, vineyards surrounded us. It looked as if any road would lead to a winery, so when I pulled off the highway to let another car pass, I decided to follow a narrower road up a vine-covered hillside.

As the road turned from pavement to dirt and wove through patches of trees, we (Judy) began to doubt our (my) decision. But a clearing with three small buildings and a grape-cluster sign prompted us to park and walk around.

Peering through an open door, I saw two women dressing a small child--not a wine bottle in sight. We had seen wine-tasting rooms in the Napa Valley; this wasn't what they looked like.

One of the women asked us something in Italian, which got Judy fumbling through the phrase book and me grinning mutely until I recalled a line I had memorized, " Mi dispiace , non parlo l'italiano ." (I'm sorry, I don't speak Italian.)

"Should we just go?" I asked Judy. We were leaning in that direction when the woman's one-word question bridged the language gap:

" Vino ?"

" Si , vino !" we answered in perfect Italian.

We followed her across a small yard and into a stone out-building where cases of wine sat on floor-to-ceiling shelves. Pulling out a bottle of Chianti and uncorking it, she poured us a glass and chatted with her companion as Judy and I tasted.

" Bene ," we said as we sipped, and then I, suddenly feeling chatty, reached into the depths of my Italian as I gestured toward the boy and asked, " Quanti anni ?"

" Venti mesi (20 months)," she answered.

Now it was Judy's turn to chat, and she found an Italian phrase for "Did you make this?" to which the women responded affirmatively, but pointed toward a winery still some distance away.

Though the wine was not blockbuster, it was pleasant and smooth. Buoyed by our success and the elaborate conversation, we bought two bottles at 6,000 lire (about $4) apiece and thanked our hostesses, wondering if we'd be their dinner-table conversation that night, as they would be ours.

From Tuscany, we continued north to our main destination.

The high clouds and light fog that greeted us as we entered Piedmont were no surprise: The region's Nebbiolo grape takes its name from nebbia (fog), which filters the sunlight, allowing the fruit to ripen slowly, gaining strength and character.

As we stopped to take a photo in one vineyard, a man approached. He spoke no English, but his face lit up at the news that we were Americans. The inscription "Rio Bravo, Texas" circled the face of his watch, a gift from a relative in the United States.

With gestures, he offered us a taste of the grapes. These were not Nebbiolo, but Barbera--large, juicy and deep purple--which makes one of the region's everyday wines.

At the village of Barbaresco, we found Aldo Vacca where he told us he likely would be: at the winery, even on Sunday afternoon. Truckloads of grapes arrived at the scales accompanied by a halo of hungry bees.

The strong scent of crushed grapes wafted across the small brick square. As each batch was crushed, hoses carried the juice to stainless steel tanks in the cellar, and Vacca poured a sample of the bright red juice into a machine that measured its sugar content. The growers' payment is based on sugar content, critical to fermentation.

Barbaresco and the region's other major red wine, Barolo, are both made from the Nebbiolo grape. The difference comes from the soil and climate variation between the two wine zones that flank Alba, a town known as much for its wines as for its truffles and National Truffle Fair (which begins today and ends Oct. 23).

Barbaresco is usually a somewhat more mellow wine than Barolo, where thick-skinned grapes produce a more hearty, intense wine.

Oddly, though the area's reputation rests on those two wines, neither is the everyday drink of locals. Barbera and Dolcetto, softer on the palate and needing less aging, are the wines usually consumed here.

When winemaker Giuseppe Rinaldi handed us a cluster of grapes to sample in his Barolo-area vineyard, we got a sense of how intense a Nebbiolo is.

In contrast to the large, juicy Barbera grapes we'd munched a few days earlier, the Nebbiolo were smaller than marbles--tough, tight and stingy with tart liquid.

Tranquil-looking hillsides may not show it, but there's a revolution going on here, one being played out in much of the winemaking world.

In simple terms, it's a clash between vintners who produce red wines in "classic" style--austere, complex and tannic, taking years to develop--and those who produce a beverage approachable sooner, with more obvious fruit flavor.

In Barolo, we met a strict traditionalist: gracious, grandfatherly Aldo Conterno, who first lamented how busy he was, then spent two hours showing us around, speaking to us in English.

His allegiance to the classic style puts him at odds with his sons, who experiment with batches of their own red wine in the cellar. Conterno nearly winced as he walked us by his sons' new French oak barrels, which add a subtle toasty flavor to the wine.

In a parlor, Conterno, 63, poured us his latest Barolo and Dolcetto, free for the tasting but impossible to buy because his wines sell out quickly. (Back home they fetch up to $50 or more a bottle.)

"I'll tell you this," Conterno said, looking over the top of his glasses. "We say, 'We do this' and 'We do that,' but 80% of the goodness comes not from our methods but from what we are given: the grapes, the sun, the weather, the land."

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GUIDEBOOK

Finding Vines

Getting there: From LAX fly nonstop to Milan on Alitalia; or connect through various U.S. and European cities on American, Delta, Swissair, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Iberia, Continental, TWA and British Air. Lowest advance-purchase, round-trip fares begin at $1,025.

Where to stay: We stayed at a family-run B&B; on the outskirts of Alba called Cascina Reine. The woman who runs it is Giuliana Giacosa (she speaks very little English). We paid $70 a night for an elegantly furnished second-floor apartment with a small kitchen and a deck. From the U.S., telephone 011-39-173-44-0112.

When to go: Fall and spring are the best times to visit Piedmont. Summer is steamy and hot, winter cold and wet.

Customs: One liter of alcohol per returning U.S. resident is all that is allowed free of duty, but more wine can be either hand-carried or shipped back to the United States (mailing is not allowed). The tax assessed will depend upon the amount, type of wine and alcohol content. For more information, call the U.S. Customs Service (310) 215-2414..

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles, CA 90025; tel. (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357.

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