By Susana Leonardi
My high school biology teacher, Sister Mary Justine (or maybe it was Sister Mary Martine — I confuse them) made the class spell aloud, in unison, the name of our current unit: S-E-X. I have no idea why shouting the letters was somehow more acceptable than her just saying the word in a normal tone of voice, but then I understood very little about Sister Mary Justine/Martine.
Every ex-Catholic I know has a nun story or two (I have many more than that). Usually the tales involve a nun whacking their knuckles with a ruler or throwing erasers at them. But in 16 years of Catholic education I neither experienced nor witnessed physical punishment. California has always been a bit of an outlier.
Besides, the nuns I knew had more effective ways of screwing us up — sophomore “sex education” a case in point.
Nevertheless I’ve always had a fascination with and appreciation for nuns, who were my only experience of uncoupled (I never bought the married-to-Jesus thing), educated, professional women. And now there is the crop of political activists like Nuns On the Bus — you go, girls!
This admiration for many of my teachers and for contemporary protesters of Church and national politics translates into an inability to pass up interesting nun stories. And surely the story of the natural-wine-making nuns of Lasio, Italy, is as interesting as it gets.
I’ve told the story before in this column, so I’ll be brief. Sisters Adriana and Fabiola and their cohorts of the Monastero Suore Cistercensi have been organically farming their 12 acres of vines for decades; in the early 2000s “naturalista” Giampiero Bea, struck by the high quality of a wine produced with almost no technology, helped the nuns gain a larger audience for their two wines.
As irresistible to me as the story is the wine itself. When I see it on a shelf (a rare occurrence, given its small production), I buy it no matter the seductive alternatives.
Two weeks ago, there it was — in the wine section of the tiny, amazing Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco’s Mission district. I have been buying this wine for years, but, in keeping with its “natural” character, each vintage is markedly different, though equally difficult to pin down with a few descriptors.
The 2016 Coenobium — which I hadn’t tasted before that SF jaunt — is, as usual, a blend of almost equal parts trebbiano, malvasia and verdicchio, co-fermented. The grapes are grown organically in volcanic soil creating a wine filled with minerals, wild herbs and ripe fruits. Pear, apple, lychee and apricot predominate but change with the wine’s temperature, companions and time in the glass.
This mouth-coating wine is not, I think, particularly suited to extremely hot weather or long refrigeration. Much under 55 degrees and its many layers — the hints of fennel and camomile, for example — won’t reveal themselves.
A very food-friendly wine, it’s excellent with such Italian-inflected dishes as escarole long sauteed with anchovy, garlic and olive oil. The evening I found it, we drank it with a loaf of Tartine bread (my first — oh my!), some house-smoked trout, a raw broccolini salad and a chunk of an Italian aged buffalo-milk cheese—all except the bread bought, like the wine, at Bi-Rite. A perfect meal.
The Coenobium (which simply means “monastery”) and its sister wine Coenobium Ruscum (an orange wine that I’ve only had once) have gradually attracted a small, almost cult, following, and this 2016 is the 12th vintage. A couple of years ago, the nuns began releasing a red called Benedic, which I haven’t had a chance to taste and, given its reputation as a light, everyday sipper, may be quite overpriced at nearly $30.
We buy, I guess, the romance of a group of about 80 contemplative nuns (Trappistine or Cistercian, if you’re into Catholic lore) tending their vines as a kind of daily meditation — and eschewing the usual equipment, additives and manipulations of contemporary wine-making.
Adding to the mystique, the excellent Rosenthal Wine Merchant folk, who import Coenobium, summarize their monastery visits: “Each time we visit with the sisters, we are amazed by their warmth of spirit, their serene energy, and the shockingly spartan nature of their operation. The ‘winery’ is a tool shed packed to the gills with old steel tanks, fiberglass containers of various sizes, and jugs of this and that — proving yet again that it takes the barest minimum to produce a wine of character and truth.”
OK, so it’s a romantic and possibly hyped story, but even so, I continue to buy each release because of what Bea calls “the raw frankness” of the wines the nuns produce. And since the Catholic Church is notoriously stingy in its support of nuns, especially as they age, I like to think I’m helping them out with my purchase.
The problem: very few cases are produced. In fact, only 15 this year were allocated to California. Corti Brothers, which usually carries it, didn’t get a single bottle. So if you see it on a shelf in San Francisco or elsewhere, grab it — and you can dine off the story for several months.
Yes, this is a bit of a tease, since the wine isn’t even available online, but I’m offering you a worthy substitute: the Co-op has just gotten in another case of Idlewild “The Bee,” a gorgeous white blend, as interesting and food-friendly as the Coenobium — and about the same price, $23.
This, too, is a very limited-production wine, made by the amazing Sam Bilbo from Piedmontese grapes (mostly muscat canelli and arneis) grown in Mendocino County. Get this Cal-Italian wine while you can, and drink it to celebrate the arrival of spring.