Black Friday in Tuscany

Some habits die hard. I must admit, when I got home from our Tuscan Thanksgiving dinner,  I checked the football scores. And the next morning, it just felt right to do some shopping.

Fortunately, “Black Friday” in Tuscany is pure pleasure. There’s no getting up early to stand in line. No mob scenes in pursuit of doorbusters. And not a shopping mall in sight.

My wife and her sister wanted some proper Tuscan holiday gifts. So after breakfast, we headed out on a mellow shopping trip.

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First, we drove 10 minutes from our agriiturismo into the delightful Renaissance town of Pienza. Work crews were just setting up the town Christmas decorations, and the golden-stone lanes were ours alone.

We browsed through Pienza, window-shopping pecorino cheese displays and wispy cypress centerpieces. A leather shop caught our eye. And my wife and her sister enjoyed the sales clerk’s undivided attention as they tried on some shoes…a perfect early Christmas present for each other.

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Next up: wine. Hopping in the car, we twisted for 40 minutes through some of Italy’s most stunning scenery to the town of Montalcino. World-famous for its Brunello di Montalcino wines, this town can be a little intimidating for low-end-intermediate wine-lovers like us.

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The Enoteca di Piazza was just what we needed. More practical than quaint, this shop is designed for a surgical strike to assemble a cross-section of local wines to ship home. Its ingenious, automated system let us try samples from a hundred different open bottles. First, we picked up an electronic card to keep track of what we tasted. (You pay per sample, but if you buy a bottle, the sample is free.) Then, with the help of the clerk, we roamed around the store — which was organized geographically — to get a feel for the “big three” nearby wine regions: Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Chianti Classico.

Once we had our bearings, we could zero in on some of the nuances of a particular type of wine. What’s the difference between a riserva and a table wine? Which wines are better to drink right away, and which are an investment for aging? What’s the difference between traditional vintners, and those experimenting with modern methods? A taste can tell you all you need to know.

Don’t get me wrong: A more intimate wine-tasting experience — where you actually wander through vines, get to know the vintner, and sip samples straight from the barrel — is a must for wine-lovers. And we had some of those experiences, too. But the catch with a winery is that they sell only their own wines. (And unless you have a designated driver, connecting several rural wineries by car is an iffy proposition.) For a broader education, head to an enoteca instead.

Having shipped our favorite bottles home for Christmas gifts (and maybe a few for ourselves), it was time for a late lunch. Enjoying a stand-up slice of pizza overlooking Montalcino’s main square — not missing stateside strip malls and food courts one bit — we  decided we’d had enough shopping for this Black Friday. The sun was already heading for the horizon. And Tuscany beckoned.

My goal here is not to make you envious…at least, not in a bad way. It’s to inspire you to break free from some of your cherished holiday traditions — whether it’s eating turkey at Thanksgiving, waking up early on Black Friday, or hitting the Boxing Day sales — and see what the rest of the planet is doing. You have a lifetime to lovingly keep up your traditions. But one of these days, consider creating some new ones…someplace else.

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