Emily O’Hare lives in Italy at La Torre alle Tolfe, a hillside wine chateau in Tuscany, just outside Siena. She teaches WSET wine courses there as well as hosting tastings of their wine. I first met Emily at the River Cafe restaurant in London where she was the sommelier, having got her start at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Foundation. Subsequently she helped out at a natural wine supper club I did at my house. She’s a brilliant teacher and explainer of wine: clear, easy to understand and most importantly, fun.
Emily is now a single mum to a five year old, combining different jobs around the area. I know I’d rather have been in a beautiful winery in Tuscany, scented with mediterranean herbs and tinkling with birdsong, rather grinding it out in London. Her terraced ‘agriturismo’ apartment feels part of a community; people share dinners and wine and mix. After five minutes in the pool, I was invited by people in a neighbouring apartment to share gin and tonics and pesto under the shade of an olive tree.
Wine is often a profession where experts tend to be posh and connected but Emily’s parents, who I met while I visited, are perfectly ordinary people. Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen project democratised food and wine, genuinely bringing in people from all backgrounds.
La Torre is not in Chianti Classico but a ‘sub-zone’ called Chianti Colli Senesi, meaning, from hills around Siena, which is a pity for them as this means you can charge more for your wine. But the quality is the same.
On a Monday I accompanied Emily to work, where she is the sommelier of a small restaurant Enoteca Baldi, with an extraordinary 44 page wine list, in Panzano, in the Chianti area. (In wine producing countries such as Italy, it’s rare to be able to drink or buy wines from any other country but their own, so this wine list encompassing the globe is a rarity.)
Panzano is home to possibly the world’s most famous butcher, eighth of his name, Dario Cecchini. He’s a Clark Gable style figure with grey slicked-back hair and a handsome handlebar moustache. He wears a red and white shirt from Coton Doux, which depicts beef and cows. Bill Buford, my favourite food writer, recounts in his book ‘Heat’ how he apprenticed for Dario for several months.
The branding of the shop is all red and white stripes. I happened to have worn a red and white striped dress that day so I matched. Now I’m a vegetarian with rare forays into fish eating when travelling but nonetheless Dario was charming towards me, giving me a gift of his special salt and herb mixture. ‘To beef or not to beef’ he joked, referencing Shakespeare. He usually quotes Dante.
This butcher’s shop serves you wine from Dario’s own wine, in a straw ‘fiasco’, as you enter. How civilised is that? Through a glass panelled door you can see the hung and labelled meat ageing into a deep purple colour. He’s no flesh snob however, Dario doesn’t believe in good or bad cuts or meat. He’s the definition of a nose to tail butcher.
Further down the road I visited a German-run winery, Fattoria le Fonti, where the wine was so good I spent 100 euros on three bottles I really couldn’t afford and promptly drank it all with others that night.
Panzano is one of those Tuscany-shire hill top villages that posh people with money have a house in. There was something called a ‘charity shop’ where baby clothes cost 50 euros. Kilburn High Road it aint.
La Torre alle Tolfe have all types of accommodation from fairly cheap agriturismo apartments to a ‘Borgo’ style rooms in the main villa. It’s near to Siena, about 15 euros by cab. In August car rental was very expensive, around 1000 euros a week. Ideally you would have your own transport.