Why you should care
Because nobody enjoys eating or drinking more than this unlikely profession.
Dear fans of Oktoberfest: Please don’t all go to Germany.
Yes, this is a plea. Remember the boot! You might not know it, but Italy has its own version of Oktoberfest. OK, maybe it’s a bit watered-down, but you’ll avoid big, sweaty crowds and get drunk on something far nobler than Teutonic beer: Italian white wine.
Montefiascone is a lucky, tiny town shaped like (and named for) a wine flask sitting atop a hill overlooking a volcanic lake surrounded by Etruscan catacombs. For centuries it has made some of the tastiest white wine in Italy. Not the “best” — forget sophisticated and expensive Tuscan wine — but the kind of wine that can knock down even a Viking. Dense and yellowish, strong, “vulgar” yet “humble,” as a popular Italian gourmand once wrote back in the 1930s.
Each year a drinking festival takes place here among the ancient walls. It’s like a game that requires a high tolerance for alcohol. And just seven euros for the ticket. You’re given a map at the entrance of the town showing all the open canteens, taverns and bars serving their wine specialty. A chalice and a shoulder bag with which to carry it: These are your weapons. So you start getting lost in a maze of cobbled alleys and low-cut stone houses. Each stop is a flask of wine, and the more you drink, the more walking across this medieval labyrinth makes your head spin.
No wine, no party. Defuk was a dogmatist.
There’s one rule only: Get drunk! But, of course, avoid ramming your head into a stone column. The real endeavor is to pass by at each tavern and have at least a sip of wine. If you skip one stand, or pass on a shot, you’re a loser. Food tastings will help you turn down the heat. “The trick is to gulp down just one glass, and then straight after eat a tomato bruschetta, a slice of ham or pecorino cheese,” says Michele di Poalo, a festival fan who has taken part in the past five editions. “The bread and proteins will settle your stomach and prepare it for the next stop.”
Locals are proud of their legendary wine, and can actually thank the Germans for it. Specifically one powerful, alcoholic Teutonic bishop of the 12th century called Johannes Defuk, who couldn’t go just one day without drinking despite being counselor to the German emperor. According to myth, one day Defuk had to travel to Rome, but before setting out on his journey he sent ahead his butler Martin in search of a good wine place to stop along the road.
No wine, no party. Defuk was a dogmatist.
Lucky for him, the messenger, galloping like fury, finally found such a drinking heaven in Montefiascone, writing back a letter to his master saying “It’s here, it’s here, it’s here!” Of course, he didn’t write it in modern English but in Latin; hence “Est! Est!! Est!!!” became the name of the local white wine.
This was the deal: If Martin found the wine, he had to write on the door of the inn “Est!”; if it was very good, “Est Est!” Well, it turned out the wine had such a divine flavor that after a couple of glasses himself, the ecstatic and red-cheeked butler opted for “Est! Est!! Est!!!” — more than exceptional. He really did use six exclamation points. The bishop literally lost his mind over this wine, and picked Montefiascone as his favorite holiday drinking spot. He returned and never again left, died here (take a wild guess … cirrhosis?) and was even buried in the local church by his loyal butler. On the tomb, you can read engraved: “For too much EST! here lies dead, my lord Johannes Defuk.”
Practically a saint — weird indeed that the church didn’t make him the patron of all drinkers.
In gratitude for the hospitality received, the bishop left all his wealth to the town, heaps of golden coins. He made only one very humble request: that on each anniversary of his death a barrel of wine is poured on his grave. Even if dead, Defuk’s soul was addicted to it. That’s how the town’s fortune started — all thanks to the drinking knack of a churchman. And so the wine festival is also a chance to pay homage to such a great guy. It features crazy barrel-rolling contests and a parade with dressed-up actors who reenact the arrival (and drinking) first of the butler and then of his master.
After all, it’s no mystery that monks and pious men were the first to make “modern” artisan beer and wine, setting up industrial estates and launching the wine trade in the Middle Ages. The best patches of wine-making lands in Italy used to belong to the clergy.
We have a saying in Italy: Nobody enjoys eating or drinking better than a priest.