If the idea of spending another Thanksgiving fighting with the family about politics sounds about as appealing as, well, the state of global politics, you might want to consider escaping to a castle in Tuscany for a few days of stimulating conversations (history, culture, art) in a glorious natural setting (vineyards and hillsides) led by historians and experts (Florentine historian and guide Chandi Wyant is a longtime Fathom writer). Does it sound like a great college seminar (no grades and no papers) over unforgettable meals (wine and olive oil made on-site)? We think so, too.
Imagine spending Thanksgiving this year in a castle in Tuscany. You’ll be in a magical valley with a group of intellectually curious people who appreciate slow travel. Imagine evening salons, discussing why books and knowledge mattered to Renaissance humanists and why they matter to us. Imagine daytime walks in the indigo-tinted light of November, experiencing the wisdom of the land, stopping by a vineyard to taste organic boutique wines. If you are not the average tourist, this is not the average retreat.
Add a few experts on Italian history and the castle owner’s profound belief in sustainability seeped in the land’s ancient past, and you have this year's inaugural Wine & Wisdom Tuscan Salon, a four-day immersion in ideas, history, wine, culture, and nature.
I had led a group trip to Castello di Potentino in 2011 and reconnected with its owner, Charlotte Horton, over Zoom during the pandemic. When she told me books were her source of “enormous inspiration,” I knew her home would be the perfect place to hold the Tuscan salon I wanted to host. My aim is to create something akin to Jane Austen's world or to the salons of the French Enlightenment, where social media and devices are set aside to focus on discussions of intriguing ideas.
By day we will connect with the wisdom of the land, through foraging walks and meetings with local winemakers. By evening we will explore intriguing stories about the Italian humanists and be inspired by their search for wisdom. The trip is designed to both stimulate the mind and facilitate an intimate connection to this special corner of Tuscany and to people who are passionate about preserving it.
It was 1999 when Charlotte discovered Castello di Potentino choking under a stranglehold of brambles, but her journey to the castle began decades earlier. On a hot Mediterranean day in 1970, Charlotte's grandmother, the adventurous Helga Guinness, met an Italian woman at a bus stop on a Greek island and mentioned that she was looking for a house in Italy. A few months later, a telegram arrived. The Italian woman had put a deposit in Helga’s name on a ruin near the Tuscan coast in the Maremma, an area whose reputation as a place of malaria and bandits still lingered. Helga bought it. (Adventurous indeed.)
Helga was married to Hugh Greene, Director-General of the BBC and brother of novelist Graham Greene. Charlotte developed a deep connection to the Maremma through spending childhood and teenage summers at the Tuscan house and on the long, wild Maremma beaches. When Helga passed away, the family purchased Castello di Montepò nearby, which they restored and sold to the prestigious winemaker Biondi Santi.
When Charlotte, now an adult, was ready to move from London to Tuscany, the search for a smaller property began. In 2000, after a year of negotiations to buy Castello di Potentino, Charlotte began the project of lifetime: to rebirth “a skeleton with great bones” and to learn the art of winemaking.
Documents trace the castle’s history back to 1042, but its foundation is likely Etruscan. (There’s ample evidence of Etruscan settlements in the area.) The castle is tucked into the fold of Monte Amiata, a lesser-known area of Tuscany, and a mountain sacred to the Etruscans. In the Middle Ages, the castle was owned by the Bishop of Chiusi and then passed to noble Sienese families such as the Salimbeni, who received Saint Catherine of Siena as a guest. In 1600, it was bought by the Marquis Bourbon del Monte.
When Charlotte came along, the castle was abandoned and roofless, without plumbing and inhabited by rats. She was principled about the restoration, adhering to natural earth pigments and local materials such as peperino (a local volcanic stone) and terracotta. Ancient beams were repurposed for the doors. Coach bolts were used instead of modern screws.
She collaborated with Nigel Coates, who has worked with Italian housewares design firm Alessi, on chairs and chandeliers for the dining room. A cantilevered wooden staircase was built for the double-height library that holds the family’s extensive book collection.
Charlotte planted four hectares (nearly 10 acres) of vineyards, choosing sangiovese, alicante, and pinot noir because they “mirror the unique characteristics of our microclimate.” She has made an impressive mark on the women-in-wine-making scene in Italy. Her Burgundy wines from the pinot noir grapes easily go head-to-head with those from France, and her sangiovese, Sacromonte (“sacred mountain” — a nod to the Etruscans), has been named a Vino d’Ecellenza many times, identifying it as one of the 500 best wines from Italy.
Charlotte’s most unusual wine is Tumulus, made in the ancient Etruscan manner using a volcanic stone basin found on the land. The sangiovese grapes are crushed in this basin with bare feet, then transferred to small stainless-steel containers and left to ferment. The is wine bottled in reusable ceramic flasks. No sulphites or cultivated yeast are added. The aim is to approach what the Etruscans made and consumed in the valley 2,500 years ago. Castello di Potentino is possibly the only estate in the world currently making wine in this manner.
The castle is not only home to Charlotte, her stepbrother Alexander Greene, and her mother Sally Greene, but it is a dynamic cultural center for artists, academics, wine-lovers, volunteers, and offers residencies to musicians, poets, and artists.
Which is where I come in. This November, my four-day Wine & Wisdom Tuscan Salon will include wine tastings, foraging in the woods, visits to hill towns and abbeys, and meals made from organic produce from the garden and served at the communal dining table. Meat is from pigs who forage in the woods for acorns, and Charlotte’s extra virgin olive ranks with the best in Italy. The retreat culminates with a convivial Thanksgiving evening with entertainment by a delightful and unforgettable group of local singers.
My co-host Ross King, a well-known author, and expert on Italian history, and I, a historian, author, and Florentine guide, will share evening talks with participants about the search for wisdom in Italian history, such as the Florentine humanists’ hunt for texts from the classical world, why it mattered immensely to them to preserve sources by ancient writers like Cicero and Plato, and how improbable the survival of these sources was. We will ponder the fragility and the importance of books, education, and knowledge, as well as how Florence in the 1400s became Athens on the Arno — as important for books and learning as it was for painting and sculpture.
Get to know a lesser-known area of Tuscany, deepen your appreciation of Tuscan wines, gain new insights into the Renaissance, and learn why the discoveries of the Italian humanists still matter to us today.
Wine & Wisdom Tuscan Salon will take place November 21-25, 2022. The cost is $1500 for double occupancy and includes accommodations, the welcome lunch, all breakfasts and dinners, including the Thanksgiving feast with local musicians, salon talks, activities, and wine tastings. Single rooms have a supplement of $555. Check the website for more details.