Picture yourself driving through the Tuscan countryside. The windows are rolled all the way down and you can feel the Italian breeze caressing your hair as you watch a gold-streaked sun melt behind the rolling hills. You’re en-route to a vineyard dinner where you’ll spend the evening listening to live music intermingled with the tinkling of glasses, laughter and chirping crickets – the hum of conversation rippling out into the valley below. Upon your arrival, you walk up a fragrant lavender-lined path towards a group of glamorous guests. You’re here to enjoy wines and freshly made pici pasta at a beautifully set long table, decorated with florals that seem to burst across the landscape.
I think this is the kind of Italian daydream we can all get behind – a scene straight out of La Dolce Vita where the food makes you want to write poetry and the wines are so flavorful, they dance on your lips. A moment in time where you, the dinner guest, can feel that no detail has been spared to create a luxuriously delicious party you’ll remember for years to come.
This dream is a reality at Querceto di Castellina, a family owned-and-operated winery located in the heart of Chianti. The property has been in the Di Battista family since 1945 and they’ve been bottling wines since 1998. As with many businesses in Italy, the evolution has happened slowly and with care. They were one of the first agriturismi to open in the late 1980s, founded by Mary’s mother-in-law, Laura, so guests could stay on the property overnight. The past decade has seen Querceto di Castellina roll out a whole host of new events, including vineyard dinners. An idea conceived by Mary Shea, who married Jacopo Di Battista, she has added a touch of magic to the estate and put in on the map.
That’s because Mary Shea was born to be a hostess. Originally from the East Coast, Mary worked in advertising and creative marketing design before moving to Italy to create memorable experiences that encourage gathering and shared conversation. Each year, Querceto in Castellina hosts vineyard dinners once a month from June to September. These events have become popular for bringing travelers, expats, foodies and aesthetes around the table to share good wine and local food in a beautiful ambiance.
The winery currently collaborates with Albergaccio di Castellina, another local, family-run business to create the most delectable, to-die-for menus. The local restaurant offers bespoke catering and presents a variety of delicious Tuscan specialties, as sophisticated as they are simple. You may find soft ravioli filled with pigeon (yes, the bird is actually a Tuscan specialty!) and thinly sliced strips of mouth-watering chianina steak, served with an elaborated eggplant parmesan sauce with tomatoes so fresh that they could be served by themselves. The menu is unique to the evening and changes at each dinner, and substitutes are available for vegetarians, gluten-free and any other special requests. Of course, a highlight is the wine pairings. Querceto di Castellina’s wines are served with each course, and the waiters circle each table graciously, offering refills to guests as the conversation swells from a low hum to an exhilarating buzz.
Over the years, the vineyard dinners have created new friendships, given local artisans across all mediums a chance to showcase their work, and allowed Mary the opportunity to connect and expand local communities and tourists through interactive events. “It gives me so much energy to create these dinners and collaboration is the best part. I want everything to be incredibly creative and elevated while still honoring Tuscany’s traditions,” she says. The pop-ups have become less about promoting Querceto di Castellina and more about supporting the creatives and partners they work with, including musicians, florists and caterers.
Mary continues to invent new ways to host her dear guests and new friends. Last spring, her “Pizza, Alpaca and Vino” afternoon was a sold-out hit and saw a Neapolitan pizzaiolo serve artisanal pies while alpacas from a local farm roamed around the property alongside its guests. “An alpaca is a great conversation starter, explains Mary. “The playful atmosphere breaks down barriers and gives people an easy way to start interacting with each other.”
Querceto di Castellina’s agriturismo offers guests the chance to stay overnight (or a week) to enjoy all the activities and pleasures that the property has to offer. You’ll be able to wake up in a plush bed, drenched in Tuscan sunlight, in your spacious farmhouse bedroom and you’ll be treated to a homemade continental breakfast. Sip a steamy freshly made cappuccino and take in the view over the estate’s nearly 150 acres. A hike through the vines followed by a dip in the swimming pool and an afternoon glass of the delectable “Livia” white wine (a perfectly balanced blend between Viognier and Roussanne) can melt into endless evenings, stargazing and eating simple, satisfying food al fresco. Mary’s mother-in-law, Laura (who also is the namesake of one of their most delicious red wines) also offers cooking classes to visitors, teaching the simple yet skilful methods of recreating a Tuscan table at home anywhere in the world.
Visit Querceto di Castellina’s website to learn about the vineyard dinners taking place in summer 2022 or follow @quercetodicastellina on Instagram for virtual wine events and online community building. I personally cannot wait to get some pictures snapped with alpacas next year (along with a glass of Querceto di Castellina wine in hand, of course).