Growing up in my house autumn was always marked by one important weekend trip : a car ride to visit my uncle in the hills of Tuscany. This wasn’t just a family visit to see the cousins, there was an element of business about these trips because waht we did was buy close to a a year’s worth supply of red Chianti table wine. The inaugural part of the visit would inevitably involve a dinner. Sitting down at the table the best part of this ritual would be when my uncle pulled out the wine in a traditional Tuscan straw wine bottle and solemnly offer my parents a glass of what they would be drinking for the rest of the year.
The Tuscan wine bottle – a glass bottle partially covered in woven straw – might occupy into the background of everyday Italian life, but pay attention to the tabletops of art and cinema and it becomes clear that it also occupies the the spotlight. From the novellas in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and the still life paintings of Caravaggio to iconic Italian films of the 1950s like An American in Rome starring the great comic Alberto Sordi, the straw-covered bottle of red wine is an icon of Italian living.
While its prevalence in Italian culture has often led it to become a romanticized symbol of la dolce vita, the Tuscan flask represents over 700 years of complex history. Whereas today the tuscan flask has a rounded body and flat bottom that is partially covered in vertically woven straw, in the beginning the grass or straw covered various sizes and shapes of glass containers up to the mouth of the bottle. Different bottle shapes and distinct weaving patterns distinguished separate varieties of wine. Traditionally, the bottle has also represented the division of labor between the sexes with men producing the bottles at glass furnaces, while women completed the work of covering the container in straw from home.
Using straw to protect and easily pack glass bottles of wine for transport is commonly said to have originated in Tuscany in the late 13th to early 14th centuries. There was so much variety between the hand-blown glass bottles that it was difficult for buyers to be sure of exactly how much wine they were buying. Norms regulating the size and shape of flasks in order to resolve the problem were first outlined in the 16th century. The revision and increased enforcement of these rules across the centuries led to the Tuscan wine bottle we are familiar with today.
Twenty years after my first visits to the hills of Tuscany with my father, I’m much more likely to receive wine from my family in a damigiana – a plastic covered carboy bottle. The popularity of the Tuscan bottle as a symbol of Italy was in many ways its downfall, as it was copied for use with lower-quality wine and in the popular imagination became associated with a superficial image of Italian dining. Conversely, the fact that as packing materials have evolved, it has become more cost-efficient to store wine in straight bottles, rather than rounded Tuscan bottles, is turning out to be positive news. While less Tuscan bottles are produced, the companies willing to spend extra money on them are dedicated to producing top-quality Tuscan wine while honoring Italian tradition. So, while I might not find a Tuscan bottle on my kitchen table everyday, it is on my shelf for a special occasion.