AN UNEXPECTED CALLING by Abby Sher
How Amie Ruditz found herself curating Tuscan retreats
Local entrepreneur Amie Ruditz remembers the precise moment she found her calling. She was in Italy, sampling fresh olive oil. “When I tasted that olive oil, I felt like I opened my mind up to what’s possible. It tasted like the sun.”
Ruditz hasn’t always gotten to bask in the olive orchards of Italy. As a kid growing up in central New Jersey, she remembers her biggest adventures involved camping with her family or biking to her friends’ houses. Ruditz didn’t actually step onto an airplane until she was in high school. But once she made it overseas on a college study abroad program, she was hooked on travel, and now, almost two decades later, she still loves exploring new landscapes and cultures. Even as she describes her travels, her eyes widen as if she’s seeing it all for the first time again.
She started out after college working in the wine importing and distribution business. One of the first jobs she landed was as office manager for a wine expert named Jens Schmidt. Schmidt ran a wine importing company out of New York City, but also lived part of the year in a 1,000-year-old stone villa in Tuscany, Italy, called Villa Montecastello. Villa Montecastello is surrounded by silvery green olive groves, vineyards, and fields of rosemary, lavender and jasmine. It’s located on an ancient road known as La Francigena in a town called Monteriggioni, about an hour south of Florence. Schmidt purchased the villa and was determined to restore it to its natural beauty. As he and his team started refurbishing, they found olive tree bulbs dating back hundreds of years and sowed new bulbs next to them.
When Schmidt finished with Villa Montecastello’s renovation, Ruditz helped put together a three-day wine celebration there. She brought on board all the finest wine purveyors and distributors she knew and even got the celebrated chef Marco Canora (who owns the renowned Hearth Restaurant in New York City) to participate. The event was a huge success and Ruditz was inspired. With Canora, she designed a week-long cooking school that would take place at Villa Montecastello the following summer.
Ruditz’s retreats started growing organically from there: sometimes focused solely on cooking classes with different well-known chefs; other times more centered around herb distillations and organic farming. Ruditz says she now produces and/or runs between ten and twelve week-long retreats per year.
“It’s all about connections,” Ruditz tells me. (As if arranging for a dozen strangers to travel overseas and share living quarters, food, and sightseeing for a week is a seamless operation.)
For her, these trips are a way to bring together people she admires. Because she’s in the wine industry and still imports delicacies like olive oil, vinegar, and saffron, she is constantly meeting people who are either chefs or excited about learning more about the art of cooking and farming.
Villa Montecastello is a working organic farm with an extensive vegetable garden, so all the cooking on these retreats involves fresh ingredients from the surrounding fields. Schmidt and his family raise their own meats for eating and use the wild herbs for distilling essential oils.
Schmidt greets all of his guests and leads them through the private Montecastelli wine cellar, filled with over 2,000 bottles of the best Italian wines. From there, they can hike through the mountains of the Montagnola, Tuscany’s green lung and nature reserve, or gather fresh eggs from the villa’s hens. There are also massage treatments by the pool surrounded by fields of lavender, or guests can join in the harvest and pick and press olives. Everyone shares communal meals at long sprawling tables filled with fresh cut flowers, but are encouraged to make this their own unique experience. The villa also has four apartments of varying sizes that can be rented, all filled with beautiful antiques and breathtaking views.
It’s clear that Ruditz truly loves what she does and feels motivated by bringing these new tastes, smells and sights to her guests. When I ask what her biggest challenges are in this business, she has to give it some thought.
“I need to have really good management skills,” she tells me. “When I’m running the trip, [it's all about] balancing everyone’s expectations and their joy. Making it feel really easy.”
For Ruditz, that includes her family’s expectations here in Maplewood. She is married and has two young daughters, Rain (7) and Lulu (4). While she’d love them to come with her to Italy, she knows that would be too stressful, given the demands of her time when she’s running a retreat. Her husband, Rob, her babysitters, and her parents pitch in every time she is traveling, which she recognizes is a huge gift. She tries to keep her administrative hours from nine to five so she can be home for mornings and evenings too. And she welcomes entrepreneurs and artists from the Maplewood-South Orange community to connect with her about future retreat ideas. Because of her interests in health and wellness, she has expanded the scope of her retreats to include personal training, yoga, and flower arranging.
No matter what the focus of the retreats, for Ruditz it will always be about the personal connections – between purveyors and distributors, teachers and students, humans and nature, or even past, present, and future. Just like that original grove of olive tree bulbs, now intertwined with Villa Montecastello’s new roots, Ruditz wants to bring these experiences to as many generations and populations as possible.
As I ask her about any new adventures she has planned, Ruditz breaks into a huge grin. She’s moments away from signing a lease on a space here in Maplewood for a gourmet food shop. She and her partner, Maggie Marotta, plan to open on Baker Street later this fall, offering delectable imports from Italy (“Think amazing olive oils, vinegars, capers, and more”), as well as fresh artisan breads, cheeses, salads, and grab-and-go sandwiches.
To learn more about all of Ruditz’s endeavors and the olive oil that tastes like the sun, check out the mouth-watering possibilities at buonascuola.org, or email her directly at email@example.com.
Abby Sher is a writer, performer and mom who lives in Maplewood, NJ. She is a co-producer of the Chucklepatch Comedy Show, and her next book is due out in February 2020.