I first heard the Fiorentino mentioned by Sig. Bernardi, the foreman at Podere Olmo, where, in the fall of 2019, I was borrowing some space to make my wine–not in Olmo’s wine cellar but in its former stalls, a long room with a stone floor, double-chestnut doors at the entrance and a half-moon-shaped window at the far end. For water, I filled buckets from an outside spigot, and, for the electricity, I ran an extension cord from Olmo’s wine cellar through the back garden and in through the half-moon window. By harvest time, the fermentation tanks I had ordered had still not arrived, so I bought three waist-high basins from the hardware store and was fermenting grapes in those.
Sig. Bernardi and Franco, the cellar hand, helped me put most of my grapes through their de-stemmer, an old, violent machine that thoroughly mashed skin, pulp and seeds with its giant corkscrew blade. In the Olmo cellar, Franco did most of the work: he hooked tubes up to pumps, climbed on top of the 200-hectoliter cement vats to check on fermentation, weighed and mixed sulfur dosages and sprayed down the tile floor at the end of the day. Sig. Bernardi puttered around outside, in a long Royal blue lab coat and a green wool hat, feeding the chickens and rabbits, occasionally passing through the cellar to point out that Olmo’s owners had ignored his advice and harvested too early—or a few weeks later—too late. Occasionally, he would peer around the door of the stalls and ask if my wine had finished fermenting yet. I held up a pitcher of must for him to taste.“It’s not very dark,” he pointed out. I handed him the pitcher, but he backed away. “For heaven’s sake!” He couldn’t taste it, he said; his doctor had said, no wine.
Sig. Bernardi had first gone to work as a teenager on a wine estate owned by an infamously talented but difficult noblewoman, referred to as “the Principessa” in the wine trade. Sig. Bernardi called her that still, in the same way he called Olmo’s owner “the Marchese,” using the landowner’s no-longer-recognized title. He was a small man, with fine features and that cruel sense of humor typical of Tuscans of his generation. He denounced Franco’s working methods, Olmo’s owner’s agricultural decisions and the current growing season–absurdly hot, dry, rainy or cold–and its miserable results. In addition to raising chickens and rabbits, he operated the tractor on a piece of land between the vineyards and the farm buildings, deaf to any interruptions while aboard.
He took an immediate liking to my younger daughter, recognizing her for the animal-lover that she was, and took her out to see the elaborate entanglement of wood, wire, earth, straw and cement that were the rabbit cages, and the biggest, oldest, mother bunny, allowed free in the vineyards during the daytime, but brought in at night—otherwise, Sig. Bernardi explained to her frankly, “the wolves would eat her.” Sig. Bernardi spent the weeks following the grape and olive harvests trolling the vineyards for pheasant, rifle slung over his shoulder.
One morning in October, I went to Olmo to check my wines, ran into Sig. Bernardi outside and asked him how the harvest was going. He pointed to Franco and Alessandro—the game warden at the Marchese’s other estate–in a vineyard down the hill, working their way up with crates full of grapes. The Marchese harvested by machine, but he had sent Franco and Alessandro back into the vineyards to collect any grapes the machine had missed or dropped. “What about the vineyard on the opposite hill?” I asked, wondering why they had skipped it. “Ah,” said Sig. Bernardi, “that isn’t the Marchese’s. It belongs to the Fiorentino.” As I stood there, Sig. Bernardi pointed across the valley and told me who owned each of the vineyards we could see. The Fiorentino’s stood out, because the rows were ridiculously far apart, and the vines were tall as trees.
That was my first glimpse, my first impression: what a funny old vineyard it seemed to be. (Watch the blog next week for a post about negotiating with the Fiorentino.)
In the days since releasing the first vintage of the Fanciulle wines, friends and customers have asked me what the wines are like, what inspired me to make them, what makes them different from other Tuscan or Italian wines. The truth is, almost everything about the wines and how they’re made is pretty unusual, and, ultimately, one can taste that, especially in the delicacy, the lightness of the wines.
In September 2019, I was looking for a vineyard to buy—old Sangiovese on a certain kind of terrain I like, the Monte Morello formation. I had been looking for a few years and, as readers of this blog know, I had met with some disappointments. I was sharing the story with a friend and fellow winemaker in Tuscany at a party for wine journalists in a villa outside of Florence, when to my surprise and delight, she offered to sell me some grapes.
Making fine wine from bought grapes is common in Burgundy or in California, and some of the most lauded names in the world of wine are, or were born as, “négociants,” organisations that buy grapes, and make, bottle and sell wine. But in Tuscany, it is mostly the province of wine bottlers working on a huge scale to produce inexpensive wine. I was intrigued by her offer, went to look at the grapes that week and agreed to buy a few tons at harvest. Fanciulle Wine was born. Even the business model is innovative.
Now, a year-and-a-half later, as the growing season begins in what is now my own vineyard, as Marta, my colleague, and I plan the vineyard and cellar work, and as I think about the people, skills, supplies and expertise we will need for the coming year, I realize what a different path we have taken. We’ve just finished pruning the 75-year old vines in our one-hectare (about 2.2 acres) vineyard—each vine a world of twisted trunk, pruning scars, living and dead branches unto itself. I stand before them and think of the vast root systems that must be below, of all the seasons in which the vines have grown and thrived (more, or less, depending on the year’s temperatures and rainfall), of all the grapes these vines have made, year after year after year. The vines themselves are a rarity: less than 15% of grapevines in Tuscany are at least 40 years old, let alone 75.
We pruned with manual—not battery operated—sheers, and we trimmed the dead wood with a small, hand-held saw. We’re tying the shoots to their natural supports (old, non-fruit-bearing pear trees, planted for the purpose, all those decades ago) with moist willow fronds. In the wide spaces between the rows, we will mow the grass with a manual lawn-mower, like the one my uncle used to have, and to spray the vines with copper, I have a back-pack tank with a hip-level pump and a hand-held, manual sprayer.
When I bought the vineyard, I thought about buying a tractor, but I hated the idea of noise and exhaust. I didn’t want the soil compacted, either. There are only a thousand vines; I have the luxury of time. As those who have helped with the harvest at Fanciulle Vini know, we de-stem by hand, rolling the bunches over a grate perched on the rim of a tank. I don’t add yeast– it’s already there in that dusty film on the grapes’ skins–or tannins, or any of the other standard products in use. We avoid pumping over the musts, though it is a common practice here, often carried out via pumps built into the tanks–alas! Pumping over provides oxygen to the fermenting must, but we oxygenate with a pitcher plunged into the tank, its juice poured back over the mass of grapes. Pumping over also aids in extraction, but extraction doesn not need help in Tuscany. Here, the grapes get plenty of sun, and the skins are rich, so color and tannin abound. I want to make subtle, delicate, ethereal wines that are light on their feet. Infusion is the answer, not extraction.
I did invest in a basket press, which gently squeezes the skins that are left once the wine has run off. Because our de-stemming is manual, our grapes are mostly still whole—undamaged even after a week of fermentation, so what comes out of the press can be the freshest, most complex wine of all, fermented away from oxygen, as it were, inside the grape itself.
After alcoholic fermentation, part of each wine goes into a French oak barrel (another unpopular, misunderstood step in winemaking), where it is left undisturbed until bottling, so that it clarifies naturally. Sometimes, the wines need to be filtered, to achieve the precision of flavor and texture that I like. I want to filter with diatomaceous earth–something that’s done in Burgundy–but I have yet to find anyone in Italy who knows the process. Our bottle is the lightest on the market, at 400g, and our labels provide as much information about the vineyard, vintage, winery and winemaking as we can squeeze onto them. The map on the front shows the area the grapes came from—the name of which is not permitted on the label! Finally, we sell our wines directly to those who drink them, because that way we can serve you best.
Thanks to high cholesterol, I recently spent an hour at the Ospedale Universitario in Siena, listening to a cardiologist preach the importance of diet, exercise and stress management, whereupon I confessed partially to my sins: the occasional morsel of cheese, the obligatory wine business dinners, the impossibility of scheduling time for exercise. The doctor gave me a knowing smile and pointed out that Clinton, Bush and Obama had regularly gone jogging on the White House grounds. Was I busier than the leaders of the free world?
Nothing the doctor said was news to me. Although my mother’s mother had been a meat-and-potatoes devotee, my own mother is not a particularly keen cook. I remember dinners of spaghetti with meat sauce, picnics with broiled chicken and the right to ask for steak and peas on my birthday, but my childhood memories are free of the intense associations today’s foodies claim. I had a sweet-tooth, which Mom’s orange juice-wheat germ cake (the only dessert in her repertoire) addressed, as did my father, who ate rows of Fig Newtons while watching the ball game on TV.
Although she was not into cooking, my mother had strong views on health. My childhood was peppered with snide references to “glop” (her term for any packaged food), as well as with her various tenets: “Shop the outer aisles of the supermarket—where the fresh foods are kept;” or, “Park as far from the shop as you can. The walk is good for the heart.” The messages seeped in, such that, in front of the Director of Cardiology at the hospital, I could not claim ignorance of the facts.
During high school, I made myself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich every day for four years, picked at my dinner and ate pizza and drank grape soda in the dormitory at 9pm, but I played soccer, ice hockey or lacrosse six days a week, and thus managed to maintain a strange “health” equilibrium. As a young adult in college and afterward, while I was working in New York City, I lived on coffee, plain bagels and non-fat frozen yogurt and worked out only sporadically. I am not sure I was unusual in my habits: does anyone think about cardiovascular health for its own sake at age 23?
Ever since au-pairing in the southwest of France at age 15, I had had my eye on Europe. I remember Madame Geoffroy, whose children I looked after—rail thin, deeply tanned, her movements so graceful and deliberate that she seemed to be on the verge of dozing off—padding into the house from the pool in her red one-piece bathing suit and strand of pearls to pull a rôti de porc out of the oven and uncork a bottle of Graves Blanc. She was just what I wanted to be—luxe, calme, no volupté.
My fantasy bloomed when I moved to France in 1994 and was told not to hold back, that my body would “get used” to eating a cheese course after every meal, and, a year later, to Germany, where the young couples my first husband and I were friends with loved eating the dishes I had perfected since that summer at the Geoffroys’: creamy coq au vin, meaty daube and buttery gratin dauphinois. Occasionally, I jogged with a friend in the Englischer Garten; more often I dined out on an expense account. In theory, my move to Tuscany in 2001 brought me to the epicenter of Mediterranean living: excellent weather year round and the consequent active lifestyle; rivers of olive oil and oceans of red wine; seasonal, home-grown vegetables and pasta anchoring every meal. I had all of that, but while true to the letter, that description misses the point.
A typical Italian breakfast consists of cookies and coffee, or “orzo,” a caffeine-free coffee facsimile given to children, a meal my mother would call “empty calories.” Lunch is pasta, which, if served with tomato sauce, elicits the question (in our home), “Who’s dieting?” Dinner is a roast with potatoes; dessert is cookies again, this time with wine instead of coffee. Weekend lunches and dinners are often preceded by an aperitivo—a glass of wine, a few slices of ham or cheese, a handful olives. As a friend of mine succinctly puts it, in Tuscany, the bread is white and the meat is pork.
There is nothing immoderate about our routine: no snacking, no fast food, almost no butter. And vegetables do play a role, especially in summer when they are eaten, occasionally, neither fried nor beaten into a flan. But all the while the cardiologist spoke that day in the hospital, a pyramid loomed in the back of my mind—you know, the one from the FDA, with the layers of foods—whole grains at the wide base, fruits and vegetables just above, and all the “glop” at the tip? My mom taped a picture of that pyramid to our refrigerator door sometime around 1974, and referred to it throughout my childhood and adolescence, whenever my sister, father or I asked for junk food or sweets. Listening to the doctor, I started to realize that the three months of eating our garden tomatoes each summer may not be fully cancelling out the effects of the other nine months of the year’s diet of pecorino, prosciutto and Prosecco.
The results of my blood test confirmed this: my cholesterol was 260. It turns out, staying well is not only a matter of mindset or balance or luck. I cannot see my blood vessels clogging, but they probably are. My bones and muscles feel fine, but then, I sit at a desk all day! How would I know how they are doing? Eating healthily and exercising never feel like urgent “to dos,” which is why I have put them off, for too long.
“Three months to improve,” Dottore Mondelli told me, “or you’ll need to start taking statins.” So I am trying: no spare ribs or salami, no Fiorentina steak and no cheese (ouch)—and I am looking to my dad for inspiration. He is 98 years old, and his cholesterol is 147. He listens to my mom and mostly follows her advice as far as eating is concerned. Still, he has lived in the country for years. Could it be that the real reason he’s so healthy is simply all that fresh air?
Gueye Daro came to Italy twenty years ago from Touba, Senegal, a city two hours drive from Dakar. Today, he is one of Tecnovite’s foremen, managing teams that prune vineyards and olive orchards, harvest grapes and carry out other agricultural operations in Tuscany. He lives in Poggibonsi with his wife and three children, in a community of other Senegalese, many of whom he has brought on board at Tecnovite. He doesn’t hesitate to express his preference for Senegalese food, even after so many years in Italy, or to say “Muslim” when I ask what the area he’s from in Senegal is like. But he is also an Italian citizen, and says he feels at home here. “Mi vogliono bene,” he says, of the Tecnovite owners, using the phrase Italians use for their families, “I cherish you.” Daro, as he’s known at work, doesn’t drink wine or any other alcohol, although he helps make some of the most famous wines in the world.
Reading about the accusations of labor abuses at Valentina Passalacqua’s father’s farms in Puglia, both in the Italian press and in an August 6th New York Times article by Eric Asimov, I thought over my experience both managing employees and hiring external labor teams–often made up of immigrant or migrant workers–over the past two decades. What came to mind was paperwork: there was the CCNL, or “Contratto Collettivo Nazionale di Lavoro per gli operai agricoli,” a hundreds-of-pages-long national contract for agricultural workers that governs every aspect of employment in the wine sector; the employees’ individual contracts, timesheets and monthly and annual payroll reports; the certificates from medical check-ups and safety courses; the checklists of required clothing and equipment; the sub-contracting tenders and agreements. I remember, too, the six-figure labor line item that glared at me whenever I opened the budget spreadsheet, and I remember worrying, day and night, about everyone’s safety in a sector where accidents are common and, occasionally, grave.
The Passalacqua story brought home that the complexity and reach of the thousands of laws, rules, codes and controls designed to protect agricultural workers, and the significant cost they represent for companies, coexist here with some bold and ingenious business owners determined to evade them. All over Italy employers and employees are investing millions of hours and euro in understanding and complying with encyclopaedic, labyrinthine labor laws while, at the same time, others (or sometimes the same people) are essentially keeping slaves.
The most frequent comment I heard in the wake of the scandal was, “That’s the South for you,”–a comment that is, of course, code for organised crime; it doesn’t happen here, in other words. But in the months since the article appeared, as I’ve spoken to immigrant and migrant workers, the labor contracting companies that employ them and the wine estates that rely on them for everything from planting vines to picking grapes, a more complicated picture has emerged of talented and dedicated migrants, immigrants and Italians working to improve the sector’s reputation and results, as well as of the forces working against them
Sherif Metalla has a lot in common with immigrant entrepreneurs everywhere. He came to Italy in the early 1990s and worked first as a farm hand, though he had been a mason in Albania, rising to the role of foreman after two years, and then to estate manager after seven. His wife and son worked with him, as did other Albanians who followed him to Italy from Durazzo, the town where he was born and raised. Later, he offered to manage the same activities for the estate as a contractor instead of an employee, and set out on his own. Today, at his company, Agriarte, he employs three hundred laborers, a handful of foreman and two office managers and boasts some of the most respected wineries in Italy as clients.
Sherif’s company conducts agricultural operations year round, starting in January dry-pruning vineyards and finishing in December with the last of the olive harvest. He credits military service with instilling the discipline that even today gets him out of bed at 3 a.m. to send work crews off to estates as far away as the Veneto from his home in Tuscany. He sees himself as a father figure to his employees and believes the cornerstone of his success is the quality of their work. Rather than compete on price, he banks on quality and a reputation for “correttezza”–shorthand here for paying taxes (both corporate and payroll) and employing legal immigrants. “The estates I work for know that the police won’t bother checking up on my teams in the vineyards,” Sherif explains. “Everyone knows I do things by the book.”
Sherif invests in his employees via training and by furnishing them high-quality equipment: “the best pruning shears, the best shoes.” A look of disgust comes across his face as he tells me about a competitor who sent his squad to prune without gloves. He provides housing for his employees and sends them to and from their work sites in black Mercedes vans—a brush with comfort and luxury he is convinced is a powerful motivator.
Sherif admits that agriculture isn’t for everyone—the physical effort, the heat and cold, the long commute to many of the work sites. But, as with all company representatives I spoke with, Sherif rebuffs my questions about high employee turnover and emphasises, somewhat contradictorily, both that most of his employees have been with him for years, and that those who do leave move on to better jobs. He claims to have never fired an employee, but admits that non-Albanians have proven harder for him to manage, because of the difficulty he finds in teaching them the skills needed for the variety of vineyard and orchard operations without a common language. “Communication is key, “ he says, echoing contemporary CEOs touting the soft skills
Like other founders, Sherif worries about the transition to the next generation. “I hoed sunflowers all day for 80 lek” (about 75 cents), Sherif recalls. He repeats an Albanian saying, “The chicken eats pebbles, “ (apparently they do—it helps the muscles that make the eggshells): hardship produces results. “People here don’t realise what they have—liberty, the rule of law, the chance to succeed.” Of course, he has the good sense, as a foreigner operating a business in Italy, to flatter his adoptive home. Still, I come away from our meeting thinking about the positive role these companies play, both for Italy–agricultural laborers are needed and most Italians seem unwilling to go back to the fields–and for the employees, as a first step toward a better life.
At the estate I managed, our regular employees were engaged via typical agricultural-sector annual contracts that allow for up to 180 days of work per year. The contract is valid all year, but the employees work only when called on. If there was no work–such as was the case, say, in August–I didn’t call anyone in. During work-intensive periods, I called everyone. I made sure that no individual exceeded 180 days of work in a calendar year; otherwise, I would have had to offer that person a permanent contract–something my employer, like most agricultural companies, avoided. As I learned this fall, while researching this article, even the companies that assemble and hire out the squads use these same contracts to employ THEIR workers.
These contracts are advantageous for employers: the businesses pay only for hours worked, not fixed salaries (rare in Italian business); they can end the working relationship after a year (not necessarily possible with many types of Italian contracts); they can increase or decrease the size of the team to suit the season and its tasks. There are some advantages for the employees as well: under these contracts, they can still collect unemployment; they accumulate vacation and “TFR,” a bonus linked to length of employment; they are entitled to overtime wages if the hours per day or week exceed 8 and 39 respectively. Still, understandably, most employees would rather have a permanent contract that guarantees minimum monthly and yearly income and from which they can’t be fired. From a contractual point of view, my direct employees and the members of the squads I hired enjoyed the same status.
When I first started outsourcing work to squads, I was nervous. Labor law infringements are penal not civil crimes in Italy, and, as of 2018, the contractor is also responsible for the contractee’s compliance. I had the contract I intended to use reviewed and updated by a local labor lawyer; I verified the contractee’s “DURC,” a document that proves the supplier is up to date with taxes, and I looked over the pages-long list of its employees for discrepancies, although to be honest I didn’t know what I was looking for. Per the security code, I arranged for the contractee to sign his team in and out each day. (Harvest season is fire season, so it’s essential to know who’s on your property at all times.) Mostly, though, I just hoped the company I had hired was a responsible one: I didn’t really know how to verify its legitimacy. I could not check every worker’s immigration visa, could I? I would not have known how to spot a false one anyway, I told myself.
Andrea, a Tecnovite co-owner, claims that low prices are a red flag for unfair labor practices. He urges estates to look skeptically at bids more than 30% lower than typical rates. Another friend, Samuele, says it’s not that simple. He has worked in the wine sector all his life, currently as an area manager for a company that provides squads, and he points out that speed and quality are not inversely related. It is possible, he insists, to be good and fast. In fact, that’s the only way to make money: wine estates contract out for work at a price agreed per hectare (roughly 2.2 acres) or per plant in some cases; the employees of the contractee, on the other hand, are paid by the hour. Speed generates profit. Companies have every interest in training their employees for maximum efficiency.
Talking with Samuele, I learned what I could have done to verify that my supplier was complying with labor laws. It turns out that the “DURC” is almost meaningless. One can set up a company, pay that month’s payroll and corporate taxes, obtain the “DURC” and move on. He urges estates to ask to see the payroll, to check which safety courses the employees have taken and to verify that everyone has had a recent medical exam
Samuele argues that it’s too easy to set up a company here and that entrepreneurs should be vetted before they can assemble squads and hire them out. He proposes a professional guild, such as those that exist for architects or lawyers, in which entrepreneurs must enroll and to which they must pay dues. This would scare off the charlatans, he feels. He also argues for more–and more thorough–surprise checks on the squads in the field and the companies that employ them.
I also learned some of the ways companies take advantage of their employees. They ask the crews to sign fewer hours than they actually work, pre-empting complaints by offering the job to “the guys who will clock eight hours to hoe two hectares, no matter how long it actually takes.” Or they pay all the hours worked, but collect cash fees for housing and food on payday. Sure, the employees would probably be spending part of their earnings on housing and food anyway, but some labor contractors make a margin on these essentials. The most blatant abusers show up in Italy with a string of mostly illegal migrant workers, set up a company, work the season, collect payments from the client estates and leave. These “pop-up” squads often manage to avoid taxes and labor regulations entirely, and are thereby able to work for far less than legitimate companies can. Interestingly, I’m told such squads are most popular where you’d least expect it—the areas known for high-priced wines.
During the harvest, at the estate I managed, I worried whether the company I had engaged would send me a team when I needed it, or favor some more famous estate and make me wait to pick. Would they send the dozen pickers they promised or fewer? Were the teams selecting the healthy bunches as I had instructed or were the rumors about unskilled external teams true?
Some days, with the internal team, I worked alongside the hired teams picking grapes, in what strikes me as a not-very-nuanced, typically American way of trying to motivate and inspire. It was 2017, temperatures neared 40° during the day, and for a few days, I even brought boxes of ice cream to the harvesting teams in the afternoon. But I soon noticed that the teams and foreman were different every day, and I stopped trying to train or inspire anyone. I felt powerless to impact the quality of the work, yet I still didn’t see a connection between the price I had paid per hectare and the relatively unresponsive teams and high turnover. Luckily, picking grapes is one of the easiest vineyard tasks, and we finished the harvest without problems. When we planned the budget for the following year, I let the viticulturalist choose which work to outsource and to whom, the only constraint being that he keep costs unchanged.
There is enormous pressure on wineries from importers, restaurants, wine shops and consumers to keep prices as low as possible. It is easy to recognise an Amazon-like zero sum game in which low prices benefit consumers and hurt workers, which in cases such as that of Passalacqua’s father, got taken to the extreme of “caporelato,” outright maltreatment and abuse of workers. The Passalacqua wines stood out exactly because their prices were significantly lower-than-average in the natural wine category. It may cost less to make wine in Puglia than it does in Tuscany, despite national wage laws, and Ms. Passalacqua may have simply capitalised on that and on the rarity of natural wines from Puglia to rise to prominence and popularity. Still, wineries and consumers will not ultimately be able to avoid the question of how to fairly and profitably balance the interests of all stakeholders.
The value of incremental quality in agriculture can seem marginal. What difference can a well-placed, well-angled cut to a young vine in February have on a bottle made from grapes harvested eight months later and drunk years afterward? And yet, Daro, Andrea, Sherif, Samuele, and the wineries that hire them, believe in it. In a sector as competitive as Tuscan wine, they have all staked their livelihoods on the cumulative impact of well-trained, well-equipped, motivated employees on vineyard, vine, grape and ultimately wine quality, and on consumers recognising its value.
 Migrant workers, typically from Eastern Europe or Africa, come to Italy on a temporary, maximum-nine-months visa. Immigrants move to Italy permanently obtaining either longer-term visas or citizenship. The labor teams are a gateway for migrant workers to immigrate to Italy, not least because their managers can help navigate the immigration bureaucracy.
At the end of May, I could finally go back to my friend’s winery, where I am keeping the tanks and barrels of the 2019 wines I made. For almost three months, I had been confined to my home, leaving only for groceries every few days. Once, in April, I had risked a contravention and driven to the winery to check for major problems—a leaky tank seal or barrel, say. Now I was going back to taste each lot, worried about finding them reduced, or, on the contrary, oxidised.
After the first twenty or thirty minutes of moving around the cellar, something felt strangely familiar. I had walked in and changed into rubber boots and an apron, to keep my feet dry and jeans clean from spattered must—acidic stains that are virtually impossible to remove. I had unsealed the tank covers and lifted them off the wine, being careful not to let the dust that had accumulated on top fall into the tank. I had rinsed a bucket, pitcher and glass and opened a valve on the first tank, catching some wine, tasting it and spitting it outside on the gravel. I had noted my impressions in my booklet. Then I had rinsed the valve and moved to the next tank. I had tasted the wine in each barrel, too, removing the rubber plug, dipping the wine thief in (a long, glass pipette) and sluicing the wine into my glass. Before closing the barrel, I had wiped its mouth and rinsed and replaced the plug, sometimes after topping up with some tank wine so that the surface area of wine fully exposed to oxygen within the barrel remained at a minimum.
While doing all of this, I was acutely aware of the air—of how much of the wine was exposed to the air for how long. Barrels give wine oxygen—slowly and gently. Sealed tanks, on the other hand, shouldn’t permit any oxygen to reach the wine. When tasting, I was looking for even a slight note of oxidation—a hint of a sherry or madeira smell or taste that would suggest the young wines had evolved too fast, drunk—as it were—to much oxygen. At the same time, I was testing for reduction, looking for the odors associated with too little access to oxygen, or more precisely, too much exposure to the wine’s own dead or dying yeasts.
I was aware, also, of bacteria, with which the cellar and the wines are of course full, especially right after the harvest, when the musts are torrid and rich. By now, the wines had clarified significantly and the lab results had come back “clean” of bacteria, which simply meant their amounts were below the perception threshold. But they are there, living and breeding, and it was to be my job for the next few months to nurture the wines toward a stable equilibrium, one that would keep the bacteria levels low forever, keep the wine from turning to vinegar and yet still let its tannins slowly polymerize, its texture grow smoother, its complexity multiply.
Consciousness of the air as necessary but possibly dangerous, of bacteria on things or in liquids, is a version of heightened sensitivity that I usually feel only in the cellar. The other day, though, I realised that since the Coronavirus crisis, we have all begun to think about what we can’t see—in the air, on surfaces, in liquids. We question what before we had implicitly trusted.
I was full of trepidation going back to the cellar after so many weeks away. The wines tasted unfamiliar to me; they had continued their evolution, developing aromas and flavors and textures of nine-month old wines—no longer newborns. It took a few cellar visits and tastings to get to know them in their new state, to trust them again, to remind myself of their qualities and limits.
There was much talk during lockdown of the post-COVID world, of how different it would be, and of how it would be different. We would not go out to eat, people said, and kissed greetings were over. But now that Italy has mostly re-opened, things have gone pretty much back to the way they were. For the first few days, no one shook hands, restaurants were empty, meetings continued online. Now, more than a month into re-opening, we’ve gone back to hugging our friends, and the local pizza place is full. We trust one another again, or better or worse.
Quarantine in Tuscany—like quarantine in the countryside elsewhere, I imagine—is not that bad, especially given the fine weather that March 2020 is giving us. My yard has never looked better: the roses are pruned and tied and sprayed with copper; the vegetable garden is sprouting fava beans, peas and Swiss chard; my older daughter, home from university in Milan, is keeping the lawn mowed short. The same is true for the house. A few days of cold weather last week gave me ample time for the chores that get postponed during the high-speed train ride that is the usual winter school-work-socialising rhythm. The girls are relaxed: the middle-schooler and the college junior follow on-line lessons: the former stays in her pjs and nibbles on Nutella cookies while participating in class chats led by her teachers; the latter sits in the sun in her bikini with her laptop watching lectures conducted by her professors from their homes up north. They both miss their friends, and I miss my parents and sister: online socialising quickly wears thin. But my daughters are here, a situation that became instantly twice as precious the day the older one left for college two years ago. So I confess, over the bassocontinuo of a Puritan sense of guilt at not striving for more, I love these days.
And yet. “M, 66, Pistoia; M, 89, Barberino; F, 100, Chiusi; M, 58, Livorno…” and so on through yesterday’s 16 Tuscan victims read La Nazione Siena this morning. I thought of all the grandparents that gather outside my daughter’s school at pick-up time, of how they arrive early and wait proudly, of how their grandchildren slip comfortably into their care. I thought of the old men talking on Piazza della Posta near the tractor or two displayed at the Wednesday morning market, giving opinions and recommendations regarding the growing season, the-all-important topic in a community that is still tied to agriculture. I thought of childless Sig. Barnetti who has lived and worked on a friend’s estate for 67 years, who speaks of my friend as of a son, though more indulgently, I suspect, and who often claims, teasingly, that the estate without him will fail. I thought of our local hairdresser, who recently celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the opening of her salon, and of her mostly-older customers on their weekly visits for a wash and set, of their combined knowledge of our town and of its inhabitants—whole family histories, witnessed in decades of bits of small talk. I thought of Sig.ra Panini, who taught me to make migliacci the first winter I lived in Tuscany, of Zia Gina, who showed me how to use the old foot-pump sewing machine to mend horse blankets and saddle pads, of my daughter’s grandmother singing “Ninna nanna ninna oh, questa bimba a chi la do?” while she rocked my baby to sleep. I thought of all the people, sick or dying alone, of their terrified and grief-stricken families, and finally of Italy itself—poor Italy—what did she do to deserve this, other than open her arms and let the whole world in?
A recording of a Sienese man singing his city’s anthem, Mentre Siena Dorme, went viral last week, even making it into a CNN report on Italians’ response to the crisis. As I listened, the sole male voice intoning the notes of the anthem, confined to three of four different, close pitches, reminded me of Medieval plainchant, and the acoustics of the empty stone street pictured in the video echoed those of the province’s churches. I was humbled by what I seemed to hear in that voice: a deep awareness of the tragedy around us, combined with a cruelly ironic consciousness that the world can dole out much worse, and therefore, a stoicism, a resistance to being too moved by events of the present day.
If you want to break the ice with Tuscans, there is one sure way to do it: complain. About Italy, preferably. About institutions, as often as possible. About the weather—always. As long as you are getting ripped off, treated unfairly, used or abused, the Tuscans will open their hearts to you. If, on the other hand, you are happy to pick up the tab, if you exercise control over any aspect of your life, or God forbid, you are carefree or American, you will be lonely here.
Case in point: There’s a café in Siena that serves “Tuscan tapas,” artisanal cocktails and an interesting selection of wines, where I like to stop with guests or meet friends a couple of times a month. A good friend of mine is a childhood friend of the owners’. They catered my daughter’s 18th birthday dinner dance (cash, got it?). Their cook and I are Facebook friends! Dammit, I should have an in.
The two owners, though, are cooler-than-thou. Both relatively tall and thin, one is trendily bald and the other has a trendy, graying ponytail. They wear baggy jeans and designer tee-shirts, and they vape. They remind me of a certain group of boys in my high-school class: laid back to the exclusion of speech and movement.
But the other night, I cracked the whole façade, and wound up, to my surprise and at least momentary delight, having an entire conversation with Ponytail himself. We started talking trash—literally: we lamented that there was no household trash collection and that we’re forced to lug our garbage bags to the inevitably distant and inconvenient roadside bins; that we overpay for the sporadic emptying of those bins; that the province’s efforts at trash separation and recycling are doomed. I complained about my 2014 trash bill, which had managed to track me down despite my not having registered my new address anywhere. The invoice offered a 20% discount, for, um, paying, which we agreed was a sure sign no one did. Ponytail regaled me with stories of midnight visits to his village’s dumpsters with unsorted trash: he couldn’t be bothered to wait on line at the central depot to pick up the color-coded trash bags that have now become de rigueur.
Then, while we were on the general topic of incompetence and bad ideas, I lit into Fiat, admittedly not as unilaterally unpopular a target as the local government, but a solvent multi-national and therefore a clear force for evil in the world. My gripe: the law that forbids newly licensed drivers from taking the wheel of any vehicle more powerful than 75kW for their first year on the road. My claim: the law was made at the expense of consumers simply to encourage the sale of Fiats. What an entrée this was!
“But a small car can be had so cheaply! Just look on line,” Ponytail offered.
“I did, but I need to buy from a dealer, and it has to be in Siena,” I explained. “So I can trade in my current car, and so, when something goes wrong with the new, used one, I can easily take it back and proverbially throw it in their face.”
“Why not go private?” he asked.
“I’m a woman.”
“So?” he said.
“I’m American,” I added.
“So?” he repeated.
“Do you see me haggling with Mario Muscles in my shrillest Americano-Italiano to get my money back when the car breaks down a hundred meters out of his driveway?”
“Maybe you’re better off with a dealer.” Exactly.
I pointed out what a shame it was to sell my (essentially worthless but safe and reliable) ten-year-old Golf, with its unfortunate 110kW, to buy a smaller, more expensive car that my daughter will drive for only the next eight months. (She goes to the US in the summer and to college next fall, by which time she’ll have had her license for over a year anyway.)
“Only eight months?” Ponytail exclaimed. “Non ti conviene.” It’s not worth it, he said. “Just let her drive the Golf. What are the chances anyway of getting stopped?” Our exchange led to a typical Italian conclusion (ignore the rules), a typical Italian perk (a discount on the drinks) and an atypical Tuscan farewell: Ponytail smiled! (The cook once smiled at me but was evidently reprimanded because now he consistently smirks.)
The thing about all this complaining is that the Tuscans are some of the most satisfied people I know. Here, no one seems very ambitious: they do the (very secure, low-paying) jobs they have, they hang out with their families and stay loyal to their friends, and they revel in the daily routine. All over Tuscany, at 1:00pm bowls of spaghetti are eaten, after which the euphemistic siestas are taken, and all’s right with the world.
This fall, for the first time in 11 years, I was not going to make wine, and so I stopped caring about the weather. Let it rain. Let it freeze. Let the sun come out and sizzle the grapes on the vine. I wasn’t worried about which parcel to harvest. I wasn’t getting up at dawn to walk the rows tasting grapes. My back wasn’t sore from lifting crates, and I wasn’t working late into the night at the selection table. Thank God.
Then I walked into my neighbor’s cellar pungent with the aromas of yeast and CO2, the echoes of tank ladders and loose hoses clanking, the smell of marc, the wine-stained tiles. I almost burst into tears.
As luck would have it, that night at a dinner party, I sat across from a friend, Piero, with a farm in Chianti, who asked me if I knew anyone who wanted to buy a few tons of grapes.
“Why are you selling?” I asked.
“My brother and I don’t know how to make wine,” he said, “let alone sell it. We’re planning to take out the vineyard but we want to sell the last crop.”
I knew the village where he farmed but wanted to know more about the vineyard: “How high?” I asked him.
“400 meters.” That was all it took to fall in love.
Two days later, I went to see the object of my desire: a few acres on a steep, south-facing slope, with—where soil should have lain—layers of splintering galestro, the schist-like rock that is found in the appellation’s best vineyards.
It was a warm, sunny, late September afternoon. I walked the rows of vines planted by Piero’s grandfather in 1970. The vine training method looked like rows of bad haircuts; the grapes tasted diluted. Piero showed me the cramped cellar with its old, cement tanks. I tasted the 2015 and 2014 wines untouched since their fermentations: the musts had been over-worked, but a hint of something noble came through. Typical of the smitten, I was already dismissing potential problems and latching onto hope: the hope that from this vineyard I could make wines as elegant and mouthwatering as the Burgundies I nursed and studied in the evening.
Out of a self-protective negotiating habit, I hid my enthusiasm and told Piero I’d let him know. I knew if I went ahead, the next few weeks would be utter chaos: harvesting from dawn to dusk, a daily visit to the cellar to check the fermentations, taste each tank, pump over the wines if needed. I’d have to find barrels at short notice. I wanted to photograph and film and write down each step of the process. How would I manage my day job? The kids? Maybe it was saner to walk away.
I held out twelve hours before calling Piero to gush about the quality of the site, the charm of the little cellar, the beauty of the current vintage, and to describe how together we were going to revolutionize Italian wine making–show up the Italian enologist “mafia,” open people’s eyes. I explained how the oenophiles would flock to see his vineyard. I ran through the costs for him and the potential earnings (at least three times the yield from selling the grapes, if we split the profits). I called around to find people to harvest the next day, and after lunch, I went back to Piero’s to help him wash the de-stemmer and set-up. I was donning my Wellies, when Piero’s mother, a small, prim old woman came onto the terrace above the cellar and peered down at us.
“Piero!” she hollered.
“Eh,” he muttered, looking up.
“Buonasera, Signora,” I offered. She did not acknowledge my presence.
“Your brother makes a commitment,” she continued to bellow, “And you shit on it!”
“Huh?” Piero said.
I had never heard the particular expression she used, let alone from an 80-year old woman!
Piero’s brother had gone to the Consorzio del Chianti Classico the week before to check on the price he could get by selling the grapes. According to Piero’s mother, he had signed a contract to do so, although normally no such contract is needed and, even if signed, it was probably not binding. He could always have said the boars had eaten the grapes.
But I knew it was too late. My dream would die there.
A few days later, again at a dinner with Piero, he mused on how different people’s values can be. What’s important to his mother and brother (50 years old, never left home, works for a local winery rather than on his own farm), is not to disrupt the day, the routine, the way things are. To resist change, at all cost. And to prevent others from bringing about change as well.
Now that the harvest is over (Piero’s brother didn’t lend a hand), it seems it may be possible to come to an agreement for next year’s harvest. I could officially lease the vineyard and cellar, or Piero and his girlfriend and I could form a company to buy the grapes. I could prune the vines this winter the way I want to, green harvest in July to reduce yields and concentrate the grapes, organize the vendemmia and order my barrels in advance. I’m wary of Piero’s mother–What will it take to win her over? Plus, I’m still just a tiny bit sad. 2016 was a gorgeous vintage and, as any winemaker knows, there’s no one like Mother Nature for making great wine.
My boyfriend didn’t want a dog. We got one, and now the boyfriend lives in New York. My ex-husband advised against getting a second dog. We got a second dog, too, and he’s still my ex-husband. My daughters, on the other hand, wanted a dog more than anything in the world, and after two years of house breaking, leash training, dog whispering, and dog chewing-of-MacBook-power-cables-and-Italian-designer-shoes, we are one big, happy family.
Except not so happy that the dogs never try to run away. If I accidentally leave the gate open, their preferred course of escape is directly down the 800-yard driveway, out from behind a blind curve and across the road to the neighbors’ lawn where their ducks hang out. The first time they did this, I ran after them, planning the contrite apology, the purchase of new ducks (the frying up of the freshly-killed ones, too), the months of tension with the neighbors, only to arrive there and find my two 80-pound dogs sniffing hesitantly after a commanding-looking duck, while the neighbor clutched at his chest.
It’s planting season in Tuscany, the time of year I think of my role-model and rival in all things green: Mario, my former father-in-law.
When I came to Tuscany in January 2001, Mario had just retired, and he and my-mother-in-law still lived in Siena. He would come out to our house in the country for the day, though, and I would cook him lunch, a primo and a secondo, which he ate in the upstairs kitchen while I stared at him across the table and tried to make out what he said in those first weeks of submersion in Italian. “Don’t bother,” my husband said. “He garbles. No one understands a word.”
Sixteen at the outbreak of war, Mario never had to fight, because his father had been wounded in the First World War. His parents were farmers, so Mario and his brother Marcello kept on eating chickens and eggs and vegetables throughout the war, while in town food was scarce, only really waking up to the conflict when a bomb dropped through their roof, down through the floor of their bedroom into the kitchen, rolled out the door and across the lawn and came to a stop at the edge of the woods, unexploded. The four of them, and soon the neighbors, stood in a circle around it, staring skeptically and wondering what to do. Finally, Mario and Marcello picked it up and carried it into the woods.*