Cozying Up

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.

yellow bags of trashBut 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.

Sweet Dreams

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.

Dog Days

two white dogs at the gateMy 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.

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Growing Green


vegetables
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.*

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Paring Down

Mid-winter is belt-tightening season, literally and figuratively, everywhere except in Tuscany. The Tuscans eat just as much now as they do during the holidays, partially because, with the last feast, Epiphany, falling on January 6th, and Carnevale starting, some years, hardly a month later, there is no post-holiday season, and partly because the three- or four-course meals they enjoy over the holidays continue at family Sunday lunches all year round. So the belt stays on the same hole year round. Figuratively speaking, there is no household budget trimming either in the wake of Christmas, because frugality is like religion here—touching everything and everyone.

Before moving to Tuscany, my idea of frugal living was mid-1990s New York on a legal assistant’s salary—i.e., I couldn’t afford to go to Dorian’s every night of the week. The Tuscans, though, have taught me to interpret the term more strictly.

One of the first things my future mother-in-law noticed when I moved here was the price tag on some dish soap I had bought: “It’s thirty cents less at the other supermarket,” she pointed out helpfully. She also taught me how to save at the dry cleaners: “Just have them clean the skirt, not iron it. You can do that yourself,” which got me 50% off.

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La Caccia

The hunters and hounds that traipse through the wheat fields and oak forests around our house on fall and winter mornings drive our dogs–Maremman shepherds–crazy: the dogs were bred to defend the flock, so the approach of strangers makes them nervous. By January, though, at the end of the five-month hunting season, their barking has become such a familiar background noise that my daughters and I can often sleep through not only that but the regular booms of distant shots being fired. The quiet is surprising, when it finally comes in February.

In Massachusetts, where I grew up, hunting was not a particularly classy endeavor—certainly in my parents’ circle of liberal friends, if they mentioned it at all, it was without first hand experience and in a tone of derision. In Europe, of course, hunting has the opposite reputation, having been the exclusive privilege of the nobility until after the French revolution.dining room

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