On the wall of our new house hang the nails the previous owners put up for their pictures. The other day, standing among the boxes filling the dining room, I reached down and unpacked a plate that had hung in my old house—an antique porcelain plate, cool white with magenta roses on part of the rim. It was still dusty from our comings and goings in the old house, from the ashes of the fires we lit there, from the fine, yellowish dirt that got whipped up and about in that windy place.
I hung it on a nail, admiring it, enjoying its shape, the brushwork of the roses, its translucent rim. I remembered finding it at an antique fair among similar but slightly bulkier or brighter or darker plates that I would never have bought. I thought about the moment in which the previous owner had hung whatever he had hung on that nail, twenty or thirty or fifty years earlier, and I glimpsed, too, the cliché of my children packing the plate and the rest of it back up again one day. Still, I would decorate this room and the rest of the house as I had the old one, with plates and chairs and rugs chosen by me for their particular look and feel. The items would lend our lives grace, warmth, a certain hue. We would eat supper with this plate, maybe, hanging near us, for years to come. The dust would collect again. Something was descending through the ages, I felt, and we would be a part of it.
There was a certain hilarity to my cherishing these objects, I knew, to the joy I found in those pretty, senseless things, in the feeling of plucking them out of oblivion, bringing them into my warm home, giving them a place.
I felt sharply the ridiculousness of my actions. Like that of the owners before me, my creation would live for a mere instant, relative to the life of the house and the rest. I did not, for that moment, fear death, but I felt deeply sad that the evenings together, that our moments in this house would some day be cut short, that I could not go on enjoying it all, go on enjoying what I felt I had just started to savor, that it—or rather, I—would end.
At the fairgrounds, my daughter watches others compete until the last minute, and then has to rush to tack up. The sheen of her boots or whether she remembers her gloves don’t worry her—she has ridden a horse five or six days a week for most of the past decade so the ceremonial aspects barely register. In the warm-up ring, while other instructors shout last minute advice, hers—in a knobby knit hat and fluorescent sneakers—only nods. Cantering around, my daughter holds her shoulders at an angle that evokes her father, more even than the expression on her face does—one of focus on the movement, of consciousness of a flow through her and through the horse as if through one body. She jumps an oxer, then she and her horse exit the tent and cross the piazza to the competition arena.
When she was six months old, I would hand her up to her father atop King and he would ride out into the meadow, one hand holding her in the saddle and the other holding the reins. As soon as she could walk, she liked to feed King his oats, holding the bucket while he ate. Later, she rode while her father held a lead line, and soon, he unhooked the rope and she rode by herself, while he watched from the center of the paddock, the horse–mystifyingly to me–obeying the commands of those little limbs.
My sister taught me to ride when I was 7 or 8, in our paddock at home, on her Appaloosa, and until I came to Italy at the age of 31, my only other occasion to ride was an ill-conceived gallop through the Fontainebleau forest while studying in France, for which my group was upbraided by the owner of the sweat-drenched, foamy-mouth, terrified horses we had borrowed for the afternoon. Still, when I moved to Italy, I agreed to ride, if only to flank my new husband in his favorite pursuit.
That first winter, he would home from work at lunch time, and we would ride together, in the ring set up in the olive orchard, on a terrace that eventually became part of our vineyard, or we would set off through the wooded hills behind our house, our horses equally as surefooted on the wet leaves and moss-covered rocks of the outward bound stretch as over the muddied, boar-ravaged fields of the charge toward home. A mile or two from our property was a 17th-century villa and its private woods, hundreds of acres of wide trails dotted with stone grotesques, intersecting at carved grottos or archways, crowned by a hermitage at the top of a steep, rocky trail that afforded a view of the back of the villa, its formal gardens, our property lower down and the valley below, all the way to the Monte Amiata south of Siena.
My husband never said where we were headed, nor would he agree to a set time limit for our ride, thereby enhancing the sense of adventure. His horse, Russ, was skittish and reared or tried to take off if a pheasant rose from the brush, whereas mine was calm, though she tripped occasionally, due to an old injury, sending me forward hard onto her neck if I was distracted. My husband reassured me: if I stayed with her, I would be fine.
He participated in weekend shows, all over Tuscany, for which I would pack a picnic lunch while he loaded his horse and his tack into the trailer. I watched him compete in Arezzo, Migliarino and Pontedera, hanging on the ring’s barrier in wintery winds or cracking heat, Russ’s sheer size making their grace all the more moving to me. He never bothered to braid Russ’s mane, and he wore a tweed jacket rather than the regulation white britches and dark coat—and won all the same.
My (now ex-) husband learned to ride as an adult, although he had always wanted a horse, and grew up in what must be one of the most horse-loving cities in the world, Siena. He was clever and courageous with horses out of necessity: he could not afford high quality jumpers. He had bought Russ from his friend and competitor Alessandro when a stress fracture to Russ’s hind hoof was revealed: Russ might never suffer an outright injury but nor could he be sold for the mid-five figures that his breeding merited. And he bought King, an Irish thoroughbred, as a two-year old, after he had been discarded as a race horse, for a thousand euro.
Over the years, I paid close attention to horses and riders at practices and at the shows we went to, to figure out what makes for a good technique—how the rider holds herself, the angle of her back, the length of the reins, where she looks; how the horse holds its head, whether he jumps way over the rail or barely clears it, how tight his turns are. I thought that, eventually, I’d be able to comment if not expertly than at least without saying the absolute wrong thing. But whenever I’m convinced I’m watching a rider whose reins are too long and a horse that’s slow and disobedient, my daughter will say under her breath, “She’s rides well,” or “Cavallo bravissimo!” In the wine business, where I’ve spent most of my professional life, you can learn a lot through direct observation—looking, smelling, tasting. It would seem that with horses, it’s different, because after all these years, I really can’t tell the Thoroughbreds from the nags, the novice riders from the champions.
On the other hand, I’ve become an expert on fairground comforts, having figured out that Pontedera has better cappuccino but that Arezzo’s tramezzini win out. Arezzo is more chic, too, with large, sandy, white-fenced rings, snug stalls and boutiques where, as I’ve learned first hand, you can pay double for a crop to substitute the one you forget to bring.
At the barn or at shows, I try to emulate the horse moms who were or are riders themselves. I offer to comb out the tail, fasten the girth, or give my daughter a leg up. I would be proud to lead the horse around for a cool down or a warm up or, heck, a show off! But, usually, my daughter steps around me, suggests I go get a cup of coffee or reminds me to take a video when she rides, so I head out to ringside to watch the others, until my daughter enters the ring. I have seen her ride a hundred times, and yet, when they trot in, I am always struck by their beauty, my daughter’s long legs, her sharp glance and the soft curls under her hat, King’s narrow shoulders and elegant proportions, the arc of his neck—poetry in motion.
Immobile, in Italian, has two meanings, one, “unmoving,” just like its English equivalent, and two, a “property or real estate asset.” The two meanings have converged for me recently, in an unmoving way.
This morning, I locked myself in the bathroom. It had been one of those weeks: we’re moving house—actually, I am moving house, my teenage daughter and my boyfriend having done less to help with the move than our pet fish, which, after being transported sloshing and slopping IN its aquarium (my idea) to the new house, spent a week leering at me from the bottom left corner, in that fishy way it has, as if complaining about its new quarters.
My daughter has been complaining more explicitly. “This house sucks!” has become her mantra, the house having replaced me as the reason for all her problems—arriving late for school, forgetting a textbook, not being able to find THE ONLY JEANS she will wear—this last actually a reasonable accusation given that we do not have a working washing machine.
We had been living in limbo, our old house already missing sofas, chairs and tables, our new house still without beds or appliances, all thanks to my now-clearly-reckless plan to do most of the moving “ourselves,” in an interval of eight weeks between the two days for which I hired a moving company. After a few weeks of going back to the old house to do laundry, the movers finally brought my extra-large washer to the new house, carried it upstairs and attached it. It would not start, however, and I discovered that the water supply to the laundry room was turned off. Undaunted, using a wrench, I experimented with opening and closing various valves—to no avail. Then, the other day, I noticed there was another washer attachment downstairs, but now there’s no one around to move that monster back down. I have, however, managed to drill some holes in the laundry room wall and hang clotheslines, so we are fully prepared to dry clothes whenever it becomes possible to wash them.
The kitchen came much better equipped. There’s an oven—“brand new” according to the former owners–which I keenly tried out on the first night we spent in the house. It has a number of quixotic features, including a handle on its door that heats to the same temperature as the oven itself and an internal space unencumbered by racks. I could have lived with these eccentricities, but the oven also short-circuits the entire property. As the technician revealed on his 100-Euro visit, although the oven was indeed new, it had sat unused for so long that its “resistenza,” or heating element, had failed. A new one was ordered, and when he brought it, the technician not only charged me another 100 Euro but immediately diagnosed what was wrong with the dishwasher, which has been leaving a grainy film of churned up food bits on whatever I load. The silverware basket was interfering with the circular motion of the spray arm: first, I tried cutting off its handle (Do not try this at home!) and when that didn’t work, I abandoned the basket, scattered the knives and forks around in the top level and pressed start. The spray arm still didn’t turn, though, because it was blocked by dinner plates. I had assumed a dishwasher was equipped to handle a standard nine-and-a-half inch plate—were plates smaller in the old days when the dishwasher was born? Hidden upside: without plates encumbering the dishwasher, the scattered silverware comes out much cleaner.
The lack of WiFi at the new house would normally be driving me nuts—you’d think I’d need it to run my business–but I haven’t had time to run my business—I’m too busy moving!–so being off the grid is mostly fine. In any case, the 1.8 mega-byte per second cell network happily accommodates what I have been doing instead: hate-texting with the movers. They were friendly at first, but they took a three-hour lunch break one hour into an eight-hour work day, which in itself is fine—a man’s gotta eat! What irked me was that they had rented me a fancy moving truck with a crane for those same eight hours, the operator of which they accidentally took with them on the lunch-break marathon. He had to eat too, as the firm texted me back. At that, I stooped to texting a long paragraph (always a sign of losing the upper hand) to point out that my employees have regular lunch breaks, too, -regular in the sense both of daily but also of “at a normal hour,” i.e., not at “10 IN THE F@#%ing MORNING!!!!@#?!”
I’ve been trying to point out to my daughter all the advantages of the new house. Most of the other appliances function. The doorbell, for instance, rings when you push its button, although it may feel marginalised by now since the front door no longer closes. The lock started giving me trouble, so I had the handy man take it apart, because I was afraid I’d get locked out. He put it back together, but got a key stuck in it so that it no longer turns, which together with the swelling of the old, long-unused wooden door, leaves the entrance looking very welcoming, as if it were signalling in an underworld code, “Come rob this house.”
A permanently open front door would worry me from an ecological standpoint, but “It isn’t winter yet,” as my electrician keeps telling at me when I call him to come and unblock the boiler that he certified on the day I moved in for 150 Euro and which stopped working as he drove off. Stopped working is maybe too harsh a way to describe the boiler’s recent behavior: it does work after I reset it, for an hour or so, but I spent more time resetting the boiler last week than I did washing dishes by hand, so the jury is out.
Other than the front one, doors are mostly not a problem, except for a few of which I had to remove the handles—the inside or outside handle kept dropping to the floor upon closure, risking leaving someone closed in or out of a room, but without any closing mechanism at all, it would be impossible to get trapped. Except I did, this morning, in the bathroom: I had forgotten to remove the outside handle and was now locked inside.
Maybe it’s for the best, I thought. I can take a long shower, and someone will eventually find me. Alas, the boiler needed re-setting so there wasn’t any hot water.
Early in 2021, after a protracted search for a piece of land with old Sangiovese vines and the right kind of sub-soils, I bought a two-acre vineyard. Except I didn’t: according to ARTEA, the regional agricultural database, the land where the vineyard stands is a wheat field. Before buying, I explained this to the owner in the hope of getting him to lower his price. He did not argue with my logic—of course, if the land were a wheat field it would be worth less–-but he insisted I was wrong about how the land was classified in ARTEA: his vineyard was recognized as such by the Tuscan region. He knew this because, some years ago, he had been subject to a fine on the basis of a vineyard-related issue. He could not recall what the issue was, nor did he have the paperwork at hand, but he remembered the amount: €218. “Look again,” he suggested. That’s when the real fun started.
I figured that to gain the upper-hand in our negotiations, I needed to show him the printed certificate from ARTEA that listed his land holdings as wheat fields, but he, as owner, was the only one who could request the certificate. Was a 75-year old farmer without a bank account or a cell phone, going to call ARTEA (the main number is always busy), navigate the menu to find the person who could grant his request for a land use certificate, and provide an email address to which that could be sent, all so he could sell me his land at a lower price?
You guessed it, I stopped trying to negotiate and agreed to his price.
When I transferred the deed, I noted that the land use indicated for the plot I had bought was simply “arable land.” The local office of the farmers’ union set me up as a farm entity, and we agreed to update the land use to “vineyard” as soon as possible. Then the growing season started, and I was busy pruning, tying, mowing grass, monitoring pests and handling all the work that goes into producing healthy grapes for the harvest–-working, in short, in my vineyard.
At the end of October, when I finally had all of the grapes from the 2021 harvest in the cellar, and most of the tanks were winding down their fermentations, it was time to quantify the production and file a record with ARTEA of grapes and wine produced.
I called the farmers’ union office for help making my first grape and wine production declaration. I explained that the yield was fairly low, because the vineyard was old. (75 years ago, vines were planted interspersed with fruit trees like olives, apricots and apples, and in far-apart rows, between which wheat or barley was sown.) Sig. Bondi, the union office manager, pulled up my farm’s file on his computer.
“You can’t have produced any grapes,” he said, “because you don’t have a vineyard.”
“Ha ha,” I answered, trying to move on. “I produced about 500 litres of red wine and 400 of white,” I explained, which, given the permitted grape-to-wine ratio of 69%, meant that I had produced about 740 kg of red and 580 kg of white grapes.
“Ms. Macy,” Sig. Bondi interrupted, “you cannot make a grape declaration if you don’t own a vineyard.”
He had opened GoogleEarth to my vineyard’s coordinates. “Where did the grapes actually come from?” he asked—did he actually wink or did I imagine it?
“From my vineyard!” I protested. “Just below the olive orchard on the dirt road labelled ‘strada del Casello,’ you can see the vineyard rows quite clearly.”
“Those are olive trees,” he said.
“Nope,” I said. “They’re pear trees—non-fruit-bearing trees planted 75 years ago as supports for the vines. Those tufts of green are the tips of the pear trees, blocking the view of the vines from above.”
“ARTEA will never accept that,” he informed me.
“They don’t have to,” I said. “They can come and see that along each row, a hundred vines are planted.”
“ARTEA doesn’t pay visits,” Sig. Bondi said. “They use GoogleEarth.”
I launched into a defense of my vineyard: its age and importance as to how viticulture was once conducted in Tuscany, the quality of the wines that could be obtained from grapes from 75-year old vines, the growing interest around the world in preserving old vines, the prices, even, that old-vine wines could obtain. I offered to send digital photos with GPS coordinates and to have a notarized report prepared—but it was no use. Sig. Bondi would load my photos into the ARTEA database and request the update to the land use, but for the 2021 vintage, I would not be able to make a production declaration.
The amount of wine produced in Italy–-in Tuscany and in each of its appellations–-is controlled by limiting how many vines can be planted, how many kilos of grapes can be produced on each vine, and how many liters of wine can be made from a kilo of grapes. The assumption is that if volume isn’t controlled, every Tom, Dick and Harry will run outside and plant a vineyard (that has kinda happened anyway), overcrop it (plenty of that going on) and water down the wines (not the worst way wines are doctored in the cellar) to maximize production volumes. Quality will be adversely affected, customers will get ripped off, and Tuscan wine will get a bad reputation. It might be easier to let the market limit volumes—I have faith that wines from badly overcropped vines to which water has been added in a high proportion won’t keep a winery in business very long, but no wine regions agree with me, so I have to live with the rules.
In Italy, I find, time and again, that what counts is the paperwork. As businesses have been forced to comply with new laws for the containment of Covid, for example, I’ve noticed, at the entrance to office buildings, a table with hand sanitizer, an electric thermometer and a registry of visitors, their body temperatures and their phone numbers—except there are never any names on the list. I’ve noticed in cafés a sign requiring the Green Pass for indoor service—except most of the time, no one asks to see it. Even in my winery, there’s a cleaning log posted at the entrance, on which my colleague or I sign off each morning that we have fully disinfected all surfaces in the winery. My workplace safety consultant keeps reminding me to make sure the new wine cellar is compliant — “especially on paper.” It often seems the paperwork is more important than the actual compliance: in the vineyard, the grapes were healthy and the wines are beautiful–-but the paperwork is wrong.
Think of it this way: my 2021 wines were born, they just don’t have a birth certificate. I will find a way to legitimise them, no doubt with the help of the farmers’ union–-who may be able to issue me the right piece of paper. In the meantime, I’ve never enjoyed drinking wheat with my dinner as much as I do these days.
Tuscany has some glorious terrains, with the potential to make wines on par with great Burgundies. We’realso blessed with an indigenous varietal—Sangiovese—that can make wines that are headily aromatic, lusciously tangy and ethereally delicate. All of that starts in the vineyard—actually under it, with a deep understanding of the nature of the land.
Yet Tuscan wines historically were not and for the most part still aren’t being made with the terrain foremost in mind, the way those in Burgundy are. To begin with, estate owners don’t necessarily know their land well, because they don’t farm it directly: centuries of sharecropping kept estates large and their owners far from the soil. No wonder that today there is little consensus as to which soils produce the best grapes and even less awareness of just how rare those soils are.
A few years ago, I inherited a cellar of wine from Burgundy, mostly Côte de Nuits, mostly Premier Crus with some Grands Crus and Villages thrown in. The bottles came from a group of two-dozen or so domains, wineries such as Mugneret-Gibourg, de Vogüe, Pousse d’Or, Raphet, Arlaud, Magnien, Dureuil-Janthial, from the 1990s and early 2000s. These bottles became my education in wine: they calibrated my palate to delicacy, subtlety and nuance. As anyone knows who has been lucky enough to spend a few years drinking exclusively Burgundy, almost anything else starts to taste clunky and dumbed-down by comparison. All too soon, I had finished most of the Burgundies–and could certainly not afford to replace them! I wanted to go on drinking wines like those—I was spoiled. I couldn’t imagine NOT having a glass or two of these beauties in the evening–so I took the rather radical step of deciding to try and make wines like them.
I had tasted Italian wines which I classed with top Burgundies: aged Sangioveses from Castell’in Villa, from Sugarille (Gaja’s estate in Montalcino) or from Soldera, that had that mouthwatering tanginess, delicacy and persistence which I loved. I had also experienced these sensations tasting some just-fermented Sangiovese in 2009 at a winery in Chianti Classico that sits on an outcropping of pure limestone. I knew the potential was there in the local varietal and in the soil. Thus, the concept of Fanciulle (fan-choo’-lay)Vini was born.
Make no mistake: the geology of Tuscany is known. Based on a geological map of Tuscany made in the 1960s, I was able to identify half a dozen different sub-soils that seemed promising in terms of their potential to grow grapes with complexity and a distinctive taste. I researched and, over the next several months, contacted wineries that had vineyards planted on these soils. I negotiated to buy grapes from them, which I fermented in small tanks, side-by-side, in my own cellar, so that I could be sure the wines were kept pure. Two years later, I can now taste the wines that emerged from these different soils—some of them 60 million years old, some of them only 2 million; some limestone, some sandstone, some mixed—and perceive immediately the impact the terrain had on the taste of the wine. And you can too: there is no mistaking our leaner, more austere Vigneto Primo–made from grapes grown higher up, on rockier soils–for our Villaggio–a plusher, fruitier wine made from grapes grown lower on the hillside, in clay-rich soils. When the 2020 wines are released in March of next year, you will be able to taste wines made from grapes grown on three additional terrains, all with extraordinary potential, yet none exactly like the other.
Traditionally, Tuscan wine has been made in an entirely different spirit, one that focuses on recipe, for example, on which kinds of grapes are allowed, on which containers (steel or wood or cement, or the current trend, terracotta “amphorae”) can be used for fermentation or cellar aging and on how long after the vintage the wines may be bottled and sold. These “recipes”—the rules that govern winemaking in various Tuscan and Italian appellations—were established to preserve a recognisable style that sold well, but today, the result is lots of safe, pretty good wines that taste alike. Of course, appellation rules exist in Burgundy, too. And yet, when I ask a Côtes de Nuits vintner a question about her wine, she responds not by telling me about her cellar equipment but by talking about her soil, her terrain. The best winemakers live and breathe their land: they—and not just their employees—are in their vineyards daily, year round. They speak of their soil and its variations with a reverence I have not encountered elsewhere.
Tuscan soils merit similar treatment: winemaking centered on them–born of them, literally and figuratively–will yield wondrous wines, exciting in their individuality and faithful to their origins .
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.
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.