Exposure

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.

Quarantena

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 basso continuo 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.