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.
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.
This morning I pulled into a parking lot in Siena next to a brand new Ferrari, price-tag $250,000. I had a 2006 Golf ready to trade in, I joked with the parking attendant, who immediately blurted out whose car it was: the owner—I’ll call him “J”–of a big, brand-name Tuscan winery. Maybe I’m jealous (my winery breaks even, as long as my partner in the venture and I work full-time jobs to cover its costs and our families lend us money now and then). Still, I started to imagine what kind of logic had led to a purchase like that. Now, I think I’ve figured it out.
“J”’s Ten reasons winery owners should drive Ferraris:
1. Because we’ve earned it. (Not me, personally, of course. I inherited from Dad, who inherited from Grand-Dad, etc. but, you know, someone in the family must have, at some point, worked.)
2. Because all publicity is good publicity, and driving around abandoned hilltop hamlets in remote areas of Italy in my Ferrari gets me just that. Bound to lead to stronger wine sales—Marketing 101, man.
3. Because I’m a role model. If I drive a Ferrari, the Romanian guys that work in my vineyards (wherever those are) will understand that if they keep at it, one day they’ll be driving Ferraris too. I’m their inspiration, and that, even I find inspiring.
For a number of years, I worked as a buyer of Italian wines for a US wine importer. Annual trips to wine regions were a tradition. A few years ago, we had managed to gather a group of ten of our best clients, buyers from some of the most important restaurants and retailers in the country, for a tour starting in Sicily.
We were in a rental van, heading north on the E6 toward Messina. Jay, the owner of four important restaurants, was driving, and his assistant, Alec rode shotgun. I was giving them the lay of the land in Sicilian winemaking, leaning through the middle of the two front seats and going through my points, kind of loudly to get over the sound of the road, ignoring for the moment, the clients farther back in the van, whom I thought I’d educate later.
They were all arrivistes, I was saying, all the newly-trendy wineries that the press couldn’t get enough of, all the names being bantered among buyers as the hottest new properties, had no Sicilian roots at all. The families actually from here, families that were bottling wine before the turn of the millennium, were only a handful. That was my first point, to separate for them the natives from the newcomers, which struck me, as an importer, as essential.
“Salenti, that’s the guy,” interrupted Jay, leaning forward and looking over at Alec, an up-and-coming sommelier at the hottest of Jay’s four cash-printing restaurants. “He’s got incredible wines, Alec.” Inevitably, a journalist—not a frequent visitor to Sicily—proved to be the source of Jay’s discovery. “Had dinner over at Sam Binnel’s place last fall. He opened Salenti’s ’02 Lavaria for me. Talk about terroir. 90 year old vines. Blew me away.”
The Italians have terroirs and varietals as noble as any in the world, but prefer to keep them hidden: hundreds of millions are spent on consultants and equipment, often with financing from the Italian government, to avoid the straightforward, even simple, approach of the best winemakers (for example, some Burgundians), who make their wines themselves, focusing, first, on viticulture and second, on the handful of cellar elements that make all the difference. And the Italian wine press only acts like the crowd around the emperor, admiring his new clothes. Evie, for one, would like to change all that:
Evie is a new writer at the popular wine-lovers’ monthly, Passion for Wine, and, after an initial trip visiting wineries in Italy, she’s back in her New York office pitching her first article to Deborah, a seasoned wine-world editor.
Evie: How can I establish credibility with my readers?