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.
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.
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?