Sweet Dreams

This fall, for the first time in 11 years, I was not going to make wine, and so I stopped caring about the weather. Let it rain. Let it freeze. Let the sun come out and sizzle the grapes on the vine. I wasn’t worried about which parcel to harvest. I wasn’t getting up at dawn to walk the rows tasting grapes. My back wasn’t sore from lifting crates, and I wasn’t working late into the night at the selection table. Thank God.

Then I walked into my neighbor’s cellar pungent with the aromas of yeast and CO2, the echoes of tank ladders and loose hoses clanking, the smell of marc, the wine-stained tiles. I almost burst into tears.

As luck would have it, that night at a dinner party, I sat across from a friend, Piero, with a farm in Chianti, who asked me if I knew anyone who wanted to buy a few tons of grapes.

“Why are you selling?” I asked.

“My brother and I don’t know how to make wine,” he said, “let alone sell it. We’re planning to take out the vineyard but we want to sell the last crop.”

I knew the village where he farmed but wanted to know more about the vineyard: “How high?” I asked him.

“400 meters.” That was all it took to fall in love.

Two days later, I went to see the object of my desire: a few acres on a steep, south-facing slope, with—where soil should have lain—layers of splintering galestro, the schist-like rock that is found in the appellation’s best vineyards.

It was a warm, sunny, late September afternoon. I walked the rows of vines planted by Piero’s grandfather in 1970. The vine training method looked like rows of bad haircuts; the grapes tasted diluted. Piero showed me the cramped cellar with its old, cement tanks. I tasted the 2015 and 2014 wines untouched since their fermentations: the musts had been over-worked, but a hint of something noble came through. Typical of the smitten, I was already dismissing potential problems and latching onto hope: the hope that from this vineyard I could make wines as elegant and mouthwatering as the Burgundies I nursed and studied in the evening.

Out of a self-protective negotiating habit, I hid my enthusiasm and told Piero I’d let him know. I knew if I went ahead, the next few weeks would be utter chaos: harvesting from dawn to dusk, a daily visit to the cellar to check the fermentations, taste each tank, pump over the wines if needed. I’d have to find barrels at short notice. I wanted to photograph and film and write down each step of the process. How would I manage my day job? The kids? Maybe it was saner to walk away.

I held out twelve hours before calling Piero to gush about the quality of the site, the charm of the little cellar, the beauty of the current vintage, and to describe how together we were going to revolutionize Italian wine making–show up the Italian enologist “mafia,” open people’s eyes. I explained how the oenophiles would flock to see his vineyard. I ran through the costs for him and the potential earnings (at least three times the yield from selling the grapes, if we split the profits). I called around to find people to harvest the next day, and after lunch, I went back to Piero’s to help him wash the de-stemmer and set-up. I was donning my Wellies, when Piero’s mother, a small, prim old woman came onto the terrace above the cellar and peered down at us.

“Piero!” she hollered.

“Eh,” he muttered, looking up.

“Buonasera, Signora,” I offered. She did not acknowledge my presence.

“Your brother makes a commitment,” she continued to bellow, “And you shit on it!”

“Huh?” Piero said.

I had never heard the particular expression she used, let alone from an 80-year old woman!

Piero’s brother had gone to the Consorzio del Chianti Classico the week before to check on the price he could get by selling the grapes. According to Piero’s mother, he had signed a contract to do so, although normally no such contract is needed and, even if signed, it was probably not binding. He could always have said the boars had eaten the grapes.

But I knew it was too late. My dream would die there.

A few days later, again at a dinner with Piero, he mused on how different people’s values can be. What’s important to his mother and brother (50 years old, never left home, works for a local winery rather than on his own farm), is not to disrupt the day, the routine, the way things are. To resist change, at all cost. And to prevent others from bringing about change as well.

Now that the harvest is over (Piero’s brother didn’t lend a hand), it seems it may be possible to come to an agreement for next year’s harvest. I could officially lease the vineyard and cellar, or Piero and his girlfriend and I could form a company to buy the grapes. I could prune the vines this winter the way I want to, green harvest in July to reduce yields and concentrate the grapes, organize the vendemmia and order my barrels in advance. I’m wary of Piero’s mother–What will it take to win her over? Plus, I’m still just a tiny bit sad. 2016 was a gorgeous vintage and, as any winemaker knows, there’s no one like Mother Nature for making great wine.

Dog Days

two white dogs at the gateMy boyfriend didn’t want a dog. We got one, and now the boyfriend lives in New York. My ex-husband advised against getting a second dog. We got a second dog, too, and he’s still my ex-husband. My daughters, on the other hand, wanted a dog more than anything in the world, and after two years of house breaking, leash training, dog whispering, and dog chewing-of-MacBook-power-cables-and-Italian-designer-shoes, we are one big, happy family.

Except not so happy that the dogs never try to run away. If I accidentally leave the gate open, their preferred course of escape is directly down the 800-yard driveway, out from behind a blind curve and across the road to the neighbors’ lawn where their ducks hang out. The first time they did this, I ran after them, planning the contrite apology, the purchase of new ducks (the frying up of the freshly-killed ones, too), the months of tension with the neighbors, only to arrive there and find my two 80-pound dogs sniffing hesitantly after a commanding-looking duck, while the neighbor clutched at his chest.

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Growing Green


vegetables
It’s planting season in Tuscany, the time of year I think of my role-model and rival in all things green: Mario, my former father-in-law.

When I came to Tuscany in January 2001, Mario had just retired, and he and my-mother-in-law still lived in Siena. He would come out to our house in the country for the day, though, and I would cook him lunch, a primo and a secondo, which he ate in the upstairs kitchen while I stared at him across the table and tried to make out what he said in those first weeks of submersion in Italian. “Don’t bother,” my husband said. “He garbles. No one understands a word.”

Sixteen at the outbreak of war, Mario never had to fight, because his father had been wounded in the First World War. His parents were farmers, so Mario and his brother Marcello kept on eating chickens and eggs and vegetables throughout the war, while in town food was scarce, only really waking up to the conflict when a bomb dropped through their roof, down through the floor of their bedroom into the kitchen, rolled out the door and across the lawn and came to a stop at the edge of the woods, unexploded. The four of them, and soon the neighbors, stood in a circle around it, staring skeptically and wondering what to do. Finally, Mario and Marcello picked it up and carried it into the woods.*

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Il Sugo

The other day I was asked how I would make meat sauce—what restaurants call ragù, and what is known in Tuscany simply as “sugo.”

Like most Tuscan recipes, the list of ingredients is limited and intuitive, and the process is foolproof, if not necessarily short. And like many Tuscan recipes, it starts with a “battutina”—a mix of chopped parsley, onion, celery, garlic, carrot and “rigatino,” the Tuscan word for pancetta or unsmoked bacon. Otherwise known as the “odori,” these bulbs, roots and fat, along with sage, rosemary and occasionally fennel, are practically the only herbs and spices used in Tuscan cooking, apart from generous doses of salt and pepper. One lets the battutina “imbiondire” (“go blond”), or as we would say, brown in the pan, in olive oil, of course, before adding the ground meat–half beef, half pork–and letting that go blond too. Then one adds the tomato and, pay attention here, a tube of tomato paste–the secret to a rich and savory sauce.  Now for the long part: it should simmer for around four hours and needs a little broth (chicken) whenever it gets too dry.

“Pastasciutta,” a word Italians use interchangeably with the word pasta itself, comes from southern Italy, and filled pastas like tortellini from Emilia Romagna, so there is no typical pasta shape that the Tuscans serve with meat sauce. Any and all will do. For an important occasion, or to spoil your family, serve it on tagliatelle (egg pasta is considered elegant), mixing the noodles and the sauce thoroughly in the pasta pot, with a lump of melting butter to bring out the taste of the meat. As a Florentine friend of mine, long a US resident, reminded me, the Italians “use little actual sauce—and it tastes so much better.” And for heaven’s sake do not offer cheese: Tuscans never gild the lily.

The smell of a pot of sugo simmering on the stove wafts out of village windows braided red onionany weekday morning. Mamma or more likely Nonna is working up a batch, which she will divide into small aluminum containers (no, we do not have Ziploc yet) to freeze. In the winter, if she is unfortunate enough to have a husband who hunts, she will have spent three days soaking a gristly cut of boar in vinegar, and a few hours after that boiling off its “selvaggio” or “wild” taste in pan after pan of water, before starting to make from it…sauce.

Now, what to serve for secondo

Paring Down

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

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

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

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La Caccia

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

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

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Corso Downhill

Walking along the corso (or main street) this holiday season, it strikes me how much has changed in Siena since my first Christmas here fifteen years ago, and I find I am nostalgic for the relatively young, old days that I knew.

Then, there were no public Christmas decorations to speak of, other than the Monte dei Paschi tree in Piazza Salimbeni. Although I like the garlands now hung at intervals along the main shopping streets, those inflatable climbing Santas do not add much to Siena’s splendid medieval façades. Here, Christmas used to be a quiet season, often mild and rainy, the Sienese more caught up with finding a good capon or boasting of the double-digit numbers of guests they would cook for than with gifts, cards or light displays. But it is not just Christmas that is becoming Anglo-Saxonized; the town itself is changing. Continue reading Corso Downhill

Ten Reasons Winery Owners Should Drive Ferraris

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.

Continue reading Ten Reasons Winery Owners Should Drive Ferraris

Ringraziamento

By now, the persimmon trees have lost their leaves, so the branches, covered in hundreds of round, orange-red fruits, stand out against the often-grey sky. The grapes and olives are harvested, but it’s too early to start pruning vines or trees. Leeks and fennel grow, without much attention, in the vegetable garden. We’ve eaten, for the time being, enough grilled mushrooms, mushroom pasta and mushroom risotto. It has started to rain, and it is the time of year when the thick-walled farmhouses feel colder than the scirrocco-driven dampness outside, so we come in, light the fire, drink tea and play briscola.

playing cards
Tuscan playing cards

On weekend mornings, we hear the dogs and gunshots of the hunters in the fields and woods around us. A friend brings me a piece of boar, which another friend makes into sausage and salami for us to hang in the cellar and eat this winter. Someone else brings chestnuts to a dinner party, and we sit up late around the fire with a good excuse to drink lots of wine. The ash of the fires and the dogs’ now always-muddy feet are reason enough to ease the housekeeping standards. Continue reading Ringraziamento