I first heard the Fiorentino mentioned by Sig. Bernardi, the foreman at Podere Olmo, where, in the fall of 2019, I was borrowing some space to make my wine–not in Olmo’s wine cellar but in its former stalls, a long room with a stone floor, double-chestnut doors at the entrance and a half-moon-shaped window at the far end. For water, I filled buckets from an outside spigot, and, for the electricity, I ran an extension cord from Olmo’s wine cellar through the back garden and in through the half-moon window. By harvest time, the fermentation tanks I had ordered had still not arrived, so I bought three waist-high basins from the hardware store and was fermenting grapes in those.
Sig. Bernardi and Franco, the cellar hand, helped me put most of my grapes through their de-stemmer, an old, violent machine that thoroughly mashed skin, pulp and seeds with its giant corkscrew blade. In the Olmo cellar, Franco did most of the work: he hooked tubes up to pumps, climbed on top of the 200-hectoliter cement vats to check on fermentation, weighed and mixed sulfur dosages and sprayed down the tile floor at the end of the day. Sig. Bernardi puttered around outside, in a long Royal blue lab coat and a green wool hat, feeding the chickens and rabbits, occasionally passing through the cellar to point out that Olmo’s owners had ignored his advice and harvested too early—or a few weeks later—too late. Occasionally, he would peer around the door of the stalls and ask if my wine had finished fermenting yet. I held up a pitcher of must for him to taste.“It’s not very dark,” he pointed out. I handed him the pitcher, but he backed away. “For heaven’s sake!” He couldn’t taste it, he said; his doctor had said, no wine.
Sig. Bernardi had first gone to work as a teenager on a wine estate owned by an infamously talented but difficult noblewoman, referred to as “the Principessa” in the wine trade. Sig. Bernardi called her that still, in the same way he called Olmo’s owner “the Marchese,” using the landowner’s no-longer-recognized title. He was a small man, with fine features and that cruel sense of humor typical of Tuscans of his generation. He denounced Franco’s working methods, Olmo’s owner’s agricultural decisions and the current growing season–absurdly hot, dry, rainy or cold–and its miserable results. In addition to raising chickens and rabbits, he operated the tractor on a piece of land between the vineyards and the farm buildings, deaf to any interruptions while aboard.
He took an immediate liking to my younger daughter, recognizing her for the animal-lover that she was, and took her out to see the elaborate entanglement of wood, wire, earth, straw and cement that were the rabbit cages, and the biggest, oldest, mother bunny, allowed free in the vineyards during the daytime, but brought in at night—otherwise, Sig. Bernardi explained to her frankly, “the wolves would eat her.” Sig. Bernardi spent the weeks following the grape and olive harvests trolling the vineyards for pheasant, rifle slung over his shoulder.
One morning in October, I went to Olmo to check my wines, ran into Sig. Bernardi outside and asked him how the harvest was going. He pointed to Franco and Alessandro—the game warden at the Marchese’s other estate–in a vineyard down the hill, working their way up with crates full of grapes. The Marchese harvested by machine, but he had sent Franco and Alessandro back into the vineyards to collect any grapes the machine had missed or dropped. “What about the vineyard on the opposite hill?” I asked, wondering why they had skipped it. “Ah,” said Sig. Bernardi, “that isn’t the Marchese’s. It belongs to the Fiorentino.” As I stood there, Sig. Bernardi pointed across the valley and told me who owned each of the vineyards we could see. The Fiorentino’s stood out, because the rows were ridiculously far apart, and the vines were tall as trees.
That was my first glimpse, my first impression: what a funny old vineyard it seemed to be. (Watch the blog next week for a post about negotiating with the Fiorentino.)