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.

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.