“Whose grapes do you help pick?” I’d asked, hoping the directness of the question would stave off more scenes of Armageddon under the still-cruel September sun.
“Usually I go to help my cousins in Palazzone, though now they’ve got so many children and in-laws swarming the vines, they hardly need me,” he’d said.
“Well, is there other work we can do to help? Can we cook?”
“What you’re not understanding is that the harvest is ‘family’ work, open to neither the curious nor the admiring. But we’ll see. I’ll ask around.”
After his clearly stated cultural lesson, I’d just let the subject sit. And the first we’d heard that we were invited to pick was this morning’s announcement that he’d be waiting for us at dawn tomorrow.
How It Should Be Done
La vendemmia, the grape harvest, is anticipated, celebrated more than any other seasonal event in the life of Tuscan farmers. The oldest cultivated crop on the Italian peninsula is the vine, the tendrils of its history wound about and grafted into rites pagan and sacred, into life itself.
Almost everyone has vines, either his own or his landowners’, either a hundred or so scraggly plants grown up among blackberry bushes or set between rows of feed corn or hectares and hectares of luxuriant and photogenic vines nurtured by masterful hands. Or, as it is with Barlozzo’s cousins, some configuration in between.
Most often, except on the great parcels of land where mechanical means are sometimes employed, the grapes are cut, cluster by cluster, the clicking of the secateurs meting out an ancient, pastoral rhythm.
A strange sort of flat twig basket is hung from the vine where the harvester works, freeing his hands to clip the clusters and drop the fruit into it in a smooth two-step motion. When the basket is full, the fruit is turned out into larger plastic tubs, which are then carried to the small trucks or wagons that wait here and there among the vines to port the grapes down the road to the crusher.
When I lived in California, I found that the innocent pleasures of wine were too often diminished by prodigies – real or self-imagined – bent on deep-reading a glass of grape juice. There is no such blundering here.
These farmers make their wine in the vineyard rather than in the laboratory the way commercial winemakers do. The fruit – undisguised, unmanipulated, and just as the gods send it – is the stuff of their wine. That and their passion for it. And this congress is all the alchemy there is.
Rough, lean, muscled wines, wines to chew, thick rubescent elixirs that transfuse a tired, thirsty body like blood are these. No fragrance of violets or vanilla, not a single jammy whiff nor one of English leather, these wines are the crushed juices of the grape, enchanted in a barrel. As we tumble out of Barlozzo’s truck on the vineyard road, we see what must be thirty people standing and sitting near a small mountain of baskets and bins.
To a person, their hair is tied in some form of bandanna or kerchief. Hat brims buck up against the vines and inhibit the work of picking. This other form of headgear holds back sweat, if not the sun’s violence.
I decide to put my Holly Golightly straw hat back in the truck, hoping not too many of the harvesters have noticed the two-foot diameter flounce of its offensive brim. As I come back to join the group, Barlozzo hands me a neatly ironed blue-and-white bandanna, boycotting my eyes, the better for me to feel his scorn. I want to ask him why he just didn’t remind me of my inappropriate hat while we were driving to the site, but I don’t. Fernando is loathe to surrender his black Harley baseball cap and receives the duke’s tacit approval.
The other thing that separates us from the pack is that we have not come with shears attached to our belts. Suddenly I feel like a chef with no knives, a plumber who must borrow a wrench. But there are others without arms, and soon the vinaiolo, the winemaker, is distributing weapons and errant gloves to us as though we were on a breadline and had asked for toast.
The spirit of festival is thin among the vines and under the wakening sun as the vinaiolo assigns territory, demonstrates technique to the few first-timers. I can’t help remembering the California harvests I’d witnessed. The estate manager and the winemaker mill about the vineyard, variously nodding and shaking their heads, touching, smelling the fruit, writing in notebooks, racing with the grapes into the lab to test the Brix.
Would there be a harvest today, or would we wait for tomorrow and the further concentration of the fruit’s sugar? Here it’s another story: when the moon is waning and the grapes are fat and black, dusted in a thick white bloom and sundried of dew – the residual moisture which might dilute the purity of the juice – the vinaiolo snaps off a bunch of grapes, rubs one or two on his shirt sleeve, tosses them into his mouth, chews, swallows, smiles and says, Vendemmiamo, Let’s pick.
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