Montalcino Report: Millenovecentosettanta
“Excuse me, do you know where I could find a vegetarian restaurant?” I asked the person in my pensione in Florence. You would have thought I was asking them where the nearest insane asylum was. That was Tuscany in the 1970’s. But eventually I came across a macrobiotic mensa run by Episcopalians, and was able to eat the diet I had chosen.
In those days, to choose to be a vegetarian was an oddity. Italy was coming out of the haze of a terrible war, the economy was still in shambles from a world recession and here was this American kid asking to pay money to eat food without meat.
But deep inside the country this wouldn’t be as difficult to discover as it was in the cities. In the country, one could make a meal of polenta, some wild greens tossed with oil and vinegar and some salt, maybe a piece of cheese thrown on the spit and in the fall some mushrooms, roasted. And the hearty, rustic wines of the time would also nourish, albeit in a serviceable and not very elegant manner. This was the reputation of wines from Italy, rustic and simple. And often undrinkable to the connoisseurs, the French wine lovers and the new Americans who were multiplying in their affluence. Tuscany was tired of being poor and downtrodden. And Tuscany, at the time, was the spearhead of the Italian wine movement towards more polish, focused, drinkable wines, mainly red.
In the months when we stayed in Tuscany, and Umbria, we would backpack from town to town, often staying in the country. One period, during harvest, as we passed by Siena on our way to a hilltop town, Montalcino, we saw old people, young people, whole villages, working in the vineyards, harvesting.
“What kind of wine is this, Chianti?” I would ask. “No, signore, Sangiovese.” Up in the village they would call it another name, Brunello, from Montalcino.
I was able to buy a quarter of a liter of the house red, and it often was the low of the low. But it would usually be refreshing, slightly prickly, not too dark, and it made me hungry when I drank it.
I had a name from a friend in Florence, who gave me an address if I should ever be in the little hillside town. “They make a wine there that has a great reputation in the area, but the people keep to themselves. We can barely understand their dialect. They are protective. Ever since the war they have burrowed into their hillside. The keep all the good wine for themselves.” I heard this often. It was as if the town was inside a protective layer, keeping progress and modernity, and more war from ever getting in.
I looked this friend of a friend up, went to his property and looked around. Chickens were running around, and several dogs were resting by the doorstop. I could hear people talking; one was singing a tune in a rhythmic manner. The melody was hypnotic. I knocked on the door, but no one answered, so I walked around to the barn. It was made of stone and held all manner of farm implements, machinery, a wine press, some ancient barrels, large. Further in the dark were concrete vats, not too large, home made looking objects.
Deeper into the structure I heard movement. It was October; the air in the early afternoon was starting to cool earlier. The sun was deeper down the horizon. I had a moment of worry that I was in the wrong place, that they might think me an interloper, or a trespasser, and punish me for my transgression. Those fears were never to be realized, thankfully.
What I did eventually encounter, was this friend of a friend, who was waist high in one of the large tanks, with grapes and juice and bees and flies and the hum of Bacchus setting the pace of the work. “Come in here, take off your clothes, get in and help me, please.” He pleaded friendly and not in a threatening way. Here I am not even knowing this person and he’s asking me to take off my clothes and get in a vat of sluice to help him.
“What is this?” I asked him. “What grapes are these? What wine is this becoming?” I asked him as I climbed in, my young, lean body climbing into the container to help him complete the work.
“This? It is our Sangiovese. The elders call it Brunello. It will be wonderful if we can get the work done.”