Sunday, July 17, 2011

From the Archives- Calabria: The Legacy of Local

This post originally appeared here June 15, 2006 and I rewrote it to reappear on saignee when Cory did his 32 Days of Natural Wine last year

"What was it like?” I remember my aunt Amelia asking me later in Texas, about walking into the village where her mother was born. Old Calabria, a little village clinging to a hillside like a vine that had wrapped itself around a sycamore tree and hung on through time and the elements.

I can only imagine what they were thinking 100 years ago, when where they were, in Calabria, looked as inviting as that West Texas dust storm raging on the plains. Devastating earthquake, utter breakdown in civilization, a civilization that had been established in the 6th Century B.C. Desperation, hope, a clean slate, away. Just far, far away.

In 1977, the train took us from Brindisi to Cosenza, and we followed Merlin back in time, the pine tree forest through the mountains over the hill. Back to grandmother’s house. It was the harvest season, September, in a year that would be remembered, by some, as a better than average harvest.

Cosenza was as it might have been 30 years before. All we had was a name, Bucita. Somewhere in the hills we would find our cousins and uncles and aunts. And the legacy of their love of the land, and the grape.

Walking into the village, an overwhelming balm infused the air. Ripe figs, roasting inside their leaves in stone ovens. Honey, bay leaf, chestnut-like, complex aromas. Unforgettable.

An older man on a donkey approaches us. Yes, he thinks he knows who we are looking for. This man, Giuseppe, takes me to his house. There, my cousin, his wife, Teodalinda, is standing on a stone floor. My grandfather put that floor in. In his wine cellar below, Giuseppe would later initiate me into a world where wine held secrets and mysteries inside bottles and barrels. He was a winemaker, and the harvest was in full swing.

We followed Giuseppe to a small ancient home, belonging to my cousin, Luigi. On the table, with a demijohn of red wine and some fresh cookies and the figs, were pictures of my parents on their wedding day. Connection.

We arrived at the village just in time. Our newly found family needed hands in the fields, as a storm front was threatening the harvest. Grape harvest reports supplanted the soccer games on the local TV. People were more interested in the price of Greco or Gaglioppo than Rossi or Zaccarelli. Time was contracting.

The elements here dominate the environment. Sun, rain, lightning, thunder. Earth, alive and moving. Here comes the sun. Luigi, finding some of his vines have been washed away, clears out a creek bed for water flow. After two nights of Olympian pyrotechnics, the people of the land were given back the hill. Like goats, we swarmed the vineyards, competing with the bees for the nectar. His wine vats awaited the harvest.

Another cousin, Giovanni, had been in his olive groves. They seemed to have survived. That night his wife, Elvira, would be making homemade pasta, casalinga, and eggplant, melanzane I segreti della nonna.

We were sitting in Giovanni’s home with Luigi and Tony, Elvira and Francesco the weaver, drinking Giovanni’s excellent wine. Below us in the basement was Giuseppe’s wine room, the hum of thousands of crushed grapes fermenting. Teodalinda’s wine-flushed face as she posed for a photograph with her husband and a glass of their wine, the ever ringing bells reminding one of the presence of time even in a place like Bucita. They are all gone now.

What remains is the offspring of those days, a life devoted to the legacy of the winemakers met in those early autumn days in southern Italy, in Old Calabria. Since then, I have studied wine in books and passed exams certifying me in some realm of wine specialization. But never were those books, even those vaulted chateaux in France, ever as influential and meaningful as spending long evenings in a room lit by a bare bulb with the elders, drinking their wine and talking into the early morning hours.

What was it like? In Bucita, we found our people close to their land, eating the food they grew, drinking the wine they made. Wines made from grapes, without oak, sulfur or contrivance. Fresh air. Clean, pure, sweet water. Their legacy of local. Individuals, charitable people, people whose lives hadn’t been too easy, but souls still able to give and keep on giving. Finding my mother’s people, for so long a mystery to us, was an amazing gift. To be with them and in their daily lives was an experience I will never forget.

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