Sunday, November 09, 2014

Annus Horribilis - Looking Back On the Toughest Harvest in Years

It must have been back in August. I was looking out over my garden, thinking about how wonderful everything was growing. My prize crop, the Hoja Santa, was poised to be one of the best and largest harvests I’d had in 10 years. Picture perfect. Rain when we needed it. Never enough, but Hoja Santa was used to living in the Southwest.

And then the hail storm hit. It was on a Sunday night in September. I heard a light rain, and then a heavier rain came. By the time I got up, I could hear a light tapping on the roof. Hail. I prayed it wouldn’t last too long. It didn’t. But it lasted long enough to lay waste to my prized crop.

To make matter worse, my cheese maker told me that they had lost two of their best clients for the goat cheese with the Hoja Santa leaves. I resigned to having a great compost crop and moved forward. Still, I felt a twinge at the loss.

Over the next two months I would have similar conversations with Italian wine makers. From the Veneto, from Piedmont and from Tuscany would issue reports of hail, of cold weather in the summer, of dark days when there should be sunny ones. Over and over, the message that 2014 just wasn’t going to go down as a great vintage for many Italian winemakers.

Sure there was good news. Aldo Vacca, writing October 13 about the harvest in Barbaresco, “Game over! Harvest ended last Saturday, 8 days of misty weather and virtually no rain, believe it or not. All grapes safely in house and this was Monday morning wake up: heavy, solid October rain…. too late to spoil a good vintage, good for the truffle season at this point!”

Not all of my friend’s notes were as uplifting as Aldo’s. But one can always make the best of things. If you can’t have unblemished leaves for the cheese, one can make Hoja Santa pesto. Or infusions. The mixologists showed interest. We were looking into any number of other interesting possibilities.

But with grapes? How much grape jam can you make from Sangiovese?

My sense is that this isn’t a total loss, but it’s not good. Living in Italy, even for the fortunate land owners and employed workers, is tightening up. Inflation isn’t the issue this year. It’s a malaise of another sort. The political process is creeping at a snail’s pace. Perhaps better than a wholesale makeover. Something’s wrong, though. At least that’s what I keep hearing from the people that are talking to me.
I remember a few personal anni horribili. 1992. 2000. 2012. An overwhelming amount of bad news in those years that ruined my recollection of anything good from those years. And I wonder what we will think about 2014 when we look back.

I reckon that’s part of the process of autumn. To brace oneself for the winter months and to hope like hell we brought in enough to survive the worst of outcomes. Farmers never stop working. It never lets up.

So we will go into our cellars and see what will come of this recent annus horribilis. No Amarone? Oh well, there’s a bottle or two of Sagrantino that probably needs to be opened. Barolo faired not as well as Barbaresco? We can weather that storm. Drink Barolo in December while socking away more Barbaresco. Sicily was off 30%? Sicily regenerates quicker than the mainland; there will be crisp white wines in a few months and we can start drinking a little more of the Nero d’Avola wines that are lying on their sides, it won’t kill them to drink them a little earlier. I think we’ll hear better news about the harvest from the South over time.

There’s something about challenging, tough harvests. It makes you dig deep inside and ask what is important. What is needed? What is essential? And for the DNA of the average Italian winemaker, this could be the vintage that has them asking those important questions. Perhaps from this awful mess, something wonderful can be born.

We just have to get through the advancing cold, dark winter months. We’ve been here before. It isn’t the perfect harvest, but it’s a perfect time to redefine why we do what we do and what it is we are living and fighting for.

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