Sunday, June 23, 2019

Living Free in a World of Chains


“So, my journey took me to the field and through the vines right in front of the grapes. And there they were, everyone a story, all these little passages they made, sacrificing their life for something bigger, something hopefully greater than their singular, globular being. And my task, my calling, was to listen and try and understand all their little lives and put some sense of order, and beauty, to them. That has been my odyssey. And I never even left my little località.”

Our host, who asked not to be identified, invited us to return in January, when she was pressing some dried grapes for a vinsanto. “You will return?” Of course, we promised. It would be up to us to hold true to that promise. We’d found Eldorado in the hills of Tuscany. I couldn’t imagine not going back.
What is it in the span of 100 days that could alter one’s life, sometimes radically and inextricably? After a week at the vineyard of this amazing woman winemaker, my head was spinning. And it wasn’t because we were trying all here wines. We were that, but it was more of an exercise, dare I call it an ongoing master class? I needed a breather. I went to the mountain. I sat in the cave with the master. And now I had to go home for the holidays, back to America. I ran to the plane, would have run all the way to California. Something inside me moved, was changed. And I didn’t recognize the tectonic shift that had taken place.

Essentially, everything I thought about wine (and life) was wrong. Typical Western-Civ take on anything that came up on me and challenged all my assumptions. But I knew one thing: and that was that I knew nothing about wine.

(Almost 40 years later, I can still proudly admit that I know little about wine. I know more than I knew in 1984, but the world of wine has exploded [BIG BANG!] and here I observe just how much more there is now than then.)

The winemaker would not allow us to identify her, in any way. But for the sake of this story I will use the name Diana.

After lollygagging on the beaches of southern California during Christmas break, I headed back to Florence. I was setting up meetings with wine importers based in the city. The friend who took me to meet Diana called and reminded me that we had made a promise. “She is holding us to it. I don’t know why, after all these years, she has become more outgoing. As if corralling the time and attention of two wine enthusiasts signals a character change from her primordial being.” Nonetheless, I wanted to go back and continue on, see where this was leading.

When I finished up my meetings it was a Friday afternoon. Florence was already getting dark. The town felt empty, cold, lonely. I preferred being out in the country, where the sounds of the animals at night, the owls and the lone wolves who had journeyed here from Abruzzo. I was going into the feral zone, with a master of feral wines. And it was pressing time.

Nothing is simple with older people. They don’t have as much time as young folks, but they take more time to do everything. I didn’t understand it when I was younger. Now I realize it is much like those racks of grapes, drying over the late fall months and into the winter. Everything concentrates with age. I was secretly hoping that included wisdom, eventually, for me.

Diana is a complicated person. A woman in Italy in the mid-1980’s was caught up in a vortex of change, as was the whole world. But for a woman in Italy, which for ages has been presented (by the men in power) as mother, goddess, whore and slave. Not to mention, doing all the cooking, cleaning and childrearing. And women in the world were turning that soil. Fukuoka hadn’t dug into the societal norms of Italy. But in the farmlands, there were those souls who had read about him and his natural farming, his one-straw revolution. I noticed a dog-eared copy on a cluttered desk in Diana’s cottage. I remembered some of his writings from Berkeley and made a mental note.

When we arrived, Diana was in the kitchen boiling water for the pasta, which was brown. In those days, whole wheat pasta was for the animals. Diana knew otherwise. She pulled out a jar of put-away tomatoes, as she instructed me to go into the cellar and grab the bottle of wine that was standing up. “Be careful not to shake it,” she warned. “It’s older than me.” The early darkness thing about winter was starting to get brighter.

We ate in silence as Diana told us we had about five hours of work afterwards. “Don’t drink all the wine, let some of it be, so we can see if it had a pleasant death or not.” The wine was unbelievable, warm, rich, and exciting, like there were fireworks embedded in its body. I couldn’t make out the grape, and asked her. “Occhiorosso is what my father called it.” It had a cedary, tobacco rustic element which made it alluring.

A quick meal and it was off to press the grapes. Diana was bringing back Alicrimone as one of the wines she was making again.

“Be careful not to press too hard, we just want them to bleed a little, break the skins, before we put them in the caratelli.” We were pressing by hand, like making tomato sauce. It was sticky, the room was freezing, but we knocked it out. The village church rang the midnight bells.

“My father always said of me, ‘Nelle botti piccole sta il vino buono,’ because I was a small child. I felt diminished, but I also felt proud. It was such an odd way I had about thinking about who I was in this place. If not for the animals, I think I would have gone mad. They didn’t judge. They wanted food, and occasionally to be brushed, or talked to. They were my brothers and sisters, and remain so to this day.”

Italy, such a lonely place to be unsocial. Again, I realized why there were so many abbeys dotted among the landscape of Tuscany, and beyond in Italy. A contemplative life in the world, especially for a woman in a man’s world, was trying beyond what I could imagine, coming from sunny California, where all things were happily possible.

It was now past midnight and we were sitting around the table in the kitchen, finishing off the bottle of Occhiorosso . It was still pleasantly alive, although soon it all be over, as we were transforming into our beings. A good death? I liked to think so.

Diana pulled out a small bottle, a dessert wine. It was amber and smelled of cloves and honey and celery. Odd creature, but quite pleasant with the wedge of aged pecorino we were polishing off. “I don’t recall a time when I didn’t think about freedom. From my early days, when Italy was under the thumb of Benito Mussolini, which pressed down upon our souls and spines and took the air out of our sky, the dirt out of our ground, the water out of our sea. All I could think of was freedom. Freedom from these chains. And it forged inside of me a philosophy, so that when papa became to old to make the wine, it became my wings. I saw grapes as friends, family, liberators. I loved them all, wanted to give them all a place. They became my children and grandchildren. And my family grew. That is why you see all these different wines. They aren’t to help me make money, to become famous. I’m a shy person, it’s hard even talking to you two. But for some reason, it’s all coming out now, as if the locks in a channel have been opened, the chains unbound.”

(I can see now more clearly what Diana was saying than when I first heard the words so many years ago. But they imprinted upon me somewhere an indelible mark. Here was a person, not just a man or just a woman, but a soul who was earnestly trying to be what D.H. Lawrence called a “transmitter.” I felt a familial love for her, albeit from a distance. I respected her space, which she needed to do all that she had signed up for in this kaleidoscope of a vineyard.)

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