Sunday, July 21, 2019

"There are no interlopers in my vineyard - they all are indigenous living things"


All we knew was that they were grown above in the vineyards in their native state. And they were made in a natural way. Not in the prepossessed way of the present in which every wine maker, merchant and marketer who wants to be seen as “in” make statements with regards to their sustainability, their non-interventionism, their indigenous yeasting, their no sulfur regimen, all the trigger words to mark that one has “arrived” in the world of real wine. None of this was stirring in these dark, cool, quiet rooms.

I arrived Monday morning and Daria met me at the door. “Signore, Diana is still asleep. She had a rough couple of nights. Maybe a stomach flu. She’ll eventually be up. Come in and have some coffee and we will wait a few minutes.”

Diana had sidestepped a brief encounter with cancer some years ago. She was clear of it, but as it happens with things that age, something always comes up. The goal isn’t to live forever, no one can do that. It’s just to steer clear of as many infirmities as one’s constitution (and resilience) will allow. Diana was tough. But even the strong stumble. We would wait.

Darla was about 20 years younger than Diana and her parents had escaped from Romania in the 1950’s, narrowly missing a round-up in their town which would have taken them to a labor camp, where thousands perished. “My father Luca was Roma and Yakut, whose family had been relocated after the Russian revolution from Siberia to Romania. My mother was Romanian, whose mother had been Ashkenazi. They had different national and cultural traditions from the main population, in a time when people like them were being hunted down. By a twist a fate, an Albanian orthodox priest found a way to smuggle my parents onto a ship for Italy. They landed in Brindisi, and were relocated to Calabria by Albanians who had come there hundreds of years ago. And after the war they resettled to Tuscany, where Diana’s father needed help in the vineyards. They were very lucky. I was born after the war and even though I am not Italian, my parents told me when I was young to never tell anyone about my racial identity, to just assimilate into Italian culture. They rarely spoke of the atricities they had witnessed. They just kept their heads down and worked hard, and prayed those days would never return. It has been a blessing, and I often think about where my parents and their parents came from and wonder what heritage brought me to this point. Fortunately, my father worked in the vineyards, so for now I am a child of the vine, like Diana.”

Where I came from, America, there were all kinds of people, all colors, all nationalities, although we have always struggled with race in America. In Italy, the smallest difference would be magnified. If you were from Poggibonsi and were talking to someone from Montespertoli, there was be a noticeable variation in the accents, the dialect. Everyone in Italy was proud of where they came from. And naturally they were curious as to where you were from. But if where you came from was something not to be talked about, yet, you had to be careful. You had to adapt, until (or if) the time came that being the daughter of a Romanian Jew and a Roma-Yakut wasn’t something that needed to be hidden.

Daria brought me a cup of coffee. “What my parents taught me, when I was young were these four things: We can succeed if we can complete tasks as a group. We must work together. To do well, we cannot be stiff or unyielding, we must be able to improvise. In order to face the next day and any uncertainties that come with it, we must be able to trust one another and feel safe. Diana is up and said she would meet you in the cave.”

I had been instructed to go into the third chamber in the cave, which was large but low. Inside were all manner of bottles and sizes from the 1950’s. It looked a little like a cemetery and a nursing home combined. “Good morning,” Diana said, showing no signs of infirmity. “We are going to tackle this Aegean stable today.”

After a few minutes of Diana telling me where to start and how we would progress around the room, I went about my business on the side I was assigned. Diana worked the other room. Daria was straightening up and would join us in a bit.

“Diana, tell me a little bit about the wines in this room, if you will, please.” It was simple work, and one which we could have a conversation, if she chose to.

“This is a room filled with ampelographic off-shoots. There are many grapes here that have no name. Our vineyards are like a big family – all types, coming from everywhere, some big, some tiny, some robust, some quiet. It’s a little like your American Dream, where everyone was welcomed, everyone had a sanctuary. This vineyard, though is now dream. Here, there are no interlopers in my vineyard - they all are indigenous living things.

“It was something my father and Daria’s father Luca, worked out. After the war, everything was torn up. The government was coming into the villages and trying to get them to standardize, to make their vineyards and grape selections uniform, so we as a country could present a common face to the outside world. Chianti was critical; therefore, Sangiovese was very important. But there were scores of different kinds of grapes in those days they called Sangiovese, not to mention all the other grapes with names like Granoir, Calabrese, Bastardo, colorful names, but not really telling anyone what they were, where they came from, and to what purpose they could be best utilized. We had to experiment every year, try to make the wines separately when possible, or field blend whenever nothing else could be done. I was very interested, kept a notebook, with drawing of the grapes. I wasn’t a scientist, but I love nature, and the subtle variations among the plants and the animals. Everything is connected. Thus, we didn’t throw anything away, we didn’t pull any grapevines out. This was their home, they had nowhere to go back to. So, we made it work.”

Indeed, she was sitting on an Alexandrian library of undiscovered grapes. This was a national treasure that no one had any idea what it was. It was in a time when oak and Cabernet were invading the Tuscan landscape. Her wines were terribly out of fashion. And not made in any way that the wine schools in Turin and Conegliano would ever sanction.

“Fortunately,” Diana continued, “we were self-sustaining and didn’t need too much money. I had a few friends from school who had a restaurant here and there in Florence, and my friend with the enoteca near the Duomo was always kind and willing to help support these ventures. He saw the old traditional wines disappearing and would do what he could to support our cause in the countryside.”

“Diana, tell me a little about the different kinds of wine and how they came to be?” I wanted to know more about the long-lived whites, the seemingly immortal reds and those dessert wines, which could outlive us all.

“Really, there are only three types we make. The white wines, which vary depending on the vine, and how much we had to make. For some reason the soil here gives a strength to all the grapes which translates to long life. The old folks tell me it is the water, most of them here live to be 90 and over. Maybe it is.

“The dessert wines are always a divine accident. Some vine or vineyard gets too much sun and sugar and then we have to make Vin Santo, or something similar. These are very powerful wines with their own destiny and they decide what they will be, when they will be. They are the most dominant wines in my experience.

“The reds, even though they share a similar color, are like a table filled with siblings. They are different but similar. Some have red hair, some blond. Some are tall, some are squatty. Some are smarter than the other, some are kinder. But they all share the love of their parents, their grandparents and have a common history. They just have their own personalities. And it is not my job to make a wine with “my” personality. It is to be watchful, patient and faithful to the individual expression of those grapes, those vines, those unique children. It makes a mess of the business of taking these wines to the marker. But Florence has many characters, who like things that run counter to the norm. I have friends, have made friends with these wines. They will not be orphans, as long as these friends work and live. And that is all I need. When I am gone, then will be the time to try and find a place for these children, and that is why we are here in this room. Hand me one of those towels, please and also another candle.”

It was cool and deathly silent in this little chamber. All the souls who helped to harvest the grapes and make the wine, some who had passed away, their efforts were still alive in these vessels filled with the miraculous liquid we call wine. Wine is so much more than a tasting note, or a high-scoring review, a tech sheet or a PH note. It is the liquification of many souls, from plant, to animal, to even the humans. It was a centerpiece of the Roman Catholic religion which took root in this place thousands of years ago. It was the blood of the prophet. And it was the heart and soul of the many different people who passed through this place.

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