A constant challenge of life centered around travel is how much to plan: how far ahead to book flights and lodging, how long to stay in a place you’ve never been (knowing nothing of how much you’ll enjoy it, or how much there is to keep you busy), what to pencil in and lock down versus what to leave to chance.
Chance is a fickle thing.
Two weeks ago we were driving around the Loire Valley during a weekend away with friends, drinking wine in one of Sancerre’s many tiny, informal tasting rooms. The vintners would start harvesting grapes in the next few weeks, they told us.
Working a harvest had been a dream of ours for a long time, as the very accomplished wine drinkers we are. When we left San Francisco for Europe, we planned to make it a reality. We’d find a small winery in the south of France or anywhere in Italy, we figured, labor all day under the hot sun, and reward ourselves in the afternoon with those legendary post-harvest family-style meals we’d heard stories about, fueled by wine from previous years’ harvest and adrenaline and satisfying exhaustion.
The problem was, we hadn’t planned. We had not researched wineries, asked around for recommendations, or done any of the necessary preparation required to get involved. And the harvest was basically here. I was – pun intended – crushed.
The next week we arrived in Tuscany, a trip we had been anticipating for months. We would spend several nights with Francesca and Ryan, some of our best friends from San Francisco, whose family owns a house in a small town just two hours from Rome.
As soon as we arrived, Ryan said, “I have a proposition for tomorrow.” He explained that one of their family friends, a neighbor in town, was harvesting and crushing the grapes on his property the following day to make wine. The neighbor did this every year – not to sell bottles, just to share them with friends and family.
John and I looked at each other like Christmas had come early.
The next day we woke around 8 a.m. and drove up the hill to the neighbor’s vineyard, about 15 rows of red and white grapes, some as high as my waist and others hanging to my knees. Several other friends of varying ages, all from the surrounding area and speaking Italian, were helping, too, as they did every year. I expected some kind of tutorial, I guess, a how-to demonstration of the appropriate way to cut the grapes so they didn’t burst, or which ones were too small or dry to crush. Instead, the neighbor handed me a plastic bucket and a pair of pliers and said, “Go.” This is one of the few words he knows in English.
A note on the neighbor, whom we’ll call Davide. We are keeping him anonymous because we’re still a little iffy about the rules around harvest and what kind of official documentation, if any, is required for volunteers.
Before we met Davide, Francesca explained that he was a person from another time: a Renaissance Man, she called him. “He makes his own wine, olive oil, charcuterie – all of it,” she said. Davide wears his hair in a low man-bun, and he almost never sits down for more than a few minutes at a time. He speaks in rapid, hard-to-understand Italian, even for proficient speakers, and he carries himself with an animated energy that seems never to wear down. He is endlessly generous and hospitable – with his wine, his food, his time and attention. But we’ll get to that.
We spent about three hours that morning picking grapes, which went something like this: clip the grape clusters off the vine and toss them in your bucket. When your bucket is full, carry it to the end of the row and dump it in the plastic trash can with the rest of the grapes. Rinse and repeat. Red, then white.
I’ve heard grape harvests described as back-breaking labor, and I can see why: you have to bend over and squat down to reach those low-hanging clusters. Working for three hours as opposed to, say, two weeks – as established wine producers often do – meant I was a little sore, broke a sweat. But in terms of physical demand, that was about it.
After all of the grapes were off the vines, John and I climbed into the back of a wagon with the empty buckets and made our way up the hill to Davide’s house, where we would all have lunch together, courtesy of Davide as a thank you to all who helped. The first thing he did was open wine: Prosecco made by a friend in Piedmonte, and his own white from the past year. Then he brought out an assortment of prosciutto, pancetta, and salumi that he cured himself for us to snack on while we waited to eat. The prosciutto was the best I have had since my arrival in Europe: savory but not salty, and not even the fat was chewy.
For lunch, Davide served a primi of acquacotta, a new discovery for me. Acquacotta is basically a stew of onions, carrots, and whatever other vegetables you have on hand, traditionally cooked for hours by a low-burning fire that agricultural workers would keep kindling all day as they labored in the field. (Davide had started his two days earlier.) You spoon the stew over stale Tuscan bread – which is actually the worst, unsalted and dry, but makes an effective sponge – and eat it all with an egg on top.
This is the embodiment of what the Italians call cucina povera – or poor people’s food. John and I agreed that it was unarguably one of the best dishes we had ever tasted, and I can honestly say that I’d prefer eating acquacotta any day to the best beef tenderloin. (Well, at least most days.)
Next were locally-grown beans braised slowly with sausages in a thick sugo, and more cheese and charcuterie, and espresso for the whole group made in a Moka pot. And, of course, wine – bottle after bottle of Davide’s crisp whites and bright Tuscan Sangiovese-Montepulciano blends.
Just when we were starting to grow sleepy and content from the food and the wine and the warm sun on our shoulders, it was time to crush.
There are a few essential steps to the wine crush. First, you run the grape clusters through a machine that separates the grapes from the stems. It’s attached by a long tube to the grape press itself, so all of the grapes (juice and skins) go into the press through the tube.
Once the bowl of the press fills up, you apply weights to the top and use a lever to crank the top down, little by little, until as much juice as possible comes out of the press. You collect the juice and transfer it to a stainless-steel barrel, where it will age until it’s ready to drink. (For a red wine, you may also use an oak barrel to develop the flavor.)
Over the course of a couple of hours, we pressed all of the white grapes. The red grapes would macerate in their skins to develop flavor and color for another week before Davide would press those. The process was sticky and messy. Unfortunately, bees loved it. More than once the press either became clogged or a hole formed in the seal so that grape skins spewed out the sides with surprising force. The cleanup process, especially washing down all of the equipment, was not trivial.
Towards the end of the crushing and pressing, as we were wrapping up, Davide invited us – “the Americans” – down to his cantina, or wine cave. This part of Tuscany is full of cantine, dug into the dry volcanic tufo rock by first by ancient Etruscans and later by all of the inhabitants that followed them. Staring at a mountain in the distance, you may see a dozen dark spots in the side of the wall that look like deep holes – and essentially, they are. Today, Italians use cantine to make and store wine and other products because the rock walls keep the interior dark and cool, even in the summer months. Isn’t nature convenient?
Davide’s cantina was full of bottles, many covered with mold growing on the sides. At the bottom were oak barrels where last year’s Sangiovese and Montepulciano were aging, and he used a glass siphon to suck up wine straight from the barrel and offer us a taste. He also poured tastes of his grappa, which he made in 1990 and has been aging ever since. We took in the sight of many glass jugs of homemade red and white wine vinegars that sat on the floor of the cantina.
On a dirt trail that led the way back up to the house, he pulled a dozen peaches off of a tree and piled them into his shirt for us to take home. “Take, take, take,” he said, until we had more peaches than we could reasonably carry. This is Davide; this is Italy.
Back on his patio, we said goodbye to Davide. “Next year I’ll send you some of the wine we made today,” he said in Italian.
“No,” John answered. “We’ll come back for it.”
-Olivia (photos by JT)