Several years before I became a part-time Italian, “participate in a vendemmia” (grape harvest) had been one of the things on my lifetime “to do” list. So you can imagine how excited I was during a dinner on one of our vacations to have our friend Calvino invite us to join him the next morning at his friends’ farm. My traveling companions were initially a bit skeptical about this venture, but as we talked more, they got into the spirit of the thing, too. Of course I chose not to dwell on the fact that it was going to be hard, dirty work, and instead, emphasized the “romance” of picking the grapes for wine that we could eventually be drinking.
VERY early the next morning, our little group, consisting of Alan, Sandy, Lou and me from the U.S., and Calvino and Adriano from Italy, joined with the extended family members to harvest five long rows of grapes that had been planted between their fruit and olive trees. We were given a pair of shears and a pail, and asked only that we keep the red and white grapes separate. Fortunately, Adriano had brought multiple pairs of rubber gloves. Had he not, at day’s end we would have had to soak our hands in Clorox until there was nothing left but bone and a few tendons.
Calvino set about picking with a vigor that never wilted under the increasingly hot sun. Since Lou was having double knee replacements the following month, kneeling was totally out of the question, so he made himself useful by bringing us empty pails to fill and shuttling the full ones back to the tractor. While just days before Sandy had complained of aching joints due to a bit too much sightseeing, she was now bending and stooping and lifting with an energy that almost matched Calvino’s. Alan took “photo breaks” from time to time, but we could hardly complain since that meant we were armed with recorded proof of our hard labor to show doubting friends back home.
And then there was Adriano, the eccentric painter. Though he had lived in this area his whole life, this was his first vendemmia, and after about five minutes, he announced that surely an artist of his stature was not born to soil his hands in such a proletarian manner. Even the battery-run propeller on the top of his hat couldn’t properly cool his brow. (Sorry — no photo.) So he stayed up on the tractor, receiving the full pails Lou was lifting up to him, and between times, reciting poetry to all of us below. These poems were in Italian, of course, meaning we couldn’t understand them, but I think that was to our benefit. I just had a feeling that anyone who wore day-glo yellow sneakers as dress shoes (which he did) would use similar taste in choosing poetry to recite at a grape harvest.
As reward for our labors, we were invited to join the family for lunch, where we had pasta with a fresh cinghiale (wild boar) sauce. I say “fresh” because the poor cinghiale had been killed just two days before. It had been a brutally hot summer, and with local streams reduced to a trickle, the desperate animal had come out to the family’s grape vines in search of fluid. The woman of the house saw him, picked up her husband’s rifle, and with one shot, supplied us with our luncheon pasta sauce. Hunger won out over any guilt we might have had, though we did wince when we heard that cinghiali are normally quite shy animals.
While the experience was exactly what I had hoped it would be, my friends grumbled that perhaps I should have stressed the hard labor a bit more when I was talking them into it. However, I’ve noticed a certain sense of pride when they bring out the photos and tell others of their adventure. One thing for sure: we all agreed that we will NEVER look at a bottle of even the most humble wine quite the same way again.