Our friend Kip almost didn’t go to the vendemmia on Saturday simply because he had read the piece I wrote last year about the grape harvest Alan and I did 9 years ago. I guess I didn’t make it sound very inviting. In the end, he figured if we were giving it a second try, he might as well give it a first. It’s a good thing he did, because it turned out to be a great day.
We were at Simona and Nick’s home in the beautiful countryside near Orvieto. Simona is the talented chef I wrote about who used to do the wonderful Sagraincasa lunches. While she no longer has time for them, she is still involved with food and still has her Sagraincasa website. We knew that if we worked even moderately hard, we’d be rewarded with a delicious lunch.
Other than the promise of great food, why was this vendemmia so pleasant when the last one fell more into the “torture” category? As always, the #1 most important thing is weather. Last time it was 95 degrees and searing sun (or at least that’s the way I remember it). This year it was a bit overcast and I’d say around 80 during our time in the field. Also, they had LOTS of people. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to know that: more people = less work per person.
But perhaps almost as important as the weather and the group were the plants themselves. I think the vines back in 2003 had been pretty much left to fend for themselves right up until harvest time. There was no evidence whatsoever that anyone had given even a passing thought to pruning. The juice was going into the barrels in the garage, where it would ferment for “awhile” and end up on the family’s table in a month or 2. It was destined be the kind of wine you could drink out of a plastic cup and not feel bad about it. We had to hack our way through the jungle of leaves and stems to find the poor grapes that had been trapped within.
On the other hands, Simona and Nick’s vines had been well-tended since they were going to go to a local cooperativa that buys grapes grown in the officially designated area and combines them into wines that you really should drink out of a proper wine glass. In fact, the grapes are regularly monitored during their growth for their sugar content, and the cooperativa tells Nick when they’re ready for harvesting. Nick said that this year, while the hot summer had led to a lower yield, the fruit was of very high quality.
Well-pruned vines meant that the grapes were easily accessible to those of us armed with shears, and unlike last time where it seemed all of the bunches were about a foot off the ground, I didn’t even have to bend down much. It was THE perfect Italian grape picking experience.
But that doesn’t mean we didn’t earn our lunch. Over on the other side of the road, right next to the house, was a HUGE pile of firewood. What constitutes “HUGE”? How about 8 tons!!!
I don’t know who the masochist was who decided to walk over to the pile, grab a few pieces and start making a nice, neat row. Then like sheep being led to the slaughter, soon we were all over there, picking up wood and making nice, neat rows. Had this been in our contract and we just hadn’t read the fine print??? My first fear was that since the wood had been there for several weeks, surely by now many, many creatures had made it their home, and I really didn’t want one crawling up my arm. Fortunately, that never happened.
However, for what seemed like hours, the sun grew hotter and the pile just wouldn’t go down. We had one neat row, then 2 neat rows, then 3, but the pile looked exactly the same. I suggested that perhaps when we turned our backs, someone was sneaking in and adding more wood. It was either that or the wood was mating and producing baby wood at an alarming rate. And then – suddenly — the pile magically went from 5 feet high to 1 foot high. I have no idea how to explain this, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I was hallucinating from all the bending, carrying and worrying about bugs.
The happy outcome was that Simona and Nick ended up with 5-1/2 nice, neat rows of wood to last through the winter, and we got to enjoy a wonderful lunch with both old and new friends. As for Kip, Alan and I – we were all glad we did it. In fact, there’s a good chance I’ll do it again….and perhaps I won’t wait for 9 years this time.
(If you want to see proof of the vendemmia, go to:
to see Nick’s photo documentation of our efforts in “The Dream Team”. And if you want proof of Simona’s talents in the kitchen, read the next blog, “The proof is in the eating”, where she talks about having been asked by the Daily Mail in the UK to make some of the “Italian inspired” recipes from TV chef Nigella Lawson’s new book. It turns out “Italian inspired” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Italian cooking.)