Monday, July 30, 2012

Grape Wrangling

Some time ago we were shopping at the Calitri Conad. Conad is an Italian supermarket chain found throughout the country. This one is located toward the western side of town close to where Calitri transitions into a rural suburb, a mixture of farms and large estates. Our branch is run by some exceptional people like the manager, Rodolfo; Franko, the most serious looking of deli managers and his counterweight in body language, Stephania, the always smiling checkout girl. I have fun interacting with the people who work there, which is different from at home in the States. They seem more like concerned friends verses the strangers in markets back home. When we arrive for the first time, for instance, they are genuinely happy to see us and take a moment to talk with us about our trip and how long we'll be in town. But then again this may all be part of being a touchy-feely Italian. I like to think not though, my belief only strengthened by little examples of sincerity as when Rodolfo brings me into his office to show me his pride and joy Fender guitar or fills me in on upcoming events during our stay.

On that particular visit I intentionally didn’t buy any wine. They have a pretty good selection on their shelves and prices that make you want to fill your carriage compared with prices at home. There is always that calculation to make - just how much wine will we be able to absorb while we'll be in Calitri? In my excitement, Maria Elena manages to restrain me on just how many bottles we should buy, not that price is a concern. With Sangiovese, Italy's claim to fame grape, spicy Aglianico and rustic Primitivo starting at $3.00 on up, you could hardly go wrong. Yet that day I had another idea for a source of wine in mind. On our departure, I decided to take a left turn out of the lot instead of the normal right to return home to the borgo quarter beyond the castle. My intention was to find an alternate source I’d heard about in the area. Pack rat that I am I keep notes on things travel related and especially when they relate to Calitri. For years I had a note in my computer about “La Guardia" wine. For some time I had been curious about this particular wine maker and today was the day I’d investigate. Little did I anticipate the pain I’d endure as a consequence.

Not far after our turn out of the Conad lot we passed a tractor supply house and shortly after that, we came upon the DiMaio bus parking lot on the corner of a rural intersection. It was to the right side of this intersection that we found the winery of Giuseppe, also a DiMaio, quietly revealed by a smallish sign which simply stated "La Guardia". Giuseppe is a local wine producer who crafts and sells home-made wine from his home. The name of the wine is La Guardia (The Guard) since he had been a vigile urbano (local traffic policeman) in Calitri, hence the name!

Through a gate, down a sloping driveway to one side of his home, we found Giuseppe in his combined basement cucina (kitchen) and cantina (winery). On first meeting and shaking hands he struck me as a quietly confident man. He bore a perpetual semi-smile approaching a friendly smirk on his tanned face, no doubt from hours in his fields stringing, pruning and otherwise pampering his vines. He showed us around his domain starting with the section containing the cucina. A large tiled countertop took up one side while a table, couch, TV, and refrigerator commanded most of the opposite wall. Glass paneled French doors hinted there was another room farther back. Yet it wasn't the decor that caught our attention. The invisible fragrance of freshly made pizza filled the room. His rosy cheeked wife, Vincenza, had just finished baking giant slabs of pizza in a wood-fired oven off to one side of the garage-sized room. Large rectangular tray sheets of the oven-baked pizza, now draped with towels, cooled to one side of the counter. Obviously she had been busy preparing for some large gathering. Our interest in the pizza quickly translated without need for words as he offered each of us a still warm square. Thick seasoned crust, surprisingly void of any topping other than a homemade tomato sauce, only teased our taste-buds. As plain as it was, I still craved more especially as I realized I was about to consume my last bite. Later Mare confided that it was the best she'd ever had. If only Vincenza would sell this stuff and sell it to us!

The other side of the divided basement was home to his cantina. Here again, though empty at the moment, was a large floorspace big enough for a couple of Fiat sized cars. Small plastic tubs, photos of past harvests and other paraphernalia accented the walls. A door led farther back into the heart of the cantina itself. Inside, brick arches accented the side walls above a terracotta tiled floor. Large, copper-colored fiberglass vats hugged the walls while an enormous press stood ready to squeeze the last drops of juice from the mash of residue grape-skins. Racks of bottles, a table for capping along with grape harvest statuary and posters completed the room. Each vat was marked with chalk to remember its content (bianco e rosso) and year. Telling from the graduations up the side of each tank, they each could hold 1000 liters of wine. Just imagine, something like 1300 bottles of wine in each tank! The translucent tanks permitted you to see just how much each contained. This was clearly much more than some come and go hobby. The scale of this basement operation epitomized Giuseppe's love of the vine and a personal commitment to winemaking.

After sampling wines, we settled on a few bottles of both the red and white varietals. It being October I asked about the harvest. To my surprise it was only a few days away and Giuseppe asked if I'd like to help out with the vendemmia (grape harvest). Though both of us had done it before and knew the work involved, how could we refuse? While nowhere on the order of the pain commensurate with having a baby, all the while swearing never to endure that again, time does dull our memories thus diminishing our objection to an experience. My pain would be back related brought on by hours of bending needed for a six footer like myself to reach the low hung grape clusters. It was pain a man could relate to. Although I'd sworn at the time, now years passed, never to do that again, I consented and promised to be there. As I thought about how many Advils to bring along, I wondered if he actually expected me to show up. I resolved, if I could drink the stuff, I could at least fill a few baskets! Indeed, how soon we forget.

The day before the La Guardia vendemmia was to take place, Mare and I went on a scouting expedition to find where exactly his fields were located. While there were back ways to get to the fields, we got there from Calitri Sud (South Calitri) located at the bottom of the plateau on which Calitri rests. We drove off of SS7 under the shadow of the new elevated highway, which now-days leads you quickly to Calitri and beyond to Bisaccia. On the actual day of the vendemmia I arrived at the field early. Maria Elena, not feeling well, had stayed home. Not knowing what to expect, I wanted to be there early rather than later. That made me one of the first to arrive. There wasn’t really anywhere to park other than by the side of the gravel road at the base of the vineyard. His fields stretched from the gravel road on up a gently sloping ridge. Favoring the southwest and an afternoon sun, the fields were sheltered by the ridge, which made it ideal for a morning harvest. Row after row of perfectly straight vines coated the hillside leaving only enough room to walk between the leafy hedgerows. Weeks ago and I imagine again only days before, I could envision Giuseppe in this vineyard using a hand-held refractometer to determine the sugar content of a single drop of juice from a crushed grape. Sampling grapes from different clusters from his legions of vines, each time insuring the morning dew was gone so as not to bias the results, he’d diligently walk along testing with a diabetic’s fastidiousness. After all, it was all about sugar. When right, it would be time to harvest. Days after the harvest, this time to monitor fermentation, he’d use a float device to measure the specific gravity of his blood dark liquid mash, properly called ‘must’. When the remaining amount of sugar in solution was just right, it would be time to stop the fermentation and move on to the next stage, aging, followed by bottling and finally enjoying. All along it took a disciplined hand for wine is alive and if mistreated could die. The fields where the wine's life began were extensive making the task of gathering the dangling bounty a daunting challenge. Years earlier, I’d picked grapes with Antonio and his family but this vineyard was acres larger. I hoped he’d have lots of help. The others who gradually arrived didn't know me nor I them. There were no introductions and little was said. God knows, I hardly knew Giuseppe!

There was no training program per say but then again this wasn't difficult. Besides, I'd had one season of apprenticeship under Antonio's tutelage. With a good idea of what to do and armed with my plastic bucket and clippers I simply watched and mimed what the others did. Humbly, I didn't take the lead on anything. Instead I just moved with the herd of harvesters from row to row, zigzagging up and down a side while gently removing the concealed fruit. My workmates in this endeavor were mostly older rusticated women. Older yes, but not lacking in energy. Short, upright as poles, sturdy, accustomed to hard work, their rough hands a sign they were prodigious toilers, as juxtaposed to office-boy me, they were cloaked in long shifts with sweaters and aprons completing their harvest ensembles. They had a traditional Italian nonna (grandmother) look about them, iconized by their babushkas and scarves knotted tightly under their chins. In a way, I imagined myself transported to Ellis Island in 1913 when my ancestors had first disembarked in America.

While there was no singing as we culled the vines there was plenty of chatter among them interrupted only by the sounds of snappy shears. Maybe I'm being presumptuous but I suspect some of it had to do with me. What to make of me. I could tell they were watching me. I worked hard at clipping the grape bunches and gently laying them in my bucket all the while trying to keep up. Seems Giuseppe could draw from a slew of helpers which I'm sure were mostly family and friends who had participated in the annual event year after year until too old to manage it any longer. All told there were maybe twenty of us including the basket collectors like young Carlo and tractor drivers who disappeared with each basketful. The back pain? Being what it is, it was there of course, not willing to miss an opportunity, especially when I'd try to stand erect every once and a while. But as I knew and would later confirm once again, wine, that sunshine in a bottle and elixir of life, is a great lubricant capable of smoothing the rough patches in our lives.

Around 9 am a bell rang. It wasn’t of the deep full-bodied resonant variety you’d hear from a distant church. This one was nearby and had a higher pitch. The sound originated from somewhere right there in this landscape of grapes. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I did notice other workers stop what they were doing and head up the ridge toward a small building situated toward the middle of the vineyard. Like a zombie I fell in with the others and followed the sound. The peel of the bell came from this makeshift shed. The outbuilding was made of cement blocks with a sort of shaded veranda around it held up by poles, themselves once sturdy young trees. Some of the roof was fashioned from terracotta tiles as if clay pipes had been cut in half lengthwise, so typical of Italian roof construction if not throughout Europe. I assumed it was some sort of break since there was so much more picking remaining before anyone could think about quitting, though that thought had already crossed my mind. On closer inspection, the shack was a sort of utility building where Giuseppe stored hand-tools and other implements. There was even running water. To one side permanent tables, their supporting legs also made of cement blocks, had been prepared for a meal or what they call a spuntino (midmorning snack). After washing my hands of sticky juice and grape skins I swung onto one of the side benches surrounded by invisible customs.

In a eureka moment I understood. That wonderful unadorned pizza we'd seen cooling a day or so before was being served. Along with it was dried salted fish, called baccalĂ , now fully reconstituted. Hard to believe, I'd never had it before though I was familiar with it. God only knows how daily as a paperboy I'd pass open crates of the salty slabs at Raouci & Vasile's Italian Market. My mom just wasn't into it for a couple reasons. She was of French descent and though she would cook to please my dad's Italian tastes, she didn't want to bother with the days of soaking needed to bring the cardboard-like baccalĂ  back to life, what with modern refrigeration available. It was worth the wait (see photo album). Mimicking my tablemates Carlo and Raffaele, I piled it high on a square of pizza and indulged. If you tired of that, another surprise was the egg frittatas inlayed with roasted peppers. These plate sized omelets, served at room or in this case outside temperature, made it feel like breakfast, hardy as it was. But what meal of any kind in Italy would be complete without cheese and bread? The tear dropped shaped caciocavallo cheese (cheese on horseback) was more familiar. It gets its name because two cheeses are always connected together with a rope in saddlebag fashion then left to cure by placing them 'a cavallo' - straddling not a horse but a horizontal stick or branch. For the carbohydrate lovers there were loaves of bread. I watched in fascination as they nonchalantly sliced slabs of hard crusted bread holding the round loaves against the side of their chests and pulling the knife blade toward themselves while tracing around the edge of the crust as if using a can-opener. It is traditional that bread not be served already cut into slices. It is either ripped by hand or, as in this case, cut as needed at the table. Unlike my previous grape harvest adventure I hadn't cut myself yet so to avoid a self inflicted appendectomy I stayed clear of the knives, besides I didn't need the extra carbs anyway! To finish off this scrumptious meal there was espresso to kick back in quick shots or the red wine nectar of last year's harvest.

Now fully satiated , our hardy snack over, we headed back to work. About then I was more inclined to relax with a book while poking about with a toothpick but it was not to be as one of the women at the table announced "America, you come". Apparently I now had a partner. I must have passed inspection, then again perhaps I hadn't and I needed more watching! The sun now beat on the silence of the fields, the clicking of the clippers sounding like cicadas as the hours and the buckets passed until around 1 pm when Giuseppe said "enough" and like that it was over, we were done. By this time I was numb, wished I was only 4 feet tall, had forsworn wine forever and hated the sight of grapes! My healing began almost immediately, however, when Giuseppe asked that I collect Maria Elena and return to the cucina for something to eat. Again, I could say with a straight face that only out of politeness did I accept, but then I'd be lying. How could I possibly refuse? The image of something more to eat, anything on the order of what I'd experienced earlier, was hypnotic. Besides, just the possibility of more of that pizza would surely heal Mare, which it did.

Something happens in life between the time when women, especially moms and grandmothers, try their mightiest to pump food into you from the moment you enter their kitchens to when years later they work almost as diligently to micro-manage and reduce your consumption just when you're getting good at enjoying it. The latter hasn't happened to me yet evidenced by Signora DiMaio indulging us from the moment we entered her cucina. On entering we found the room filled with the vendemmia workers seated on either side of long tables which hadn't been there on our earlier visit. We were a little late getting there since I had gone home to see if Maria Elena was up to returning with me. In a moment of awkward embarrassment we were seated after two women were asked or told, I'm not really sure, to move to another table. They didn't seem to mind. It may have had something to do with seating arrangements. We sat opposite Carlo and beside jovial Raffaele at a table headed by Giuseppe. Carlo spoke English well and Raffaele wouldn't hesitate to try. Before us was a classic festive meal like those immortalized in every Italian movie to come out of Hollywood. All that was missing was a pergola with dripping wisteria dangling over our heads and the Maestro himself crooning "Nassun Dorma", reaching its crescendo over the sound of chattering voices and dishes just as another bowl of comforting pasta plopped on the table.

Again the food was amazing. The wine of course flowed. In an effort to restore my favor with god Bacchus, throughout the afternoon my libations were generous, reverential, and unwilling to waste a drop, totally consumed by myself. With each glass I could actually feel his tingling graces returning to me! Bowls of penne pasta surged down the length of the table served before the braciole (pronounced 'bra-shol-e') arrived. For the uninitiated braciole are thin slices of beef (sometimes beaten with the edge of a plate, even a hammer) that are then rolled with a filling of cheese and other ingredients such as prosciutto, sausage, mushrooms, onions, garlic, spinach ... you name it, the list of possibilities unfettered. After being stuffed and rolled, the braciole is then pierced with toothpicks to hold the stuffing in place as it goes beyond its initial brazing to finish cooking in what Italians call 'gravy' (tomato sauce). The gravy draws flavor from the stuffing and when added to the first course pasta, gives a consistent taste to the entire meal. If you have never had it before, you’ll have to try braciole the next time you spot it on a menu. Tantalized by the aromas, the classic culinary Italian pairing of the pasta and those tender roulades of beef, the sounds, the spirits, and affable conversation with Carlo and Raffaele, we indulged. This couldn’t wait. Resistance was pointless. If you're going to indulge in something you may later regret, this may as well be it. My thinking, endure your abbondante (abundant) figure for the moment and put off the diet until tomorrow. For crying out loud, you're in Italy! The spectacle of this harvest meal eventually became the photo centerpiece of our Christmas card. Carlo did the honors!

Hours later, the meal sadly concluded, we went next door to finish the day by crushing the grapes. Bucketful after bucketful of harvested grapes now crammed the floor of the cantina. Though I'd rather enjoy doing it, those romanticized days when you'd crush grapes under foot in a large open barrel are long over. Instead the memory is reserved for stylized statuary and posters like those that decorated the cantina. Open barrels were now only utilized for fermentation. Instead, Giuseppe used a machine like none I'd seen before. The thing was white, about the size of a barbecue and on small wheels to easily move around. It now occupied center stage in the cantina. An extension cord connected it to an outlet and a hose stretched through the cantina into the room containing the storage vats. Open on top it had a funneling chute, more on the order of a hopper, to force the grapes as they were poured in against a giant corkscrew-shaped auger lying horizontal along the bottom of the contraption. Looking at it you could easily figure out what it did but then not completely for it held its own surprise. When it was turned on, young Carlo began pouring in grapes by the bucketful all the while a cigarette with long drooping ash dangling precariously from his mouth over the chute. Out one end of the device the purple elixir gushed down the hose to a worker standing on a stool beside a storage tank. He held the hose over the side of the tank as the brooding flavors of skins and liquid flooded in. The purple slurry, alive as it was and just awakening in the vats, had only begun its journey to becoming wine. The smile on his face from the aroma of the purple waterfall hinted this would be another good year. My surprise was that out the other end of the grinder stems were being ejected into a catch pan. Since there was nothing to do but watch, I scratched my head trying to imagine how that was being done. Ah, the efficiency of modern technology. I also wondered how well it separated cigarette ash!

Everything well in hand , the machine making short shrift of the tubfuls of grapes it took the good part of the day to gather, feeling well nurtured and slightly joyful, we made our goodbyes, especially thanking Giuseppe and Vincenza for their hospitality and the wonderful experience. This had been one of those events in life that had enriched us and I suspect fattened us as well. By the end of the experience I’d become a certified grape wrangler bordering I'm sure on official wino status - the number of Advils well offset by the number of glasses of wine, medicinal of course as they were. The romance of it all, its basic ingredients … the sights, the people, the smell of grapes and above all the food would return each time we’d chance to cross paths on the streets of Calitri. Seeing Raffaele or one of the women in Conad or during the evening passeggiata, the memory would return to both of us. “Ah, l'Americano dalla vendemmia. Come sta la schiena?" (Ah, the American from the grape harvest. How is your back?)

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “The Vendemmia”.