“Viene Signora, non perdiamo tempo/Come on, Ma’am, let’s not waste time.” At 85, Flavio had the right to be in a hurry, but I had to gather up the baby, all of her kit, find Elvis’ leash and lock the doors behind us.
Once we were all belted in to the car, Flavio turned to me with a shining grin on his furrowed face. In his hands were a brand, new pair of green rubber boots. “New boots for new wine,” he said.
It was September of 1998, and six months since we had bought Flavio’s barn and vineyard in the Monferrato hills. Roberto and I hadn’t realized when we signed the deed transfer that we were taking on both the property and its original owner.
We had been living in the historic center of Asti when Rebecca was born. I suppose some maternal hormone kicked in, because I became determined to find a garden, a bit of green, a tree to hang a swing for her. Roberto humored me, and allowed himself to be dragged along to view fifty or so weedy vegetable patches, scruffy orchards, and their crumbling tool sheds. Then, I met Flavio, and our lives took a turn.
The land had been in the Bello family for centuries, but Flavio and Lia had no children to leave it to.
There was a brick corn barn at the end of the lane, surrounded by the roses that Lia loved…and rosemary, erba di S. Pietro, and sage. Behind the barn, the land sloped away, and the layers of Monferrato hills unfurled. The view was just plain mozzafiato/breathtaking.
The vineyard had been planted by Flavio’s father; it was old, sickly and northfacing. But, he had been scratching enough wine out of it to give himself an excuse to leave the stuffy apartment in town, and to spend fine days in the country air. He only agreed to sell when his hips ached with the climb. And he only agreed to sell to us—or so Roberto later decided—because he knew he had found a naïve American with more energy than sense. Flavio didn’t need our money, as much as he needed to continue making his wine. I was easy to convince.
I had come to Italy from flat, tropical Florida and had drunk wine only as the base ingredient of a spritzer. But, in Italy, and especially in the hills of Piemonte, wine is an ingredient of life. I was determined to learn about that life. Flavio and I tramped between the brown scrub and spiny undergrowth of the Piemontese “giornata,” the traditional measure of land a man could plow in a day. He taught me to prune the tangled vines of the previous year and to tie up the best branch, which would grow into our new crop. Over the spring, we passed between the rows with sickle and scythe—until Roberto turned up with a gas powered ‘decespugliatore’. Through the summer, I mixed the ‘verderame;’ the beautiful tropical turquoise colored disinfectant spray, and pumped my way through the grasping greenery. Sometimes, with tiny Rebecca in a sling across my chest. In late August, we had our vendemmia, our grape harvest.
A dozen or so plastic cases of dark, dusty blue Barbera were dragged up to the barn. We were so proud, and I remember that when I went to the agricultural supply store to buy siphon and bottles, I affected a bit of ‘vignaiuolo’ swagger.
Finally, the day came when the green boots went on and I pranced around in the big ‘arbi’ until the dark pink grape mash came up to my shins. Flavio held Rebecca up to watch and giggle; Elvis tried to jump in with me. It was a far cry from a scene of Gina Lollabridgida in a peasant blouse…
Eventually the mash in the tub “boiled,” fermented, and we transferred it, to age, into big glass ‘damigianne’ in wicker baskets.
A year after we’d bought the vineyard, the wine was siphoned into bottles, the bottles corked with my father-in-law’s ‘tappatrice,’ I had gone to a printing shop in Asti and had official looking labels made: Chillowocky Red 1998.
It was, as they say here in Monferrato, ‘molto genuino’…very authentic. It was acidic and awful.
But, we drank every single bottle, though we hadn’t the nerve to offer it to anyone else. It was our own.
The following winter, the old vines were chopped down for firewood. Even Flavio had had to admit that the time had come. He began to teach me to prune the roses, instead. But, because of that year of Chillowocky Red, I had learned a lot– about Monferrato and monferrini, about what it takes to make wine, about my own limits. I had a fine friend in Flavio. And, Rebecca had her swing, in the old persimmon tree that looked out over the neighbor’s vineyards.