One Thousand Days in Tuscany

A Bittersweet Adventure in a small Tuscan town: Grape Picking

By Mei Mei Thai

Marlena de Blasi’s A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure takes its readers onto her adventurous, fulfilling experience living in a small Tuscany town. Totally immersing herself into their culture and way of living, she formed amazing friendships and cooked and shared delicious meals.

Together with her husband Fernando, they both learned to love and live a pleasant, romantic life in Tuscan-style throughout the four seasons.

Below is an excerpt of how they wanted to be a part of the grape picking event, which almost seemed like a necessary practice in a Tuscan’s life.

Invitation to Grape Picking

We had begun back in June to ask Barlozzo where he thought we could help pick grapes. In my journalistic life, I’d travel much of Europe to participate in one vendemmia or another – in Bandol in southern France, on the island of Madiera, and once, farther up north in Tuscany, in the Chianti – to collect information and impressions for my stories.

Each time, the farmer in me was inspired. I couldn’t imagine living here and not being part of it. And more ardent even than my yearning for it, Fernando’s was fixed.

One way or another, the banker was going to pick. But Barlozzo had been restrained about the idea. Did we realize it was un lavoro masacrante, a murderous work, that begun each morning as soon as the dew was dry and lasted until sunset?

He said that neighbors gathered on one farm, picked it clean, moved together to the next to do the same. He said that there were often six or seven or more small harvests in each of these circles bound by friendship and a mutual need for the simple wine that was food to them.

“Whose grapes do you help pick?” I’d asked, hoping the directness of the question would stave off more scenes of Armageddon under the still-cruel September sun.

“Usually I go to help my cousins in Palazzone, though now they’ve got so many children and in-laws swarming the vines, they hardly need me,” he’d said.

“Well, is there other work we can do to help? Can we cook?”

“What you’re not understanding is that the harvest is ‘family’ work, open to neither the curious nor the admiring. But we’ll see. I’ll ask around.”

After his clearly stated cultural lesson, I’d just let the subject sit. And the first we’d heard that we were invited to pick was this morning’s announcement that he’d be waiting for us at dawn tomorrow.

How It Should Be Done

La vendemmia, the grape harvest, is anticipated, celebrated more than any other seasonal event in the life of Tuscan farmers. The oldest cultivated crop on the Italian peninsula is the vine, the tendrils of its history wound about and grafted into rites pagan and sacred, into life itself.

Almost everyone has vines, either his own or his landowners’, either a hundred or so scraggly plants grown up among blackberry bushes or set between rows of feed corn or hectares and hectares of luxuriant and photogenic vines nurtured by masterful hands. Or, as it is with Barlozzo’s cousins, some configuration in between.

Most often, except on the great parcels of land where mechanical means are sometimes employed, the grapes are cut, cluster by cluster, the clicking of the secateurs meting out an ancient, pastoral rhythm.

A strange sort of flat twig basket is hung from the vine where the harvester works, freeing his hands to clip the clusters and drop the fruit into it in a smooth two-step motion. When the basket is full, the fruit is turned out into larger plastic tubs, which are then carried to the small trucks or wagons that wait here and there among the vines to port the grapes down the road to the crusher.

When I lived in California, I found that the innocent pleasures of wine were too often diminished by prodigies – real or self-imagined – bent on deep-reading a glass of grape juice. There is no such blundering here.

These farmers make their wine in the vineyard rather than in the laboratory the way commercial winemakers do. The fruit – undisguised, unmanipulated, and just as the gods send it – is the stuff of their wine. That and their passion for it. And this congress is all the alchemy there is.

Rough, lean, muscled wines, wines to chew, thick rubescent elixirs that transfuse a tired, thirsty body like blood are these. No fragrance of violets or vanilla, not a single jammy whiff nor one of English leather, these wines are the crushed juices of the grape, enchanted in a barrel. As we tumble out of Barlozzo’s truck on the vineyard road, we see what must be thirty people standing and sitting near a small mountain of baskets and bins.

To a person, their hair is tied in some form of bandana or kerchief. Hat brims buck up against the vines and inhibit the work of picking. This other form of headgear holds back sweat, if not the sun’s violence.
I decided to put my Holly Golightly straw hat back in the truck, hoping not too many of the harvesters have noticed the two-foot diameter flounce of its offensive brim.

As I come back to join the group, Barlozzo hands me a neatly ironed blue-and-white bandanna, boycotting my eyes, the better for me to feel his scorn. I want to ask him why he just didn’t remind me of my inappropriate hat while we were driving to the site, but I don’t. Fernando is loathe to surrender his black Harley baseball cap and receives the Duke’s tacit approval.

The Vinaiolo

The other thing that separates us from the pack is that we have not come with shears attached to our belts. Suddenly I feel like a chef with no knives, a plumber who must borrow a wrench. But there are others without arms, and soon the vinaiolo, the winemaker, is distributing weapons and errant gloves to us as though we were on a breadline and had asked for toast.

The spirit of festival is thin among the vines and under the wakening sun as the vinaiolo assigns territory, demonstrates the technique to the few first-timers. I can’t help remembering the California harvests I’d witnessed. The estate manager and the winemaker mill about the vineyard, variously nodding and shaking their heads, touching, smelling the fruit, writing in notebooks, racing with the grapes into the lab to test the Brix.

Would there be a harvest today, or would we wait for tomorrow and the further concentration of the fruit’s sugar? Here it’s another story: when the moon is waning and the grapes are fat and black, dusted in a thick white bloom and sundried of dew – the residual moisture which might dilute the purity of the juice – the vinaiolo snaps off a bunch of grapes, rubs one or two on his shirt sleeve, tosses them into his mouth, chews, swallows, smiles and says, Vendemmiamo, Let’s pick.

Buy This Book From Amazon A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure Hardcover November 1, 2004

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