It was a hot July morning, and I was trudging through my rows of grapevines, muttering curses—in most vulgar English—at my neighbors, and at myself. On my back, dripping and sputtering, was a 25kg tank of turquoise verderame; on my head, a Yankees cap.
At the crest of the bricco, above me, was the little brick barn that we had bought and its old vineyard. After three dusty and frustrating summers, it had finally been transformed into a sweet weekend retreat for our family. But, instead of being content to plant some geraniums and a fig tree in the garden, I had convinced myself that a few rows of “uva” were a mandatory complement to a cottage in the wine hills of Monferrato.
The neighbors to the east, distant cousins of Flavio, the land's former owner, had approached us with a plan to replant the vineyard. They, of course, with tractors and know-how would manage the vines and we (after an initial outlay) would benefit with an endless supply of Barbera DOC. Roberto, not yet recovered from my last wine making endeavor (the eminently genuino Chillowocky Red), declined. But, I fillibustered for just a few rows.
At Easter, while we were away on vacation, the neighbors came and planted for me. Four long, hopeful rows of Barbera barbatelle—at the bottom of the hill. A steeply inclined hundred meters from the house.
To my husband Roberto, grandson of a “furbo” Piemontese farmer, the message was immediately clear. The land had been “almost” theirs. If we hadn't shown up to buy it, they would eventually have inherited from cousin Flavio, who had no children.
I knew, as I chugged and sweated up and down the pitched path between spigot and vines, that they were watching me from their tractor, from under their straw brims. Thinking, in dialect of course, that they had made their point: Vineyards are serious work; not for a dilletante American with no roots in the local clay.
Someone else was watching me, but openly. Lucia, Flavio's younger sister—by then in her 80's—had come through the gate between our houses to bring me a basket of her early griot.
“This was my vineyard,” she told me, as we sat in the shade of the fig tree to eat the tart cherries. “My responsibility, to weed and to hoe all season. I only went to school when it rained.”
Lucia finished her formal education in the third grade during the 1940's when Monferrato, as the rest of Northern Italy, was suffering under Nazi occupation and Allied bombings. “We always planted potatoes between the rows, so as not to waste any land,” she added. Lucia's father had planted the rows of our old vineyard, and they had been little more than a meter apart. I asked her if the family had had a tractor, and she chuckled, “Magari!”—”If only!”—”Rich people had an ox (bue in Italian), but we had six kids...everyone had their duties. The boys carried the heavy pump (made of copper then, instead of lightweight plastic like mine) to spray the vines every week against mildew and diseases. Mama mixed the “aqua”—the diluted copper disinfectant solution—in the cement well, called the Trö, and siphoned it down to replenish the pumps. And we all worked together on the pruning and the harvest. I was the shortest, so from the age of 6 or so, I cut the lowest bunches."
The wine they made was not for their own table, but a necessary income. A wet season, an insect or disease, a hailstorm was a family calamity. Vineyards were serious work.
Lucia never asked me why I tried to do it. Certainly, she wondered why anyone would trudge up and down the hill for a few bottles of wine, if they didn't absolutely need to; if they could go to the new shop in village and buy it, già fatto. But, I was the first American she had ever met, and she had heard that as a 'race' we were 'un po particulare'...different from Piemontese, a little bit odd.