It is seven o’clock in the morning in a small village in Piedmont, and it is darker than night in my attic bedroom. I force myself out of bed and downstairs, where grey light is just starting to probe through the windows. The hills outside are just beginning to blush in the first light.
It’s been just two days since our Tiffin Club dinner in Zürich. Early the next morning we jumped in the car with Marlene and her friend Laura, and drove down to Piedmont. We are staying at the agriturismo run by the Valli Unite agricultural cooperative in the small comune of Costa Vescovato.
The morning rituals of the winery are already in motion: a tractor-trailer pulls down the hill alongside me, and workers are already in the cantina, moving briskly between vats of fermenting wine and large plastic buckets. Talk is minimal, and just a few raise their hands in salute as I run by.
The features of the landscape that evade you in a car are immediately apparent on the ground. Straggling bushes of a familiar-looking weed—I pluck a leaf and chew on it, confirming that the roads are lined with lamb’s quarters (which, in turn, grow as a weed in many parts of India, and, in Karnataka, are called chakkotha). The fields themselves are planted with ordered rows of cardoons, lettuces, kale, and fennel.
The upper reaches of the village are still quiet, and I pass quickly through the empty, narrow streets and into a steep uphill stretch beyond them. I labor on, passing an old man taking his constitutional. After a short while, I am bushed, and doubled over, gasping for breath. When he catches up with me a few minutes later, the old man is full of advice which I cannot understand.
Nonetheless we walk and talk for a while. He explains, I think, that he has a relative in New York. He shows me his house (just down the hillside), he cautions me against staying on the main road—because, I gather, the drivers here are crazy (he makes a driving motion and taps his head, and I think I hear the word pazza). He asks me several questions, and doesn’t’ seem too put out when I can’t answer any of them. He asks where I am staying, and I tell him that I’m staying at Valli Unite. We’re both elated by this successful communication.
He warns me not to return the way I came (because of the previously mentioned crazy drivers, I assume). Instead, he grabs my arm and stewards me into the courtyard of a nearby house. He points out a path between the rows of grapevines, and I gather that he’s pointing out a shortcut back to the winery.
I’m a little wary of walking unattended through strange vineyards, but the man is insistent. I hear the word sinistra and convince myself that all will be fine—just stay to the left. Before we part ways, though, my new friend pads over to a crooked old apple tree and picks two apples off the ground near it. He puts these in my hand and sends me on my way.
The sun is now fully up and I am out of steam. I amble down the path and am soon at the back entrance to the winery. I walk through the stables and say good morning to the gentle-looking pigs and the brutish Piemontese cows. I sit down with a coffee on the balcony and take in the full view of the valley and the fine morning air.
Our sole, rather unambitious, plan for the day, is to take lunch with the grape pickers. We make a note to return when we hear the lunch bell chime, and set out to explore the land around the winery. Before long, we find a neglected walnut tree, the ground beneath it squalid with half-rotting green walnuts. Soon we’re all bent over, rooting in the leaf litter. After removing the fibrous outer flesh, we crack more than a few of the nuts underfoot and eat them, fresh and milky from their shells. Sitting on the steps of a nearby church and chewing on the bittersweet meats, I can’t recall what day it is. Even the bees, hovering over my walnut-tinted hands seem indifferent. The bell tolls, and I know it is time for lunch.
Our lunch manages to be both quite ordinary, and exceedingly delicate and surprising. We’ve somehow missed the lunch crowd, but the cook brings us a great bowl of pasta which we serve and sauce ourselves and a salad of coarsely chopped green cabbage dressed only with salt and olive oil. I’m incredulous at first about this unimpressive-looking tangle of leaves, but the sweet cabbage and the delicate, nutty oil easily win me over. We drink a bottle of Valli Unite’s own Bardigá—a blend of Croatina, Barbera, and Moretto—and talk with the office manager, who impresses us all with her imperial posture and her congenial but terse manner. She tells us we can come by the office if we want to borrow the one paper map they have for the surrounding area. There’s a swimming hole not too far away that we can walk to if we want.
We dawdle out of lunch and find the fieldworkers getting a few minutes of rest in the shade before they head out once again. An impressively bearded man, who I take to be the foreman, talks to Marlene and asks if we might be interested in helping pick some grapes. The temptation to go for a swim is strong, but we decide to go into the vineyards instead—all we’ve done for the last week is swim in various water bodies around Zürich. We change into work clothes and walk down to the cantina.
The group is slowly trickling back from lunch. It’s a mixed group of Italians, New Zealanders, Southern Italians (the consensus in the group is that they’re from a different country—there don’t seem to be very hard feelings about this sentiment; the Southern Italians actually seem more effusive on the point), a talkative Dutchman, and then us: the two Swiss, the Indian, and the American.
It’s an unwieldy group, and it throws into immediate focus the strange dynamic that often typifies brave, pioneering cooperatives like this. Apart from being a mix of nationalities, the personalities on display are varied and in constant modulation. Some are lifers: longtime wine geeks who travel around looking for wineries to help out at, some are slow-food enthusiasts, and others are in it for the thrill of doing something unusual and unique. We clamber over the sides of two trailers and slowly, like a mechanized caterpillar, make our jolting way down the hill, through the village, and into the fields, kicking up a cloud of grey dust as we go.
In the full glare of the afternoon, the countryside takes on a muted, dusty look—the rows and rows of grapevines a faint green, the buildings all in pale, faded pastels, and the sky a hazy, washed-out blue. The work itself is hard and confusing. Valli Unite is one of a growing group of natural wine producers in Piedmont who try to use only natural fertilizers and limit their use of pesticides and herbicides. The past year is the rainiest Piedmont has had in a long time, which has been particularly hard on the natural producers. We are sorted into teams, each team working its way along the two sides of a row of grapevines to fill plastic buckets with the Cortese grapes that will be used for the cooperative’s effervescent Allegretto. It is, as they say, slim pickins—the air is thick with the smell of fermentation and the buzz of yellowjackets and flies, swarming around the clusters of shriveled grapes.
The career volunteers take the newbies for some brief instruction on how to pick out the usable grapes, but as the hours pass, it becomes clear that several theories on grape usability are operating at once, all of them fairly impressionistic. I try to stay away from the bunches that smell most effusively like vinegar, or are too laden with flies and bees. Still, I hear some grumbling from the foreman about the Americani, and have to occasionally alter my own theories as the afternoon progresses.
Hours, and many filled trailers, later, the day is done. The trailers waddle down the country road, laden with fruit. Most of the workers pile tightly into cars to head back to the cantina. It seems a shame to watch the sunset from a Fiat hatchback, so we opt to walk instead. The talkative Dutchman walks with us.
On the way, he tells us about the winery and the cooperative. He is full of intriguing and innocuous gossip about the daily life of the winery and the village. We talk about the difficulty of sorting through the grapes today, and the profusion of pests. We’re lucky none of us encountered a hornet, he says. A young woman got stung by one just the day before and her entire arm swelled up to twice its size. I am tired and dusty but I do feel lucky. Lucky, too, to have gotten a chance to see the work that goes into making these special and distinctive wines, and to be enjoying the view over the rolling hills as we walk slowly back, bidding good evening to the cast of local characters who we pass on our way. The young couple going for a walk, the old lady sitting in front of her house and stuffing little peppers with anchovies. We get home and set up on the balcony with glasses of a local beer. At six o’clock the bells of the local church begin to chime, and then a few seconds later, we hear the tolling from the belfry of the church in the next town, pitched a little higher, filling the gaps between each of the closer claps, slowly spreading over the darkening countryside.