Monday, January 31, 2011

A Year Later.

The date today is January 26th, 2011: the 1st day of the last quarter moon before it begins to wane. It will be a good time to finish the winter pruning in the vineyard. The new moon begins on the 3rd of February, so we will have to get it done by then. Coming around full circle to where we started in the vineyard, one year ago is a good time to reflect on what we’ve done, what we should have done, and what we have yet to do. The vineyard is a quiet, contemplative place through the winter. There are no tractors in the distance, not even the sounds of insects buzzing. On our vineyard today, there is only the sound of my clippers, cutting away last year’s growth leaving but two new arms on each trunk. I remember how unsure we were pruning last year. We are in control of the vines now. It may seem pastoral today but the past year was in fact more akin to a roller coaster ride. The waxing and waning of the moon had a lot less to do with it than did our lack of knowledge of vineyard maintenance and Italian agrarian/property laws which at times led us barrelling and stumbling through unknown, unexpected twists and turns. Mistakes were made.
Last August, I made a big mistake by not trusting Filiberto. He was away on holidays with his family through the month of August and September when the betrayal occurred. Before leaving, he advised us not to become members of the local cooperative winery as he would find a buyer for our grapes: “Non preoccuparti. Mi occupo io”. He assured us we could get considerably more for our grapes per kilo by selling them privately.
Our summer holidays came and went and our sons returned back to university. We began visiting the vineyard in earnest again, but come September on a vineyard there isn’t much more to do but wait. Our grapes were ripening and were hanging heavily from their stems. With no more work to do on the vines at this point, I did what comes naturally to me. I worried. I hadn’t heard from Filiberto since June. What if Filiberto doesn’t find a buyer, or what if he’s washed his hands of us? I thought of calling but I didn’t want to disturb him with my preoccupations during his holidays. I waited a bit longer, to the middle of September, and still no word from Filiberto. That day, worry gave way to action . I had no clue how to find a buyer for our grapes, but I decided to visit a local winery. In conversations with Filiberto, he explained to me, that he had a cousin who worked at this particular winery and there might be a possibility that they would be interested in buying them. It takes great courage for me to approach people in Italian, but you can imagine my trepidation in approaching an established winery and asking if they would like to buy our grapes. How do you even start a conversation like that? I drove up to Santi Martini Winery and asked to speak with the manager. The place was empty except for the young woman who greeted me at the locked door, and the manager that I could see through a glass door, who was busy with someone else. She asked what my business was with him, and I foolishly explained the whole story. She had a doubtful look on her face, but recognizing the desperation in my eyes she kindly offered an optimistic “maybe” to my query of “do you think he would be interested in buying some of our grapes?” The first 10 minutes of our meeting began with him asking me how I know Filiberto, and where exactly is our property, and complimenting me on the land as he knew it well, and what are Canadians doing here, and why the interest in owning a vineyard. Then he said something hopeful: Filiberto took me out to see your grapes…your grapes have fared better than a lot of people in the area who had a bad onset of peronospora at the beginning of the season.” “What a relief,” I thought to myself. “Filiberto had been thinking about us. That’s why I probably hadn’t heard from him…the grapes are probably already sold.” Feeling a little more courageous, I was finally able to blurt out why I had come, and blurt it out I did. The expression on his faced suddenly took on a look of incredulity, and then seriousness. He very quickly but delicately explained how these are difficult times in the wine industry, and I knew immediately where the conversation would go from here. I wanted to bolt not so much out of embarrassment but more from the feeling that I am running out of time. I had to sell these grapes, and I had to do it today. “You will have a hard time finding any wineries around here that would be looking for extra grapes. “We’re having trouble selling the wine that we have. People aren’t buying.” I walked away with what felt like our whole load of 51,000 kg of grapes on my shoulders, and the smell of them rotting everywhere. I scrolled down to Filiberto’s number on my cell phone, stared at it for a while but I really didn’t want to disturb him. We had gone to him for advice at every turn throughout the year…he was on holidays, and I felt it would just be too much of a “disturbo”.
From there I wandered somewhat aimlessly to the Cantina Sociale di Solopaca, the local Wine Coop—the group to which Filiberto warned me not to join. “You have to join for life, which isn’t fair. What if you and your husband want to make your own wine one day…you won’t be able to? They don’t market the wine well, and you are paid according to how much wine they sell. You can make double and more if you sell privately.” I walked through to their cool but empty air-conditioned sales room to ask about the looming dates for the harvest, which should be for any vineyard owner a much anticipated climactic high point. “Anytime during the first 15 days of October” was the reply. I was trying to play the part of a casual interested party and I couldn’t figure out how to segue into getting down on my knees and begging, “Is it too late for me to become a member? Will you buy my grapes? I’ll do or pay whatever it takes.”

I left the Cantina Sociale di Solopaca with its glistening crusher, polished and idle; I looked at the silos soon to be recipients of Solopaca nectar wondering how I could get my grapes in them. By now, I believed that Filiberto had not found a buyer, and that he didn’t have the heart to tell us what the manager at Santi Martini Winery had told me: “these are hard times for wineries. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any winery around here buying extra grapes. We can’t sell the wine that we have.” With these words echoing in my head I had made a decision. Within 5 minutes I arrived unannounced outside the home of a business man who had handled the legalities of me becoming a registered farmer. He had told me in the process that he was once the president of the Cantina Sociale di Solopaca and strongly urged me, to become a member.
I was greeted by 3 barking dogs and a woman who appeared from the upstairs window, calling out, “Chi รจ?” “It’s me…Catherine.” He wasn’t home at the time but she advised me to wait, she would call him on the telephone and he shouldn’t be too long. I waited awkwardly outside the large fence while the dogs continued their face off with me. A few minutes later, a Jeep arrived and the large cancello opened and allowed us both entrance to the driveway.
“Signora Caterina…come sta? Come va al vigneto?” Once again, it didn’t take long for me to get to the reason for my visit. I tried to work through my conversation with him so that he could fully understand my predicament. As I talked, he leaned back in his leather chair, in his relaxed dress and Dock Sider well-warn shoes, and watched me and listened to me intently with a strange bemused smile on his face. “So where is Filiberto?” he asked. “I thought he was taking care of things for you.” I explained that I didn’t want to disturb him during his holidays, and that I think it is time to take matters in my own hands. "Maybe I’ve depended on him for too many things." And then I just came out with it, “Is it too late for me to become a member of the Cantina Sociale as you had suggested we do from the start.” He didn’t reply, but asked me to wait a moment and left the room to go into an adjoining office, leaving the question hanging in the air like wet clothes on a clothesline on a cold Canadian February day. I wondered…did I say something wrong? Am I that inconsequential that he would just leave me here, and he’s now gone on to complete some other business? He returned after a minute and produced a piece of paper. It was my registration to become a member of the Cantina Sociale, already completed awaiting my signature. “I knew you would be back” he said smugly. “For people like you,” he said, “people who know nothing about grapes and making wine, this is what you need.” I wondered what he meant by “people like you” but relief and gratitude allowed me to recognize that I was not in a position to argue at this point. I felt immediately as though I was turning my back not only on someone who had helped, but worse, that I was betraying a friend. Filiberto never made us feel different, he never made us feel stupid…he recognized our passion, and our dedication and did everything in his power to teach us to be successful. He treated us like a friend or family…the highest compliment an Italian can bestow on a foreigner.
Within a week Filiberto had returned and I broke the news to him over the phone. He didn’t say much, but when I met him a few days later at the vineyard, he seemed at first to be insulted and angry , but then I realized it was “hurt”. “I had your grapes sold” he said. “My brother and I…we went to the trouble of bringing someone to the vineyard…I had your grapes sold. You could have got over 30 cents a kilo, but now you will only get under 16 cents.”
I tried to explain how I panicked and I didn’t want to disturb him during his holidays. “It had nothing to do with betrayal…I panicked…that’s all…I panicked.” His reply, “I thought you trusted me….I helped you because I wanted you to succeed.”
I am, as a result of that mistake, a lifetime member of the Cantina Sociale di Solopaca. I cannot, even if I had the means to, make my own wine with my grapes, or sell them to anyone else. Rigid rules to which Filiberto did not want to see us confined to.
In the end, Filiberto realized how the situation had evolved. He forgave us, and helped us bring 51,000 kg of grapes to the Cantina Sociale. As members, we get wine on tap. I don’t know who was more proud that day, he or we as he dumped our grapes from his tractor into the crusher followed by a toast among friends and family who had helped us pick. All eyes were on Filiberto followed by the gaggle of us, foreigners, snapping photos at every turn. I heard him say to a passing member who was staring at our shenanigans that day, “this is really good publicity for us you know…to have foreigners come here. We could use a little more of this.” He was still trying to protect us.
We have come full circle in the yearly cycle of the winery. Filiberto is leaving us to do our work in the vineyard and will come by when it’s done with his tractor and tools to help us mulch, and fix some posts. As we work our way through the vines once again, pruning last years’ growth and leaving only two new arms, the vines are more agreeable to being disciplined. They are listening to our good council. They grow and bend the way we want them to. Even though our grapes get mixed into the bunch with all the other producers in the area we want to grow the best quality product that we can. For this, I find myself looking up to the moon for the optimal time to prune, and to Filiberto, for his good sage advice….the kind that only comes from friends.