Monday, May 28, 2012

What is it Like to Own a Small Vineyard in Italy? The Reality.

This is a question that I often get asked.  What people really want to know is how is it done, what is it like living there, how did you figure out what to do, and is it feasible (can you make a living from it).
I'll answer the last question first.  We are in the fortunate position to have my husband's career in Naples which supports us.  Some people (many people), do make a living off of their vineyard and also sell their grapes to the local cooperative, but the difference is that they own a lot of land.  One local vineyard owner told me that you need at least 10 hectares(we own 1ha which is the equivalent of 2.5 acres) in order to make money from your vineyard if you choose to sell your grapes to the local cooperative (Cantina Sociale di Solopaca) as we do.  
Had we known then, what we know now. Our vineyard is a hobby, but it costs us at least €4 000 more to maintain than the small revenue which we derive from it.  It doesn't make sense does it?  Had we understood things better when we first purchased the vineyard, we wouldn't have to pay the
€4 000/year as a coltivatrice diretta, one form of registered farmer in Italy ( scroll down to coldiretti on the link sited). The CD is also a person who can derive no more than 40% of their income from other sources.  It is set up to protect farmers with large tracts of land, not for people like myself.  However, a well-meaning geometra advised us to go this route in case we decided to rebuild the falling down, small stone structure on the property, as this would give us access to funds. The yearly fees are paid to the INPS (Italian Social Security).  There are, as we understand now, other ways to go:  we should have chosen the "impreditore agricolo" designation which is more for weekend farmers such as ourselves, and allows you to have other income but no access to any extra funding.  Had we known then that we wouldn't want to live on our land, as it is too far out of town and no one lives out there, had we known then how little we would make from this vineyard, we wouldn't have set it up in this manner.  When we bought it, no one could tell us what type of revenue we could expect to make from it. The owner had died, his wife had no idea what her husband had taken in years before, and we knew no one in town at that point.   To illustrate how ridiculous a situation we are in, and to point out to you that this is really a passion and a hobby I will disclose that last year we took in under €600 from a 1 hectare vineyard by selling 5, 120kg grapes to the local cooperative.  I would make at least double that amount had I chosen to take the grapes to market, however, that is too risky for us.  We wanted to be sure to sell them, and we pay a price for that security. So at the moment we are paying for the privilege of owning and operating a vineyard, but if done properly, it doesn't have to be so.

What is it like living in a small town in rural Southern Italy?  We don't.  We live in Naples and travel back and forth to the vineyard on weekends when we we have work to do.  We have thought about building a place there, because it is so beautiful, and the idea of waking up and looking out at the land that we have cultivated and at the surrounding panorama is what draws us back to ponder the idea time and time again. But small rural towns like Solopaca in the South of Italy have their own sets of rules to live by.  I don't know what they all are, I just know that when I have attended meetings at the local cooperative I have felt very much out of my comfort zone.  It is a man's world.  My perception of how I might be perceived is the following: I am a rich outsider who is doing this as a lark, when these farmers are serious farmers trying to eek out a living, as their families have done for decades if not centuries.  I am tolerated.  But that is okay...I have entered their world, and I recognize my place, and as long as I stay there and show respect I can be happy delivering my grapes once a year to the Cantina.  I don't believe I will ever be invited to be part of the board, nor will I ever be asked my opinion on anything, nor can I ever be confident in my Italian language skills to be able to do so. There are some that are curious, but cautious, and others just don't want to have anything to do with us, and a few who are just rude.  Our friend from the neighbouring vineyard and his family give us the companionship and the help that we so appreciate. That is enough and we don't ask for more.  This is of course, my perspective,  and I have been accused in the past of being overly sensitive.  I hope I'm wrong.

Figuring out how to take care of the grapes does require some prior knowledge.  We had planted a row of vines in Canada before we moved mainly for aesthetics, but it gave us a bit of a basis.  We took distance education courses, my husband from U.C. Davis, and I studied to become a sommelier with Associazione Italiana di Sommelier before we bought our vineyard.  We also apprenticed on vineyards in order to learn more about pruning. Lastly, we are lucky enough to have a vineyard beside someone who saw our passion and really wanted to help us out.  We are forever grateful for his good council.

The answer to the first question I posed"How is it done?", requires some careful, honest introspection.  You really have to do away with romantic notions and take a realistic look at what you want, what you can afford, how much income you will need, what you can live with, and live without.  All of the obvious things.  Vineyards for sale abound in southern Italy, at very affordable prices.  They are well-kept, some with a building, some without. Some are lucrative, but if they are, you will pay more than the €45 000 that we paid for ours.  The safest bet is to take it on as a retirement project, whereby you have another income to rely on.
This is an ongoing adventure for us.  Overall, and without hesitation I can say that it continues to deliver tremendous satisfaction.  Looking back at our work at the end of a day, and seeing all of our vines tucked in neatly, because we trained them to do so, watching and hoping that the flowers will turn to berries, monitoring bugs, weeding, and pruning, watching them change from hard green berries to ripe, succulent, quenching fruit and finally delivering them with our friends and family to the cantina is something that we have to keep reminding ourselves is fact not fiction. When we tell a new acquaintance about it, they always have an incredulous look on their face which I don't think they would have if we told them we were growing cabbages. There is a skill to growing grapes and there is an art to growing good grapes.  We are striving for the latter, learning as we go, and enjoying all the while.
Yesterday was hard, back-breaking work in the hot sun.  But at the end of the day when I climbed upon my perch (red ledge in the olive tree in the photo top right - inset) and  this was the view that I beheld, I couldn't help but feel satisfied and I still have to remind myself that this is my life and this little vineyard in southern Italy is part of it.  The white lilies in the photo had not sprouted before in the 3 years that we have owned the vineyard.  They were there to greet us yesterday, and I'm not sure why, but I could find great meaning and comfort from their presence.  Here they are in our living room and the sign on the wall above them is what our vineyard brings to us:  Bonheur - happiness.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

En passant par l'Alsace

On a recent trip to Germany, I convinced my husband to return to Naples by way of Alsace.  It is described by Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible as ""a wine region so charming it may as well have emerged straight out of a fairy tale.  The vineyards are sun dappled, the half-timbered houses are cheerfully adorned with flower boxes, the 118 villages - centuries old - are immaculate.  All are set against the grand backdrop of the Vosges Mountains." Her descriptions of the white wines with their bracing acidity was equally compelling.  
Alsace is an area that is situated close to the German border whose ownership has flip-flopped at various times between Germany and France.  It has been part of France again since 1945.  The region has retained the language customs, foods and winemaking techniques of both areas...kind of the best of both worlds.
The jaunt was going to take us out of our way, and we knew that an 11 hour, one-day journey home awaited us, nevertheless we were determined to see and taste.
We crossed over into Germany at Strasbourg and spent the night there before heading to the Routes des Vins.  With only hours to discover, to taste, to tour and to be enchanted by Alsace,  we headed down the E25, which ribbons its way from north to south over hills and valleys for about 170 kilometres .
 We joined the route in Bergheim and these were some of the first fairy tale homes that we set our eyes on.  I had to keep convincing myself that this was not Disneyland...this was real. The figures that came out of the doors and windows were not mechanical, but real people.
With so little time I had to carefully plan our winery visits all the while clicking my camera and smiling at the charm that is part of the daily life of Alsatian wine land.
I chose 3 of the biggest names in the area:  Deiss, Trimbach and Hugel, and we would visit them in that order based on their geographical placement on the map.  We arrived in Bergheim  early afternoon at the Domaine Marcel Deiss where a tasting was already in session.  When the sommelier came to our table the first question he asked is, "Do you know about our wines?"  That is because Deiss is unconventional and somewhat controversial in the area.  He runs biodynamic vineyards, blends wine in an area mostly known for single varietals (the allowance of his blended wines in the Grands Crus classification has not won him any favour amongst his contemporaries), and he is unconventional in his labelling of his wines in that he labels some of them by the name of the vineyard and not the varietal.
Jean-Michel Deiss, the current heir, oversees 14 Premiers Crus vineyards and 2 Grands Crus vineyards.  We only had time to stay for one tasting I'm embarrassed to say, because it was late Saturday afternoon, and we would not otherwise be able to purchase the wines on Sunday.  We were offered the 2010 Riesling you see pictured to your right.  It sells for 20€ locally.  The wine was bright lemon yellow with typical unadulterated Riesling flavours:  bright acidity, heavy and oily on the tongue, aromas and flavours of lemon, flower, yellow peach and pineapple, with a definite minerally aftertaste typical to the area.  We also bought, but haven't tasted yet the Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim. It is 100% Alsace Riesling.
What makes Alsace Rieslings different from their German counterpart is that they are mostly dry, full-bodied, high alcohol wines, that speak for themselves and the terroir of the area.  Alsace wine growers and wine makers adhere to the philosophy of non-interference...the wines are very rarely oaked, they don't use commercial yeasts, they avoid malolactic fermentation used to soften the acidity of the wines.  The Grands Crus of this area manage to balance their high acidity and long mineral length and an abundance of  flowers and fruit aromas, offering the consumer pure elegance and complexity in the glass.
  We made our  purchases and continued our way to the  Trimbach Winery in Ribeauvillé.  The winery was closed but as I neared to snap a photo I noticed this sign:  a fine food grocery store that sells their wines.  We were able to purchase two of their signature wines and one of the greatest Rieslings in Alsace and maybe the world:  Clos Ste-Hune.  This is a wine that has accolades anywhere the words Alsace and Riesling appear together.  Serge Dubs, world's best Sommelier winner of 1989 had this to say about it:  "If there is one Riesling in the world which every wine lover dreams of tasting and savoring it is Clos Sainte-Hune."  These are limited quantity wines and we were able to purchase the 2006 vintage--a special occasion wine and we just happen to have two of them coming up this summer. We also bought their Cuvée Frédéric Emile, once again another 100% Riesling which is quickly becoming my favourite white wine.
It was by then getting rather late in the day and I had one more stop to make:  the winery of Hugel et Fils in Riquewihr which also just happened to be in the town where we would spend the night.  While my husband went to get us checked into our hotel, I rushed to the center of town to the Hugel tasting room.  Once again I arrived in the middle of a tasting and was offered Gerwurztraminer (written without the umlaut in Alsace) Sélection de Grains Nobles.  This is a sweet dessert wine, whereby the berries are a affected

by Noble Rot, a fungus, that draws the water from berry, leaving behind a highly concentrated, high sugar grape.  Only the berries that are affected are picked at the time of harvest so it is a time-consuming and therefore expensive process.  The result is intense fragrance and sweetness, balanced by the ever present acidity, so that it is not the least bit cloying.  Because you can't go backwards in a tasting (I came in at the end and was given the most concentrated wine), I bought two of the wines that I had missed:  Riesling Jubilee 2007, and Gewurztraminer Hugel 2010.  The tasting rooms at both the Deiss winery and Hugel are not the least bit intimidating and the staff was happy to instruct and guide.  The tasting at Deiss carries a 13 € charge per person, but because we had to leave, we didn't have to pay.  The tasting at Hugel is free.
We stayed at the Best Western in Riquewihr and our bedroom and balcony looked over the Grand Cru Schoenenberg with walking paths and benches.  Another option we learned about when we bumped into some compatriots from Thunder Bay, is to stay at gites.  These are charming apartments that reflect the style of the area and very affordable. Ed and Brenda met us for breakfast before we left and we were able to have a look at their "gite".  It was the attic floor of a typical Alsatian house in Riquewihr complete with the post and beam roof, cosy lace curtains, fireplace a loft and comfy down comforters. We vowed that the next time we would stay in gites, and we vowed that we would be going back.

I'll leave you with a few more photos of the area.  Really, really worth a visit whether you are interested in wine or not.