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.


Deep Red Cellar said...

Interesting read Cathy. Who knew?!

Amore di sapore... said...

I read your story...was impressed by your honesty of the realities of owning your vineyard in Italy. My partner and I are still clinging to the romanticism...the dream of owning land in a place we adore. I have traveled through parts of Italy and tried to steer my experiences away from the tourism. I have come to love the people...their fearce philosophies of the old ways. I have listened to their stories and feelings of 'hobby farmers', that we couldn't possibly love the land as they have for centuries. I have shared my own stories of how we Canadians have embraced Italians and their culture in our own country, and, in general, accepted their differences and uniquenesses. Though I know that Italian/Canadians have had their share of discrimination, today they are an accepted part of Canada's ethnic diversity. Generally, however, my Italian friends listen and nod politely, their expressions clear that to them, Italy is the only culture that matters.
My partner and I produce a few hundred bottles of mediocre wine each year. We don't sell it, but love the time and effort that MUST (I tell myself) be infused into the wine we make. We are planning a trip to Italy next fall to help with the harvests of grapes and figs. I am sooo looking forward to taking another step towards spending my days in the Mediterranean sun...even if it means a hundred mosquito bites and the threat of another scorpion sting! Ouch!

Sarah said...

Hi, I am thinking about purchasing a small vineyard or B&B in southern Italy, is there any way to contact you to ask a few questions?