The week before I left for sicily I wanted to cancel the trip. I understand only in retrospect why that was. See, you’re not supposed to meet your heroes. We are cushioned by different lifetimes, countries, and generations from the people we admire most, the ones that inspire or influence our work, for good reason:
Humans aren't meant to live up to that kind of expectation.
When I stepped out of the car at Arianna’s house, the work day was ending. I was greeted with a breed of warmth and energy reserved for family that put me at ease but also illuminated the fact that we would be working hard. Over the next ten days I would work, sleep, cook, eat meals, drink wine, make inappropriate jokes - all of life's most mundane things - alongside a person I’d admired for a decade. Here are some scenes stolen from that time, reduced to words on a page spoken in past tense, a fact that breaks my heart a little bit but also keeps the light of the whole thing shining forward.
. . .
First, I’d never actually worked a harvest. I knew it would be hard, and physical, and I was even looking forward to a certain amount discomfort; a mild kind of suffering to make the whole thing feel real. Cut to: don't use that squeegee there; the crates aren’t stacked like that; the floor must be cleaned in between every single load of grapes (but why?!); careful, the leaves get discarded separately from the bad fruit - and so on. But the thing is, no one actually criticizes you. The young Italians who worked full time at Occhipinti and whose fingernails still harbored dirt from harvest 2012 just gave a polite va bene, io posso - a friendly don’t worry, I got it! And that directly translates to you’re doing it wrong.
But I moved fast and tried to fit myself in somewhere out of the way but productive. On day two I found a rhythm and embraced my constant state of being damp and dirty. The satisfaction of watching work pile up and diminish at my own hand was cumulative: the more crates I washed/stacked in threes/towered on pallets/plastic-wrapped/sent off in trucks to be loaded with frappato again, the more pleasure I took in hosing down the concrete after each load was sorted and pumped into its tank. The ground gently sloped toward long drains, luring dirt and water in linear columns to an underground destiny. I got good at it. Squeegee-ing, at least. I was mostly useless at the stuff in the cellar. Pumping over involved crouching on concrete into a giant cave, while wielding an equally giant hose with wine racing through it; the tank was an invisible, thick cloud of carbon dioxide (don't breathe in!) and the task demanded reaching the hose far into the corners (lean inside more!). It was uncomfortable, difficult work that required lots of plastic tubes, awkward clamps, tubs, and the constant rigging and covering and transferring of items.
Squeezing the grapes for the passito and lifting handfuls into the basket press was very satisfying. The inner nine-year old that loved to sink my fingers deep into a twinkie at 7-11 (don’t ask me why I did this!) found it fulfilling. The crates of grapes were heavy and I moved too slow, so I demoted myself the sorting table, grabbing leaves and bad grapes as they passed me and the bunches then moved up the ladder, into the de-stemmer, their tanks, their future.
It reminded me of a kitchen. There was saran wrap to cover giant buckets of fermenting wine, rakes for spreading out the must before it went to get pressed, and a pace and rhythm that seemed chaotic as an outsider but I knew better. Every action was meaningful, significant, purposeful and a part of the whole; the tools were analogue, the processes simple.
Those things that happened in the cellar were essential, and had to be done well, and correctly. You measured, tracked, logged, and cleaned - constant cleaning.
But when did it become wine?
The mornings were early and we were still last to the cellar. By 7:30 the kitchen had emptied, save for abandoned espresso cups and a couple bags of biscuits left behind, should we want cookies for breakfast. The cellar was already in motion, buckets and tubes shuttling overhead and in between things, wine being pumped over, details being recorded. Our days were divided into two portions: eating and drinking, and the work in between. Lunch was always longer than I expected it to be for a workday, and a welcome break would still follow the meal, and things would slow down. The young Italians who spoke few words during the work periods peeled off into small groups and exposed their youth by looking at Facebook feeds and talking about girls.
Long work days were met with proportionally long dinners in the family kitchen. We cooked every night, and Arianna filled our glasses with sparkling frappato from a unmarked bottle (made for friends and family only) and played Paolo Nutini. We made a mess, one that would be alluded to in Italian by the winery manager regularly.
Paolo (in Italian): everyday I go to the kitchen to set the table for the tasting, and there is eggplant hiding under the chairs! Cheese stuck to the table!
I was certain we cleaned each night but so it goes! Paolo’s lamenting only made me laugh harder at lunch so we promised to hide plenty of leftovers on our departure. That table hosted formal tastings and winery tour guests during the day, but at night we covered it with giant bowls of local vegetables, salad, roasted pork, homemade pasta; our group shrunk and expanded from twelve to six and back each night, depending on who was around, and we piled each other’s plates and filled each other’s glasses for hours. Stories and questions and dirty jokes toggled rapidly from Spanish to Italian to English and back. Each night we’d drink plenty, but we'd also taste: bottles cloaked in black bags poured mysteriously into our glasses and we discussed: was it Sicilian? Piedmontese? I don’t think it’s Italian… how old do you think it is? to me it has some age.. do you like it? For me it’s too animal .. yes but I’d rather drink this than conventional wine… yes of course but we are not discussing conventional wine, we are discussing this wine, do you like it?
Some said yes, some no. Arianna said only: a wine either gives energy or takes it away.
I was awestruck.
Blind tasting is always so clinical, fraught with competition and so goal-oriented; to bathe it in open dialogue, true curiosity, it was a revelation.
One night, Eduardo poured a twinkling, translucent red into our glasses. The wine was enchanting. Almost familiar but I didn't recognize it, which led me to guess things I knew were not right; I’d never had this wine. Opinions traveled around the table, mostly in Italian, and I asked him quietly, was it from Italy? He said no. A man of few but important words. Then, unprompted, he told me it was a very important wine for him personally. Reserved but not shy, he didn't announce this detail to everyone, just to me. I was more curious than ever. He pulled the wine from the bag, revealing its origin to be Tenerife, his home in the Canary Islands.
That would be enough to make my own deduction about why it was significant. But there was more: Sure, Envinate is made by winemakers he looked up to, on his island home. But when he mentioned going to Italy to work and learn, his friend from Envinate said to Eduardo: you MUST visit and work at Arianna Occhipinti, she is doing incredible winemaking.
In 2012, prompted by this urging from a mentor, Edu went to work harvest at Occhipinti; this is how he and Arianna met. They have been together for five years.
I held that story while the wine from Tenerife seeped into my cells, trying to absorb all of the warmth in the room and put my finger on the thread that was keeping the meal, the moment, these people, and this wine invisibly and seamlessly strung together.
I determined it to be balance. Everything was weightless and so we floated off to bed.
So when was the wine made?
When the fruit made it into the cellar just moments before the rain came, the wine was made; when Arianna made fun of Nico and Giovanni (lovingly dubbed chip & chop) for joking too much while balancing high on a ladder to reach the highest tank, the wine got made; when we became a machine that moved in unison despite the four languages spoken working fast to unload, sort, de-stemm, transfer, wash, spray, wrap and repeat, the wine was made; when Eduardo cracked a smile because Arianna witted him to, the wine was made; when we picked olives, forking them and staining our fingers brown and salty while laughing about bad translations and the messy kitchen guests (us), when Peppe showed up and sat at the cellar door, a mere 6 pounds of lost puppy, the wine was made; and when Arianna and I sat, just the two of us, to discuss serious matters of the heart and work and life - moments you should not be allowed to have when a visit is so short and so important - the wine was made.
This was what it was like to be a part of harvest, to be touching it for the first time in my wine life. I imagine it'll all pour out and dazzle me when I get to drink the 2017 vintage.