Friday, December 31, 2010

Giovanni's Hog

I'm a little jet-lagged, having just returned to New York.

One of the reasons I stayed in Italy until the last day of the year was to participate in one of the most important and certainly the last of agricultural rituals in the annual cycle of rural Tuscan life -- the slaughtering of the family hog.

I'd waited for nearly a year and in November, when I asked Giovanni when it would happen, he answered in his raspy Tuscan dialect: "Around Natale (Christmas), maybe Capo d'Anno (New Year's Day). It has to be cold."

I said I wanted to help him do it, wanted to experience it alongside him and to document it. I asked him to promise he'd let me know when it would happen. He grinned at this. It wasn't his usual Errol Flynn "Welcome to Sherwood!" grin, but a limper, more introspective version. I now understand the enigma in that look.

Thinking the event was imminent because the weather had been unusually cold, Sally and I stopped by a few days before Christmas to ask when the slaughter would take place. Giovanni looked a little sheepish, then said it was already done. I asked when he'd done it and he said just that morning. The meat was hanging from the tractor boom in the barn. We could see it for ourselves if we wanted.

What we found suspended in the barn were two identical slabs of pork with the last bit of blood dripping from the cloven snout. Giovanni had introduced me to this same white hog one year earlier, just as I was starting this blog. He fed it corn and petted its snout and spoke sweetly to it. Milena fed it slops from her kitchen. It lived in a very nice pigsty, actually a small house with windows and a tile roof which it shared with another black hog. When I asked how much food was hanging there, Giovanni said half of the carcass would feed his family for half the year, the other half would feed his cousin's family for just as long. Then I asked why he hadn't alerted me so I could participate.

Giovanni dropped his voice apologetically. His eyes moistened slightly. "E brutto," he muttered. It's ugly. He meant the slaughter.

I understood. It is a very personal thing. He hadn't really wanted me to watch as he spoke softly to to the hog, saying his thankful good byes before he shot it in the head. I respect this very much. I hadn't helped raise this animal. I hadn't fed it scraps from my own table. Giovanni and Milena and Arnaldo really live with their animals. They treat them well while they are alive, then they kill them as humanely as possible to put food on their table. I'm sure there are struggles and messes and mistakes, just as there are when we raise our own children, but it's a natural permacultural cycle involving interdependently evolved domestic animals (us and them) both of whom -- at least in the case of close-to-the-land folk like the Mangiavacchis -- enjoy a far higher standard of living, and in many cases longer and healthier lives, than they would if disconnected from their hosts in the wild. Which brings me to my New Year's thought.

Without connection, there can be no respect. Yet most of us in the developed world live at a disconnect to the food we put in our bodies. We think meat is something that comes from a supermarket and most of us who eat it don't even know we are unplugged. Some of us stop eating it when we realize it was once a living animal -- a reactive and equal disconnect in many ways. The fact is, with the exception of rock-eating extremophile bacteria, every living creature must eat living things to live. Even plants depend on the nitrogen that comes from animal kingdom protein, some of it from us when we die and re-enter the planet-wide cycle of life (if we haven't stingily pickled ourselves and hermetically sealed our nutrients in aluminum coffins). I'm sure some people have already looked at the picture above and thought it repellant and stopped reading. For those who haven't, I want to say it is a portrait of the admirable and connected conscientiousness Giovanni and his family practice. And a reminder that, whether or not we chose to sustain ourselves by eating animal flesh, we could all stand to be more connected and to better respect the living things that die to keep us living in this amazing worldwide ecological niche we human beings occupy and share.

Happy New Year, Earthlings!

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Merry Christmas Everyone!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Big Fiasco Fiasco!

I've always loved that winery aroma. Now our garage is full of it.

Last night we had un disastro, un catastrofo, un incidente internazionale stratosferico, It was a big fiasco, literally. That’s what these gigantic, fig-shaped, green glass flasks are. They are also thinner than I imagined in places. I learned this the sad way as we were racking (siphoning) the last of the wine that needed to come off its lees from the 54 liter (14.25 gallon) demijohns.

Because a full demijohn weighs 130 sloshing pounds, which is more than my back cares for me to lift from ground level, my procedure is to rack half the wine into its next home (another demijohn), then rack the rest into a smaller 25 liter demijohn, to be poured into the bigger one once it is lifted up back onto the shelf. All went well during the two back and hand cramping hours clutching the siphon tubes, and I’d lifted the last half-full 65 pound demijohn of rosato onto the shelf. Then I decided to adjust it an inch. Just and inch. Just a little nudge. It kissed the demijohn next to it, just touched, and suddenly fruity red rosato was gushing out and swirling like blood around our ankles. I was lucky I didn’t cut myself.

Sally had blinked and missed the glassy kiss. She started to cry. “What am I looking at?”

I was too numb to answer.

Luckily, I was able to pour what was left from the broken demijohn into the smaller demijohn and nearly fill it. We topped it off with two bottles of local rosato and a little bit of press wine from a smaller jug, then corked it with a fermentation lock and started mopping. Happily, we still have 150 or so liters of wine left (180 bottles). Even more happily, we tasted the racked wine, a red and the pink rosato, and found them both complex, fruity, and likeable, even for “green” wine.

I already have my New Year’s resolution: We’re fermenting the next vintage in stainless steel!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Scoundrels & Honest Men

Apologies, again, for being slow to post, but this time it’s because we’ve been ripped-off. Not by an Italian, but an Englishman. In fact in all our dealings getting the house built and the farm restored, we can only point to one person who has taken money from us dishonestly. In this case, it’s the man we paid $2500 to provide us with internet service that was crappy and slow at best, and is now non-existent. And now he’s trying to extort another $1500 from us to get it running again. Because this was the worst service by the most unprofessional person we have ever experienced, and because he does business in Tuscany and Italy, I am worried there will be other victims. It would be irresponsible of me not to offer FAIR WARNING to anybody in Tuscany or Italy, or anywhere else in the world, to think thrice before doing business with this man and to offer more detail to anyone who asks.

What I'd rather talk about is the kind of simple everyday honesty Sally and I have found all around us here in Tuscany. This door is a symbol of it to me. It is the front door to the old sharecropper’s shack whose lower walls are still intact outside our kitchen. I saved it from demolition because it is beautiful and has wabi-sabi, the patina of life lived about it. I’ve tried to find a use for it, but when Gianni Marriotti -- the first Tuscan to befriend us when Sally taught her first photo workshop here 15 years ago -- said he liked it, I offered it to him.

Like me, Gianni is a pack rat of rustic things. He knows where to find valuable discards and can see the aesthetic appeal and usefulness of junk with no apparent life left in it. He reads the story in patinas, dings and scars -- past and future. He calls it a game, but he is an artist. For him it’s the story that counts.

For instance, we now have a door for our downstairs closet. It has a notch out of the bottom corner that made Sally want to reject when he first showed it to us. Then he pointed to the tooth marks, the tiny gratings of a hungry Italian country mouse during the winter famine of ’44 that everyone blamed on Mussolini. “We’ll take it! I said.

We’ve received many gifts from Gianni, and paid for a few. That’s because he has engaged us in his barter system. I now have a beautiful contadino’s knife for my belt. A friend of his, an artisanal saddle maker, created this beautiful robber’s bag for me out of a bit of wool army horse blanket from the first World War, a silk pillow case from a palazzo in Siena, bits of horse tack once used by butteri (the famous Maremma cowboys), and an old military grain sack. It was a steal. So was this table that a friend of his made years ago. And so were the set of handmade contadino farmhouse chairs that go much better with our kitchen table than the plastic IKEA things we were using last week.

So here we were, standing before the door I was going to trade Gianni for many of the wonderful things and stories he has brought into our lives. He looked at the door longingly, taking time to point out the details, the small repairs of tin patched over the years, the amazing red color, each item an unspoken anecdote attached. He asked if I was sure I wanted to give away so much storia. I said yes and started to lift the heavy chestnut slab to take it to his truck. That’s when he stopped me and said, all in Italian of course: “If you ask me, it’s a crime to remove this door from this property. You must find a way to use it here. The only way I could take it from here is if you have absolutely no doubt that there is not some way to use it as a table, a foot board for your bed, or even as a door or a decoration."

Suffice it to say he had cast the doubt and had cast it like a man of principal. He drove away with the bed of his pick-up truck empty that night and our house all the fuller of treasures he had brought, material and not. Gianni Marriotti is an honest man.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Burning Things

I get a kick out of burning wood. I like the way it warms our house, cooks our food, and brightens our walls. I especially like burning the scraps and rubbish left from building our house and restoring the property, like the way it makes our 5 acres tidier and safer to walk around.

Sally has just reminded me that when I fish, I take pains to use every part of the fish I catch and kill. “Like an Indian,” she says. The same goes for wood. The wood from clearing the land of “weed trees.” The wood from pruning the fruit and nut and olive trees and grape vines back to health. The wood scraps left by the Brandinis in rubbish piles around the house. And the worm eaten scrap ends of the beams, runners, shutters and sills from the old capanna (sharecropper’s shack). I respect it all like an Indian does a deer.

From the end of one of the old cypress beams, I used a puny crosscut saw to hand-cut the 4 massive legs that now hold up our rustic-elegant travertine dinning table.

From the ceiling and floor runners (corrente) I fashioned the outside dining table that now sits under the cane and castagna (chestnut) I pegged and lashed together into our shade-giving pergola. Two shutters perched on ancient hand made bricks serve as our front and back porch benches. With what’s left after that, I plan to make end tables, bookshelves, and other useful things. But from the rotten saw ends and worm eaten bits left over from this constructive recycling I am staying warm and heating a kettle for a cup of delicious Pu-er tea.

Carbon footprint? One way or the other this wood already has one. Left to rot or buried in a dump, it would give up its stored carbon as methane, a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So burning it efficiently is the lesser of evils, especially when it saves us from burning propane fossil fuel delivered by a gas powered delivery truck, or from heating with electricity generated by a coal-fired power plant.

Air Pollution? Except for a small puff when I light it, there is no smoke visible from our insulated copper chimney. All the big carbon molecules are broken down into simple water and CO2.

Efficiency? The wood I am burning right now has warmed me thrice: Once when I labored to gather it, once when I cut and stacked it, and now as it dances with flame. Its smoke is sweet from plant sugars, salty from my sweat, and complex from the alchemy of the hearth. Till now, besides the sun through our windows, our super efficient Morso 6140 exhaust gas recycling wood stove has been our only source of heat. Only today, after returning to our shuttered house after a week away at Paris Photo, have I turned on the riscaldamento sottopavimento (under floor heating system) to help bring things up to speed. Ours runs on solar heated water and a tiny bit of propane when that is not enough. Usually it is. The rest of the time we only use it to keep the house at a baseline temperature and top off what we need with wood. In this way, in our small house, which is no more than we need, we use no more space, electricity, gas, or water than necessary. And in this way, we are leaving the faintest outline of a footprint rimmed with carbon.

Another thing I like: kindling fires with drafts of what I write.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mushrooms, Chestnuts & Truffles!

From the chestnut forest of Monte Amiata, and from the woods around our house, come some of my favorite hunting, gathering, and eating experiences. And they happen at this time of year!

A few days ago we got Giacomo, one of Montisi's five registered truffle hunters, to take us out with his faithful poodle Kika.

Within five minutes, Kika was sniffing and pawing a small patch of ground like a real truffle hound . Then Giacomo took over.

After a few more minutes of digging with his harpoon shaped spade and sniffing fistfulls of earth, Giacomo had unearthed a respectable 40 gram truffle.

A perfect serving for two over scrambled eggs, baked potatoes, or our favorite, taggliatele with sage butter. Don't forget the Barolo!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Apologies & The Last Big Thing

Sorry for not posting more frequently, everyone. I was kinda busy.

Last weekend was our village of Montisi's festival celebrating the first pressings of the new olive oil. For me this represents the peak of the harvest season around here and invokes 5 little words that really get me salivating: Chestnuts, Mushrooms, Oil, Wine and Truffles. Today, let's talk about oil. Extra virgin. Green gold as Homer called it.

Harvesting and milling the olives from our 90 oil producing trees was the last big thing I had on my list of projects for this year. It's a lot of work and usually Sally, I, and our friends Russell and Momo can only manage about half the trees in one long weekend. But this year, thanks to our newest friends, Swiss cheese makers Ulisse and Sandra of agrotorismo Podere Il Casale and their WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) volunteers, we got every olive hand picked in 4 smart days.

But first, Sally and I harvested our 3 trees of meatier green curing olives which I like to treat in lye baths. In two weeks we and our lucky friends will be enjoying them as appetizers. The smaller salt-cured olives (black) will take about a month before I'm using them in savory lemon chicken in brodo and in tagines.

On Saturday, Sally and I scooted off to the village piazza for a lunch of polenta and faro soup while Swiss harvesters Christina, Louise, and Minh (who is part Vietnamese), Americans Jake and Ben of Wisconsin, and Italian Adriana of Castelmuzio, the next village over, carried on. By 4:30 they were finishing up and I was hauling the 40 pound crates of olives, six at a time down the hill in the motorized mule of my Ape, grateful to each of them for their diligent work because a big storm front was moving in.

I had gotten our nets folded and put away and was sipping a glass of wine on the front bench savoring what was supposed to be the last of the rays of sun we’d see for 4 or 5 days, when Sally hollered down from upstairs. “What is that in the field?” I hurried to the edge of the terrace to look and a 300 or 400 pound cinghiale (wild boar) sauntering across the field. It moved, with its black bristle razorback, like a wildebeast or gnu crossing the African savannah. It's unusual to see a boar so casual in broad daylight and in an open field. We tracked it a long while with the binoculars we shared. It felt like a some kind of omen. If of nothing else, that the weather was about to change.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

One Good Year

I realize, after going over my blog archive, that it has been one year since I started this blog and publicly engaged in the three promises of its subhead. And to be honest, I have succeeded and I have failed at each.

The house: It's built! Sally and I are living in it! But I still have a little work to do on the floors, and we need doors on the bedroom and bath. Otherwise, the rest is cosmetic (light sconces to install, a dab of paint here and there). I'd say I have succeeded handsomely, and the fact that 14 months after groundbreaking the house was habitable in a country where most things good and bad take twice as long as you think they should is a true triumph. Thanks Paulo & Claudio & Fruzico Brandini (our builders)! Thanks Daniele (our surveyor/architect)! Thanks Simone and Cesare (our plumbers)! Thanks Stefano and Cesare (our electricians)! Thanks Piannigianni, Alvaro and Oreste (our excavators)! Thanks Stefania (our translator and roustabout)! Thanks Pasquale (our blacksmith) Thanks Gianni, Arnaldo, and Milena (our neighbor farmers who've helped in many small ways)! Thanks Russell & Eileen (our friends, cheering squad, hosts, and transportation for the last 3 years)! Thanks Momo Brubeck (who showed us the property and helped me clear a good part of it). Thanks Gatto, Matteo, Gabriele, and the other guys who pitched in for the initial vineyard cleanup. And thanks Carlo Roberti of Toscana PhotoWorkshop for inviting us to Italy and introducing us to this place all those years ago.

The wine: Going back to my September posts, I see I succeeded in getting not one, but 3 kinds of wine fermenting by Sept 26. But because they’re still bubbling away on a nice, slow, low temperature, non-fruit-killing schedule in the pregnant bellies of the 54 liter glass demijohns. I can't really say that it's made. Still, given everything I was up against just to resurrect the dying vineyard and wrestle enough organic fruit from all the pests and disease of this year, the fact anything at all is fermenting is a real triumph. Thank you Elisabetta and Giancarlo for offering the grapevines that gave us the volume we needed to fill the vats.

Becoming Italian: Ah, well, in this I must admit defeat. I have learned only enough Italian to listen and nod politely at the dinner table and throw in a word or two here and there. I have succeeded in cooking pasta to the satisfaction of my Italian friends, but I have not grown a photo-worthy tomato in my garden (here they pass around pictures of vegetables like Americans do snapshots of their children). I now speak with my hands a lot more, but they have said some rather embarrassing things inadvertently. I’d give myself a D grade (with a B+ for effort). But isn't the point really the journey toward Italianita’? Like perfection or the horizon, it’s a goal I can never really reach. At least I've gotten a good start.

I suppose I should re-head the blog: One more year to finish a home, One more year to finish a wine, and One more year to become more Italian. But I think I’ll just attach a small addendum.

Stay tuned for Found In Tuscany -- Year 2!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Leaping Lizards!

Known here as lacerta, this emerald lady was sunning on the woodpile. She's over a foot long.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bragging Rights

Besides enough grapes to make wine (200-plus vines), and the 93 olive trees from which we will draw the world's best oil, I have single-handedly, sometimes with one hand tied behind my back (or at least in a sling), cleared and pruned back to health a cornucopia of fruit and nut trees. Here's the list:

22 prune trees
12 peach trees (10 white, 2 yellow)
4 cherry trees (3 bing type, 1 pie type)
3 fig trees (green outside, red inside)
3 walnut trees
2 yellow plum trees
1 pear tree
1 gooseberry bush

All heirloom and all certifiably organic!
"It's paradise!" remarked a visitor from Croatia when he saw Tana Lepre early in the clean-up process. I'd agree without hesitation, except that Adam didn't have to do any work there. On the other hand, Adam never knew the bone-deep, in-your-sleep soddisfazione (satisfaction) of actually accomplishing anything in Eden. And that's a real pity.

Here are some of our prunes. They are an antique domesticated wild variety locals call Coscia di Monaca -- Monaca's Thigh -- because of their shape. They are beyond savory, nothing like store prunes or plums. In fact, everything here is an antique, renaissance heirloom variety.

Here are Monaca's thighs pruning in the sun.

And here is a jar of them transformed into prune marmalata by our friend, Nicola Sgarbi at Laboratorio Buon Gusto.

It can't get more local. This is the barter system at its best. Nicola comes and harvests all the prunes he wants and a few weeks later he hands me a case of prune preserve con chiodi di garofano (with nails of clove). He also makes an incredible apricot and saffron spread. Perfect with toast and coffee!

Monday, October 4, 2010


Actually, Sally is in Positano at the moment, shooting a villa and a swank hotel for the Italian equivalent of House and Garden. I'm left here alone to concoct pesto from what might be the season's last basil and the exceptional walnuts (toasted of course) from our trees.

A friend recently asked why there are so many pictures of me on my blog. The truth is Sally is the photographer and I'm doing most of the work when she takes my picture. And hey, it's my blog about me being me. But here she is for those who miss her, doing one of the many things she does best, photographing the landscape.

Actually, this is high in the Alps. After a long hike in the rain. And the snow. To a glacier. Way the hell up there.

It's not easy finding new ways to photograph a photographer.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pressing Matters

Adesso, sono un garagista! (Now I am a garagista!).

Yesterday (day 6 of the wine fermenting "on the skins"), I pressed the must, wringing every drop of savory juice I could from the skins and pulp with my trusty second hand torchio (wine press).
Now the fermenting wine is safely fizzing away in 54 liter (14 gallon) glass demigianne (demijohns). From right to left are: The "frivolous" rosato; the elegant day 5 salasso (drawn-off) rosso; the serious day 6 free run (unpressed) red, and the nearly black day 6 press wine red -- about 189 liters (50 gallons) of fermenting wine!

Going back over projections I jotted down last winter, I see that I originally planned on about 27 gallons of red and 7 gallons of white wine (about a bottle per vine) or a total of 128 liters. Despite the oidio, birds, deer, and hare damage, and thanks to the back-up grapes Elisabetta offered from ancient Pieve San Stefano, we overshot by 30%! Rather than the miserable 20% yield (37 liters) I was expecting, we threw a ton of grapes to the ground and selected only the best bunches and still have 236 bottles of wine (about 20 cases if every drop makes it) bubbling away! At least as far as quantity goes, I'd call that snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

What remains to be seen, or rather tasted, is the ultimate quality of my product. For now, I am happy to report that the juice that oozed through the slats of the press basket yesterday was a delicious explosion of cherries, with chewy but not bitter tannins, and reasonably bright acids. And of course the taste of yeast one expects in fermenting wine.

What kind of wine do I most want to craft? I would love to create an elegant, fruit-forward, terroir-driven wine that tastes like you've just kissed a pirate who's eaten a fistful of blackberries, with dark notes of violet, wolf pelt, and female musk sprinkled in. But more importantly, I want it to be a pure expression of this place and the effort I've spent here. I want it to show just how much of myself I am willing to pour into the task at hand.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Known as pigeage in French and follatura in Italian, punching down the cap of floating skins, seeds and stems that rise to the top of the fermenting must, at least twice a day, is crucial for leaching every drop of vital flavors and polyphenols and keeping unwanted nasty molds from growing. I do it 4 times a day, very very gently to keep the whole grapes, which are undergoing a different kind of enzyme driven fermentation (carbonic maceration), from breaking apart.

The first shot was day 1. Here is what it looks like on day 5 of being "on the skins."

It's kind of fun, like playing with your food or making mud pies. My arm gets all purple. And the room fills with the headiest aroma of yeast and grapes and cherries!

Nice color extraction!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Broth from Bones

One thing I do frequently in the kitchen is make savory stocks from leftover bones, fishheads, etc. My freezer in New York is filled with ziplock bags laid on their sides and frozen like shingles, all labeled and dated, the basis of many a good gumbo and sauce.

Like the bones and other tidbits left at the end of a meal, the remaining under-ripe grapes on the lower, less sunny, more oidio prone vines in the vineyard would not let me sleep. Was there something I could do with them besides make vinegar? Were there enough good grapes there to make a little, say, an easy going apperitivo? Something thirst-quenching that doesn't need to assert itself during summertime sunset conversation? Maybe a frivolous rosato (rose')? Or an unassuming Prosecco-like spumante? Waking up with a resounding "yes!" in my head, I began to scheme. That was yesterday, Sunday.

Fast-forward to lunch. Sally and I talk over our Salad Nicoise of mainly ingredients from the garden. "I would like to pick the rest of the grapes (etc.)," I say, "Maybe tomorrow with Alesio. Could you help for 2 or 3 hours? Don't worry; it's nothing like the work of the first batch."


"I'm thinking of making frivolous rose' out of them."


"The only thing is wineries are starting to make rose' here now, so it wouldn't stand out as unique. Maybe it would just be easier to let the grapes go and keep buying inexpensive rose'? On the other hand, nobody makes a sparkling wine here. A sparkling rose' would truly be unique. It could be the champagne of Tuscany."

"Let's make that!"

"The only problem with sparkling wines is you have to start with lower sugar so there's room to add a little bit more yeast and grape juice to carbonate it in the bottle without the alcohol killing off the yeast before it can."


"And since the grapes were already at that level (19 Brix) when I checked last week, they are already in danger of getting out of that range. For a unique spumante rosato, I should really pick them NOW."


It took from 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. to bring them in (under threatening skies) and select only the best bunches into the 100 liter vat. By 8:00 o'clock they were stomped (again by my feet) and left to sit overnight.

Just now, at 10:00 a.m. Monday, I have inoculated the must with yeast. There they are, the leftovers, stewing in their own juices, extracting a little color and flavor from the skins as polyphenols, making a rich and savory broth from the bones.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Four years and 4 months after my first machete swipe to disentangle and free the dying vineyard, Sally and I have harvested our first wine grapes. Now the proof is bubbling in the vat!

Rewind to Wednesday. Weather satellite shows a low pressure bowling ball rolling from Spain over Sardinia, headed for a perfect strike in Tuscany. Big rain is expected to start Friday and fall all weekend. But the grapes at Tana Lepre are in the zone for sugar (22 -24 Brix) and acid (pH 3.2 - 3.3). The back-up grapes Elisabetta offered at the ancient pieve San Stefano in Castelmuzio are even riper and the birds are eating them fast. "Vendemia tomorrow!" I tell Sally, who's just returned from Rome. "First thing in the morning."

Full moon. Storm coming. Fiat throwing a white plume of dust down a twisting dirt road. This was the opening shot yesterday morning at 7:30 a.m. By 10:00 a.m. we had gotten all the grapes at Pieve, about 250 liters of bunches, and we dropped an equal amount on the ground thanks to oidio.

Back at Tana Lepre, while Sally and Alesio culled imperfect grapes and sorted bunches, I single-handedly harvested what was ripe in the upper vineyard, about 8 rows, throwing half to the ground because of oidio. By 4:00 p.m., the trees were swirling and the first spritzes of rain were hitting the ground, but the harvest was complete. We had a total of 350 liters of Tana Lepre grapes including the 50 liters of appassimento malvasia (see earlier post), and a little colorato for color. The 230 liter vat was full of bunches to be crushed a piedi (by foot). The 100 liter vat held the most perfect bunches, to be stripped a mano (by hand) for the whole berry carbonic maceration that will gives extra fruit nuance to the blend. After crushing and adding the whole grapes and passato malvasia clusters to the big vat, we had 175 liters of that sweet grape slurry vintners know as "must." Every drop of it organic.

Threshold crossed at last. But this wasn't just the culmination of 4-plus years of work, it was the penultimate step in a lifetime of garagiste wine dreams. The Tana Lepre vines were planted 40 years ago by the village butcher of Montisi, one year after I made my first batch of wine as a kid. I have waited exactly that long to create my first wine from noble vines I've nurtured myself. And now, with the harvest finally in after a difficult year of homebuilding, disease and broken bones, I can breathe again. Just in time to savor the perfume of wine fermenting in the cantina!
A domani!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Good Grapes & Bad Grapes

Here is what a bunch of grapes (Sangiovese) look like long after the powdery mildew has attacked. Cracked, runted, rotten ... you can barely tell they are purple. If I tried to make wine with these it would have aromas and tastes of wet fur and sweat in the mix. No kidding!

Here are the grapes I did harvest (Malvasia).

The trick I mentioned is two-fold. The first part is called appassimento. This is letting the grapes "raisin" a little before making the wine to concentrate the essences and sugar. This is done by laying them on straw or wire racks for good air circulation in other parts of Italy, or, around here, by hanging on wire hooks in long chain. If you've ever had an old style Amarone, you know the the taste of wine made by passato grapes. It is also how, using Malvasia and Trebbiano, Tuscans make the famous local desert wine known as Vin Santo (The good stuff you want to sip like port and NOT dunk biscotti in). Here's what I ended up with in my underground garage cantina.

Makes a pretty wall paper pattern, doesn't it?

OK, this buys me some time before I have to do anything with these grapes. And since I don't plan on making vin santo (takes at least 7 years and many barrels), and I do like the Malvasia grape, I will use these passato grapes in the second technique which was invented right here in Tuscany. It's called governo and it involves the addition of the pressed juice of passato grapes to the the red wine to give it a boost when the primary fermentation is almost done. This not only kicks the fermentation up to another level of alcohol and complexity, but helps initiate acid-softening secondary malolactic fermentation. I've only heard of one winery that does governo anymore. That's because it's easier to make mondo vino wines like everyone else. So, with crows and oidio forcing my hand, if I want to use these grapes, I have to bring back the governo technique and make a traditional wine nobody here is making anymore.

What about mixing white and red grapes, you ask? Won't that dilute the wine? Is it even kosher? The answers are, no, no, and yes. In fact the famous Chateauneuf du Pape of the Rhone, including one of my all-time favorites Chateau Beaucastel, rely on the inclussion of white grapes in their blend for their delicious taste, bouquet and mouth feel. And then there's Chianti. Not the stuff now being made (which according to recent Mondo-vinization of the law, includes French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), but the original recipe by the guy who invented Chianti, Baron Ricasoli. The formula he codified in 1872 included 15% Malvasia along with Sangiovese, Canaiolo, and others, and was only in the 19th century bastardized to include up to 30% insipid Trebbiano to make the watered down stuff in the cute straw covered fiascos that gave Chianti a bad name and, as of 2006, is illegal to make. In fact, white grapes are no longer allowed. Good-bye Baron Ricasoli.

So here I am, forced by factors beyond my control to make a traditional Tuscan wine that according to law and global marketing nobody is making anymore. How about that!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Emergency Harvest!

Yesterday, I was remembering Aesop's fable about the fox and the grapes and wondering if Boots, our visiting fox, had been the cause of the denuded clusters I found in the middle of two rows of our white grapes. But that seemed preposterous, foxes eat voles and lizards and other small wriggly things.

I was scratching my head about it, looking up the row of what I have deduced are Malvasia, one of the four grapes Giovanni told me were planted in my vineyard, and the ones that should ripen first, when this guy flew by.

It was a European hooded crow and he had a lucent green orb about the size of an olive in his beak. It wasn't an olive.

Grabbing some used DVDs to hang in the vineyard (their flash is said to keep crows away), I went out to walk the rows. I found even more missing grapes than yesterday. One out of every 10 clusters was down to bare stem, or almost. Then I remembered a home winemakers maxim: When do you harvest your grapes? Answer: When the birds are eating them. They know exactly when they are ripe.

Yikes! Grabbing my spectrometer, I plucked random grapes and measured their sugar content. Double yikes! At 22 to 25 Brix, they were already overripe for white grapes (19 to 21 is ideal). I checked acid and found that they were not 3.1 to 3.3 pH range one wants, but had dropped much of the acid essential to making a lively wine. Then I heard the crows cat-calling from the tree nearby.

Luckily, yesterday, I had bought some grape harvesting shears. They are designed to carefully snip the stem and to pluck out bad or green grapes without puncturing good ones. I grabbed one of the cassettes I also bought and went to work picking only the best bunches. Unfortunately, crows like only grapes that don't have oidio. Still more clusters went onto the ground, but by the time I was done with the row and a half of confirmed Malvasia around lunch time, I had harvested almost 2 cassettes worth, maybe 70 pounds. The crows would get no more.

Now what? It's not enough grape to make much wine (about 4 or 5 bottles). Not to worry. I already had a plan. Because I'd already guessed that these vines were early ripening Malvasia, and that they wouldn't make much wine, I had decided to do an old trick invented, so the oenological lore goes, right here in Tuscany. I had to work fast so the grapes wouldn't be damaged. But more on that in the next blog.