The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

La Casaccia Today!

September 10-11, 2015

Picking grapes is a decent way to get through jet lag. It’s something to do. The time passes quickly until an hour when the sweet, sweet sleep you crave is advisable. Sunlight scrubs gross airline recycled air from your skin.

I would be a terrible farmer. For core, essential reasons. For one, absence of patience. This morning it is rainy and cold: not a time to pick grapes. So we wait. But I don’t want to wait. I want to pick Barbera. Yesterday we breezed through the last rows of Grignolino. The grapes were so perfect from a warm, dry summer that La Casaccia can even risk the harvesting assistance a bumbling American importer. On my first day of picking (ever) there was really nothing to triage. I discarded one rotten bunch in a half day of casual cutting and talking. Apart from removing the occasional section of dried grapes and skipping a tiny portion of still-ripening clusters, we simply loaded up bright orange small crates with Grignolino that looked ready-to-eat. Hard not to eat a little….

Everybody is in a good mood. Our team is led by heir-apparent Margherita, co-captained by long-term assistant and college buddy Federico, ballasted by Alejandro from Argentina, a young man of agricultural experience, but rooted in the cultivation of cereals, and rounded out by a WOOFer, Anna from Helsinki. She is as untrained as me, but has been working at La Casaccia for a few weeks, in route to a future apartment in Milan. She is a mid-30’s nomad clearly untethered from worldly concerns, strikingly happy. And then there is me, grubby, fresh off the plane.

In a lesser vintage pickers feel mired in place, crawling along rows, painstakingly extricating damaged and dangerously blemished sections of berries. This year it’s full-speed ahead. Giovanni is in the cellar with his mentor Cecchino, a man who has made wine in Cella Monte for 51 years. What an amazing asset! Every vintage since 1964 has been handled by this spry 83-year-old. He has dealt with every conceivable obstacle. Frederico and Margherita are in awe of him, actively soaking up his experience. Feederico says you can never work hard enough to keep up with (or satisfy) the old timer. He just doesn’t quit, or cut the youngsters any slack. Cecchino unloaded cartons of grapes and ran the de-stemmer until long after sunset. And he looks really healthy, strong even. Incessant work has given him the frame of a man 30 years younger. I’m not kidding, the dude is always working.

After the last parcel of Grignolino was picked, we went for a walk past abandoned and nearly-abandoned fields worked by the elderly and part-timers, parcels trellised in outlandish and outdated ways, past fig and apple trees, over hills and through cool verdant stands of forest. Feederico points out the house of his dreams, Il Paradiso, a really perfect old farmhouse looking out over several hectares of fallow land coveted by Giovanni. The route we take is quiet save the odd tractor and wasp. We pause to look at vine leaves beleaguered by oidium and other maladies, we have time to talk about domestic and foreign economics. I like that Italians are more inclined to daily discourse on large matters political and otherwise, but this conversation initiated by Frederico is not theoretical: he is approaching the end of a university oenology program and is weighing options. I give him my frank assessment based on some travel in Italy, and gut feeling. For him, America could be a smart move. Margherita is in a good position, her parents built something amazing against the odds: she can succeed. To start something new in Italy, Frederico’s challenge… the odds are stacked against him. Taxes, bureaucracy, a waning domestic consumption of wine, a stagnant (or worse) economy… moving makes sense. And he’s a trained sommelier and cheese expert with experience selling Italian wine in the very competitive Shanghai market. In the U.S. these are marketable skills.

At the last minute I packed a sweater: northern Italy, I know your tricks! And against the run of recent sunshine and predictions of my iphone, it’s pretty chilly this morning. And I’m about to go underground to check out the first fermentations. In an average vintage, natural fermentations take a day or two to start in a cold cellar. Not in 2015! Wild yeast are healthy and abundant, their natural competition (unwanted bacteria) is on the run, virtually nonexistent. Giovanni said he put his Chardonnay in tank and came back just a little later and the fermentation was beginning. He usually cultures a small vat of starter yeast from his own fields, this year it’s barely needed. Large concentrations of healthy yeast and other microorganisms are the backbone of successful organic farming. La Casaccia’s wines are clean and stable because they nurture and protect this unseen resource.

In the end, the sun won out and picking went on unfettered from mid-morning until 6pm. Two regular employees from Moldova and a childhood friend of Margherita’s joined the team. It was tough. Today’s Barbera grew on a high sun-exposed sight that fared poorly in the atypically warm 2015 vintage. Many grapes were scorched and desiccated, undesirable. They had to be cut out of already scant clusters. Also sections of the site were afflicted by flavescencia dorada, a malady spread by small winged insects. Ultimately these vines require re-grafting. The proximity to neighboring fields that are either abandoned or very neglectfully farmed makes flavescencia hard to contain, it lives in these wild places. But many rows were in rude health and numerous beautiful textbook Barbera bunches seemingly weighing a kilo each were tossed into the baskets. At the end we had 160 baskets loaded with 20 kilos of fruit each, enough to make possibly 2,500 bottles of wine. La Casaccia uses only free-run and delicate first press juice, following a law that is widely violated in the region. It keeps the bottles-per-kilo low and the wine fine, elegant often.
We ate both our meals outside, the first in the vineyard under a fig tree, the second in the winery’s courtyard immediately following the arrival of the last tractor-load of Barbera. It was dark outside but not too cool. Vegetable courses were abundant: Margherita has a great garden! Tomatoes, Ratatouille, plus plenty of antipasti and meaty agnolotti. Sleep will be easy.


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