Following is a guest post from Chicago-born poet and food-and-travel writer Matthew Gavin Frank, who is, by the account of any reasonably sane person, a very interesting guy.
Frank has, at turns, held the following jobs:
- proprietor of an Alaskan breakfast joint
- menu designer for Julia Roberts’s private parties in Taos
- sommelier for Chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago
- instructor of creative writing to undergraduates in Phoenixa
- poetry teacher to soldiers and their families near Fort Drum in upstate New York.
I told you he was an interesting character.
If that doesn’t totally sell you, this probably will:
Frank has just released the book Barolo (The University of Nebraska Press, 2010), which, as he described it to me, is “about my illegal work in the Piemontese Italian food and wine industry,” during which he spent six months “living out of a tent in the garden of the local Pittatore farmhouse.”
Frank’s guest post is excerpted (with permission) from Barolo (around $17 at Amazon.com), and describes his first meeting with Piemontese vintner Luciano Sandrone, who sounds like the Italian version of Wolverine. I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did, though I suppose that we’re going to have to get the book to find out how what happens next in this intriguing tale…
Though his wines have earned him international acclaim, Piemontese Italian Barolo-based vintner, Luciano Sandrone, is still the object of scorn to many of the region’s vintners. In an area where most vintners have inherited their trade and property from previous generations, Sandrone, the son of a bus driver, is widely viewed as a newbie and, therefore, easily dismissed. His wife, Mariuccia, frowns as she tells me this, nearly driving the speeding mini into the weeds.
After careening at breakneck speed through the vineyard roads, 11th century castles whipping past as if mere mile-markers, we arrive at a row of flatbeds lined with empty red crates, attached to one-seat tractors. Then, I see them: the crew. They are men and women, some old and hunched, kerchiefed and suspendered, some young and shirtless, overalled and jeansed. Most are huddled in groups of three or four, talking to each other and drinking coffee from plastic thermos tops. The cliques are evident—the young, elegant post-harvest clubhoppers; the no-nonsense grandparents dispensing wisdom with their eyes; the children alternately running the rows with their friends and clutching at the pant legs of the grandparents; the misshapen black sheep, surely playing a mental game of D&D as they fill their crates with grapes.
Most of these crewmembers are friends or relatives or relatives of relatives of Sandrone. Those who aren’t on this rural coffeebreak are wrist-deep in the vines, hands reaching through the jungle of leaves to the tight bunches of Nebbiolo grapes, careful not to rupture the thin skins, spill their juice.
Nebbiolo, the varietal responsible for Barolo wine, derives its name from nebbia, the Italian word for fog. This annual fog tends to penetrate the Langhe come fall; the air temperature drops and, because of this, these grapes can rest on their vines, maturing. Though the fog today is thin, the air is still cool, but the crew, sweating, works with their sleeves rolled up. An old woman in a white Sinatra bandana looks toward us, flashing the fleck of gold in her front tooth. Her arms are brown, stringy. I watch her tendons flex like piano strings as she closes her spring-loaded clippers over a branch. Next to her in the same row are two girls in their late teens. They must be someone’s nieces. They wear matching short yellow shorts. I stare at the sheen of sweat collecting at the backs of their knees. If I was anywhere but rural Italy, I’d feel like a total scumbag. The old woman says something to one of the girls and she laughs. The other girl, visibly disgusted, spits onto the ground.
I step away from the car and turn to face the downslope. Apple trees wave in the wind like sails, dropping their fruit. Mariuccia is talking to me, but I don’t understand what she’s saying. She points her finger over my head in clarification. I turn. A gruff voice rises sudden over the crewmembers’ conversations and I see a faded blue beret bobbing above the vine leaves. The beret moves uphill and spawns a face underneath, then a neck, shoulders, torso, arms, hands and legs. The old woman sees him and calls to him in Italian, her sentence ending with a vibrant Luciano! He laughs and shakes his head.
He stands only 5’6”, wears small, thin glasses, a dirty white undershirt, navy cotton pants looped over his shoulders with burgundy suspenders. He is thick and squat, hairy and strong, walks with an authoritative certainty, and has a thin cheroot smoking from his sixty-year-old lips. Sandrone. Though only about my height, he looks as if he can hurdle me.
“Questo e il Americano?” he asks his wife.
I hold my breath, try to divine some kind of answer from the warming sky. Who am I? Mariuccia answers for me and, as Sandrone wraps his heavy fingers over my forearm, I can only wonder, Nebbiolo grapevines beckoning like the daughters of Venus, what’s going to happen next…
(images: matthewgfrank.com, amazon.com)