Winning Over Italy

St. Martino And The Missing Beach

Toto with the 1st bottle

November 11th and the day of St. Martino.   This is the traditional day for tasting the new wine, a sort of informal Beaujolais Nouveaux and not without a race, well a brisk walk to the end of the garden to pour the first bottle from the barrel.  As I mentioned in my last post, Toto and I had sneaked a glass before the appropriate hour…. just to check of course.  All over the country people were opening the new vintage, whether it be their own or purchased from a good vineyard.  Ours, as I have discovered over the last year, is usually one of the best in the neighbourhood.  Certainly good enough to trade for the best fish at the docks or for Calabria’s finest manure (another story).   We made the wine some eight weeks ago, over the weekend before the builders arrived on site.  I’d been warned to be ready before 6.00am for the grapes to arrive on the Saturday morning as it’s extremely important to get going with the pressing from the minute they arrive.  They’ve already been off the vine for eighteen hours by this point and the juice will have started leaking and fermenting in the delivery baskets, on the other side of the Straits before the morning’s first ferry.  As it was, Toto had managed to unload the fruit before I’d had my coffee and we still had 48 hours of intense labour ahead.  “Wear the oldest clothes you have and don’t expect to wear them ever again.”  My brilliant white tee-shirt was regarded with some heavenward looks, guidance for what I was about to receive.  You can never dress down enough for wine pressing… fact better not dress at all to be honest (apart from the boxers).  It was still September and hovering between 28 and 30 degrees with no cooling breeze.  I used muscles that hadn’t heard from me for many years, I used bones that thought they’d gone into early retirement on full pension and I used language that I’d only recently learned and would be more suited to a Neapolitan bordello.   While I stacked crates of black grapes on the wheel barrow and carted them to the ‘cantina’ at the end of the garden, Toto emptied them into the polished hopper and began the first ‘grind’.   “Hurry, faster, we don’t have a minute to lose.” He cajoled.  “That was a full glass-worth of wine you lost on the last trip.  Gina will kill us if she sees!”  The large, square ceramic-lined vat was filling up with roughly pressed grapes and juice as the morning progressed until…”Stop!”  Cried Toto.  “What?” I asked peering into the gloom of the cantina, brushing away the swarms of mosquitoes and flies that had been following me all morning, feeding on my sweating brow and the sugar-sweet juice that had got into every pore of my skin. 

“There’s too much, how many crates are left?”

“About twelve I think, why?”

“Mannagia,(Damn…politely put) we have a problem.”

“The vat’s still only ¾ full.” I observed.

“And when the grapes really start to ferment?  The vat will fill to the brim.  We can’t afford to lose a drop.”

Suddenly we had an emergency.  We had to find alternative vessels for the remaining crates, and quick.  We rushed round the village trying to find more containers, without luck.  Those that were making their own wine needed what they had.   We were so desperate we even promised a hundred litres to someone, just to be sure it wouldn’t go to waste, if they could find a container.  They shot out to join the hunt.  No deal.  Eventually we had to go to the farmer’s cooperative, through whom we’d purchased the grapes, to buy some huge plastic basins to hold our overfill as well as another two hundred-litre barrel to hold the resulting wine it would produce.  “Mamma Mia. We have too much wine.” Toto grimaced.  “This crop is better than I expected.  Think we’re going to have more than a thousand litres.” “Still, let’s look on the bright side.” I said, thinking that there were far bigger problems in life than what to do with an excess of good red wine.

By the end of the first day Toto and I had done all we could for the time being.  The juice would have its first go at producing alcohol before we started again on the fine pressing, the really hard work that awaited us the next morning.  Gina came out with a large ladle and some neighbours to try the black liquid as the sun began to set and the heat subside.  Hers is the true opinion on how the wine will eventually taste.  We waited with bated breath, Toto proud and satisfied with his work but nervous none-the less, me tired and ready to drop as my back wailed in agony.   Gina took the ladle and sipped, then sipped again.  Her face didn’t change as she silently filled some plastic cups and passed them round the neighbours.   At last Toto and I were allowed.  It was the sweetest, darkest nectar you could imagine.  It was almost black in colour and the sense of sugar would have kept you buzzing for a week.  This was going to be strong stuff when it turned to alcohol.  We looked anxiously at Gina ,waiting for her judgement on our labour. 

“This will be the best we ever had.” She proclaimed.  “Don’t you fools lose a single drop, understand?”  She smiled and patted me on the back.  “Shame about the tee-shirt.”  she sighed, as she walked back to the kitchen.  

Vespa and oranges in the back garden.

The next day we were up at the crack of dawn again, making the real presses.  Every last possible drop was extracted, even by taking the glue-like mass of the first tight pressing and breaking it up to put back into the wooden compressor for another squeeze.  This was the hardest work.  More effort is expended on the last 10 litres than the previous 990.  At the end of the second night we collapsed and poured hot baths to ease our bones while Gina nagged us about our sticky clothes.  It takes a full week to clean your hands of the ingrained stains.  I cut my finger-nails three times that week just to get rid of the black colour under them.  

Gina wasn’t wrong.  The wine is awesome, even on the first tasting.  After a month or two it’s going to be worth twice the fish and manure of last year’s production.  I’m looking forward to Christmas and mulling a drop or two.

 Of course we’ve had to sample other people’s stock, it’s St. Martino after all.  We turned up at Piper Cafe for an evening’s tasting, after work on Friday night .   The weather had been pretty stormy for the previous three nights and the hills were rapidly turning back to a vague olive-green as a result.  A rather depressed looking Nino turned up beside me at the bar.  “Hey Nino, why so sad?”  “My beach has gone missing.”  He took his wine and shrugged.  “Everything’s gone and I’ve had to spend the whole day tidying up.” 

“You’re beach is missing?”

“Yea, It’s probably off to Morocco as we speak.”

“It’s been stolen?”

“No, I wish it had. It happens nearly every year now.”

“But it was there during the summer, what happened?”

“Goes on holiday when it feels like it.” He moaned.

“I don’t understand.  What do you mean, goes on holiday?”

“When the weather’s like these last few days, the sea comes and takes it away.”

“Surely it’s just covered with water for the moment, it’ll be there again in the good weather.”

“No It actually shifts off  round the country or across to Africa, carried away on the current.  Just hope another arrives in its place in the spring.  Maybe some good sand from Naples, who knows.  It could just as easily be some rubbish from France.”

This is true.  The beaches sweep off to another coast for a while, only to be replaced by a stranger who’s carried in on the drift to settle for the summer months between the rocks and breakers south of Reggio.  The idea of holiday beaches going on beach holidays really tickles me.  The only problem is that they generally takes the local umbrellas and Lido furniture with them.  Packed and ready to go.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be there when it arrives at its new location.  There you are, sitting with your pipe on the dunes looking out to sea and contemplating life when, from across the horizon, a new beach floats slowly in with its ready-made rows of tables and chairs.  Hope the cocktail sticks aren’t too damp, anyone got an olive handy?

Well, worst case, we can have a nice glass of Toto’s wine.  “Here’s to St. Martino.”