I once met an elderly lady who lived in a minuscule Alpine village of which she was the only permanent inhabitant. Well into her seventies when we crossed paths, she was busy chopping down a young spruce tree, manoeuvring an axe with the flair that comes with practice. She politely waved away my offer for help and, having thinned down the branches, she started dragging the trunk with one hand, walking. My dog decided to sit down to admire the spectacle and, if ever I saw a look of admiration on a German shepherd dog, that was the day. “They’re easiest to cut down when it’s full moon” she explained as she legged it up the trail. “It’s the harvest moon”.
Fifteen-or-so years later her words came back to me, as I entered the A4 motorway on a lovely late summer evening. A huge, pinkish moon was rising above the motorway, just before my eyes. Harvest moon.
September 29th, 2018 was the last day of summer, as far as we were concerned. Trying, and failing, to shake off a Neil Young earworm, T and I pulled up for coffee at a bar like dozen others in rural Piedmont, that part of the region where rice paddies are a dime a dozen and where the weather is either fog or heat. Even the word for the humid heat sounds oppressive. Afa.
It was warm, today, but not stupidly so, which was a good thing, for we were about to add another tack to a ritual that had been running, in this country, for at least 25 centuries. Grape harvesting, or vendemmia.
T and I went to school together, and later shared a room through university. Two years ago, he’d only know how to open a bottle of the stuff. Now, this was his second harvest.
A trickle of friends arrived at the vineyard. They were, at their core, friends from high school, with whom we’d kept in contact throughout the years. Two have brought along their wife and husband, one his dad. It was a diverse bunch, as well: T, born in Sri Lanka; R, hailing from Romania; me, living abroad. It also was the most overqualified bunch of grape pickers in Novara province. One of the fathers even used to design nuclear reactors. Despite that – how many engineers does it take to change a lightbulb? – we made good progress, filling basket after basked with grapes. Erbaluce, Nebbiolo, Bonarda.
It was, though, tough work. This year, say in unison T and M, his second-in-command, has been good: cold when it needed, hot when required, rain just so, no hailstorm. A far cry from 2017 with frost in April, drought in June and hail in August. Yet, not everything was hunky-dory. It’d rained three times in the last few days, rolling sessions of thunderstorms that didn’t give enough time to the fruit to dry up. The result was that, here and there, individual grapes swelled up until they burst open, causing the ones around them to rot. We spot those rotten fruits from their colour, a light purple, and by their sickeningly sweet smell that attracted legions of fruit flies. As we cut through the unusable grapes, I asked T how much he thought he’d lost. “200 kilograms”, he replied, approximately 5% of the total. Gone in the time it took for some rain to fall down.
Once dusk fell we were back at the cantina, to feed the gurgling machine that squashed the grapes. Stalks flowed out of one end; wort pumped out of another side, into a towering crowd of steel tanks. One ton and a half had been harvested for the day, 600 litres of wine once all was going to be said and done. The evening fell as we finished the work, stopping then to taste a sip of the wort. One year from now, if nothing – freeze, heat, bacteria – got in its way, it’d be joining the bottles from the 2017 vintage in the nearby cellar.
That, however, was the future. For now, we knew that, tomorrow, we’d be back for more of the same.