The Grape Harvest

Suggested Wines: Trebbiano di Toscana, Capezzana (Grape: Trebbiano); Sistri, Felsina (Grape: Chardonnay)

Of all the fall harvests , la vendemmia, the grape harvest, is the most festive. Mostly that’s because there’s more with which to celebrate. In fact, lots of people who come to help out with the vendemmia don’t have anything to do with the harvest- relatives who’ve moved away, friends, acquaintances, they all come for some fun, a free dinner, and il piggello d’uva, the plump black-red clusters of grapes that are twined together and given away at the end of the day. And, of course, the promise of a fiasco, a flask (or two) of the new wine when it’s ready in the spring.

I used to help out with the vendemmia of Casa Bertolli, the huge farm outside of Lucca that is famous in America for its olive oil. Like everyone else, I’d arrive in the kitchen by 6 A.M. for a caffe correto, espresso spiked with homemade grappa. By 6:15 we were all in the vineyard working. We’d stop briefly at 9 A.M., when a boy would show up with breakfast- snacks of lard, salami, olives, bread, and cheese; and then again at 2 P.M., when there’d be a fast lunch. By the time the sun set we’d be on our way home to shower and get ready for dinner, usually prepared by Alberto Bertolli himself.

Signor Alberto always served seafood during the vendemmia because his farmers rarely got to eat fish of any kind. The old man loved digging near Viareggio for arselle, tiny clams, and heaping them onto perfect slices of thick toast, crostini. He would fry endless batches of the most delicate fritto misto. He would roast whole grouper and fillet them tableside, and produce vats of the spiciest, most soul-warming spaghetti with mussels I’ve ever had.

While Alberto, aided by his magical chef, Lidia, labored in the kitchen, we workers, friends, and hangers-on would settle in the tavern next to the cellar, the same spot where hours earlier we’d brought the grapes to be pressed. The musty, pungent aroma of fermenting grapes would be overwhelming, but we sucked it up like wine, warming ourselves in front of the big fireplace and toasting our host endlessly. We would eat ravenously, family style, at long, rough tables, and we always finished the evening playing carte, cards, dama, checkers, and scacchi, chess. In really good years, Alberto would uncork a few bottles of cognac and pass them around.

Yes, it was French, but we drank it just the same.