La Vendemmia

My first WWOOF stop is in the hills of Novi Liguri, Alessandria, at Cascina degli Ulivi. Despite its name (“Farmhouse of Olives”) this biodynamic farm’s shining star is its wine, made from their 22 hectares of vineyards. I’m staying at la Cacsina for about two weeks to work the wine grape harvest (la vendemmia).

Also an agritourism B&B and restaurant, la Cascina is at once serene and bustling. Stefano, the owner, lives in a house on the farm along with the occasional WWOOFer or two and on the other end of the gravel path, his mother Bianca has the master house. The rest of us stay in a big farmhouse next door, divided up into several smaller homes: one for Stefano’s daughter and his ex-wife (he takes care of the wine and she the bread and butter), a couple in the back (like the one I share), and then the farmer version of a “5BR flex.” Its first floor is one big room where we all gather for dinner, with a makeshift bedroom in the corner. Upstairs is the kitchen and four attic-roofed bedrooms designated by walls, dressers, curtain and wooden dividers.

La vendemmia work, and life, is simple. I wake up early, usually from the roosters. One calls out its high-pitched tune and his wingman follows with a painful sounding refrain. This bird actually sounds like it has laryngitis. Every time I hear it, I envision a Riccola ad. I make myself a nice, strong cup of coffee (I love these stovetop “moka pot” coffee makers) and breakfast at 7, and we head off by caravan to the vineyards at 7:45.

We work down each fila – row – of vines in pairs of two, with one person on each side of the plant. I cut off the good grapes (those that aren’t rotten or shriveled into raisins) with clippers into my cavana, a plastic basket, and empty my full basket into a cassetta, one of the big plastic crates we place along each row and collect by tractor before lunch and at the end of the day. The leaning is hard on the back, but you pick up little tricks, like going for the lower side of the row if you’re on a hill, or sitting on the sides of your cavana as you pick. We drive back to la Cascina for lunch at 12:30, so everyone starts talking about lunch at about 11. Then it’s back to work at 1:45, finish up the day around 5:30, have dinner around 8 and then fall asleep effortlessly by 11 (the first time I’ve been able to do so before 1am in ages).

The most interesting aspect of the work by far is the people. I intended to write just a couple sentences about a few of them, but once I started, couldn’t help rambling and described them all.

It’s an eclectic group of about 20, with some of us living on the farm and others commuting from the nearby Novi Liguri or other parts of Alessandria each day. Several of the workers are here year round, but many, like me, are just here for la vendemia. There are three other WWOOFers: a laid back couple – Max (British) and Nicolina (Danish) – and Yvonne, a 19 year old German girl who, after WWOOFing for just a few months, is impressively fluent in Italian.

There are the Pakistanis: Ali, who runs the show, driving our crowded little caravan to one of Stefano’s various vineyards each morning and telling us which rows to pick and when, his son, Imran and his cousin Sajad, a kind, softspoken man and one of the more serious workers (when a few of the Italians and Moroccans snuck a few clusters of candy-sweet Muscat grapes with me, he gave us an “I don’t think so” wave of his finger and mumbled, “Control.”); the Moroccans: Azdin, the gardener and occasional wine harvester who makes delicious vegetarian tagines when you’re lucky and Abdul, who’s exceedingly friendly given how little we can actually communicate. Each time I see him around the house or between rows of grapes, I can count on a big “Jack!” a high five and a hug; and Eric from Nigeria, a hard worker and very kind, though he reminds us daily that he doesn’t like Italy and is only here to make enough money so he can start a family next year.

Then of course are the many Italians. Stefano is everything you’d wish for in a real winemaker– rough around the edges and a bit intimidating at first (at least if you don’t speak Italian) with a raw sense of humor, but extremely good-natured and dedicated. He’s also the first Italian I’ve met with light skin, freckles and blue eyes, so perhaps I’m biased. Sonia, his secondhand woman, speaks English with the charming accent she picked up in Australia and manages the agrotourism, tastings and winemaking at la cantina, the above ground cellar. There’s Francesco, tractor-driver, cow milker and butcher extraordinaire who will never let you forget that he is from “Calabria! Calabria!” Emma, pretty and vivacious with a smoky, infectious laugh, is my best Italian teacher so far. Laura, a super-sweet Neapolitan girl, works long days in la cantina. Joisha, warm and peaceful, recently returned from three years with her son at ashrams in India, where she picked up her non-Italian name.  Dani, who I’ve dubbed DJ Dani, is always with a smile and his cell phone radio. Carlos sports running shorts even on the coldest mornings, and when the sun comes out, shows off his nipple rings and bicycle tattoo. He’s been hopping between friends and jobs around Europe for five years and indulges me with detailed descriptions of Italian cooking. Alessio, a director of photography by trade, plans to direct a documentary on la vendemmia, so this is like informal research for him. Alessio is fluent in English and surprisingly familiar with its nuances from this time spent with Americans working at an Irish bar in Alicante. I ask him for basic Italian words, and he teaches me slang. Like fica – the female version of “fig.”  “It’s like calling a girl good looking,” he told me, “but really, it means a woman’s genitals. It’s not a polite thing to say, but if your boyfriend says it, you don’t get mad. It’s a compliment, like saying, ‘You’re f***ing hot.’ When a girl says it about a guy – ‘Che fico!’ – it’s more gentle, like saying, ‘He’s cool.’” Alessio’s American friends left him with a fondness for Eminem, The Postal Service and O.A.R. When we drove to lunch in his car, he sang along to Juicy. If I weren’t caked with mud and sticky from grape juice, I could have been back home in 10th grade. And then there’s Pino, the oldest worker of the bunch. Pino jokes and sings loudly all day, though apparently no one can quite understand his Sicilian dialect.

I can’t imagine another occasion that would give me the chance to be part of such a lovely, motley little crew.

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