ow did I become a sommelier and after that an executive wine master? I honestly still have no idea. But I am.
What’s even more amazing is that I hated wine as a kid, especially making it. Blame that on my father, who owned a half-acre wide vineyard in Valle Martelle, a cute little hamlet off the Via Prenestina south of Rome.
If my father loved that place more than anything, my brother and I hated it more than a bottle of overpriced wine. We were his farm hands. As soon as we stopped crawling, we were hard at work.
My father had a name for his slave labor camp — “The Land.” Those two worshipful words, la terra, struck terror into our hearts, especially when he mentioned them at dinner, which was just about every Saturday night. It not only ruined dinner but also killed off any plans we might have had for Sunday, our only day off from school.
Trying to stake out Sunday as our own went nowhere, even when we announced we’d decided on careers as altar boys. Not even a papal dispensation would have changed my father’s mind.
He’d finish his meal and smile at us (giving us a glimmer of hope), but then say: “Go to bed now kids. You’ve got a fine day ahead of you tomorrow on ‘The Land.'”
We prayed to the god of forecasting for a storm or hail or a tornado, tossing in blizzards and locust invasions for good measure — anything that might seal off roads leading to the sacred Land. But the god ignored us. History has probably never seen such a string of beautiful Sundays.
From the mid-1970s through the end of the century it never rained on the Day of our Lord. Temperatures were spring-like even in winter. We were up against a stacked deck.
Dad would set our alarm for 6 a.m. but (leaving nothing to chance) start poking at us at 5:30. Mom, who was up at 5 a.m., made breakfast for 10, figuring that energy-wise triple portions would last us until 12:30. We’d hear tittering from our sister’s room. She was five (and a girl), which exempted her from the torture.
It was still dark when we bundled into the car. Chins down, resigned to our fate, neither of us said a word during the hour-long ride. Meanwhile, dad took on the radio news host. The more agitated he got, the more we knew we’d have to work. It was as if dad thought my brother and I — at ages 13 and 11, respectively — were somehow responsible for Italy’s political and social shortcomings.
Once we got to the vineyard, noticing we weren’t exactly beaming, he’d try to cheer us up. “Kids, look! Look at this amazing place I’ve brought you to! We’re on ‘The Land!'”
“Dad, we’ve been here before,” one of us would reply. “Could you maybe next time take us to Mars or Saturn?”
He found this funny. “What witty boys! Good for you. Now, break out those hoes!”
All year long, our only task was tilling the vineyard ahead of the terrors of the harvest, billed as the “Family Event of the Year.” The idea of the even terrified anyone with blood ties to our family.
Every grape variety has specific time when it’s ripe for harvest. Chardonnay, for example, is usually a mid-August grape, while Nebbiolo is picked in October. But our own harvest ran by dad’s special calendar. Since no one really knew just what kind of grapes we had, it was up to dad to compile all kinds of astrophysical data (moon in Capricorn; tides; vacation days) before deciding when we should take to the field.
In those pre-Internet and mobile phone days my mother would call around to make the harvest announcement. Being drafted in wartime would have generated less panic, and fewer efforts by extended family members to dig up medical excuses. Grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts, friends of the family — all of them were summoned. They’d trickle their way to our place, usually taking the longest possible routes or actually heading into traffic.
The elders were predictably thrilled since all they had to do was be photographed symbolically trimming a cluster of grapes (like a mayor cutting an inaugural ribbon), after which they’d settle down and gobble up the food various mothers had slaved over for weeks.
The kids: children, cousins, and sons of friends, were responsible for the dawn-to-dusk dirty work. And it was dirty. We’d come away covered with grapes, dirt, mud, and bits of fruits and vegetables that hit us as we cut our way through the joyous day. By evening we were exhausted, but also incredibly happy.
Those days are over now. Two years ago my aging father had the vineyard cut down. It was too much work and he couldn’t go at it alone. But here’s something you should know, dad: if I’ve become a wine lover, I owe it to you and your passion. It might have been unorthodox passion, but that’s who you are. And I’ll never be able to thank you enough.
To celebrate my new vocation, and to start my new column, I’d want everyone to take a sip of one of the best Italian sparkling wines, made by people who have been at it for more than a century.
Trento Brut Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore is worth every syllable of its long name. Straw yellow with golden shadings, it sweeps you up in a bouquet of strong and fragrant aromas: apple, pineapple, banana, and a hint of vanilla, honey and white chocolate. Its softness and mineral flavor blend together perfectly, producing and elegant, harmonious balance with a deliciously long citrus-tinged finish.
Having it with a Catalan Lobster makes for a perfect love match.