A Letter From Tuscany

I’ve been in Tuscany staying at my winemaking friends’ castle.  The first time I came to Castello di Potentino, seven years ago, I was a volunteer worker – a Wwoof – from the acronym of the organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  It was my first job out of college, and I was paid in amazing wine, and great food and company.  I’ve felt rich ever since.

Although now I’m not an official worker, something inexplicable draws me back to the vines.  I went out twice with a group of about ten to clear away leaves from the almost-ripe grapes, a task which requires you to either lean over – straining your back – or be in a permanent crouch – which kills your knees – for hours.  It really is communing with the vines; your head’s stuck right into them. Old friends. There are so many poems about grapes, wines, at this time of year I always think of Rilke’s Herbstag, the Song of Solomon, where I imagine myself as the fox as I nibble the grapes, testing for sweetness as I go.  And always Late Ripeness, by Czeslaw Milosz:

I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,

as are all men and women living at the same time,

whether they are aware of it or not.

Although working alongside 10 other people, you hardly see them, you can try to make conversation, but it is hard to keep up between rows.  It is solitary work, quiet hours communing with the vines.  The cover of the leaves is great for eavesdropping, of course, you really do hear things through the grapevine, but what the grapes whisper is much more interesting than gossip.

Silence.  My head in the vines, my hands pulling leaves, my hands, my two hands.  Two hands times ten people times how many hours of how many days? And that just for this one task, of clearing heavy leaves around the grapes so that they can dry properly after the coming rains, on this one, small vineyard.  Times all the other tasks, all the other days and weeks of so many people, so many hands, leading up to the harvest of the grapes and the making of wine, so many hands caressing nature towards an end more perfect than nature’s work alone could provide.

In Istanbul, where I live, there are still some of an older generation of Sephardic Jews that speak Ladino.  I don’t remember what a friend told me exactly – this is very second-hand information, through the grapevine – when he recounted what his older, Sephardic gentleman friend had told him, but it was something like this: Of a good cook, you say she has ‘bendigas manos’ or ‘bendichas manos’ or something like that.  ‘Blessed hands.’

At the Castello, we had had a small Rosh Hashanah eve celebration with apples and honey so I got thinking about the Jewish population of Istanbul; I live in the former home of a now-deceased Jewish woman.  There are the marks of where mezuzahs were by the front door and the bedroom, and an abandoned napkin holder from Jerusalem.

So the next day in the vines, I was thinking about bendigas manos.  I thought there must really be something special about wine that so many hands dedicate themselves to so many tasks to urge the grapes to perfect sweetness, and then to make them into better wine than nature could do if left to her own devices.  So many blessed hands, guiding nature, correcting nature.  If wine is worth that much labor and that many blessed hands, then it must be something close to holy.  What else demands so much of our willing attention?  If our hands can make nature more perfect, then our hands our greater than a gods’.  That might be profane to say – may Bacchus protect me from another god’s lightning bolts! – but there is something sacred in the profanity of making, drinking, enjoying wine.  It is a humbling thing to be a worker in a vineyard.

Cheers to a happy harvest season.

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Photo courtesy of Vladislav Gurfinkel/Shutterstock