Work Hard, Play Hard
Vendemmia, the Italian wine harvest, is about community as much as picking grapes
By Sarah Terpstra
After living and working on a farm in rural Tuscany years ago, the approach of autumn in Ontario never fails to stir up memories of La Vendemmia. The Italian grape harvest that marks the end of the growing season, La Vendemmia demonstrates the importance of hard work, community, and the seasonal nature of the wine-making craft.
As the days shorten here in Ontario, and the cool, dewy mornings arrive, the same seasonal shift occurs in Italy. But while Thanksgiving serves as a day for Canadians to be grateful for all things—especially plates piled high with the season’s bounty—in Italy the giving of thanks occurs over the course of weeks as the grapes that took all year to grow are picked and pressed for wine. Varying each year from late September to mid-October, La Vendemmia’s occurrence depends on the time it has taken winemakers—and nature—to ready the bunches of grapes that line the vines.
In 2011, during my stay in Tuscany, the summer had been hot and dry—perfect for wine-making grapes. Come mid-September, we awoke each morning hoping that the skies would be clear and the grapes free of dew. When these conditions are present, all other work and play is put on hold and the focus shifts to the long hard days of work, picking and pressing the grapes for making wine—from sun up to sun down, sometimes ten hours each day.
During this time, anyone with a connection to the vineyard comes to help with the harvest. Neighbours, friends and family pitched in—even tourists passing through. As guests of the bed and breakfast arrived, it was difficult for them to miss the hodgepodge of sweaty workers, from farm interns and the teenage daughter of the farm’s owner to the middle-aged peg-legged Italian brick layer. Soon, they would join in the work, lending a hand with the harvesting. It was clear that this age-old tradition continues for reasons more than just the pleasure of wine-drinking; it acts as a reminder of the strength and power of community.
Moving from vineyard to vineyard, the work seems to never end, but there is a fair amount of play involved to keep spirits high. With the sun beating down and countless rows of grapes still to pick, the heat, boredom, and sugar-high from snacking on the fruits made for the most ridiculous games of “Would You Rather”—especially when they involved an American and an Italian, whose fluency in each others’ language was less than stellar. And while the labour of the harvest was immense, we were rewarded with a well-deserved feast afterwards, replete with Schiacchata con l’uva (grape bread) and plenty of wine and juice from last year’s harvest. The carafes of wine from previous years’ hard work not only quenched our thirst and revved us up for another afternoon of picking, but also reminded us again of the fundamentally cyclical nature of our work.
When the harvest ended, the work moved from the vineyards into the cantina and salumeria, where the winter days are spent wine- and salumi-making. But always, these days end with a glass of the previous fall’s boozy bounty. Indeed, each bottle opened reminded us of the harvest and the inevitable approach of springtime, when the vines’ deep roots would sprout life and the cycle would begin again.
Sarah Terpstra is co-owner, with her husband Christopher, of Toronto-based fresh pasta company Alimentari Foods. She studied nutrition at New York University and trained as a chef at the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, focusing on cooking with healthful, locally-sourced ingredients. Her column on Italian food and wine culture will appear here every six weeks.