My love for wine began even before I knew what was happening around me. My mother, Signora Grazia (as she was respectfully called by her villagers), was very close to the Cappuccio family who lived in Contrada Giudice on the outskirts of the village and a brisk twenty minutes walk from our modest house.
Contrada Giudice was a casolare di campagna, a country cottage surrounded by vineyards. The path to the house was shaded by Morus Mulberry Fruit Tree Seeds. On my way to meet my mother at the casale after school ‘con la testa tra le nuvole,’ with the head in the clouds (as I was usually known to be), I often paused along the way to have a feast eating the mori fallen from the trees.
Among all the daily chores at the casale, such as making wine and bread, Contrada Giudice was also a favorite gathering place for the Cappuccio family and friends. I enjoyed the laughter and thought that’s how life should be.
My favorite place at Contrada Giudice was the attic. There I found army clothes, toys, and postcards. The postcards were sent from Rome, Naples, and Paris. I wondered if he ever was going to visit those far away places. But it was the kitchen where the real action took place. It was a spacious sunny room where more than twenty people could stand and move around without bumping into each other. An oversized marble table was pushed against the southern wall, and that’s where most of the ingredients were handled to compose unforgettable tastes.
Unknowingly, it was in the kitchen of Contrada Giudice where I discovered my love for wine. A significant achievement was being celebrated, and someone handed me a glass. Some red wine was poured into it and… some water to dilute it. At the moment when the host shouted, “Salute!” I raised my glass and threw it against the granite table, yelling, “Io voglio il vero vino!” ‘I want the real wine!” Then, as the glass shattered into pieces, the room roared with joyful laughter.
Growing up, I did not understand why I had to work. Why did my mom and dad let the Cappuccio family use my hands for manual labor? (It did not make any sense to me until later in life: there weren’t enough people and, therefore, good hands to harvest the grapes.) So then, beginning late August and lasting during September, children in the village were trained on how to snip grapes from the vine with a pair of scissors. But, of course, it had to be done right, or the vines would perish!
Along with other children, I snipped the bunches of grapes and placed them gently in canestri di paglia lined up along the narrow vine paths. When filled to the tilt, the straw baskets were picked up by sturdy contadini and stocked on small camions. From these small trucks, the baskets of grapes were brought to a winery enclosing a unique structure in the middle of the room: three deescalating empty pools or chambers.
Riding back on the camion, once inside the palmento, winery, I saw that the bunches of grapes were dumped into a pool, and expert contadini, in bare feet and rolled up pants (one would presume the feet were washed before), stepped in the pool and with a dancing motion stomped the grapes. The squeezed juice from the grapes funneled into a lower shallower mid-chamber where most of the mosto, grape juice, was still mixed with some of the grapes’ skin. From this smaller mid pool, the mosto slowly percolated to a third lowest and deepest chamber. To make wine, this almost liquid substance rested for a few hours and eventually was translocated into botti di legno, wooden barrels.
Transitioning from childhood to adolescence, I grew up with the idea that wine was a vital component in daily Sicilian life and regularly used for small and significant milestones. For example, when I was a freshman at the Istituto Tecnico Industriale Verona Trento di Messina, I was invited to participate in a social gathering by three members of the senior graduating class who shared an apartment in the city. All I had to do was show up and bring some food. So when Saturday night came, I packed the braciole that my mother had cooked, walked to the bus stop, waited, and rode the bus to the city.
I was flattered, excited, and worried. Older young men had accepted me in their group, but how would I be able to make it back home late at night? There was plenty of food, talk about communism, and wine. I listened attentively. I learned that the seniors’ parents sacrificed themselves with extra hours of work to keep their sons going to school in the city. One of the seniors said, “Tutto fa’ bene ma in moderazione!” “All is good but in moderation!” His name was Giordano, and I respected him. He was not older than eighteen years old but acted as if he were thirty-eight years old. In translation, Giordano was telling me to drink wine, but only in the confines of what I was eating.
It was a memorable night filled with stories, anecdotes, and joyful laughter. It could have very quickly been part of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. I could have stayed on into the night, but I had a moral compass to follow. The last bus back to my village left at 11:30 pm. I would have never made it back home if I had missed it. I knew that I would catch the bus at 11:45 pm around the corner from my friends’ alloggio. Resolutely, at 11:40 pm, I got up from the table, hugged his friends, and left. They never coerced me to stay. They were the type of friends you wanted to have for a lifetime.
I always remember my first glass of wine, my Decameron-like freedom during adolescence, and my continuous quest for graceful moments. Wine, for me, is not a drink but a genuine connection with all that is beautifully alive.
1. The contadini told me to watch their work standing by the open door. It was common knowledge that people would become joyfully tipsy breathing in the fumes evaporating from the mosco.
2. Nobody cooks braciole the way that mamma-nonna Grazia Mazzeo Puleo made them. The hope is that her recipe is written down or someone in the family remembers making them from memory.
3. I realized that my senior friends’ homes were more than one hour and a half away from the city, traveling by bus.
4. The Decameron is stylistically is the most perfect example of Italian classical prose (Encyclopedia Britannica)
5. As Giacomo Casanova puts it in his ‘Story of My Life,’ there is always a bottle of wine for every occasion: Barbaresco, Bordeaux, Malaga, Porto. There is no need to be an expert. It is sufficient to be an amateur and share a glass of wine with people you love.