Buying an Old Vineyard

It was Franco, Podere Leccio’s cellar hand, who eventually gave voice to his and Sig. Bernardi’s opinion of the Fiorentino, when I pointed out, a few days into October, that the Fiorentino still had not harvested.

View of Siena across vineyards
View of Siena from the southeast.

“He picked the white grapes,” Franco said. “The red ones he sells to someone else. Last year, whoever it was came too late and the grapes rotted on the vine. It’s one of those old vineyards—branches every which way, huge bunches. If they don’t come soon, you’ll see, it’ll all rot again.”

“Would he sell me some?” I asked.

“You don’t want those grapes,” Franco said.

But I was intrigued and asked Franco if he thought I could go and see the vineyard. He said to ask Sig. Bernardi, who was friends with the Fiorentino, which I did. The next day, I found myself standing in the old vineyard, listening to the Fiorentino’s story, while Sig. Bernardi looked on, grinning and disbelieving.

The Fiorentino was short and neatly though threadbarely dressed, reticent at first and then loquacious: that day, he told me that he was selling the vineyard, the olive orchard above it and the house above that, which he had built himself (he was a mason by profession). Years earlier, he had rented the house to a man with a Russian girlfriend, who still owed him money, even though there had been a contract that included free use of the utilities. He told me about another problem with a tenant, this one a renter of an apartment he owned in Florence, a Neopolitan carabiniere, who also had a girlfriend and had also stopped paying rent. He told me about his own house here in the village farther up the road, and the smaller vineyard and olive orchard he had there.

“Better to harvest, Giancarlo,” Sig. Bernardi interrupted. “Next week, they say rain.”

When I asked the Fiorentino about his plans for the grapes, he told me that while he did not drink wine himself, the vineyard produced wine of at least 13 degrees. (50 years ago, Chianti was known for pale, weak–10-11% alcohol was the norm–wines, so that farmers that were around then tended today to use higher alcohol and a dark hue to align them with the school of modern, enlightened winemaking that washed over Italian cellars in the 1980s.) He had already sold the white grapes—Malvasia and Trebbiano, to a man from Empoli who dried them and made Vin Santo–and the “black” ones, as he called them, were promised to another man who had bought them in years past.

Standing in the vineyard, dwarfed by the vines, I saw that each was burdened with a donzen or so comically large bunches of swollen grapes, a yield worthy of the sharecroppers that dominated Tuscan agriculture into the 1960s.

“Quest’anno non è niente”—“This year’s nothing,” he said. “I usually get double,” the Fiorentino said.

One day, I could see from Leccio that the Fiorentino’s vineyard had been relieved of its fruit and that its leaves had begun to

fall, the yellowing plants shifting in the cool wind.

“The Fiorentino isn’t going to sell the land by itself,” Sig. Bernardi informed me, coming out of the Leccio cellar. “And if he were to sell it, it would be too expensive,” by way of alerting me, as the Tuscans are want to do, that the Fiorentino was open to selling the vineyard on its own and that I would need to negotiate whatever high price he named.

“I see,” I said to Sig. Bernardi. “Shall we go and see him?”

After the holidays, Sig. Bernardi and the Fiorentino and I met once more in the vineyard. I heard about the Russian again, and the Neopolitan carabiniere and about the winter of 1985, during which the Fiorentino’s newly-planted olives survived a famously severe frost, thanks to its owner’s shrewd choice of cultivar. Every weekend since his marriage, forty years ago, he had come from Florence to tend the land, which his wife had inherited from her childless uncle, Elio, who had planted it upon returning from the war, in 1946. On the subject of hard work, the Fiorentino brought the conversation around to how he had been cheated out of a higher pension: his boss at the construction company in Florence had failed to elevate him to the role of master mason after the requisite twenty years on the job. He finally spoke about the vineyard itself, moving along the rows, rearranging branches, trimming here and there, swearing that not a year had gone by without a generous crop. After a while, Sig. Bernardi, the Fiorentino and I wandered down to the end of the last row of vines. They were trained onto non-fruit-bearing pear trees, which had grown tall and thick with branches that extended for yards along the row, interlocking with those of the vines. At the southeast corner of the property stood a willow tree, from which the Fiorentino pulled a frond; he used it to tie a vine shoot to its natural support.

“How much do you want?” I asked.

The Fiorentino said he wasn’t planning to sell: a local doctor had recently come and offered him a huge sum for the house and land together. He admitted, however, that he was getting older. What if, one day he woke up and found he could not work? In that case, he would be forced to sell the land in a hurry at a low price.

“I’m not going to undersell,” he corrected himself. “This is Chianti Classico land.” And, as he looked away, toward the horizon, he finally named his price.

Originally posted 17 May 2021.

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