One of the best aspects of our move to Villa Pera, which will become home to the Fanciulle Vini winery as well as to me and my family—is that the caretakers who have lived there for the past ten years have agreed to stay on. Lush and Hana, who came to Tuscany from Kosovo (a country of 95% ethnic Albanians), were around when Maria, the oldest of the four siblings who grew up in Villa Pera, was living in the tiny guest house, overseeing the olive orchards and renting the main house to tourists. While Lush has been helping me move in and get to know the gardens and farmland, his thoughts on the previous owners arrive in bits: Maria’s energy, love of the countryside and can-do spirit, non of which subsided as she grew more and more infirm; her brothers’ skeet-shooting talents, a nephew’s devotion to Catholicism and his recent marriage in the villa’s tiny chapel.
Maria’s brother, the only remaining of her three siblings, told me that Lush and Hana were hardworking and loyal, as did Lush’s friend Adamo, a retired policeman who lives next door and comes over often to tell me about the property, the neighbors and the village nearby. Lush officially started working for me on September 1–my colleague and I were delighted to have a strong extra hand for the vineyard and cellar work–and immediately proved true to his reputation.
Lush also works part time at a convent down the road, pruning olive trees and tending the vegetable garden, under the firm direction of Suora Rita, with whom I went to speak last summer to agree on Lush’s schedule. His wife, Hana, cleans houses and cares for an elderly woman in Siena. Hana had a son, who died in infancy, then five daughters, and then another son, who now lives in Switzerland with a wife and baby girl, to whose baptism Lush and Hana went the second weekend in September. It must have been on their long bus ride north that Lush caught Covid. He had been vaccinated, so I discounted his sneezing and coughing, until he offered to get a test, which came back positive.
I wrang my hands: 2021 was the year I had organized the harvest perfectly. The grape suppliers had agreed to the quantities I wanted, the refrigerated van was rented, and most of all, the team was in place. My cellar master (actually mistress), Marta, and I would be helped in the vineyards by my handy neighbor, Alessandro, and by Lush and his wife, and in the cellar by my daughter’s nanny, whose small, fine hands are the quickest de-stemmers around.
As the grapes ripened and I waited for my suppliers to give me the go ahead to come and pick, my daughter’s college graduation day also approached, but I wasn’t worried. What were the chances that the harvest would start on the one day I would be in Milan? And even if it did, Marta would be here to coordinate picking, transport, de-stemming and the early hours of fermentation, and Lush would drive the van.
Once Lush caught Covid and I realized Hana could therefore not work either, I asked around for reinforcements. Lush had a friend whose daughter was happy to help, and, felicitously, I found an intern for the autumn who would arrive in late September, in time for the second half of the harvest. As luck would have it, a supplier called asking us to pick our grapes on the day I was to be in Milan. I realized there was no one to drive the van, panicked and called a friend to vent. Claiming no prior experience, she nonetheless offered to drive the van, and she and Marta made a plan to start for the vineyard the next morning at 7.
I was on the Frecciarossa on my way from Florence to Milan at 6 am the next day when Marta texted me that she had a fever and chills and that she thought it was Covid. She would get a test, but the results would be back that evening and the day was obviously shot. The train ride was excruciating: cell phones don’t work between Florence and Modena, while the train goes through the Apennine tunnels, and I sat there unable to communicate with the outside world, speeding through the dark toward Milan, stewing over my lost grapes, my sick team and my bad luck. I turned to my boyfriend and told him how everyone had let me down.
“You wanted a bicycle, Jem,” he said. “Now peddle.”
It was not the sympathetic comment I had been expecting, and his grin infuriated me, but I knew he had a point.
When we pulled out of the tunnel, I called the supplier and postponed picking until the next day, when I would be back in Tuscany; my friend renewed her offer to drive the van; Lush’s friend’s daughter and our nanny would help in the cellar; somehow, we would manage to get the grapes in this year.
The next week proved challenging: Marta had not caught Covid but a nasty flu that kept her in bed with a fever and an upset stomach for a week. My friend and I harvested on our own what I had planned to harvest with a team of five or six: one night I was still in the vineyard collecting the crates of picked grapes well after dark, the rows visible thanks only to the headlights of my jeep. The hand de-stemming I swear by made the evenings in the cellar endless. My family fended for itself at mealtime, and all of the other work I do for the winery—marketing and sales and paying the bills—came to a temporary halt.
At the end of that week, on a cold, bright Saturday morning, I drove up into the Chianti hills southeast of Castellina, to Piccioni, a farm that had agreed to sell me a small lot of its grapes. The sub-soils in the area interested me, and it hadn’t been easy to convince them to part with their grapes. I was going to have to harvest alone. Marta was still out, so were Lush and Hana, and everyone else needed a day off. This is what “peddling” feels like, I said to myself as I drove the van through the gate.
When I got to the hilltop vineyard, waiting for me were Rizan and a colleague, employees at Piccioni, ready to lend a hand. We distributed the crates along the rows of the vineyard plot and began clipping the bunches. As usual, we got to chatting to pass the time. Rizan, it turns out, was also from Kosovo, and I told him about Lush—what a talented and hardworking person he had seemed to be, how disappointed we had both been when he came down, inexplicably, with Covid.
“Lush,” said Rizan, “is the Albanian equivalent of Lucio,” the Italian name for light.