The Wine That Isn’t

Old Sangiovese vines in Tuscany

Early in 2021, after a protracted search for a piece of land with old Sangiovese vines and the right kind of sub-soils, I bought a two-acre vineyard. Except I didn’t: according to ARTEA, the regional agricultural database, the land where the vineyard stands is a wheat field. Before buying, I explained this to the owner in the hope of getting him to lower his price. He did not argue with my logic—of course, if the land were a wheat field it would be worth less–but he insisted I was wrong about how the land was classified in ARTEA: his vineyard was recognized as such by the Tuscan region. He knew this because, some years ago, he had been subject to a fine on the basis of a vineyard-related issue. He could not recall what the issue was, nor did he have the paperwork at hand, but he remembered the amount: €218. “Look again,” he suggested. That’s when the real fun started.

I figured that to gain the upper-hand in our negotiations, I needed to show him the printed certificate from ARTEA that listed his land holdings as wheat fields, but he, as owner, was the only one who could request the certificate. Was a 75-year old farmer without a bank account or a cell phone, going to call ARTEA (the main number is always busy), navigate the menu to find the person who could grant his request for a land-use certificate, and provide an email address to which that could be sent, all so he could sell me his land at a lower price? 

You guessed it, I stopped trying to negotiate and agreed to his price.

When I transferred the deed, I noted that the land use indicated for the plot I had bought was simply “arable land”. The local office of the farmers’ union set up me as a farm entity, and we agreed to update the land use to “vineyard” as soon as possible. Then the growing season started, and I was busy pruning, tying, mowing grass, monitoring pests and handling all the work that goes into producing healthy grapes for the harvest–working, in short, in my vineyard.

Last week, I finally had all of the grapes from the 2021 harvest in the cellar, and most of the tanks were winding down their fermentations. It was time to quantify the production and file a record with ARTEA of grapes and wine produced. 

I called the farmers’ union office for help making my first grape and wine production declaration. I explained that the yield was fairly low, because the vineyard was old. (75 years ago, vines were planted interspersed with fruit trees like olives, apricots and apples, and in far-apart rows, between which wheat or barley was sown.) Sig. Bondi, the union office manager, pulled up my farm’s file on his computer. 

“You can’t have produced any grapes,” he said, “because you don’t have a vineyard.” 

“Ha ha,” I answered, trying to move on. “I produced about 500 litres of red wine and 400 of white,” I explained, which, given the permitted grape-to-wine ratio of 69%, meant that I had produced about 740 kg of red and 580 kg of white grapes. 

“Ms. Macy,” Sig. Bondi interrupted, “you cannot make a grape declaration if you don’t own a vineyard.”

He had opened GoogleEarth to my vineyard’s coordinates. “Where did the grapes actually come from?” he asked—did he actually wink or did I imagine it?

“From my vineyard!” I protested. “Just below the olive orchard on the dirt road labelled ‘strada del Casello,’ you can see the vineyard rows quite clearly.”

“Those are olive trees,” he said. 

“Nope,” I said. “They’re pear trees—non-fruit-bearing trees planted 75 years ago as supports for the vines. Those tufts of green are the tips of the pear trees, blocking the view of the vines from above.”

“ARTEA will never accept that,” he informed me.

“They don’t have to,” I said. “They can come and see that along each row, a hundred vines are planted.”

“ARTEA doesn’t pay visits,” Sig. Bondi said. “They use GoogleEarth.”

I launched into a defense of my vineyard: its age and importance as to how viticulture was once conducted in Tuscany, the quality of the wines that could be obtained from grapes from 75-year old vines, the growing interest around the world in preserving old vines, the prices, even, that old-vine wines could obtain. I offered to send digital photos with GPS coordinates and to have a notarized report prepared—but it was no use. Sig. Bondi would load my photos into the ARTEA database and request the update to the land use, but for the 2021 vintage, I would not be able to make a production declaration. 

The amount of wine produced in Italy–in Tuscany and in each of its appellations–is controlled by limiting how many vines can be planted, how many kilos of grapes can be produced on each vine, and how many liters of wine can be made from a kilo of grapes. The assumption is that if volume isn’t controlled, every Tom, Dick and Harry will run outside and plant a vineyard (that has kinda happened anyway), overcrop it (plenty of that going on) and water down the wines (not the worst way wines are doctored in the cellar) to maximize production volumes. Quality will be adversely affected, customers will get ripped off, and Tuscan wine will get a bad reputation. It might be easier to let the market limit volumes—I have faith that wines from badly overcropped vines to which water has been added in a high proportion won’t keep a winery in business very long, but no wine regions agree with me, so I have to live with the rules.

In Italy, I find, time and again, that what counts is the paperwork. As businesses have been forced to comply with new laws for the containment of Covid, for example, I’ve noticed, at the entrance to office buildings, a table with hand sanitizer, an electric thermometer and a registry of visitors, their body temperatures and their phone numbers—except there are never any names on the list. I’ve noticed in cafés a sign requiring the Green Pass for indoor service—except most of the time, no one asks to see it. Even in my winery, there’s a cleaning log posted at the entrance, on which my colleague or I sign off each morning that we have fully disinfected all surfaces in the winery. My workplace safety consultant keeps reminding me to make sure the new wine cellar is compliant — “especially on paper.” It often seems the paperwork is more important than the actual compliance: in the vineyard, the grapes were healthy and the wines are beautiful–but the paperwork is wrong.

Think of it this way: my 2021 wines were born, they just don’t have a birth certificate. I will find a way to legitimise them, no doubt with the help of the farmers’ union–who may be able to issue me the right piece of paper. In the meantime, I’ve never enjoyed drinking wheat with my dinner as much as I do these days.

3 thoughts on “The Wine That Isn’t”

  1. Such a classic story. I can imagine you sharing a glass of your wine not produced by your vineyard with Sig. Bondi.

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