I had the opportunity to volunteer at Tenuta di Valgiano for 10 days at the end of the grape harvest. I was referred here by an Italian family I volunteered with last year, and wasn't quite sure what to expect. Nothing in my life has quite prepared me for the experience ahead at Valgiano.
Located up the rolling mountains of Tuscany above Lucca, Valgiano is uniquely positioned for very rare soil composition for the grapevines, as well as phenomenal views. I was picked up at a train station about 20 minute away, then went on a rollercoaster ride up the hill to the estate. Tenuta di Valgiano is an organic and biodynamic vineyard and winery located outside of the town of Valgiano. It's more of a separate estate than part of the town, with about 5 buildings on the property plus a myriad of other smaller structures with firewood, rabbits, tools, etc. The main villa was constructed in the 1500's where the winery owner and her family lived. In separate buildings were other staff members like Saverio, the enologist, and his family. I stayed above the worker's kitchen in another building which looked to be around the same age as the villa. Upon discovering a dead lizard skeleton on my window sill, I was pretty sure my room hadn't been cleaned within the past 100 years.
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I was dropped off at my room and left to discover everything on my own. This was a bit of a shock, but it turned out to be a good initial lesson into life in Valgiano. You work hard, you ask questions to learn, you won't be babysat, you can't be afraid to take some chances, and since you were there you were unquestionably competent in any task.
As I was wandering around with an armful of dirty bedsheets and other things from my room to wash, I met a few of the other volunteers and staff members. There were 4 other winery workers who were volunteering, of which 3 were studying enology. Then several other very kind and compassionate staff members who answered all of my questions and showed me as much as I asked for. It took less than 24 hours to feel like I was part of a community that existed outside of the hustle and bustle of the "real" world. There was a fond joke among that staff that we were all really in a country called Valgianistan, only the quirky and interesting people were drawn there, and that we were all there because of some common underlying factor.
This underlying factor of community, and the lessons I learned on day one kept coming up during harvest. Since I worked only in the winery (which was outside) and not in the vineyard, I was a bit out of my element. I had never been a part of the winemaking process before. I had to ask a lot of questions in order to learn, pick up as much Italian as I could very quickly in order to communicate, step up to a task when I was uncomfortable trying it for the first time, push my body physically to accomplish the work that needed to be done, and devote 99% of my waking time to being a part of the community.
My schedule was basically this: I woke up at 7:30, made some coffee and a bit of breakfast while listening to Pink Floyd on a tape cassette, started work at 8:00, had lunch around 13:30, started work again around 15:00, and worked until the day was done and we were hungry for dinner which was usually around 21:00. There was a chef who cooked each meal, which was such absolutely amazing.
Each day consisted of working with the grapes either fresh from the field or already in wooden, steel, or plastic vats. We would have to stomp fresh grapes by foot (pigeage), plunge them by hand with a plunging tool (follatura), or pump the liquid from the bottom onto the top of the vat (rimontaggio.) Each day, the different containers were tested and tasted, determining which ones needed a plunge, pump, or ready to be pressed. Once the container was ready, we would drain the wine, then scoop out the grape skins into the press and press out the rest of the liquid. Then, the container had to be cleaned from all of the remaining skins and seeds left at the bottom. At 8:00 in the morning on my first day, I climbed into a 9ft tall wooden container and had to push out skins, scrape out seeds, and wash the inside with a hose... then climb out either hoisting myself up the top or crawling out through the little door. I now have a much greater appreciation for oak scents... and for exfoliation of my feet with grape seeds!
Fresh grapes, bee stings, stomping, pressing, pumping, cleaning, rolling barrels... every moment had something to occupy it.
The final day was complete madness with a huge party, and the following weekend another party for family and friends. We all drank from the same glass, stomped grapes in our clothes together, and celebrated a successful harvest. Since I was a newcomer, I did feel like an outsider at times, but I am happy I was there to witness just how close knit a community can still become.
There was one evening when it was just me, the winemaker Saverio, and Lisandro the main winery cellar hand. Saverio pulled out a vertical, which is the same wine from multiple years. I was fortunate to try Tenuta di Valgiano from 2013, 2014, 2015, and the current brand new blend from 2016. Each wine tasted completely different, with 2014 being very complex and a discussion worthy wine, to 2015 smelling of blackberries and being full bodied and round. When I tried each one, even though they were so different, there was something in common with each one. An underlying factor I couldn't quite but my finger on, just like the factor that has drawn us all to the winery. I tried to express this underlying common smell and taste to Saverio and he thought for a minute, went over the wines, and said to me, "Yes, yes Katie... this is Valgiano."