Thursday, September 29, 2016

Hangin' with the Wine and Cheese Crowd

Albertino and Enzo harvesting Aglianico

 This morning Fernando came by and led us out to a place where we could hang out with the wine and cheese crowd.  No, not the crowd from my alma mater whom a Florida State basketball player famously made fun of.  You know, the ones who sit in their half-million dollar Barcaloungers down near the basketball court at the Smith Center in a stupor, occasionally offering some tepid applause to the home team and perhaps "Oh, très amusement!" and then disappear into the Skipper Bowles room for their wine and cheese.

   The crowd we hung out with, some two-footed some four, are the crowd who produce the wine and cheese rather than consume it.  Our padroni Fabio and Fernando had arranged for us to visit the Polito wine fattoria, owned by Carlo Polito Senior, and up the slope from the buffalo dairy owned by his brother Enzo.

     One of our main goals in coming here to Italy this year was to be here for the vintage and the olive harvest.  In fact, when we first proposed the trip, Fernando had talked to Fabio to ascertain when the vintage was likely to start so we could co-ordinate our visit.  But last week we learned some sad news.  Our hosts, Rolando and Filomena Astone, will not be harvesting grapes this year.  Sadly, both our hosts are reaching an age where they need help around the farm, and two years ago they had hired someone to prune the vines during the dormant season and the guy had made a complete mess of it.  But that was two years ago, right?  Wrong.

     Grape vines are incredibly adaptable, but in their natural habitat they will vine and vine, creating luxurious foliage and only a relatively few clusters of berries which will be extremely sour.  Birds and animals which the vines use to spread their seeds are satisfied with much less sugar than humans.  But at some point in the prehistory of wine, humans discovered that if the vine was pruned back severely during its dormancy, the following growth season it will produce much less greenery but far more clusters to compensate, and these will be of a vastly superior sort.  The Greeks had a myth which purports to show why goats were sacrificed to Dionysus, god of the vine and wine.  It says that goats broke into the god's favorite vineyard and chowed down on the tender foliage, so he took them as his sacrificial animal as punishment for their impudence.  In my book I try to make a case that the myth may have it backwards and that this is in fact a signal honor.  Is it too farfetched to imagine that some bright spark in some prehistoric vineyard found goats nibbling on his vines, severely pruning them back, and after chasing them away thought, "Well, those vines are goners!" only to discover the miracle of pruning the next year?

     There's a similar story in the New Testament where John talks of God pruning back our lives to make us more productive as well.  I've heard that one incorrectly preached three times in my career as a Methodist, but any first-century Judaean would have known exactly what the text means.  But the thing is, this year's non-fruiting shoots (the green ones) becomes next year's woody canes, which in turn give rise the following year to the fruiting shoots.  So if you prune the wrong things, you can screw things up for two years running.  And that's exactly what happened to the Astones.  That, plus the weather was miserable this summer.  To make a long story short, there were not enough decent clusters in their vineyard to justify harvesting, so Thursday of last week they drove Cousin Nino's van over to a local town and loaded up with 400 kilos (that's 880 pounds) of grapes:  red Barbera, one of the noble varieties of Piemonte, and Sangiovese, the red grape of Tuscan Chianti, as well as white Malvasia, the workhorse white grape of the Mezzogiorno.  And Nino and Rolando are vinifying these grapes now.

    So, of course, we were bitterly disappointed, because we really wanted to participate, to the extent out age and stamina will allow, in the harvest.  But, not to worry, Signore Carlo Polito is an old schoolmate and chum of Fernando and he kindly offered to let come to his vineyard and 'help' with the harvest of Aglianico and then come down to the winery and watch the crush.

    Viticolturi Polito is located on a lower slope of the Colle San Marco, the same ridge where we live.  It's a strange sort of ridge that curves around in a U-shape, and we live on the right upright of the U, Ogliastro, where our friends Nunzio, Teresa, Andrea and Maria Teresa live, is on the other upright, and the vineyard is on the curve at the bottom.  We headed down to the valley, through Agropoli and out the Paestum highway to the neighborhood of Mattine where we found a large, modern winery.  Carlo Polito arrived about 8:30 am in a large cargo van with the company logo on the side and greeted us all cordially.  Fernando had business in the town of Campagna, so he said his goodbyes and we two piled into the front seat of the van and Carlo drove us up a long lane past his brother's dairy operation and into one of several vineyards that Polito owns.  As we ambled down an access lane, Carlo explained that they focused on Fiano and Aglianico, the two star grapes of this area.  Fiano is a wonderful white grape, and most whites have been harvested and vinified already, but Carlo explained that typically red grapes like Aglianico are harvested in October around here.  But because of the torrid weather this summer and because he likes to harvest when acid levels are still high, he was starting the harvest now.

Polito winery, with showrooms on the ground floor, a new B&B on top

Carlo Polito Sr. demonstrates shearing

Beautiful clusters of Aglianico

Trying my hand

Sandy's efforts

    Carlo fitted us out with gloves and shears and walked us down a row of vines laden with those beautiful purple grapes and demonstrated how we should clip the clusters and examine them for defective grapes and snip these out.  The French name for the process is triage, just like in the ER room, and it's a process that is labor-intensive and therefore expensive and only done for better quality wines.  Mechanical harvesters are faster and far cheaper, but of course they dump all grapes into the bin, the excellent as well as the execrable, and therefore you can never hope to achieve more than a mediocre wine with such grapes.  Even the most talented winemaker in the world will readily admit that 90% of great wine is made, not in the winery, but in the vineyard.  Polito is one of those southern vineyards I admire so much because they're focused on quality and not quantity at a time when the international market is still blind and frankly more than a little bigoted toward the incredible wines that are being produced in Italy.  Carlo Senior or Junior, if you happen to see this, keep the faith; some of us are noticing.

     The eastern and northern sides of the vineyard, that is, the upslope sides, were encircled with plastic netting and Carlo explained that here, as at Alois, wild boars are a serious problem.  So why only two sides?  Because the boars come down from the uplands at night, try to get through the netting, become frustrated and leave.  It seems boars are none to smart.  He left us to our devices and explained that he was off to Palinuro, about an hour and a half south, where he was sourcing grapes from a retired doctor who grew organically, what they call around these parts biologico.  But that we could harvest as long as we wanted, then mosey down to the dairy where he had told brother Enzo to expect us, and then over to the cantina where son Carlo Junior would show us around the winery.

     Our mates in the vineyard were four young men who appeared to be in their mid 20s, two of whom, Albertino and another Enzo, directed us to the outermost row on the eastern side, I expect because that is where the awful summer heat had produced the worst grapes and we could therefore do the least harm.  Albertino explained that they typically picked 8 hours a day, but only mornings and late evenings to avoid the intense heat that can cause the grape juice, must, to ferment explosively before it is cooled and thereby strip the wine of its subtle flavors and aromas.  So, why not at night, as do some vineyards in California?  Because dews are also bad for grapes; a grape can absorb as much as 10% of its weight through skins, thus diluting those same desirable components.

   Sandy and I set to work with a will, and I can testify that the ragazzi are underpaid at any price; this is backbreaking work, one reason so much of it is done by migrants here as in the states.  Massimo tells me that at Alois, most of his pickers are from eastern Ukraine, of all places.  We made it for almost an hour, Sandy somewhat less than that, but in her defense she was also tasked with photographing the process.  In that hour we managed to harvest perhaps 30 meters of one row.  Meanwhile, the ragazzi were halfway up the row, maybe 90 meters or so, and it was a pleasure to watch them work, so fast and skilled were they at stripping those vines clean while precisely culling bad grapes.

     We made a circuit of the vineyard, admiring the perfect northerly prospect, the slope, and the tilth of the soil.  Then we strolled down to the dairy and introduced ourselves to various constituents there.  First there were the little buffalo calves, curious and a bit shy with strangers as all youngsters are.  Carlo later explained that each would be evaluated for quality and those who made the cut duly noted in the 'herd book' along with names of dams and sires.  Each was tagged on one ear to make this easy enough.  The rest would be sold or slaughtered for meat.  Next to the calves were two bulls, larger than the females but hardly as massive as bulls of the bovine sort and a lot more docile.  Opposite these were the young ladies from 2 to 3 years old, what in cow land would be called 'heifers', who had not yet been 'covered', as the dairymen say; in other words they had not yet been bred and so had not calved and begun producing milk, but were almost ready.

The Mattine vineyard, with Monte Soprano in the distance
Curious buffalo bambini

Enzo Polito's bufale

    In a separate range of stalls we found the real stars, the bufale, mature milkers.  Like most buffaloes they were quiet and curious, gathering near the fence to nuzzle our hands and occasionally allowing a brief pet.  Water buffaloes can look a bit intimidating, what with those massive, spiraling horns, but in fact they have wonderful, placid temperaments and can actually develop close attachments to human handlers.  Buffaloes need shade and/or wallows and/or spraying to maintain optimal body temperatures, and these gals were enjoying a nice shaded barn and some hay, but would be put out to wallow in the afternoon before being brought back to be milked at 5 pm.  We hope to return to see that another day.

    We walked on over to the winery and introduced ourselves to Carlo Junior, as genial and intelligent as his padre, who led us down to the basement cantina and showed us around the massive, refrigerated fermentation vats, the stainless aging tanks, the French, American and Austrian oak tonnes (500 liters) and barriques (250 l.) where the top-end reds are aged, and the huge Italian botti holding 1600 liters.  We were happy to see that these were actually made right here in Agropoli, so cooperage is alive and well in our area.  Carlo explained that the best reds spent from 12 to 18 months in the smaller wooden casks to pick up 'oaky' flavors, especially vanillins, and to ever-so-slowly oxidize the tannins and polyphenols in big, powerful reds to tame the astringency of the tannins and round out all those wonderful aromas.  Then they go into the botti, whose thick walls permit very little oxidation and evaporation.  Here they stay for about a year before being bottled and aged in bottle for another year.  Polito's best reds are released only after 3 1/2 years, adding significantly to quality but also to cost of production; cellar space is capital, and capital is money.

Entrance to the winery

Stainless vats in the cantina

Italian botti

Made in Agropoli

Cases of Aglianico ready for labeling

     Carlo took us around to the large exterior door of the cantina where a paved ramp gives access to trucks from the vineyard.  He showed us the de-stemmer and press and explained that a load was about to be de-stemmed, but would go directly into tanks to be chilled at 0° C and kept on the skins for several days to extract color, aroma and flavor from them before the marc or pomace was pressed.  The winery workers cranked up the de-stemmer, basically a hopper which feeds a spinning drum with holes in it.  The clusters are put into the hopper and an augur feeds them into the drum, where centrifugal force pulls the grapes through the holes but won't accept the stems, which are spat out the front on the cylinder into grape crates to be composted and used as fertilizer in the vineyard.  At the same time, most of the grape skins are gently broken, releasing must. A sump in the bottom of the de-stemmer is connected by a hose to a pump which can deliver the must to maceration or fermentation vats or to the press in the case of white wines.  It was a pretty amazing operation:  1,500 kg of grapes—that's 3,300 lb. for those of you who don't do metric— were off-loaded from a truck, de-stemmed, and pumped to the maceration vat in less than 18 minutes.  Carlo said that the same process in the old days would have required 5 days, perhaps an exaggeration, but probably not much.

Inside the de-stemmer

Grape stems to be used as fertilizer

     Carlo explained that his dad would be returning soon and that the next load would be pressed about 4:30 pm, so we took the opportunity to drive about a half mile away where Enzo has his caseificio, cheese-making operation.  Our first year in Agropoli I had visited here in the middle of the night to watch mozzarella being made, and thus had reason to know that Enzo Polito and his sons Nicola and Francesco are every bit as obsessed with quality as their uncle and cousin.  We scored some bocconcini, and a bottle of Polito's best rosato, Prime Rose, not 'prime rose' as you may be thinking but  'Pree-meh Roh-seh', 'first roses'.  Next we dropped by a neighboring bar for caffè and a chance to collect our thoughts, then headed back to the winery to scope out the last major step in the process, the crush.

     When we arrived, grapes were being offloaded from a small cargo van from another local azienda to undergo the same treatment we had seen earlier.  Carlo Senior had now returned and explained that many of the smaller vineyards in the area cannot afford the expensive technology that Polito has, and so pay to have their grapes vinified and sometimes warehoused at Polito.  This was a small consignment, and within 20 minutes the operation was complete, the van had left and a small flatbed truck was backed up to the door of the winery and some 4600kg of Polito grapes were de-stemmed in the same fashion but in this case pumped to the membrane press behind it.  This press was different from the bladder press we saw at Alois.  Here we had a rotating cylinder housed in a rectangular vat open at the top, all of stainless steel.  On one side of the cylinder there were hundreds of small slits, perhaps an inch in length.  Grapes were pumped into the rear of this cylinder which was about 10" higher than the front, and as the cylinder rotated, the dead weight of the grapes crushed those not broken by the de-stemmer and released their must.  As the part of the cylinder with the slits rotated to the bottom, must poured through the slits into the vat and ran to a sump at its front from which the pump carried it by closed flexible pipes to refrigerated tanks.  Some 70% of all must can be extracted in this way, and is what is called 'free-run' must.  When this process is finished, a membrane on the side wall of the cylinder opposite the slits is inflated to squeeze the remaining marc to exude residual must.  Carlo Junior showed me a gauge which registered atmospheres of pressure, and, just as Alois, explained that they would never exceed 2 atmospheres and kept this 'press must' separate from the free-run as an inferior product with more tannin and less flavor.

The press

Must being expressed

Pomace ready to be pressed

The 'cap' on a huge botte ready to be 'punched down'

    Carlo Senior set a ladder against one of the huge botti, equipped us with a flashlight, and directed us to the top of the cask, where an open hatch revealed a large mass of grape skins.  This is the part of the process vintners call 'punching down', and simply means that when skins float to the top of the must they must be mechanically pushed back into the must so that those precious colors, polyphenols and flavor components can be further extracted.  That's one of the things that makes great red wines great!

     The Politos were nice enough to gift us with a bottle of one of those great wines, a Corsaro Aglianico DOP, vinified at 16°C and aged in barrique for 12 months.  We offered profuse thanks for these gracious gentlemen who had been so generous with their time and expertise at a phase of the winemaking process when they could least afford it.  Then we hopped in little Azura and made our way back to Villa Astone, tired but happy little pups.  And someday soon, when we're with special friends, we'll pop the cork on that Corsaro and drink a toast to Polito for their kindness.

Carlo Polito Jr.

Monday, September 26, 2016


Porcini pals

      Sunday afternoon we decided to make another giro to see parts of this gorgeous area we had not seen previously.  Our ultimate goal was the little town of Laurino, perched on some dramatic cliffs above a gorge of the Calore river and privy to a 360° view of the surrounding mountains.  I confess that my major incentive for wanting to see this town was no more than some pictures I had seen on one of the Facebook pages we follow.

     Laurino is about 35 miles directly east of here, but as we used to say down home, "You can't get there from here!"  This is a very rugged, mountainous area, part of its allure.  We had two options, to head north for about 15 miles to Capaccio Scalo, then due east to Roccadaspide, then back south to the cut-off to the little town.  Alternately, we could travel south down the superstrada to Vallo della Lucania, then wander northeastward along a ridge and down and across the Calore valley to the same cut-off. Because traffic was light on this Sunday afternoon, we chose the latter.

    The drive to Vallo was pleasant enough, and we accessed the provincial highway, wound our way through Angellara and Moio di Civitella where our friends Aniello and Papa Botti had treated us to a tour of an Iron Age village, and twisted and turned our way along the flank of the ridge, bug-eyed at the vistas we were seeing to the east.  This particular road took us through the little village of Campora, and I asked Sandy if she'd like to stop for a peak.

Traveling northeast from Vallo

More vista

     Friend, take it from me, if you're ever conflicted whether the wayside stop is worth detouring from your intended destination, just do it!  The greatest treats we've had in Italy have consistently been where we didn't intend to be.  I suspect there's a life lesson there as well.  In any case, we parked the car at the edge of the Centro and strolled up a narrow street through this beautiful medieval village.  A tiny side street took us toward the mother church, and as we turned to find a better angle to view the bell tower, I noticed a ruggedly handsome man sitting on the stoop before the door of his home, cleaning mushrooms.  "Porcini?"  I asked.  "Yes, porcini that I found this morning in a nearby forest."

Campora's corso

The campanile of the mother church

Fresh piggies!

Intarsio of the family crest

This bathtub was Mario's father's, now reconditioned

   Now, anyone who is as passionate about these exquisite little fungi as we are is molto simpatico in my book, and that was our introduction to Mario Costantini, proprietor of the Domus Letizia agriturismo and yet another gracious Italian.  We exchanged basic biography, talked of Mario's relatives in Pittsburgh and the New York area, of our plans for a travelogue on the Cilento, and before we knew it Mario was taking us on a tour of his home!  It's a stunner, which Mario has been renovating for seven years now.  In the foyer is a beautiful intarsio family crest, and the classicist loved the fact that the family motto is 'Omnia vincit Amor," Ovid's dictum that 'Love conquers all'.  I'd say based on my limited experience that pretty well characterizes Mario.  He showed us through the various suites of rooms, one on the ground floor for a disabled person whom Mario and his wife care for, and three suites of guest rooms plus the couple's apartment on the second and third floors.  Every room exquisitely decorated:  a large salon, bedrooms with gorgeous old antique beds, beautiful ceramic furnaces for heat, bathrooms, I swear, bigger than our guest room, complete with renovated footed tubs, beautiful tile work and modern fixtures. There were beautiful vistas from most windows.

     The basement, the former cantina (wine cellar) is on exposed native rock, and Mario has plans to create a small restaurant here with a pizza oven.  But the star of the show is a rooftop terrazza with stunning view westward to the mountains and the little villages of Stio and Gioi and eastward to the rooftops and mother church of the village.  Mario explained that he sets up a large grill here in the summer and grills fresh seafood for guests, or prepares other meals down in the hotel's ground-floor kitchen and brings them up.  We were astounded that such a gorgeous place could exist in such a tiny village in this out-of-the-way corner of the world.

One of the guest bedrooms

The view west from the terrazza...

and east to the church...

   Next Mario led us down to the kitchen and insisted we have a seat.  And what a kitchen it is!  The cook in me was google-eyed at a gorgeous stainless six-burner with an industrial hood and all the appurtenances.  Mario showed us his stainless canister for storing olive oil—50 liters, no less—from his own trees.

     And then the food began to come!  First we were offered aqua sale, which I suspect I've oozed about before:  a simple but perfect dish of stale hearty bread quickly softened by running it under water and then dressed with utmost simplicity with sea salt, herbs—especially oregano—and sometimes tiny little dead-ripe pomodorini sliced in half.  In my opinion, there is no more perfect dish in the world.  I've attempted it twice with limited success, so it was a treat to watch it being made, the only real way to learn to cook, as anyone who learned at their grandma's side knows. Mario broke up the little breads by hand, ran them under the tap, then waited a few minutes, tested one and sprinkled a bit more water over the dish.  Then he sprinkled salt and oregano, and, "Basta!" Perfect!

The hotel kitchen

Fifty liters of olive oil

Aqua sale

Arancini and porcini

Mario serves wine

Good old cab has found a new home

"A little snack"

    Next out were arancini, those peculiar little stuffed and fried rice balls famous in the South, plus simply dressed halves of fresh porcini and slices of a small, bulbous eggplant that's popular here.  Mario had offered us a glass of wine at the beginning of the tour which we declined, I suppose out of some ridiculous sense of propriety, but when he offered a second time with this delicious food, there was no way we would refuse.  And out came a bottle of Raspente '07, a gorgeous red, round, mellow, fruity, and unlike any wine I've had in these parts.  Absolutely delicious.  I'm embarrassed to admit I found out last night the grape in this wine is....Cab!  There's a young man in Ascea, 20 miles south of Agropoli, who's planted 14 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon and is doing wonderful things with the old standard.  Next up was a delicious ragù of beef loin and tomato sauce, which of course paired perfectly with the red wine.  Along with this there were little chunks of a delightfully tangy pecorino cheese.  Mario brought out a whole cheese wrapped in waxed paper and explained that a friend made this delicacy, a form of percorino buried in the ground for several months, during which time cheese worms infest the surface of the cheese and allegedly digest the fats and create a luscious paste.  This is a form of pecorino called casu marzu, famous in Sardinia.  I regret to say we declined Mario's offer to open this one.

    Mario made toward the refrigerator, and I suspect we'd be eating still had we not stopped him and thanked him profusely for his hospitality.  Sadly, it was growing toward dusk and we really wanted to see Laurino and make it home before being forced to drive on curvy mountain roads in the dark.  But, as so often, we exchanged contact information and we have plans to return, perhaps for a quick stay in Mario's hotel and some cooking demonstration.  Meantime, yet again, let me encourage you to let me know if you have any interest in visiting Mario's agriturismo.  You would love it!


Western vistas on the way home

    What is it about these people that makes them such generous hosts?  I've probably abused your patience gushing about this so much, but it's so true and it's so typically Southern Italian.  So I'll abuse your patience even more and suggest a crazy idea.  In ancient Greek and Roman religion, hospitality toward strangers was not just a social amenity but a religious obligation.  Could it be that hospitality is inherent in the Southern Italian ethos? This is, after all, the 'Greek' part of Italy.  Zeus himself, king of the gods, was also Zeus Xenos, patron god of strangers.  And mythology is filled with examples of how the gods descend to earth in mortal guise to check up on us and make sure we're offering that succor to strangers in need.

    My favorite example is told in inimitable fashion by Ovid, the same Roman poet who, appropriately, provided Mario's family motto.  Jupiter and Mercury (Roman names of Zeus and Hermes) come down to a village in the guise of traveling strangers and seek succor at various houses in the town, starting with the most prosperous, and are repeatedly scorned until they come to the humblest little hovel in the town, owned by a doddering but devoted old couple, Baucis and Philemon, who instantly invite them in, ask them to sit (as Mario did us), and prepare them the best they have.  Husband Philemon goes to the garden and harvests a fine cabbage while Baucis takes down from a hook on the ceiling joist a slab of guanciale, what we call fatback, and slices off two thick rashers and plops them into the pot with the boiling cabbage.  When the dish is finished, they invite their guests to the table, a bit rickety but propped up with a stone, rubbed down with fresh mint and piled with apples, a slab of honeycomb, bread, olives, good rustic bread, cherries preserved in wine, and other simple country foods.  Then there's the 'wine'—in truth, far closer to vinegar than wine.  But a strange thing happens: the wine exudes a heavenly aroma, and no matter how much the guests drink, the bowl remains full!

    Realizing the true identity of their guests, the old couple apologize profusely for providing such humble fare; after all, aristocrats must have proper meat!  And so, armed with a butcher knife, they hasten out to the yard where an old goose acts as the guardian of the household, and begin to totter around the yard trying to catch the poor, perplexed creature.  With predictable comic effect, much to the gods' amusement.  Well, at this point the gods intercede on behalf of the goose, reveal their identity and thank the couple for honoring them, not with food or drink but with true hospitality, and offer them their fondest heart's desire as reward. The couple at first protest that they want for nothing, despite their poverty, but at the gods' insistence, they finally ask that they be allowed to die at the same time so that they need not face the prospect of living without each other.

   Don't you think there is a profound truth there?  Happiness isn't a matter of material wealth but of being with those we love.  And of offering to succor those we don't yet love but may.  And so often it is those who seem to have so little that are quickest to offer.  This is an area that is not rich in material wealth but is rich in so many other ways, not least a precious tradition of hospitality.

Baucis and Philemon by Rubens