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10.16.2018

La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

I wake up three nights in a row to loud crashes of thunder and electric bolts of lightning that feel like they are landing just under my window. I like the drama even though each violent shudder probably means another change of my plans. I had returned to Ponza to help with la vendemmia, the annual wine harvest. It seems the wine harvest is subject to the whims of the weather, much like life on this island that sits in the Tyrrhenian Sea midway between Rome and Naples. 

To pass the time I complete the Sisyphean but meditative task of sweeping the terrace of my rented house of fallen violet Veronica petals, feathery crimson fluff from the enormous bottle brush bush at the front gate and crinkled magnolia leaves, brown from the August sun and heat. 

I take long walks in between the rain showers snapping the brief sapphire blue skies for Instagram and drinking countless cups of coffee at the Bar Maga Circe. I stop by my friend Alessandra’s jewelry shop in the afternoon and we have long chats with the stylish black neighbor cat swishing through our feet. I share beers and slices of pizza with the island's young pharmacist and yoga teacher in an almost empty Bar Tripoli. 

The pleasures of such a long stay include attuning myself to the off-season rhythms of the island. The buzz of people and cars that accompany the sound of the first of morning ferries arriving from the mainland. The clipped blast of the horn and clatter of the anchor when the large, slow, ship whose belly is full of delivery trucks that will stock the island with fresh mozzarella and other essentials arrives. The silence at lunchtime when the shops are all shuttered for a few hours, something that does not happen in the busy summer months. 


La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

At last the weather breaks and Cesare calls to tell me to be in front of the ferry ticket office the next morning at seven am. 

We squeeze into a Fiat Panda and drive the short distance from the port to the trailhead and begin the hour-long hike that is required to reach Punta Fieno where the Antiche Cantine Migliaccio is located. As we climb, the sun rises and the sky turns from soft pink to cloudless blue and we arrive to boisterous greetings from Luciana Sabino who with her husband Emanuele Vittorio, run this extremely remote vineyard. The wines they produce are Bianco Fieno di Ponza, Rosso Fieno di Ponza, Rosato Fieno di Ponza, and Biancolella Fieno di Ponza. For years I have enjoyed these wines at long lazy seaside lunches with friends and simple dinners on the terrace. I had no idea how much work was involved in getting that cold glass of minerally white (or crisp rose) into my glass. 


La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

The type of winemaking that Luciana and Emanuele have embarked upon is called viticoltori eroici, characterized by the difficulty of the terrain and effort required for the harvest and production. Little has changed since the time when Bourbon kings reigned over the island some 300 hundred years ago. There is no electricity or running water here. The stainless steel tanks, machinery and the fuel required to run it must be brought in and out on the backs of donkeys or on the rare occasion, by helicopter. The vines grow in terraced rows that spill down the steep slope to the sea. The intricate stonework that allows this land to be cultivated is called parricine in the island’s dialect and some say the words root date back to the time of Ulysses.

We work in groups clipping heavy bunches of grapes into small buckets that when full are dumped into larger barrels. Each barrel weighing over 100 pounds is then hoisted on to the shoulders of field workers and then carried midway up the mountain to a mechanized platform that slowly pulls upwards to be processed. My arms are sticky with grape juice and the sun is high in the sky as I focus instead on the over-saturated blue of the sky and sea and the verticals of green that sweep out towards the island of Palmarola. Only a week before I was diving off the bow of a boat into that deep impossibly clear turquoise water beside shimmering white cliffs. 


La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

Soon it is time for a short break under a shady pergola. We snip the gapes from these vines too before we sit down and eat plates of restorative slow-cooked beans with swirls of olive oil and a salad full of potatoes, tomatoes, tuna, wedges of white onion for crunch and torn leaves of fragrant basil. There are plastic cups of wine and a few songs and then it is back to work until every last white grape is plucked. 

There are a few more hours of very hot and sticky work before we all find a seat at the long table at the top of the hill. This is Italy so the hard work is rewarded with endless amounts of food. Pasta with tomato sauce rich with pork ragu, rolls of pork stuffed with greens, a velvety braciole of pork fat simmered in tomato. And of course, wine, lots and lots of wine. There was more singing, bawdy jokes, and discussion of previous years harvests among the lively, friendly,  group that was a little bemused and a little perplexed by this foreigner sitting amongst them. An enormous rum-soaked baba, brought specially from Naples was sliced and served with prosecco and more toasts and song. This part of the day feels like Thanksgiving with its elements of rich, special, dishes and the haphazard mix of people around the table. 

Before we set off on the return hike up and down the mountain, Luciana pours us cups of strong sweet coffee. We follow Liberato and Antonio "Spaccamontagna," the dedicated workers who make this trek daily and year-round, back to where we started. This time the sun sinking behind us as we crush wild oregano and fennel under our feet. 

Almost all of the roughly 10,000 bottles that are produced of this wine stay on the island, purchased by local restaurants and shops. That means if you would like to taste this magical transformation of sun and salt and stone you will just have to come to Ponza


La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

La Vendemmia {The Wine Harvest on the Island of Ponza}

2 comments :

  1. Sounds like hard work, dura, but very rewarding. Hopefully I will take the ferry over from Rome one day to sample the delights of Ponza as you so nicely express them.

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    1. It was an exhausting day for sure, but like the cashier at the alimentari said to me when I stopped in to buy a few bottles of water on my way home that evening, its' a beautiful exhaustion!

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