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Harvesting Dolcetto

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Dolcetto, the Piemontese grape

The period just before the wine harvest is a critical and stressful one for wine makers. Piero had made a preliminary trip to his vineyard in Strevi earlier this week, anxiously examining the dolcetto grapes to decide which day would be best for the harvest. An extra few days on the vine can mean riper grapes, higher sugar levels, lower levels of undesirable types of acidity, and a higher percentage of alcohol in the finished wine. Each additional day also brings with it the increased risk of partial or total loss of the crop from unexpected bad weather, including mold-inducing rain or grape-pummeling hail storms. It is a balancing act played by the wine-maker, who must take into consideration the maturity of the grapes versus the chances of devastating bad weather. A year’s worth of work in the vineyard, and the resulting wine, depend on this decision.

Piero decided that today would be the dolcetto harvest. We piled into two cars and a truck and headed to Strevi to collect the dolcetto. Almost every bunch of dolcetto in the vineyard is full and ripe, and the few that we do find that are not fully mature we discard. “Lascia perdere,” Piero says, literally, “let it be lost.” He could make a higher volume of wine if he used those grapes, but his wine will be better without them: one of the many times that quantity must be sacrificed for quality in the wine-making process. This practice has led to minor conflict with Piero’s elderly mother, who follows her generation’s thinking about wine-making, where nothing is wasted and quality is secondary. She throws just about anything into the wine, from under-ripe grapes to moldy ones, much to Piero and Raffa’s chagrin.

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Working the dolcetto harvest brings back memories of when I was here in 2001. We harvested the grapes early in the day on September 11, returning to the farm minutes after the first plane had struck in New York. We watched a live CNN television feed, overdubbed in Italian, from across the ocean. While I was making panicked calls to my family in New York, Piero had no choice but to continue with the grapes, crushing and stemming them, then transferring the must to his fermentation tanks. The joy of the harvest had been lost, but once the process was started it could not be put on hold.

I had been planning to return to New York on September 18, but after the attacks I extended my trip and stayed on at Cascina Piola until late December. Although Brooklyn-born, I felt less a New Yorker for having been absent during such a defining, even if horrific, period of the city’s history. My more sensible side, however, knew that it was better to delay my return: uncertainty loomed over everything from the potential for subsequent attacks to air quality issues. The trauma of the event coupled with the distance from my own family, who were in New York, brought me closer to Piero and Raffa’s family. It was after that dolcetto harvest that I became less a volunteer on their farm and more a member of the family, and Cascina Piola is now a place I consider home.

Wine’s significance goes beyond its gastronomic, nutritional, and alcoholic qualities. It is also a time capsule of sorts, a physical reminder of both when it was made and the time that has passed since. Opening one of the remaining bottles of the dolcetto of September 11, 2001 brings us here at Cascina Piola back to five years ago, and causes us to reflect on our experience during that time and the way it connected us. When I next return to Cascina Piola we will open a dolcetto from 2006, and be made even more profoundly aware of our history together.

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Stefano, Piero and Raffa’s son, with a crate of grapes.

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