One night late last winter, just as we were settling in for a cozy night by the stufa, we heard the familiar sound of Franco's car coming up our hill. Time to go, he told us, andiamo! Where? I asked as we pulled on our warm fleece jackets and slipped on our shoes. We're going to visit one of the last real contadini in the Monferrato, Franco informed us. We had heard about Francesco, but why we were going to visit him at this particular moment, we had no idea. Franco just seemed to be in the mood to socialize. Porti la camera, he advised, and I grabbed my Nikon on the way out the door.
Francesco and his wife seemed to be as surprised about our visit as we were. The cascina and the cantina were something out of the beginning of the last century. In disrepair, with the patina of too many years of bone breaking work and no vacations, the cantina was full of wood and cement barrels and thousands of bottles, many with hand written labels. Francesco has ten acreas of hilled vineyard. At the age of 78, he still works the vines alone. The amount of work involved is unimaginable. In between the Piemontese, we could understand that this is a dying business: his cantina is built into a hill of solid tufo, a rock and mud substance which holds moisture forever, keeping the wine temperature "just right". But tufo back walls are no longer permitted by the Italian wine authorities, so anyone taking this cantina over would have to gut it completely, waterproof the back wall, tile it over. Insanity, says Francesco, as he points to his forehead. They are making it impossibile to survive.
Francesco pops open a bottle of his 2001 Barbera for us. Sixteen percent. I reel at the thought of it. We go back into the house, where his wife (whom he only referred to as "moglie" - or "the wife" , no matter how many times I asked for her name)had cut up a Pannetone for us to enjoy with our wine. Under the single fluorescent lamp in the kitchen, Franco told the story of our arrival in Piemonte, using Piemontese dialect. Sitting there and listening to him made me smile inside. He had sort of concocted a tale out of his own experiences with us ("I was out hunting and saw that there was a strange car up by the house, so I knocked at the door. Back then, these two could not speak a single word of Italian!!"), and his continuous fascination with my camera and computer. ("She's always sending pictures to America, through her computer!!...")
I asked him how he sells his wine. He doesn't. He can't. He still remembers time when people would come to his door and buy six bottles. Before the days of marketing, before the days of large producers and temperature controlled fermentation. Those days are long over. He and "moglie" work all year, producing a product for which there is no demand.
The experience was both warm and a melancholy...it was as if we were allowed to take a peak at one of the last real cowboys. Francesco and his wife have had a way of living which has been snuffed out by "progress". I felt privileged to be able to see how it must have been to live that way, and how easy life is for us in comparison.