One hot harvest

This very hot weather reminds me of a vineyard story that takes me back so many years ago in Italy. It was the early fall of 1969, one of the hottest falls in the Piemonte region of northwestern Italy.

We began the harvest at sunrise after a very light breakfast of fruit, and some handmade breads and jam made from the orchards surrounding the vineyard. I looked up from the window of the barn we were using to gather for the meal and saw the sun rising. The heat of the sun from the window was already resting like a light bulb on my neck as I ate. This was a very sober time for all of us as we anticipated being out all day in the vineyard. I drank as much cold water as I could and reminded myself to go slowly under the sun.

The day before I had driven my Mini Cooper from Tuscany and felt the heat in the car all the way to the Alps. These were the days before air conditioning in the European cars, and I had a slight inkling of what I was into. This was not going to be fun.

We jumped into a Fiat van and headed down a dirt road. The utility vans of that era were closed in steel boxes with a vent in the ceiling. There were ten of us on hard, wooden seats as we snail crawled to our vineyard site. The ride seemingly stretched on forever. When we ambled out of the van we also noted with some dismay that the vineyard also seemingly stretched on forever! As I picked up my grape bucket and cutter, I made a cover for my head out of a white towel that had been sitting on one of the seats in the van. I knew I looked ridiculous with the flap halfway down my back and the Italians laughed at the silly Italian-American kid with a turban. Within half an hour the laughter turned to groans and the Italians were putting everything and anything between them and the sun! Shirts, gloves, socks and upside down grape buckets graced the heads of the Italians and I started laughing at them.

Within an hour or so I was beginning to feel the heat from the bottom of my feet to my head and water was really not doing the trick. We rounded a turn in the vineyard and I saw to my surprise and relief a large, natural clay pool to the side of the vineyard.

The cool water was slipping over a rock slide and the water was as clear as could be. Standing to the edge of the pool I could see trout hugging the sandy bottom! That was all I needed. Two of the workers told me that the owner, a guy in the house next to the pool was a real jerk and would chase us away with a pitchfork if we jumped in. He was the Grouch Of the Valley by reputation as well as action and everyone was afraid of him.

I looked at the house, then my fellow workers who were melting away in front of me, then to the deep, clear pool in front of me. Hey, what the hell, this was a no brainer. Towel head and all I jumped in. I cannot describe to you the feeling of relief I felt. I let my sandals hit the sand at the bottom and stood suspended in ten feet of cold, Alpine water.

When I surfaced I could see the old man of the house run toward the pond, look at me and dart back into the house. I wondered just how much buckshot I'd have to pick out of my seat for this little stunt but at the time, in the moment, I was willing to pay the price. Of course the Italians scattered leaving the kid alone to face the music, which I was totally prepared to do. I did a back roll just for the heck of it figuring that I might as well have fun before the ax fell.

When, after a few minutes I looked back in the direction of the house, I found him standing there looking at me and nodding. I greeted him in English, figuring that he might cut me some slack. He did look startled then nodded again with a wry smile on his face. He left me to the water and returned 10 minutes later with a pitcher of cold wine and a few glasses. All he said (in Italian) to me was, "Bring your friends back, drink some wine and enjoy the water. It's hot as hell out here." I never saw him again.

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