The Communists of Montalcino

By A T Mann

In the late 1970s my Italian partner in our London publishing company moved his young family to the Tuscan town of Montalcino, near Siena. Giugi loved drinking wine and indeed had wine to thank for his house, which was a priest's house abutting a deconsecrated church, complete with abandoned outbuildings and the ruin of one of the most picturesque six-hundred-year-old towers that had once protected the city of Siena from invaders.

The church owned this prime land amidst the vast estate of the Count of Montalcino, and it had resisted giving it up to the Count's family not only for generations, but for centuries. The notorious story was that Giugi managed to locate the priest who was responsible for this property, and managed to get him extremely drunk at lunch one day on the local famous Brunello di Montalcino red wine, assailed him with grand plans for the future of the estate, and got the poor prelate to sign over the property lock, stock and barrel on the spot, for the paltry sum of five thousand pounds to be paid off monthly with no interest.

Guigi, Sarah and their five children moved in, imported horses, revived the vineyard and olive orchards and started to enjoy their new home and its abundance. Meanwhile, as the Count simmered, Giugi worked with a famous English theatre set designer Adam Pollack, who had created the Grosseto Summer Opera Festival in a nearby convent. Conductors, singers and musicians from many major European opera companies came to join in playing without payment, just to be there in glorious Tuscany. Giugi's job was as the main liaison with the locals, and Giugi came up with the brilliant idea of trading opera tickets for a nightly supply of local food and wines, served to the opera-goers by the populace during the intermissions. As opera is a lifeblood to all Italians, there was not surprisingly stiff competition among locals as to who would get to supply the opera-goers with wonderful local food. Apart from the suckling lambs, truffles, pecorino and salsicce chinghiale (wild boar sausages), they supplied many varieties of Brunello wine as well as Chardonnays from the Veneto. Later in the evenings, this encouraged them to sing along with the tenors and sopranos, whether or not they knew the lyrics to the revived 17th century operas that hadn't been performed for centuries. A great time was had by all during the week of the festival.

Mind you, you have to understand that each small town banded together in what they called "communes" to grow, make, bottle and sell their wine. All the villagers would contribute their grapes, expertise and generations of wily business skills to make their wines in huge oak casks in the local fattoria (wine factory), usually in deep limestone caves beneath the town, and share the output. Indeed, what delighted the astrologer in me was that they still planted, harvested and made these wines based on the timings of the Moon, its phases and the rising of various constellations. Thus a famous brand of Brunello like Poggio alle Mura was a collaborative effort of all the local villagers. Indeed you can see Sienese towers depicted on many of the Brunello labels.

These rural Italians also practiced a peculiar variety of communism, light-years away from the dreaded Stalinist Communism of the USSR. Their logic was that since the Italian government taxed everything they sold, if they traded goods they would not have to pay taxes. So, they bartered everything. It worked like this: the doctor would treat the wine-grower's family in exchange for wine; the wine-grower would trade wine for lamb; the shepherd would trade lamb for repairing his truck; etc. Provisionally everyone kept accounts, often amounting to many millions of lira, but they were never fulfilled. Although everyone was deeply in debt, they ate and drank well. Old people who could no longer work were simply included in this loop, ad infinitum. When you died, your debts went with you to the beyond. In this way almost no money exchanged hands, so according to the government, it was a depressed region, and yet everyone lived very well indeed. Giugi simply made the opera festival part of the loop, to everyone's satisfaction.

His small home cellar was filled with ten or more fifty-liter casks of local wines "to test" for the festival and we spent many pleasurable afternoons "testing" these extraordinary wines in small faceted glasses, later to stagger out into the daylight to the glowering of our women and laughter of our children.

We had taken Giugi's young son Cosimo to Greece with us for the summer to be with my daughter Ptolemy, and we dropped Cosimo back home in time to see an opera and celebrate Sarah's birthday, which was often the last night of the festival. Two days later, as I was beginning to load my 1965 Rover car for the drive back to England, Giugi presented me with two damigianas (very large glass bottles surrounded by woven raffia containing fifty liters, equalling seventy bottles of wine) of Brunello table wine (only differentiated from the official DOC Brunello di Montalcino in that it was aged in oak for four years instead of the required five) from one of the local winemakers whom I had met. What a treat!

One problem was that I was a bit worried about how to get them through English customs (this was decades before the European Union eliminated trade barriers between European countries) without paying exhorbitant taxes. Giugi, as always, had a brilliant solution that he had discovered a few years earlier. We simply drank a few glasses of wine from the top of each cask, a process that we enjoyed greatly, then topped them up with olive oil, corked and sealed them with wax, and that was that. I was at first horrified, until he reminded me that olive oil is lighter than wine, and therefore would simply remain on the top and as it was all you could see above the raffia, it looked for all the world like a cask of olive oil. And, olive oil was not subject to duty. For all the customs officials knew, I was just a very serious cook (which I am anyway).

The custom's officers never even commented on the bottles on the way back across the English Channel, which I was extremely gratified to see. Upon our return home, I simply inserted a plastic tube through the thin layer of olive oil (which also prevented the air from oxidizing the wine in the months it took to drink it all) and filled and hand-corked dozens of bottles at a time, using empty bottles from the back of a local manor house hotel in deepest Sussex. I liked the security of having an almost endless supply of this blackish red gift from Bacchus.

Although unlabeled, the 140 bottles of wine from the communists of Montalcino were absolutely heavenly.

©ATMann 2004

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