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The New Italian Renaissance

Spurred by the Demise of a Feudal Farming System, a New Generation of Italian Winemakers Has Finally Realized Its Potential
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

(continued from page 1)

"The entire estate, which dates to the year 1090, is about 800 acres," notes Schwenn. "It used to be owned by the Terrosi-Vangnoli family of Siena, who are still, I believe, the biggest landowners in the province of Siena. Frankly, they didn't care about it. Dievole was just one of their many properties. And they certainly didn't care about the sharecroppers. They were just tools to them. That was how all the great landowners in the Tuscany region saw them."

The Schwenn family is not old Tuscan stock. They are outsiders, like so many of today's Tuscany success stories. They are German and today live in Switzerland, except for Mario, who lives at Dievole. "In the old days," he says, "the landowners would allow the mezzadri to build a house on the estate which they worked. But if they retired, they had to leave the house. So this insured, if any insurance was needed, that the next generation of the family would remain on the estate.

"It didn't matter anyway," Schwenn adds, with just the barest note of bitterness. "There were always plenty of mezzadri to go around. After all, they had no education, no money, no opportunity. The landowners never dealt with them. They saw only the fattore, or overseer. He was the go-between. He would settle up with the mezzadri--usually telling them that they were always in debt--and show the accounts to the landowner."

Dino Petri, one of Dievole's vineyard workers, recalls the system well, despite his being only 49 years old. His older brother, Armando, a grizzled 73 years old, has longer memories, but their recollections are largely the same. At a dinner in their simple house, which was built generations ago for their mezzadri forebears, they recount tales of being mezzadri over a classic Tuscan dinner of beans, bread, olive oil and grilled meats washed down with homemade red wine of the latest vintage.

"There were 10 people living in this house," recalls Armando. "It's not that big a house." That is an understatement. Although handsome enough, with timbered ceilings and thick masonry walls, the home has no central heating. Its four rooms, excluding the kitchen, are frigid during the winter. Only the kitchen, with its enormous hearth, boasts any heat. One room is used today for potato storage and other utilitarian purposes. "We used to keep some animals in there," says Armando.

Evidence of newfound wealth is inserted into the rooms like shiny pennies in a pair of worn loafers. The kitchen has a washing machine tucked in one corner. The bedroom has a color television. And the hallway, already narrow, is clogged by a deep-freeze chest. Otherwise, the place has not likely changed, except for running water and electricity, from what its residents a century ago would have found familiar. The walls are whitewashed and soot-covered and, apart from various religious pictures, devoid of decoration. The floors--part tile, part concrete--are bare. It is a dwelling of extreme simplicity.

The dinner conversation is not always easy to follow, what with the Petris' thick country speech and the peculiar Tuscan accent of turning most "c's" into "h's" (Coca-Cola in Tuscany is pronounced "Hoha-Hola"). The brothers haul out thin paperback ledger books (called libretto colonico) for my edification. Every mezzadro had one, in which the year's accounts were kept by the overseer. Inside, pages of ledger sheets detailed every expense. For example, every sheep that was born, died, vaccinated, seen by a veterinarian or otherwise entailed a debit or a credit was accounted for. All transactions, no matter how minor, were listed, including, one year, the sale of a tiny quantity of artichokes.

Today, Dino Petri freely and happily announces that he has money in the bank. For someone who was shoved out of school at age 13 to work in the fields, this is a marvel. He receives a substantial wage, as well as a variety of fringe benefits, including health care. A union represents his interests.

Although the mezzadria system was legally abolished more than 40 years ago, the mentality--and, effectively, the reality--lingered until very recently. "My hardest job when I came to Dievole in 1986," recounts Schwenn, "was to educate them to the existence of a client. In other words, that what they did had a direct effect on their fortunes. That there even was a client. And that this client has needs and demands."

Italy's most famous winegrower, Angelo Gaja, lives hundreds of miles away from Tuscany in the Langhe district of Piedmont, in the northwest corner of Italy. It's where the famous Barolo and Barbaresco wines are produced. Mezzadria was pervasive there as well.

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