It’s really pretty ironic– almost hilariously ironic– that WWOOFing on the vineyard was such a wholly miserable experience, as from the beginning it was the farm I was looking forward to the most. When we first started planning this trip months ago, Matt asked me to choose one place that I undoubtedly wanted to go, and I immediately replied that I wanted to pick grapes on an Tuscan vineyard. All of our plans were fluid except for that one. We learned that grape harvest is around September and we basically built the rest of our time in Europe around that event.
Our host, Francesco, seemed nice enough in our pre-WWOOF communications. He told us he had a small room for us and that he would pick us up at the train station on our scheduled arrival date.
Our first task upon that date was to “clean out” our living space, which had not been used “in several months,” though judging by the pile up of trash and junk I’d assume that to be more like several years.
The vineyard rented rooms to “argitourists,” which were all full when we arrived, and which is how we were sent to this “apartment.” Newly cleaned, these accommodations were still thoroughly grungy and utterly uninviting. We had two floors, the bottom with a sink and an assortment of old furniture and the top with a skeleton of a bed and another assortment of old furniture.
The floor dividing the two stories was essentially a layer of plywood laid on top of some pipes, which complained loudly and threateningly with every step. The stairs to this upper level were 2x4s built into a narrow crumbly hallway, and two of the steps were totally broken and had to be skipped (which made midnight bathroom a treacherous affair).
We were scheduled to be at the vineyard for about two weeks, but we didn’t actually start picking grapes until the last four days of our stay. For the first week and a half, we spent just a couple of hours each day cleaning out various rooms on the property. We swept and mopped the olive grinding room; we carried dozens of giant glass jugs out of the wine storing room; we spent two very unpleasant days cleaning out horse stalls; and we removed piles of junk and trash from a pizza kitchen that seemed to have been abandoned mid-pizza years ago, there was still dough in the mixer.
There was one other WWOOFer there, Antonio, a career WWOOFer who had been at the vineyard since April and had no set plans to leave. Antonio is from southern Italy and spoke just enough english to tell us that his parents left him when he was very young and he doesn’t know when his birthday is. He’s forgotten to keep track of his age, though he reckons he is somewhere in his mid-thirties, and he insists that the U2 song “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was written about him. He was constantly smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and filling our glasses with the vineyard’s thick red wine. Fortunately, Antonio was assigned to be something like our manager and when we were lucky enough to receive any instruction at all, it came from him.
Our host himself was a boar of a man who we didn’t speak a single word to after our very first day. He spoke excellent english but preferred instead to communicate with Matt and me by using flippant hand gestures, yelling at us in Italian or occasionally just by making animal noises.
Francesco smoked almost as much as Antonio, and this combined with his extreme size left him constantly huffing and puffing though his thick layer of facial hair. (His breathlessness could have also been due to the restrictive nature of his clothing, which may have fit him twenty years ago but certainly doesn’t anymore.) More often than not I was concerned that he was going to pass out from the effort of walking from his upstairs apartment to the dinner table. We learned that Francesco had lived in our rickety apartment just three years ago (so I guess that’s how the stairs became broken), and I spent the rest of our stay trying to discern how the meager flooring held up to his great weight.
Dinner at the vineyard was quite an affair, as we dined with the agritourism guests and Francesco and his wife when she visited from Milan. (I don’t really understand this, but if I were her, I’d stay far away, too.) The first course of the evening was always a heaping bowl of pasta that any non-Italian would consider a full meal in itself. Usually this was followed by some sort of “side dish” like eggplant parmesan, scalloped potatoes or, funnily enough, french fries. Finally there was some sort of meat, usually red, often sausage or ribs (or both). And, of course, there was always wine. On our very first night, Matt leaned across the table and whispered, “I’m going to need to buy some running shoes.”
These lavish dinners almost made up for the fact that there was nothing for lunch during our first week and a half on the vineyard and that breakfast didn’t exist beyond espresso. Almost, but not quite.
The actual grape harvest was a surprisingly anticlimactic event. We spent one bumbling morning tracking down and cleaning all the equipment, a grinding machine and some fat hoses, and then spent the next three and a half days doing the actual grape picking. Along with a handful of older men who showed up to help, we walked up and down hundreds of rows of grape vines, snipping off the bunches of grapes and dropping them into our individual crates. When the crates were full, we dumped them unceremoniously into a trailer that was attached to a tractor-esque vehicle that followed us through the rows. When the trailer was full, we all trundled up to the grinding machine and raked the grapes into its grumbling gears, and the machine pumped the murky pulp through the clog-prone hoses and into an enormous vat. We were told by a winemaking student, Lapo (who at one time also lived in our “apartment”), that the juice would stay in this tank for a few weeks before it would be filtered and moved into another vessel to ferment. This, he explained, was the “old way” of making wine– no washing the grapes to remove bugs and dirt. That’s where all the flavor comes from.
Because the men we worked with spoke almost no English, and we speak even less Italian, Matt and I were usually confused and left to puzzle out what was going on– whether we were moving to a new section, which rows to pick and in what order (grape picking formation and strategy has surprisingly strict protocols), if we were finished for the day or had to work for several hours more, etc. We’ve gotten pretty good at following blindly and stumbling around awkwardly while we try to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing.
At last the grapes were picked and ground up, all having been finished in a mere four days. The very next morning, Antonio drove us to the train station (we didn’t even say goodbye to Francesco), and we hustled to the medieval city of Orvieto to meet up with my stepmom, Nancy, and her friend, Valerie. We spent two days there exploring the walled city and its labyrinth of crooked streets and underground tunnels, enjoying pastries and wine (by this point, I was strictly boycotting pasta), and Matt and I were thrilled to be staying in a place with a sturdy floors and non-life threatening staircases. We then travelled with Nancy and Val to Florence to spend a couple of days roaming cathedrals and museums (and, as the city is a tourism mecca, exerting considerable energy dodging gypsies and flying selfie sticks).
Near the end of September, Matt and I ran out of time in the Schengen Zone and flew to Ireland to recommence the backpacker lifestyle on the beautiful Kerry Way.