MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!
(and Luca wants it to be known that he has nothing to do with these amateurish video-clips on the Home Page and that is not him in the front row singing Auguri e Buon Natale! By the way, that is the La Faula Golf Club Committee after a good lunch and wine wishing you Merry Christmas).
And so I tripped-on back to the lawyer’s office. At least it gave me a trip to the big smoke and I got to have a latte and a croissant in a trendy bar in the centre of Udine. I had a jolly-old time with the lawyer. While grizzled-old farmers wanting to disinherit their off-spring or sell their milk quotas cooled their heels outside, the lawyer and I chatted about Friuli, New Zealand, London. Every now and then, between the really interesting stuff, we would give the contract some attention and then, magically, the draft was winging its way to my in-box before I had even left the lawyer’s office. I think that I’m going back on Thursday!
Leonard Breschnev’s Soviet Union didn’t survive him for long but the theory and practice lives on in Italy, Comrades!
We let-out roughly 3 hectares of land for a local group of golfers to use as a driving range and practice links - in the roughest sense! It’s good for them because the place is nice, close to Udine and they can use the fields free. It’s good for us because they cut the grass and keep the place looking nice. Win, win all around! The first cut (ho ho) at this arrangement involved giving the Golf ’Pro’ a licence to use the land but eventually the Club itself decided it wanted to invest a bit in improvements and would like the security of a 10-year lease. So far so good. To draw-up the contract I inevitably went to the Farmer’s Union lawyer. There are very many lawyers in Italy but for rural land contracts, she’s the place to go to. The lawyer is a jolly type who is respectful of the fact that I didn’t complete secondary school and who very much appreciates the fact that I wipe the mud off my boots before entering her office. And there we sit, her jiggling around with a draft she has copied from some previous lease but which really doesn’t seem to bear much relationship to the arrangement we have in mind. But that doesn’t matter, because when she has finished her amendments she e-mails me a copy (thoughtfully saving me the burden of taking it home myself) and shows me the door. The problem with this is that the contract, when I read it at home, really can’t be called a legal document and it sure doesn’t reflect the state of mind of the parties. But, undeterred, I send the lawyer my comments by e-mail suggesting that after she has incorporated them she could mail me a draft to check. Well, blow me down! She can’t understand what my problems are. But if I go back to her office she’ sure we’ll work it out together. Like the wine story .... to be continued ....
The only little glitch with all this was that European wine-making was at the time being heavily impacted upon by New World wine styles and techniques. White wines, following the path opened by the trio of California, Australia and New Zealand were becoming fruitier, lighter and more refreshing. New techniques ensuring minimal contact between juice and skins meant less residual bitterness in the wine (which had been dealt-with historically in Europe often by the addition of sweetners such as sugar [not OK in France or Italy but commonly done] or osmotically concentrated grape sugars [OK in France and Italy] or, illegally [ahem Germany and Austria], by the addition of diethylene glycol). Fining and acid balancing began right at the point of destalking so that the ’rough’ lees comprising bits of grape-leaf, chewed-up insects (the green stink bug - Hemiptera (Heteroptera): Pentatomidae - a particular problem), bird pooh (yes, some of it does fall on the grapes?), slugs (yuk!!) grass etc was taken out of the mass instantly and not left with the wine (self-evidently a good thing!).
The interesting thing about the ’frasca’ from a wine-making point of view, was that we made our wines in the traditional local way - very simple, no artifice, this was what the locals wanted and it was what we gave them. At this time, we found a consulting wine-maker who was just starting out on his own. Temperamentally, his focus was completely on retaining and refining traditional wine-styles while generally improving the quality by being rigidly hygienic and protecting the wines from bacteriological and chemical spoilage. It was a very good fit which we liked very much. We were making Friulano wines in the local style assisted by a consulting wine-maker who was completely on the same path.
The ’frasca’ was a great way to sell wine. It was sold ’sfuso’ - that is not bottled, the wine style was very simple with the wine from the preceding harvest being sold immediately. The frasca allowed us to sell all of our wine production for any year within the preceding year. It was also very good economically because there were low to no packaging costs and no transport. The problem that we perceived at the time with the frasca, quaint as it was, was that it didn’t exploit or use the really wonderful attributes of the house or the property. Of course, people liked very much sitting under the pergola in the summer drinking wine and eating cut meats but the house was enormous and the frasca effectively precluded us developing the agriturismo as the kind of a wonderful retreat that we had had in mind from the beginning.
Our point of departure was the creation of a ’frasca’, that is the exercise of a right dating-back to the times when Friuli was under Austrian occupation to sell for immediate consumption on the premises wine produced by the farm. The ’frasca’ was very important as the new wine was in the cellar and obtaining an Agriturismo licence would have taken some time. The ’frasca’ opened its doors originally every Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoon at 4.00 p.m. and was open all Sunday. It was a hit. By word of mouth the people came and the wine-sales took-off.
When we arrived at La Faula in 1995, we found a farm that had more or less been frozen in time, kept as a labour of love by Luca’s father and never having made the transition from a share-cropping economy to a modern cash-based one. Or rather it had made the transition, being supported as it was by cash earned outside the farm. Our challenge was to create a viable self-sustaining and profit-generating business at La Faula - for the first time in its long history.
In our case, La Faula had been a vineyard in the most ancient and romantic of ways. The plots where the grapes grew (’Ronchs’ in Friulano) were dotted over the property, sited to get the maximum sun and take advantage of the breezes that the hill generates. They were interspersed among fields (’campi’) of wheat and melons and fruit orchards and the sum total was used to sustain the 3 families (30 dependants) of sharecroppers that lived at La Faula and provide the 60% that was owed annually to the Fuedal landowner. This situation subsisted until the 1950’s. After this, Luca’s dad, Franco, kept the vineyards also for sustenance but also for pleasure. Not being a sharecropper and being a part of the cash economy he was happy to continue producing wine in the oldest of ways, selling some of it but mostly giving it away to friends and relatives, sometimes in payment for help rendered on the farm when Franco was overseas. Grape growing and wine-making was thus still free of the imperatives to invest and sell. Rather it was integrated into the style of Italian life at the time - growing prosperity in the 1960’s meant that a vineyard could be principally kept for fun. And it was fun.
I guess that every new business, set-up in a ’sunny’ location but with Latin practices, must have its ’No going Back’ moments and we at La Faula have certainly had ours over the last 12 years. A No Going Back moment (named after the BBC series) happens when you hit a brick wall but must go forward all the same. Getting into the business of growing grapes and making wine is a trap for unwary players. Romantic as the idea might be, to grow lush grapes and make fruity wines, the reality is that grape growing is a highly complicated agricultural activity and wine-making requires the highest understanding of the latest enological techniques and research. And that’s all without taking into account the market and its likes and dislikes, the competition, (over)-supply, costs etc etc.
The impact of competition and know-how from the New World has hit European wine-making like a swinging church-bell. Those viticulturists and vintners with experience behind them, a market around them and open to new ideas and horizons are specializing and growing and in the process developing a know-how that will, as the industry consolidates, allow them to evolve forward and thrive. Into this Jurassic Park stroll a steady stream of romantics desirous to partake of the pleasure of the vineyard and cellar. Generally they have money which they want to turn into an estate and a life-style. Mostly they don’t intend to actually do the work themselves so they quickly realise that they need workers but most importantly they need a consulting wine-maker who will guarantee that they will soon have the finest bottles on the finest tables. No-one spends the amounts of money required to get into the wine business to produce a mediocre tipple sold down at the local trattoria in dirty ceramic carafes!
Like a kind of Priest/Guru/Rasputin a ’consulting winemaker’ appears and the vineyard owner relaxes knowing that in these talented hands - mind actually, because consulting wine-makers never actually make wine with their own hands - the estate will move smoothly on to producing wines that will be recognised and sought after for their excellence and particular character, a character, strangely enough, only found in that particular estate.
But, of course, making these particular wines will require particular investments in particular barrels and de-stalkers and presses and .... TO BE CONTINUED ....
A lot has sure happened in the week since I last wrote. For one, Barak Obama has been elected U.S. President. For another it seems from the papers that Europe is cliffing-over into a headlong recession. At La Faula, however, we also have our little achievements and travails!
We finally got the wine-bottle labeller to work. It would have helped significantly if the machine had come with instructions (as EU law requires) and we hope that a lot of drawers are being overturned at the shop where we bought the machine in an effort to find them. The bottles labelled we packed them up and shipped them off to Belgium where we hope that they will bring some festive cheer to an otherwise uncertain world! On the travails front, the new wine is now made and effectively will sleep through the winter (although, of course, it is anything but asleep being a constant seething mass of chemical reactions purposefully pushing the wine forward to maturity). This means that it is time to begin bottling last years' wines. Normally the best time to bottle is in the summer when the wine is warm but with the agriturismo this is impossible so we must bottle in late autumn or early spring. The warm weather has kept the wine cellar at a good temperature so there are no problems on this front. But we did decide to change our wine-maker who had a strategy of aged and complex wines in favour of a strategy of fresh and fruity one's.
The change was not so much due to difficulty selling the <complex> wines as a desire to reduce complexity in all our activities and the need to have wines that slip easily down under the pergola in the summer time. Creating richly-bodied wines and aging them, especially in wood, is a really complex and time consuming process and expensive from the point of view of the wood need to store the wine and the capital locked-up in the barrels. Plus the longer a wine ages in wood the more there is the chance of things going wrong. I just felt that I wanted to move towards simplicity and let the grapes (and vineyard) make the wine and not a french oak forest!
One of the things about coming to La Faula and making wine is the suffering involved with using each new piece of machinery and the epiphany when eventually one understands how it operates and can get it to function correctly. Today it was the turn of the bottle labeller. It would seem conceptually simple to stick one or two pieces of paper on a bottle but the reality is a series of permutations and computations made that leaves one utterly exhausted (and calling the technician!!). Without going into too much detail it is unbelievably complicated to get only one piece of paper on the front and one exactly centred on the back, all on the level, each perfectly adhering to the bottle without distortion, bubbles or crinkles!
The labeller was a display model used by our wine canteen supplies shop so it arrived without instructions. We didn’t ask for them (mistake!). The technician made it all seem so easy three months ago when it was delivered. But today when we finally got around to using it, it all seemed so impossible. We didn’t get it to work exactly perfectly but we did, finally, after sticking 10’s of labels up and down, front and back, all over the bottles and over each other, roughly understand how it worked. Tomorrow we hope to be able to report that we have managed to get it to perform flawlessly!
Yesterday, Luca went to our local Farmers Union and submitted a request to remove 1 hectare of our 4 hectares of vineyard (as an aside, in Italy - & I guess the whole European Union - one can’t touch a sliver of bark of a single vine plant without bureaucratic approval!). We decided to do this to allow Luca to dedicate more time to the Agriturismo which is always growing and to permit him to follow more closely that vineyard which we have. It is also true that we are not getting any younger and needed to create some margin in case one of us were to have an accident or get sick As things stand we do manage everything here at La Faula but we are more or less at the limit of what two people can reasonably do. We took the decision to remove the vines this last summer. Today we got a good export order for some wine. All in all the wine has been selling well. It’s emotionally scary to be proceeding to remove vineyard just as our wine is finding its market!!
The Photo of Today for today reminds me that around 15 years ago when Luca and I lived in London, on one of our Friday night visits to the cinema at Swiss Cottage, we saw an ad for Levis jeans that portrayed a settler family going west on their wagon through the mountains (this ad followed on that appalling one for Dolby cinema surround with its beating helicopter blades etc - but I digress). The family was dressed in faux ’Amish’ style, the parents severe and stoic in their suffering and their two daughters repressed but with a beauty that belied their restrictive costume. Passing a large pool the girls spy a naked hunk swimming alone. He exits the water and pulls on his tight jeans. All very suggestive. The reason that I remembered this advertisement was that at the time Luca whispered to me that Friuli was just like that. Without the naked hunks emerging from limpid waters and settler families going west, of course. But the mountains he said were the same. And so they are. If you saw that ad and remember it, today’s photos, I’m sure you will agree, could be of Colorado, the Rocky Mountains ....
The last of the red wine is pressed. Now begins the removal of the pressed skins and transport to the distillery and the deep clean of the wine cellar in preparation of our next job which is the bottling of last year’s wines! Between the closure of the agriturismo and the beginning of the harvest there are, maybe, two or three days of peace. For the rest ....!
The red wine is coming to the end of its fermentation and with that the ’harvest’ period now finishes and a calm descends upon La Faula! Now is the fun time of trips, visits and dinners. The dogs, however, are bored witless without guests and kids to entertain them. It’s almost impossible to move without being shadowed by two or three collies hoping upon hope that you will do something entertaining. Unfortunately, cutting wood and fixing the electric fences doesn’t rank high on the canine scale of excitement!
Luca has compared my re-jigging of the web-site Home Page rather unfavourably with the plant & garden websites that he visits regularly (I would say even obsessively!). Freddy our friend and occasional graphic designer has kindly said that it has no aesthetic aspect but he is sure that it works (is that a compliment?). It is true that in order to have a site that is alive with user-generated content (so far me but soon also you!) there is a bit of a trade-off on the graphic-perfect side. The site, which is in constant evolution, naturally tends to have a bit more of a home-made look. What do you think?
Our new Home Page is now on-line. The impetus for the change was the arrival of broadband at La Faula via the Three cell-phone network (actually, it's not really broadband but compared to what we had previously courtesy of good-old Telecom Italia - pigeons and all that - it seems rocket science) . The key part of the new home page will be 4 web-cam images which will eventually broadcast La Faula to the world. Normally the world comes to La Faula. We are going to return the compliment!
The harvest is finished. It has been - and seems that it will remain - a glorious autumn. The days are hot and sunny. It doesn't get much better really! Grape production was down, the plants and grapes having been impacted upon by the late, cold and wet spring. Those grapes that there were, however, were well mature, sweet and flavour-full. The white wines are already arriving at the end of the fermentation. The red wines are having the juice pumped-over the skins three times a day to extract colour, tannins and all those other things that go to make up a red wine.
A wonderful autumn’s day: high cumulus clouds against a china-blue sky, strong yellow light, breezy, almost windy, some grey hills seen from afar. Up at 5.30 a.m. to press the Friulano and Riesling grapes- A risible quantity but better to start - and finish - early instead of being closed in the wine-cellar all day.
After lunch Luca expressed doubts that yesterday’s lamb was drinking. Last evening I had already expressed the ewe’s milk but neither of us had seen the lamb at the teat. Without the first milk a new-borne weakens rapidly and certainly dies so re-milked the ewe and put the lamb on the teat. The lamb with a very weak suckling instinct but seems to have got the hang of it now.
A local farmer dropped by. Told us that he had butchered a pony that we had sold him on the -perhaps hopeful - understanding that he would keep her as a house animal. Said that feeding her had got too expensive. We know that farming and agriculture is like this - animals are food. Cursed that equine meat is valued in Italy and hoped that she had not suffered.
Last Monday we began the grape harvest. The last guests in the bungalows will leave during this coming week and La Faula will take-on the atmosphere of a ’real’ wine-farm again. The transition from Agriturismo to grape harvesting and wine-making is so sudden and abrupt that sometimes it leaves one feeling a bit disjointed!
This year we decided to close the Agriturismo from the time of the grape harvest both to let us focus on the farming side of our business and because we have to begin a maintenance and up-grade program in the house which becomes impossible when there are guests. We have realised that we will probably continue like this in the future dedicating distinct time to each activity - tourism / grape-growing and wine making rather than having them overlap.
The building the pool, inevitably, had eaten-up a lot of our time. There were the things that we did ourselves such as preparing the hole, all the landscaping, plantings & fencing but also there was the supervision of the project & construction plus the banal but time-consuming job of keeping the place clean & tidy & removing the mud that seemed to ooze out of the building site as if from some horror film!
Thus we arrived in early spring with the vineyard in a bit of a state. We hadn’t managed to get to such normal winter jobs as changing the rotten vineyard poles or rusty strainers & Luca just got the pruning & tying finished by a hair’s-bredth before the plants budded with the first hot weather.
The spring was divine. It arrived early, very warm & sunny & the pool, filled but unfinished, ceased to be a preoocupation, the first guests arrived & the bravest tried-out the waters. We were relieved - poor but relieved - & hoped that the season would be a good one.
Meanwhile, our red wine in bottles had finished & so we opened the wine canteen doors to allow the spring warmth in. It is best to bottle wine when the wine has a temperature of 20°c. The temperature in the canteen in the winter can fall to around 8°c. This happens over months & so it takes a corresponding amount of time for the canteen & the thousands of litres of wine inside to heat up. Although the days were sunny & hot, the wines took forever to warm up & we ended-up bottling in May. Another big job done!
2007 - How Was It?
We started 2007 with some anxiety. Our swimming pool project had been going already for 5 years & we had encountered real bureaucratic problems having the project approved. Once the Regional Health Department categorised the pool as a public swimming pool (albeit only open to guests of the Agriturismo) & the local Council referred the project to the National Department of Antiquities - the very same that follows the Coloseum in Rome - because the proposed location was a ’protected area’ we - & our architects - really began to have doubts as to whether the pool would ever be built. However, if it was to be built it had to be completely finished, certified, registered & all the paperwork done & submitted to the Regional Department of Agriculture by mid-December of 2007 otherwise we would really have been in a fix regarding some EU funding of which we had received a part. No pool & apart from having to pay the money back with interest we would most certainly have been fined & seriously risked having the files transferred to the prosecuting magistrates.
Despite the pool having been classified as ’public’ there was no applicable law governing its requisites. The Department of Water & Pools in the Health Department never actually told us what the requisites were but simply rejected the various projects we proposed until we presented one that they approved.
So we found ouselves at the beginning of 2007 having to construct the pool & have it authorised in time which was going to be tight (each submission to the Department of Antiquities resulted in an automatic blocking period of 90 days in which nothing could be done to give them time to intervene should they so wish). In addition, it was imperative not to begin the tourist season without a pool but construction of the new pool had necessited the removal of the previous - externally mounted - swimming pool (which we had blissfully operated for 3 years without authorisation ignorant of the fact that in doing this we were committing a crime!).
On the 27th of December of 2006 the builders arrived & started preparing the construction site. In a fit of optimism we had excavated the hole for the pool in early December but following some torrential rain it had promptly filled-up with water & the clay was so wet & sticky that it was almost impossible to walk around. Of course, the builders turned out not to be the ones with which we had signed the contract but ’very good friends’ & as they were all called ’Andrea’ neither we nor our architects were ever really sure which ’Andrea’ we found ourselves talking about!
We were aprehensive because normally January & February in Friuli are cold & external construction tends to halt. As the pool construction would involve a large number of concrete pours a period of cold winds from Siberia would have prevented these & really pushed us over the edge (in all respects)!
As it was, however, somewhere there was a guardian angel who must have decided that we had suffered enough for the 5 by 10 by 1.2 metre tank of water! The builders were unbelievably good. Fast, professional, precise, they didn’t lose a day. The electrician & plumbers were superb. And Renzo Simeonato, the representative of the actual company that made the pool itself couldn’t have been better.
The winter was unseasonaly warm. I think that it only fell below zero on two nights, Nothing held back the work & gradually we saw our bank balance dwindle to nothing (less than nothing) but in compensation a pool was born on the 6th year of its gestation!