Normally, it is in the winter when I take most of my photos. In Friuli, winter light is generally clear and the low angle of the sun enhances the spectrum from rich deep yellows through to every type of red. Skies tend towards china blue, delicate rather than rich. Birdlife is abundant as reduced food draws all types of birds towards the rivers, stream and ponds around La Faula.
But this year, winter hasn't been like that. The winter wasn't particularly harsh but it was slightly colder than the average. It snowed three times which was frequent by our standards although the snow is just a topping and never lasts. What was different was the absence of clear, warm sunny days and clear sunlight. Rather, the days were frequently cloudy and the light rather dull. Birdlife was well reduced as the birds obviously moved further south seeking better food prospect.
I stopped taking my camera out with me in the vineyard many weeks ago. The light didn't provide the possibility of interesting photos. Even birds of prey on the wing were flat and two-dimensional, lacking that illumination from below that the low-angled winter sun affords. It was a strange winter.
Spring has, however, arrived and the temperatures are sensibly higher. And today was an event, of sorts, because for the first time in months the sky, and the clouds, and the light created a window into heaven. It made me realise just how flat this winter has been!
Spring is here, the first guests have arrived and soon it will be Easter. Time to make sure that everything is functioning smoothly in the Agriturismo!
One important item is the music that we play. Of course, being in the country, it's nice to enjoy the peace, however, it is also nice, in a warm, relaxing environment, to hear, sometimes, nice music that maybe takes you back to some earlier time or reminds you of how much you enjoyed it when it first came out.
Obviously, we started here with a multiple disk CD player. It was simple to operate, and the music was fine, if limited by the number of CD's that could be held in the player at any one time. Two years ago the CD player was at the end of it's life and it was time for a change. At that time mobile broadband had not yet arrived in our area (we don't have ADSL on the telephone line - actually, for that reason we got rid of our telephone line!) and so mp3 players, itunes, music downloads and podcasts belonged to another world. Helpfully a guest called Len decided that something had to be done so he took me off to MediaWorld, we purchased a Creative mp3 player and set about moving some music onto it. Unfortunately, the mp3 player died so we carried on with the geriatric CD player. Of course, I replaced the mp3 but decided to wait until the winter before trying to work the whole thing out.
In the winter I loaded music of various formats and in stacked folders into the mp3 - it all seemed rather simple really - kids can do it!! - chucked-out the CD player and, the mp3 hooked-up to some speakers, it seemed that we were in business!!
Unfortunately, all last summer even though I put the mp3 on random play (I hadn't yet got the idea of playlists) it really loved Johnny Cash. Some other artists it hated so much that it would freeze and need to be reset with the old un-bent paper-clip but Johnny Cash just kept coming around again and again. Now, we have a rule here that once the tourist season starts no 'improvements' are made - these must wait for the winter because experience has taught us that making changes to the Agriturismo when it is working is like trying to change the tire of a moving car.
All the kids who did work experience here over the summer started-out liking johnny Cash (we even showed the film Walk The Line a good few times). By the end they all wished that Johnny Cash had spent his life closed-up in Folsom Prison!
This winter, I felt that it was time to really get a grip on this mp3 music thing. I got a little programme to convert all non-mp3 to mp3 and starting loading music into the player on one level (i.e. without multiple stacked folders). It was great. I got into podcasts and my time pruning in the vineyard has been changed from one of monotonous routine to a programme of continuous education (I'm particularly keen on History). It all seemed to be going so well that I purchased a Logitech Squeezebox radio (highly, highly recommended) to bring us BBC Radio 4 with breakfast and dinner and NPR with the dishwashing! That was just unbelievably good. Here we are in Italy - good food, nice climate, great scenery - but free of Italian radio and tv (it's bad, really, really, bad - all of it and now Berlusconi controls it all). And not only, you can stream your music from your computer - WoW!!!! This was going to be the answer to all our music problems - unlimited music from my computer streamed to the Squeezebox Radio and then beamed wirelessly to the wireless jbl speakers in the dining room. Sound to good to be true?
Yes, it was too good to be true. Every time we had guests or a dinner with friends I would start my streaming music. Excellent, that is until the music came and went, the player lost its IP, then it came back, then it went away etc etc. All winter, I've spent hours, maybe days and weeks trying to work out why this problem presented. Installing and uninstalling software, running up and down the stairs to turn-off then turn-on the Router. Shut downs and boot-ups, cleaning out cache, unplugging equipment for 20 seconds. What a yucky waste of time!! Oh!! This new technology is such a drag if it doesn't work the first time!!!
I guess that if you've got this far you might be wondering what the music situation will be for this summer. Well, it turned out that the transmitter for the wireless speakers which transmits at 2.4GHz was interfering with the Squeezbox player even though the player was connected to the Ethernet and the WiFi option was not selected. So there you have it. If I'm going to use the wireless speakers - which I am - I will have to use the mp3. But that should be OK!
This is probably quite a good point at which to mention internet connectivity for guests in the Agriturismo. Last week we got a second 'Hutchinson 3' 3G HSDPA router which is connected to a Netgear 802.11n WiFi. This 3G Router will be exclusively for guests connectivity. Of course, bandwidth is more limited with mobile HSDPA internet access but we find it perfectly adequate for our two computers plus Squeezebox Internet radio. Obviously, if everyone comes here with an iphone, ipad, laptop, netbook (sooo 2009!), or internet radio then speeds will slow a bit - we'll be a bit like AT&T in New York! Last year when we tried this arrangement out with up to 6 connected devices everyone had pretty good connectivity with good speeds.
We are not, however, able to offer access to a computer this year. Commonly shared computers accrue layer upon layer of problems - our lap-top that we put at the disposition of the guests in 2009 died and could not be resuscitated (as chance should have it, I had just paid for a memory up-grade!!).
This year, in January, I turned 50. We also understood in these last months, as a part of our being, where fine wines are made. These two rather important events have made the long winter of 2009-2010 different from our preceding 13 winters at La Faula.
Turning 50 didn't seem to be such a big event. I got some nice presents (the best one being, after all these years, an electric bed warmer!) had some nice dinners and carried-on much as before. However, we had a revelation on the wine-side of our business and were helped to this by the unlimited generosity of one of our young neighbours who is an agronomist specialising in vineyards in addition to having an academic background in oenology.
Having had a consulting wine-maker we had absorbed the idea that wines are made in the winery. That is, this raw product, being the grapes, are transported into the winery where by the exercise of winery techniques they are transformed into wine. Our previous consulting wine-maker encouraged us in this belief, obviously. So it seemed that if you really didn't have that elusive know-how as a wine-maker you would never really be able to make fine wines. Of course, as all wine-makers, we glibly affirmed that wine 'is made in the vineyard' but the import of this never really struck home. That is, until this year.
Working with our neighbour, who gives his time freely with the excuse of having the possibility to speak a little English, he brought us to see that wine is not made in the winery. That wine is derived from, and its qualities are inextricably bound with, the grapes from which it is made. So with a light, knowledgeable and wise touch in the winery the quality of the wine is determined by the quality of the grapes from which it is made.
This probably seems fairly self-evident when put like this but it poses what seems an insurmountable challenge to the small 'boutique' winery operation. Small winery operations by definition don't have economies of scale. So they must produce something special. And this means special - really special - grapes. And this means unbelievable dedication and application of time and resources in the vineyard. A dedication and application never this far given to the La Faula vineyard. Suddenly we realised that was no longer enough to be passively content that the vines on the hill produce grapes which are fermented into wine.
Think of it like this. Sometimes one buys a bag of apples from the supermarket. They look great but they are really a disappointment. They might be tasteless, floury, strangely sour. Sometimes, however, one buys what seem to be the same apples and they explode with flavour. The sweetness is perfectly balanced by the acidity. They are crisp and delightful. Our challenge is to have grapes full of flavour, with a perfect balance between sugar and acidity, tannins to stabilise the wines without giving background bitterness. Obviously, to get this perfect mix it becomes important to harvest at the right time (and to have been lucky with the weather) but most importantly, a healthy well-balanced vine will generally produce healthy, well-balanced grapes.
It is strangely, really quite difficult to have a vineyard full of healthy, well-balanced vines. Vines naturally grow in poor soils (clay or gravel), in ferociously hot summer climes and we ask them to produce, in this environment, grapes for us. Vines that have been transported to cooler or damper climates battle incessantly with fungal, viral and bacterial disease and the growing season may be too short to allow effective maturation of the grapes. Other vines grow in climates that are so perfect that the plant can produce seemingly unlimited quantities of rather bland grapes.
In Friuli the best grapes are produced by strong, healthy vines that are slightly stressed by the paucity of the soil and the toughness of the summer. Vines that don't grow to be strong and well-balanced are unable to find the resources to produce the grapes needed for fine wines. So this year everything in the La Faula vineyard has to be 'just right'. The pruning has to allow for the creation of a strong trunk with a growing head where shoots will reliably sprout every year. The small plants must be fed with natural cow manure. The clay in which the vines grow has to be worked and reworked so that it doesn't set as concrete around the roots slowly suffocating the vines. The grass which competes with the vines for nutrients has to be manually removed.
This winter, we have really worked a lot in our vineyard, located high-up on the hill behind our house. The more we do the more we realise there is to be done. Tools and farm implements break under the strain. The tractors need repairs. Money needs to be spent. And at 50, after a day on the farm, and after a simple but wonderful meal prepared by Luca, it is just so much more attractive to doze-off in the rocking chair by the wood-burning stove in the kitchen than to go to the internet and get a grip on the faula website!