The grapes of mirth
“So we’re just going to drop in unannounced?” I asked Egg.
“Last time I saw Giorgio he told me to drop by any time I was in the area,” Egg replied. “He’d be insulted if I did not take him literally.”
Either side of the road vineyards stretched over the hills. Egg drove the tiny rented Fiat with one hand on the wheel, content to leave the speed limit well alone. The one car that came up behind us was waved past at a wider part of the road.
I, too, felt relaxed. A meal in a compact, but excellent restaurant, followed by a slow and quite possibly romantic meander back to our hotel room in the old part of town had unwound me after our flight the previous day. I decided that I would just let the next weird thing wash over me without reacting.
“So who is he, exactly?” I asked.
“My godfather.” Egg answered.
Egg turned the corners of his mouth up slightly in response to my murdered rendition of the Godfather theme tune. He negotiated the car around a tractor before elaborating.
“He is an old friend of my mother. He used to be in the same line of work, but now he makes wine,” he said.
“So he isn’t involve in the mob?” I pressed.
“Cass, not everyone in Italy is a member of the Mafia,” he replied.
Our route took us through a village, the sort of place that tourists proclaim as enchanting and gets used in holiday brochures and as the backdrop to films, but with the tacked-on compromises for modern facilities and conveniences glaringly evident. The tiny houses crammed together proudly displayed their satellite dishes, Italian matron figures held mobile phones to their ears as they herded their grandchildren and the café whose chairs and tables spilled into the cobbled square advertised its free wi-fi.
Egg turned the car into a road that was little more than a gap between two buildings and then along a lane that could not make up its mind which direction is was supposed to be going. He slowed the car to a halt, licked his finger and stuck it out of the window, frowning. After a few seconds and before I could ask him what he was up to, we were under way again, turning down a narrow farm track, which led onto a wider road. He drove along this for a short while before turning to drive onto a gated driveway, the ornate gate swung open under its own power.
“Is this it, or are we lost?” I asked him.
“This is it,” he replied. “But he must have moved the gate since the last time I was here.”
The villa was a single story affair, built from weathered stone with a classic tiled roof, but I judged it more modern than its materials. It resided in a large garden of neatly mown and freshly watered grass, liberally sprinkled with well-coiffeured trees. A collection of buildings that ranged between ancient rustic shed and modern industrial unit lay to one side with its own road access, I took this to be the winery.
We parked by a weathered statue of a robed woman who stood in a circle of flowers at the end of the driveway. She regarded us with a permanently measured gaze. A small bird, perched on the hand of her out-stretched arm took offence at our arrival and fled twittering as we disembarked from the car and approached the door.
We were greeted at the door by a woman who looked like she was trying too hard to fit the role of wizened, old maid figure and ushered into an antechamber that was decorated strictly in the taste category with nothing from the catalogues of personality or comfort. It was a bit intimidating so I looked to Egg for reassurance, but he was staring out of a window. I followed his gaze to spy a courtyard bedecked in flowers with an ornate stone fountain.
“It is so pleasant to see my godchild again, and he has brought a beautiful companion.” I nearly jumped out of my skin, standing inside the doorway was a trim, tanned man with thick black hair, wearing a smart, grey designer suit with the collar open. He had a hook to his nose and his eyes were predatory, but the rest of his face was pleasant enough. His voice was deep and rich and his English carried enough of an accent to be exotic without being difficult to understand.
“My dear, I am Giorgio, welcome to my home,” he said.
I managed to murmur my own name and there followed a hand-shaking and kissing ritual in which he overshadowed the awkwardness on my part with the grace and fluidity of his own. He went through something similar with Egg that seemed better rehearsed and promptly told us that lunch should not be long and of course we were staying for it.
Egg had proved annoyingly fluent in Italian, it was handy, but it meant I was relying on him for communication. Now it meant I was standing like a lemon as a conversation that probably would have excluded me in English went on bilingually. I was rescued by a tap on the shoulder from a slim and exotic woman who was probably young enough to be Giorgio’s daughter, but somehow I sensed that she was not.
“You, must excuse the men while they talk of business.” She purred. “I am Isabella, let me show you around the winery.”
She led me away with a sway that could have graced the catwalks of Milan, and quite possibly had done, I considered. Her tour was bright and friendly, every step of the wine-making process had a funny story, and her depth of knowledge made me realise that she was far more than the trophy wife.
“I would have made wine anyway,” she confided. “But Giorgio’s money certainly made it easier. Now, here is the secret at the heart of my craft.”
The device made little sense to me. Something was obviously poured into the top and cascaded down a series of ramps, funnels and slopes until it ended up in a number of different barrels at the bottom. It was kind of like a medieval pinball machine built by an enthusiastic but quite insane carpenter.
“It’s, er, well, kind of...” I trailed off. I should have said it was a metaphor for my past few days.
“Let me show you,” she said.
She pulled a rope and a barrel at the top tipped grapes into the machine. They bounced and rolled down chutes and tracks. Some collecting in one trap set off a counterweight that redirected another stream, others spun wheels that altered the course in other ways. I stood there and laughed at the fairground of the grapes.
“Each grape is sorted by the machine so that the taste of each vat of wine is perfect,” she explained. “The original device was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, but there have been some small improvements since then.”
“It’s fantastic,” I said. “I wish I had one to pair up my socks.”