Marissa rolls down the car window to lets in the hot air and its mix of scents, lilac, fresh bread, and fumes. Once through the walled gate, her racing green 1970 vintage Porsche vibrates on the cobbled street, and the sound echoes off the walls of the terraced houses with their intricate wrought iron balconies, each a different shade of ochre. Marissa notices the numerous wineries and identifies the one she is interested in; its entrance through a vaulted arch, vines hang over a courtyard. She leaves town by the northern gate and makes her way up into the vineyards. Only now does the beauty of this region offer itself up to Marissa. The rolling hills leading to the Alps that rise high in the distance, the Cyprus trees and old farm buildings with their flame red terracotta roofs scattered artistically and enhanced by the harsh shadows of mid-summer sun. Marissa stops the car and gets out. The small town of Suave dominated by the thirteenth century medieval rectangular edged castle lies below; its high stone walls protect the villagers within. The vineyards stretch from all directions like ribbed blankets running up to the castle walls.
She notices a workman. He is leaning against a stone wall with a pair of secateurs in his hand and appears to be admiring the beauty, as she is. The church clock chimes, the man jolts and proceeds down between the vines, stopping occasionally and snapping his secateurs. He reaches the road below and stamps his boots leaving a trail of mud on the tarmac. He makes his way to a red three-wheel Piaggio van, Marissa listens to its rumble as it labours its way down and through the gate. She realises she is hungry and in her business, it is never good to work on an empty stomach. There is little she can do now. Her feet crunch over the volcanic gravel as she walks back to her beloved car that she keeps in Rome for when she travels. She is now ready to taste the distinctive wine that comes from this soil.
Alberto Pozzi pulls into his courtyard and parks the red van in front of the barn. In the vestibule he methodically removes his overalls and hangs them on a peg. At the kitchen sink, he washes his face and hands and sets about his preparations for the evening meeting. He hears the district purr of an old engine enter the courtyard. The smartly dressed Master Sommelier, famous importer of Italian wine to the US secures her footing on the cobbles. She takes in her surroundings lifting her expensive sunglasses up onto her cropped blond hair.
Marissa is not surprised to see the Piaggio van, after all it belongs to the vineyard in question the name is painted on the side. She does not usually allow evening appointments but she had little choice, she has such a busy schedule over the next few days. She is travel weary from the long drive, she loves her old Porsche but it does not offer the comforts of modern vehicles. She takes her notes out of her leather pouch and starts to read her assistance’s brief. ‘Suave: popular wine of the 80s, currently fifty-seven wine producers in this area, Corta Allodola produces four vintages of interest, the cellar has won six prices in the last year, current owner Alberto Pozzi ….’
The history makes her uneasy, Suave was known as a heartless wine in the 80s, and she is unsure changes are worthy as yet. Hopefully it will be a short meeting and she can quickly carry out the work and be off to her hotel.
‘Buonasera’ a man’s calls from behind her.
'Oh Buonasera’ the foreign words feel unfamiliar in her mouth she recognizes the workman. ‘I could do with freshening up, I have been travelling all day, could you please show me the restroom.’
‘Please, follow me.’ The man leads her through the vestibule and indicated an oak door.
Alberto is painfully aware of the importance of this meeting for his business, entering the US market would be the ultimate success. He has read about Marissa Fox; the article said she needs to get inside the head and the land of the winegrower to understand the wine. He wonders what she will make of his head - he instinctively touches the healed gash through his hair three inches above his right temple. The church clock starts to chime. He counts, one, two - the same clock that has chimed for so many moments in his life - It is six o'clock.
Marissa appears moments later in the kitchen.
‘This is your home!’ she looks surprised.
‘Yes, Alberto Pozzi, please to meet you’ he holds out his hand.
‘I’m so sorry, I saw you up in the vines earlier; I wrongly assumed you were a labourer.’ she blushes and takes his rough hand into her smooth one for a firm handshake.
‘Scusi - for my appearance.’ Alberto’s hair is longer than usual, wiry with flecks of grey, his large checked shirt hangs from his shoulders, his corduroy trousers fastened with a belt. He has recently lost weight. He regrets not making an effort, he had forgotten the importance of first impressions.
‘No, no, really it’s me, one should never assume.’ She smiles.
In Alberto's office, Marissa sits down at the desk and proceeds with her battery of questions; production details, assemblages, market size. Alberto produces the relevant files and answers the questions with precision and detail.
‘Can you share with me your forecast for the next two years?’
Alberto looks out of the window his professional composure falters momentarily.
‘Please.’ He says quietly and raises his arm towards the door.
This time, Marissa rightly assumes they are off to wine taste. She has enough detail for now and is happy to comply.
In the vestibule, he pulls a pair of red clogs from the stand.
‘I think you may find these more practical.’ He hands them to her.
Marissa slips out of her high heel shoes and inserts her feet in the clogs; she is surprised by the fit.
‘We take the van.’ He says placing a basket in the back.
‘Is the cellar not here?’
‘Yes it is, but we’re not going to the cellar.’
She sits next to him in the small dusty vehicle, the two-stroke engine bursts into life and they wiggled their way out of the village and up onto the hillside, they pass the place where she had stopped earlier and carry on along sinuous roads. Marissa tries to start a conversation but the noise of the engine is too loud, the hot air from the open widows disturbs her hair, she lets her mind wonder and as it has done so all week it returns to the last day in New York just seven days ago. Her phone had beeped to signal an incoming message.
‘Hello Marissa, thank you for your message, and I am sorry for my late answer. I took time to think for a while about our reason to meet. I enjoyed our exchanges and conversation. I would appreciate staying in contact and sometimes go out for a dinner or drink. Kind regards, Roland.’
Sorry, exchanges, appreciated, enjoy, kind regards – what words were these. She certainly had no reason to meet Roland again after that message. Maybe she should just give up on finding love. These men did not know what they wanted.
Abruptly, the van stopped next to a stone-built hut on a dirt track.
‘This is my experimental plot, it is here that my inspirations come from.’ His arm gesticulates at the rolling hills in front of them, Alberto lets out a loud sigh and climbs out the van retrieving the basket from the back and opens up the hut.
Marissa struggles out of the van in her tight skirt and hobbles over to the vines. She is not used to the solid wooden soles. The views are breathtaking and she takes time to look all around her. She then focuses on the grapes hang in bunches, they are well tended and in good condition. The old clogs are surprisingly comfortable, she wonders who they belonged to. High above a kite squawks as it circles on a thermal. She walks on the churned earth amongst the vines taking notes and then, with some grace, moves over to the table; she makes herself comfortable on an old sun-bleached cushion. Alberto places four bottles and a number of wineglasses on the stone top table and bench and opens them in turn.
Peach, melon, honey, citrus zest, fennel seed and subtle notes of saltiness she writes.
‘It was good.' Albert breaks the silence.
Marissa is puzzled by the past tense and feels it is more of statement than a question.
‘It’s my life - all that you see here and what you have tasted.’ He waves his arms around again.
‘I have to say I am very impressed Mr Pozzi. ‘I will certainly be making a consideration.’
‘What is on the other side of the Alps Ms Fox?’
‘Yes, the Alps that you see here and that rise so sharply in the distance.’
‘Switzerland, or could it be Austria?’
‘I don’t know I have never been over those mountains, I have been on these hills, every season of every year.’ Alberto pours himself a glass of wine and takes long slow mouthfuls draining the glass.
‘I have never travelled, these hills and this wine was my calling I have given my life to it. I have never questioned myself.’
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking Ms Fox, how did you get into this business?’
‘I am lucky to have a good palette.’
‘I mean what path led you here, is your family into the wine business?
‘No not at all, I guess it was history’
‘I studied Eastern European Studies in the late eighties by the time I got my degree, the Berlin wall fell and all I knew about how a communist state was run was no more.’
‘That was unfortunate.’
‘I was not sure what to do then. I returned to Manhattan from London and I started working in an Italian restaurant. I remember one evening after my shift drinking a Sardinian Cannonau, and thought I would like to make my living from this. I applied and secured a place at the Sommelier school back in London.’
She never mentioned the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world, the many rejections and offences the extra effort that she had to put in. These setbacks had built her determination to succeed, she stayed focused on her objective and in so doing made sacrifices in her personal life.
Alberto broke the reflective silence that had descended on them.
‘It was lucky that the wall fell, you found your path.’
‘I guess it was’ she said hesitantly, ‘I had never thought of it like that.’
The wine was starting to make Marissa light headed, she was overwhelmed by emotion and felt a lump rise in her throat, she bit the side of her lip to pull herself together. She looked out over the landscape and although she could not see the town, again the church clock started to chime.
‘Gosh, is that the time.’
‘Are you hungry?’
‘Well actually yes, we should probably wrap up.’
Alberto puts his hand into the basked on the ground.
‘The cheese is local, made from goat’s milk, the fresh dattes however are from Iran. It is perfect with this wine.’ Alberto tops up both their glasses; he swirls the crisp clear liquid around the glass looking at it intensely and placing the glass back down sharply on the table.
Marissa closed her notebook.
‘Tell me about the land?’
She let herself be carried by Alberto accent. He talks of the geology, the village, the people. The monks for centuries cultivated the vines, the ledgers can be found in the castle, some over five hundred years old. Books written in quill about every season, each action meticulously recorded. His voice is soft, yet there is passion. He speaks of the work of this father, the changes, how his eldest daughter also has an exceptional palette.
‘No son then?’ Marissa regretted the words the minute she speaks them. She of all people should know that today that did not matter.
‘No’ he pauses, ‘my youngest Rosa still works with me, she already has her first wine. She is methodical and that works too.’
‘I am pleased to hear this. I would very much like to try her assemblage.’ She said trying to mend her faux pas.
‘Yes of course.’ Alberto fills their glasses and they both watch the last rays of sun as they disappear on the horizon.
Three years ago Alberto had closed the front door behind him and stood still in the vestibule, the house fell quite, for years a constant buzz of life and activity, now just emptiness. Eventually, Alberto swung his jacket onto one of the many empty pegs next to the door. As he removed his boots, he noticed his daughter Sacha’s wooden clogs left behind. Completely impractical, hard to walk in, despite his perpetual disapproval of her footwear she thumped around the winery in them, headstrong like him.
Alberto poured himself a drink and took it to the sitting room to collapse on the couch. The old leather sofa sighed under his weight, Grigia the farm cat, brought into the home to catch mice but chose the sofa instead, jumped up next to him and pushed her head against Alberto’s hand looking for affection. Alberto glared at each object around him. Photos of smiling faces, taken over the years stood static in their frames. He turned his eyes away from the sideboard and looked toward the window; the dull carmine velvet curtains hung downwards. Alberto remembered how Sacha would hide behind them as a child, each time she thought he would never find her, such innocence, such naivety. It had been years since they had played that game, but he could still hear her high screech.
Sacha had bolted at the first opportunity to leave. Alberto felt betrayed.
‘Sacha has the nose, but what can I say, she could have had it all but this was not enough.’
‘I was saddened when my eldest daughter left, but in so doing I discovered the hidden talents of my younger child.’ His smile deepens the wrinkles around his tired eyes. ‘I do apologise Ms Fox; this has not been an unconventional meeting.’
‘I am keen to see your cellar Mr Pozzi, and I am pleased to have discovered an absorbing wine that I would like to follow.’ She said helping herself to another piece of cheese and a datte.
‘That is the problem.’ Alberto looked down his smile gone, he ran his hand through his hair. ‘I am not sure you can follow.’
He had thought it was nothing when he smacked his head on the arm of the corking machine down in the cellar six weeks ago. He felt the warm trickle of blood and the taste of metal in his mouth. Alberto had sat at the kitchen table for days, his head raced, he felt sick. The pot of beeswax on the dresser, open, the pears on the table, sliced, the soup on the stove, simmering, and yet if he closed eyes and breathed deeply they might well have been not there. He could not even go to the cellar that had such a distinct odour but was not just clinical.
Doctori Citroni, the village physician, aged and used to the benign conditions treated with paracetamol or antibiotics appeared at a loss when Alberto dropped into his surgery a week later. True, the knock to the head may be responsible, but the Doctori had little experience in this area. He knew his limitations, and it is for this reasons he acquired the name of the top specialist and referred his patients. Citroni prescribed a battery of test and a name of a specialist in Milan. He advised Alberto to wait a few more days, in his experience, most ailments got better in that time.
During the next fortnight, Alberto occupied himself as best he could, he focused on menial jobs. He loathed it, but he could not afford to make any mistakes down in the cellar. He avoided his daughter Rosa, dismissing her when she called for his expertise to identify the level of fermentation of a vat. Reluctantly and after much reflection, Alberto dialed the Milan number to schedule an appointment.
Traveling by train he set off early, unfamiliar with the large city and eager to arrive promptly. The sunrise was glorious, and he reveled in the spectacle from the carriage window. Alberto had never noticed the colours of the clouds as sunlight hit them from beneath. Form the central station he walked with determination the remaining distance. The stark visual contrast of the city from his vineyards made him momentarily forget the reason for his visit. He crossed the Parco Sempione and lingered to watch the morning joggers and dog walkers. His life had been dedicated to the work of vines, up early, out in all elements, if this was lost who was he? He felt fear within, unsure if he could face the diagnosis and its implication.
The specialist carried out further tests including a CT scan. He had to return the following week, this time he spent the rest of the day discovering the city, he climbed the Cathedral steps and at the top was amazed to see the white capped mountains in the distance, he ambled into the Victorian shopping arcade and mused at the clothes in the windows of the designer shops, he discovered the bull in the mosaic floor. They say that if you place your right heel on his testicles and turn three times it will bring you luck. The mosaic pieces of the testicles are long gone. He places his foot where thousands have done so before him and turned.
The Specialist in Milan confirmed that the knock to the head had caused sensory deprivation. As for the prognosis, this remained vague. Patients often regain the lost senses after some time, weeks or months, a year, there was hope. Time would tell.
‘I guess my wall has come down. I have no idea what is on the other side. So to answer your question on forecast, I just don’t know.’
It was now dark, the waning moon shone brightly in a starry sky.
‘I am assuming I am the first to know?’
‘Si, Rosa was so excited about your visit; I thought that maybe I could pull it off. I could just continue and find a way.’ He took another gulp from the wine. ‘But I can’t.’
‘So you can’t taste what you have just swallowed or smell the flavours.’
‘I know it is wine, but its distinctiveness is lost on me.’ He rubs his face in his hands.
‘Iranian fresh dattes! What happened to Olives?’ she asks.
‘Did you not like them?’
‘I love them, I just did not expect them, and they tell me something about you. In my line of work I have to read people, read who they are to understand the wine they want to drink. I do that from what they say, but also in what they don’t say and what they choose to eat. This makes me good at my job. It does not mean it makes me successful in love.’ They both laugh.
‘You are single then?’
‘Since last week, yes.’
‘I am sorry, was it a long relationship.’
Alberto looks confused.
‘Years ago, I had the chance to settle down, I chose my work. I don’t regret my decision. I will be 50 next year and yes I would like to have someone with whom to share special moments. Someone to sit with and admire the night stars.’ She looks up into the sky.
‘My wife left me ten years ago, I worked too much.’
‘Working too much is something we have in common then.’
‘We also like beautiful land. I have seen tonight how much you appreciate it here.’
‘Please, not the word appreciate, and yes I have fallen in love with this land.’ She lets out a squeal.
Marissa leans over and takes Alberto’s hand in hers.
‘Now back to work, if I was choosing a wine for you, I see passion, this passion is your focus, it drives you, but your world has shifted and I see curiosity.
‘Are you sure you are not a fortune teller?’
‘I would choose a wine that holds adventure and mystery, something that would challenge you, push you into unknown territory.’
‘I don’t think I would like this wine, it seems too coarse.’
‘I think the time has come for you to leave your hillside and do some soul searching.’
‘Soul-searching? That sounds like something for a hippy from California, and anyway, that is impossible I am needed here.’
Marissa pulls her hand away.
‘No one is indispensable. I thought I was indispensable. I was wrong. My life outside of work is empty, or so I thought. Because just when I am not expecting it, I go somewhere exceptional, discover something incredible, and I let myself be led by that moment, and it is all worth it.’
‘I am not sure you fully understand, I can no longer do my work.’
‘What I am trying to say is that travel is a strange thing, it shakes you and allows you to see better. Tonight I know that I will be withdrawing my profile from the dating agency.’
‘But what am I to do with the winery? I can’t just walk away.’
‘Then don’t hand it to Rosa.’
‘She is just twenty-four.’
‘You said yourself she was good, provide her with a mentor, in fact, introduce her to me.’
‘For the first time in my life, I don’t know who I am.’ He whispers.
‘For the first time in my life, I know exactly who I am.’ She answers.
They spent the night together up in the stone hut talking trough options and as the sky was lightening Alberto was suitably reassured it could work. They drove down stopping at the cafe for strong coffee and a jam croissant. Marissa collected her shoes from the vestibule and drove to her hotel. She fell into a dreamless sleep and on awakening she rang New York to inform them of her plans. Marissa and Alberto had arranged to meet that evening in the Trattoria with Rosa. It would be a lot for the young girl, but anything is possible given the right support.
Marissa agreed to stay and Alberto agreed to go. He would start by crossing the Alps to the North just to see what was on the other side. She would start with a visit to the castle and the red clogs would be the perfect footwear for such a trip.