Wine is a staple Italian beverage; you’ll find it on any table in Italy. The wine here at Monestevole is a bit different from others around the country: it was made here, on site. At TribeWanted Monestevole, both red and white house wine flows out of clear glass bottles every lunch and dinner – the supply is seemingly endless. As I sat down to talk with Filippo, the founder of TribeWanted, I understood why.
Monostevole’s property contains a vineyard that is 1 hectare (2.5 acres) in size, home to around 2,000 grape plants that produce around 1,500 liters of biodynamic wine annually. Around 85% of these plants grow 4 different species of red grapes, most of which are Sangiovese grapes, while there remaining plants produce 3 different species of white, most of which are Grechetto grapes. The grapes are harvested annually, meaning that they only produce fruits once every year. The plants begin to produce fruits early spring, normally sometime during March. Once the leaves begin to grow, they are tied, pruned, and fertilized with manure. Poltiglia bordolese, an organic pesticide that has been used since the ancient Roman times, is placed on the plants when it starts to get hot, around May or June, and re-applied after every rainfall.
In July, once small grape clusters begin to form, the vine is once again trimmed. This time clusters of the fruit themselves are cut away until only around 10 are left on the plant. I was surprised by this; why would they reduce their yield? Filippo explained that the grape plant only produces a certain amount of sugar every season, which is distributed to all of its grape clusters. The more clusters you have, the less sugar each grape contains, meaning that the wine will be a lot weaker in terms of alcohol content, even though much more of the liquid will be produced.
These grapes are ready for harvest in early fall, normally in the beginning of October. Before the plants are picked, the grapes are measured for their babo (sugar level). The fermentation rate of sugar to alcohol is around 66%. First, the white grapes are harvested, then the red grapes about a week later. The plants then lie dormant until next March, when the cycle begins again.
Filippo says that everything relies on that year’s weather, and that yields can have a difference of around 2 to 3 times the amount of grapes produced depending on the season. 2015 was a good year, he said, producing wine with an alcohol level of 14.5% – which is quite high, especially for wine. 2015 was a much better harvest than this year’s, when two large bouts of hail fell on the vineyard during the month of July, thereby harming the grape plants and lowering the quality of this years’ yield. Beyond hail, there are so many things that can affect the condition of the grapes. According to Filippo, water and sunlight are the most important factors to the health of a grape plant, while the soil quality isn’t so significant.
Once the grapes are harvested, they’re ready to be made into wine. There’s a difference in the red and the white winemaking process. The first step is the same in both types, the grapes go directly into a machine that removes their stems while also pressing the grapes themselves. They differ in that the white grape liquid and grape skins go directly in the Torchio, a wooden machine that presses the grape skins, squeezing every last drop of liquid from them. Within the hour, the white liquid is put into stainless steel tanks and left to sit until it is ready to be drunk. The red process is a little more complicated. Before it goes into the Torchio, it sits in a stainless steel tank for 10 days, left to ferment until the sugar in it becomes alcohol. This fermentation process begins to take place within 24-48 hours. Most of what is in the tank, about 90%, is liquid, the rest is grape skins that naturally float to the top. These skins have to be pressed and pushed into the liquid every 6 hours for all 10 days in order to make sure that they are also partaking in the fermentation.
The juice in this tank is purple, which both surprised and delighted the Earthbound students who had come to watch the wine being made. Those of us at the legal Italian drinking age who received special permission from our parents were allowed to taste-test the violet-colored liquid once it was done fermenting. Many people said they found it to be “sweet,” “watery,” or “bitter” – much unlike the deep and rich red wines we were used to tasting. That’s because the wine wasn’t done yet.
After the 10 days are over, the liquid and the grape skins get separated: the liquid is put directly into the stainless steel tanks to sit for over 6 months, while the skins are put into Torchio, again to squeeze out all the remaining juice. The liquid squeezed from the red grape skins is the only thing not to be put into stainless steel tanks. Instead, it goes into a large oak crate. This crate is special – all the best wines are made using wooden containers, as the wine left to sit there actually absorbs the flavors of the previous years’ wine and the wood itself. Filippo says that the wine made in the oak crate is said to have more body, which most people prefer.
The best thing about the house wine comes in the form of sulfites, or lack thereof. Sulfites are preservatives that occur naturally in wine (in small amounts) and are also added chemically by most wine distilleries. Chemically-added sulfates are what give you a headache the morning after enjoying even one small glass of wine. While all bottled wines have this added preservative in them, Monestevole’s wine that is made and drunk onsite doesn’t contain any extra sulfites, leaving those who drink it headache-free the next day.
But this dedication to making biodynamic wine that is preservative-free comes at a large cost.
“The quickest way to make a small fortune is to take a big fortune and start making wine,” Filippo said, chuckling as he recounted the old Umbrian saying.
I looked at him with a clearly puzzled expression on my face.
“Anything we make here I can buy for cheaper,” he explained, “absolutely nothing we make here we make because it’s economically advantageous.”
Filippo says that the wine they make here in Monesevole costs around 7 euros a liter to produce, whereas they could buy a liter of similarly-made organic wine from their neighbors for only 2.5 euros – that’s a massive difference, especially considering the fact that they produce and drink over 1,500 liters a year here. To be specific, this massive difference is a difference of 6,750 euros every year. Hearing this, I was flabbergasted.
“So why do it?” I asked.
Filippo laughed. He gave me many reasons: students and visitors who come to Monestevole like to participate in the tradition of winemaking, it’s a fun process, it’s a tradition, it’s part of the experience of living and working on a farm in Italy. “I also took up the vineyard for my dad,” he recalled, explaining that his father wanted to produce wine once he retired. But no reason seemed as paramount in the decision to make wine as the fact that it was a heritage product, making it even more special.
“Anything else you want to know?” Filippo asked as we wrapped up the conversation.
I hesitated, then tentatively responded: “Is it good?”
He smiled knowingly. “Do you want to try?”
My ‘yes’ came fast. Filippo laughed, stood up to grab the clear glass bottle full of the deep red liquid, and poured me a small glass. He told me there was no way that I could do all this research about their wine without trying it.
“Saluté,” I said as our glasses touched.
“En vino veritas,” he replied, “In wine lies the truth.”
And, with that latin saying, the story was complete.
As I sat on an old wood bench and listened to Filippo’s excited Italian accent, full of laughter, tell me stories of wine and the disasters he’d encountered making it, I realized why TribeWanted spent thousands of euros and hours upon hours of intense physical labor every year in order to produce a beverage that could be bought for way cheaper.
Viticulture in Umbria, and in all of Italy, is as old as written history shows; it’s built into the land’s past. When Filippo bought this property, he also inherited the practice of winemaking. Around half of the grape plants in the vineyard were already here, some over 50 years old, just waiting to be harvested and turned into a rich vino. The tradition of making wine was something that TribeWanted simply had to continue – it’s just a part of having an organic farm in Italy. Filippo says that he’s uncertain if he would’ve picked up viticulture if he could go back and do it all over again, but somehow I find myself doubting him. Winemaking is one of Italy’s heritage products and, from the smiles on the faces of all the Monestevole staff as they sit around the table, chattering away and sipping the vino they made themselves, I don’t believe for a second that they would have it any other way.