The Art of Drinking: educating young people on the culture of winemaking and drinking in Italy
Diana Zahuranec came to Italy as a study abroad student in 2009. After graduating in Cultural Anthropology, Italian, and International Studies from Penn State, she earned a Master’s in Food Culture and Communication from the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo.
Today Diana works as a journalist, translator, and editor for Wine Pass, an online magazine in Italian and English about wine and wine tourism in Piemonte based in Alba. This past June, she guided TEC’s group from De La Salle High School through a visit to the Fontanafredda winery. The students came from Minneapolis to Turin for a two-week trip (June 11-25) focusing on food science: “From Field to Table.”
How do I talk about wine and its cultural and culinary importance in Piemonte to American high school students without crossing any lines? The students from De La Salle high school were 16-17 years old and came from a culture where drinking alcohol often has very different associations to it than it does in Italy. Any Piemontese – or Italian – has grown up with wine on the table at dinner (and sometimes lunch), drives their car by vineyards regularly, and perhaps even has a winemaker in the family or as a friend. Students from Minneapolis will have an utterly different outlook.
The De La Salle students were touring Turin and its surrounding territory with Turin Educational for two weeks. I was to spend a day with them while they ventured into wine country. My goal was to describe what wine means here, to Italians, while keeping in mind my American perspective, what it once meant to me in the US – and what it will consequently come to mean to these students as they go to college and become adults.
Wine, I explained as the bus drove through vineyards towards the Fontanafredda winery in Serralunga d’Alba, is integral to Italian culture. It is so important that the vineyard landscapes we were driving through in the Langhe were included on the UNESCO World Heritage List as the Viticultural Landscape of the Langhe-Roero and Monferrato. It is not just beautiful scenery; the vineyards represent a way of life that has caused the Piemontese to shape the landscape indelibly. They cultivate vineyards and make wine as a major economic activity. They consume wine regularly as part of their diet. Being a winemaker in Piemonte and Italy means dedicating your life, year-round, to producing wine.
Speaking of “diet,” wine is part of the Mediterranean triad, an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. The diet was born from the Seven Countries Study carried out in 1954 by Ancel Keys (though the term “Mediterranean diet” was coined in 1975). Researchers evaluated the cardiovascular and overall health, diet, activity, and lifespan of the inhabitants of these Mediterranean Sea-bordering countries. The people of Crete and southern Italy, they discovered, lived the longest. Their sustenance was the Mediterranean diet: they ate red meat just a few times a month; dairy, poultry, and fish a few times a week; and vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, and legumes daily. Another daily habit? Drinking wine.
The Mediterranean triad was the three-point base of their daily food intake: 80% of their calories came from grains, olive oil, and grapes – as in, wine.
Wine has been shown, time and again, to be healthy – in moderated amounts, I continuously stressed. Regular, moderate consumption has been positively correlated with all sorts of health benefits, from having a lower mortality rate to a healthier heart than non-wine drinkers. Not only is wine nutritionally healthy, but it encourages a more moderated consumption of food. Wine is never drunk outside the context of a meal in Italy, unless you’re at a wine tasting event, I explained. In American TV shows or films, you’ll often see (mostly women) pour a wine glass three-quarters full to relax or accompany her work or a movie. This is rare in Italy. Alcohol is not a means to an end, as it often is in college, parties, and so on in the U.S. Drinking wine daily has been a normal part of life for thousands of years here. It is a part of living, not an indulgent treat.
I also briefly explained winemaking, as these students were visiting a winery for the first time. While winemaking is simple at its core, its operations get ever more complex when the process of fermentation, choice of barrel, grape varieties, terroir, ageing, and bottling are brought into the equation. This way, when they toured the cool, dark cellars at Fontanafredda, they wouldn’t be hearing “maceration,” “destemming,” or “Nebbiolo” for the first time. After learning about everything from harvest to crushing and ageing to fining, perhaps some will be inspired to look further into winemaking! Who knew, maybe there were future winemakers among us.
After the tour, as the bus drove back to Turin, we stopped by La Morra for the best view in the Langhe. High up at the top of the town in Piazza Castello, the vineyards below us spread out as far as the eye could see. Here, the extent of the importance of winemaking to the fabric of Piemontese lives, their history, and their culture, was clear. Wine is not just a liquid found in a bottle on the supermarket shelf. Wine is everything we could see in the hills and wineries that surrounded us; in the grape-stained hands of producers; and in the glasses by plates at dinner.