You can help save a 85 year old vineyard in the Monferrato region of Italy. They are fundraising on Indiegogo. They are running out of time. Their infomation is below also.
We are Michela and Georg, a couple living in Italy. We are desperately trying to find funds to save our 2.5 acres, 85-year-old Single-Vineyard. If not, it will be uprooted by law at our expenses and therefore lost forever.
There’s not much time left before the deadline for uprooting that has been established by the Agricultural Office of Piemonte on april 1st!
Michela works from home as an editor for a publishing company, Georg teaches German part time as a Lecturer at Torino University and does some writing for children and translations.
4 years ago we bought half of an old farmhouse in Moncucco Torinese, nestled in the hills of Monferrato 30 km south-east of Torino. These rolling hills form a wonderful landscape and are full of wine and history. So far we have managed to renovate only a part of our farmhouse but we had to stop any further work simply because the money is tight. But that is not why we are here! If you want to know more about our place, have a look at this article. Less than 50 meters from our house are the ruins of the castle of Pogliano already known as early as in the 13th century.
Together with the farmhouse came 2.5 acres of an old vineyard that produces Freisa–wine.
Here you find an interesting article in English about Freisa (and the first picture of the article is about 1 km from our vineyard, which lays halways to the castle of Moncucco Torinese!)
A living example of bio-diversity
The vineyard was planted at the very end of the 1920’s and therefore is amongst the oldest implants of vineyards in the whole region. Some of the single roots contain genoma that today are either extremely rare to find or have not been mapped before. Therefore, this vineyard is a symbol of bio-diversity, but it risks to be uprooted by law..
The vineyard came as part of the property but we didn’t know anything about vineyards and wine-making. For some 20 years a farmer had leased the vineyard for a low annual fee from the old house-owner, doing all the work and selling the grapes to the “Cantina Sociale” (wine-cooperative) of Castelnuovo Don Bosco. He agreed on keeping things the way they were with the previous owners and we signed the contract. So we figured we’d have plenty of time to deal with the vineyard after the renovation of the house. The vineyard was looked after by the farmer and we concentrated on the house and on the vegetable garden.
Things were not as they seemed to be
After we moved in, we noticed that the farmer was keeping the vineyard with decreasing effort, letting it gradually slip out of control. He simply was getting too old. In order to keep a vineyard in shape, during winter you have to prune and tie each plant with great care, replace rotten stakes with new ones and control the wires in case they are not strong enough to sustain plants with 8 – 10 bunches or during storms. Once the stakes start to tilt, a tractor can’t get in between the rows and at once the whole vineyard gets out of control very fast.
The picture below was taken when we started the work on the house. Even if you don’t know much about vineyards, you can clearly see how badly all stakes were tilted and that the weeds were totally out of control.
The old farmer told us he hadn’t felt well lately and needed to retire. What a blow. We had to take a decision, and fast. No farmer nearby was willing to step in, considering the state the vineyard was in. We called friends, searched for experts on vineyard-farming, met a number of people and asked for their opinion. After long discussions we decided to take on the work ourselves. We knew it would be a hard task. We had no idea how hard it would have been…
This is a detail how parts of the vineyard looked 3 years ago!
In the pic above you see the terrible shape the stakes and the weeds are in the part of the vineyard we couldn’t get under control.
Here I’m working in the “good” part with a little help from a friend.
Here you see what a battle it is to get things under control once you allow wild trees and bushes to grow!
A stroke of luck
Amongst many others, we talked to Mario Casalegno, (a professional wine-maker with a degree in viticulture and “agrotecnico”). Living nearby, he came to look at our vineyard. He was thrilled by the age of the vines, the wonderful exposure and soil, that would guarantee excellent wine. He said he would help us out as much as possible (for free in the first season) with the tasks of the vineyard, come by with his tractor for the necessary treatments against major grape diseases, for the milling and to help us keep the expenses to a minimum. Most of all, Mario said he would do the wine-making in his professional cellar… not for money, but in return for a little bit of our wine. Because he is a professional oenologist and undergoes quality control, the location of our vineyard and his wine-making will mean that our wine would have the official Italian and international registered designation of origin (D.O.C). But most of all, it’s top quality-wine.
So that was a new start with high hopes…
Michela is very good at pruning!
What we have done so far
We are now into our third year. The good news is that we managed to clean and maintain slightly more than a fourth of the whole vineyard. Mario came over many times and talked us through every step. It was no piece of cake, but hard work. For this recovery, we have each put every year more than 500 hours’ work in. And the results are:
- this first part of the vineyard has been thoroughly pruned throughout the last 3 years, thus verticalizing again the vine-plants, giving them new strength and stamina;
- the worst 250 – 300 tilted stakes have been replaced, all by hand, mostly replanting the old wooden stakes in new holes about a meter deep. We bought approximately 80 fairly new stakes replacing missing or rotten ones;
- all missing/old wires were replaced by new ones (there are 4 wires running between the stakes);
- we cut and uprooted hundreds of small trees that had started to grow between the rows.
- we took care of most of the weeds growing underneath and between the rows by hand and with a trimmer (which is a very important and time-consuming task!);
- we did all of the disease-management treatments with a backpack sprayersince no tractor could pass through the “bad part” of our vineyard.
During harvest 2013 we managed to produce 800 liters (210 gallons) of wonderful wine from the “good part”.
Mario concentrating on his old hydraulic press
this is how the “good part” of the vineyard looked like in September 2015:
We replanted the stakes (except the row on the right, at that time we were working on it) in the “good part” of the vineyard (the weed was cut with a trimmer shortly after we took the pic).
There is nothing in nature that gets out of control so fast as a vineyard, and if you don’t prune in winter you have no grapes in autumn. The weeds grow fast, the plants grow wild and start crawling in every direction (without production of grapes), the stakes tilt and everything turns into a jungle within a year.
The bad part of the story
2014 was an extremely bad year for wine-makers. In spring it started to rain and temperature dropped. And this didn’t stop for months. The plants caught grape diseases such as powdery and downy mildew, black rot, phomopsis. (See here for further info). Unluckily the rotten weather didn’t stop and it rained every single day until harvest time, which was the worst case scenario, simply because you can’t treat when it rains. Speaking about bad luck: it was the worst year in vine-making in the last 100 years in Piedmont – and had little to do with our inexperience. Even our 60 tomato-plants died of fungi. Because of the rotten weather, the ministry of agriculture gave authorization for spraying hard-core fungicides. We discussed the matter and preferred to lose our entire harvest rather than use chemicals that alter the plants’ DNA and end up inside the wine you drink. Sometimes Nature decides against us, and we had to accept it, even if for us it meant losing sales of more than 900 gallons of wine. That sum would have gone into putting the vineyardinto good shape. Mario too had big troubles with his own vineyard and we didn’t see him for over three months.
Losing the complete 2014 harvest
Without fungicides, we watched thousands of bunches of our vineyard rot before our eyes. We didn’t even need to harvest, because there was not a single grape left on the branches. What we didn’t know was that one of the various diseases that affected our grapes had also crippled the shoots that in spring 2015 would have grown to become future stems, then branches and in the end produce bunches. So we should have used the hardcore treatment after all, even had we decided not to make wine out of our grapes because we had used chemical fungicides.
The consequences of a bad year: bad can get worse
The bad year cost us any income from our wine we had hoped for. Also, the two of us had simply not enough time to take care of such a great amount of work. We did what we could and gave it all the time we had.
If we don’t get very lucky, the bad part of the vineyard will be uprooted within this year. Uprooting means that the wires have to be torn away, each and every stake will be torn out and every plant will be cut at least 1 meter below the ground (otherwise they shoot again). All this has high costs and we can’t do it on our own. For uprooting you need 5 – 6 men and a tractor for more than a week. And the expenses – some 4.000/5.000 € – would nearly be enough to put our vineyard back to shape.
This would be a terrible blow and not an acceptable solution; this is not the way we want to deal with our vineyard. We know that with Mario’s help the vineyard will produce 900 gallons of wonderful wine in two years’ time… if only we had the chance to save it. We feel it’s important to bring it back on its feet and into production. It’s not for the sake of money, but because it is 85-years old and in a perfect histoical position. Yes, it will always produce less wine than modern vineyards, but such a wonderful wine is worth every effort. And that’s why we are here asking for your help.
With a bit more money than the uprooting would cost, we can manage to save a whole vineyard, and thus keep it in shape for years to come!
What we will try to do (and the relative costs):
- Get rid of the weeds and wild tree-shoots: 2.000 €;
- New stakes ( for a reasonably low price): 2.000 €;
- New wires: 500 €;
- Plant the stakes and fix the wires: 1.500 €;
- Pay a farmer with a tractor to do the necessary 6 – 8 treatments in 2016 plus mill between the rows: 1.000 €
Total: 7.000 €
We do not want to get rich. We need at least 7.000 € to get the remaining old part of the vineyard in working shape and producing again by 2017. And we can’t even think of planting the new stakes by hand, because we’re talking about 500 stakes at least (on a long working day I manage to plant about 10 – 12 new stakes by hand, and fix/change the wires). All this has to be done before the plants start to shoot, which is about the beginning/middle of April. Also, the stakes have to be paid for. The total amount of work is so high that we need at least 1.500 € for two or three specialized farmhands with a tractor who first get rid of the old stakes and then plant the new ones by ramming them a meter deep into the ground with the tractor-bucket. Only afterwards we can put in new wires, prune the plants and tie them to the wires.
Cow dung is good for our organic vegetable-garden. In Italy, actors wish good luck to each other by saying “dung” before going on stage. So maybe this helps our vineyard, too?
What happens if we don’t reach the necessary funding?
Should we end up with less than we need to cover all the expenses for the whole vineyard, we will employ the funds for saving the “bad part” of the vineyard. The lesser money we will receive, the lesser of the vineyard can be salvaged (For example with 4.000 € we can modernize only about half of the “bad part”). In this case, part of the expenses of point 1. would necessarily go into the uprooting of the vineyard we were not able to modernize… it’s impossible to leave it as it is for one more year.
Here you can see a pic from today (1/12/16). Beautiful morning to work in the vineyard! What a difference between the “good” and the “bad” part (looks more like a jungle)! The lower row needs new stakes, that’s where I will be going soon.
Depending on how much funds we will receive, we could eventually decide to pay for point 1. and the pruning of all plants of the vineyard (without pruning there will be no future production of grapes) and make at least sure that a tractor can be used between the rows for the treatments. This would leave the problems of putting in new stakes and wires, but the plants pruned, the weeds cut and the milling done by tractor would give us another year’s time to somehow buy new stakes, eventually funded in part by the sales of our wine in two years’ time. It’s going to be tough, but we care for environment and Nature and work our land as much and as good as we can. We planted and keep an organic vegetable-garden that gives us fresh organic vegetables all year round. We also planted fruit-trees and had solar panels installed on our house roof. We are extremely conscious about not increasing the industrial agriculture that makes people believe you can bend Nature at your will, that you can eat whatever you want in every week of the year. We believe in sustainability and try to protect our environment, using the absolute minimum of chemical treatments for our vineyard and the wine, while industrial agriculture with consumer-centered laws alters the equilibrium we should strive to maintain.
Are there other ways to help us without donating money?
It’s possible, but it’s up to you.
One way for you to help us would be coming over to our place in Moncucco Torinese for some days or a week, possibly in two or three, and give us a hand with the work in the vineyard.
What you can do depends on whether you are experienced with pruning or not. If so, Michela would show you how to do it here, because every region requires a different pruning. If not, there are hundreds of stakes to be uprooted and new ones to be planted, old wires to put up, weeds to cut… There are so many things to do…
In this case Mario (who has in his farmhouse a small “agriturismo” would give you free boarding and we would, happily, make sure that you don’t starve nor be thirsty!
Have a look at our perks, if you have a little time left.
What happens if the funding exceeds our goal?
We don’t even want to hope for this! But, of course, we are very concerned about the vineyard every day. There would be other things we urgently need in order to get it really going strong in the next years.
– a small second-hand tractor;
– design and produce state-of-the-art labels for our bottles;
– high-quality empty bottles (yes, bottles do cost, too);
– try to go totally organic (which is more time-consuming and thus expensive).
So, rest assured: nothing will be wasted
What is Freisa? (Sorry, but we need to sketch a short history of wine-planting in our area)
Freisa is a very old native red wine, amongst the oldest native wines of this area, mentioned already in the 16th century.
“Freisa can be a wonderful wine with structure, and those typical, intense notes of blackberry, raspberry and freshness. Barrel aging can contribute to such balance.”
DNA researchers discovered that Freisa is the genetic “grandfather” of Nebbiolo, and therefore of Barolo. Nevertheless, in the past 40 years the area dedicated to Freisa has shrunk drastically. In the 70s, phylloxera hit so hard that most of vineyards in Piedmont had to be replanted (luckily ours survived). Most farmers at this point decided to change wine variety, because Freisa, at this point, was the Cinderella of vine-plants; it neither had the high production-rate per acre nor the appeal that Nebbiolo or Barolo were starting to build. Big and medium wine-makers switched to other native grapes that produce 40% more wine per acre with better selling varieties for the fast-growing international customers.
As a result, Freisa has become increasingly rare. Estimations say there are only some 2000 hectares of Freisa left in Piemonte.
It’s a questionable victory of modern marketing and mechanization over thousands of small-end medium wine-producers, which means that this excellent, astonishing, full and rich native wine (alc. 12,5% maintaining its wonderful organoleptic qualities well over 10 years in a bottle) is slowly going down memory lane.