“Anni e bicchieri di vino non si contano mai” (Age and glasses of wine should never be counted). “Amici e vini sono meglio vecchi” (Friends and wine improve with age). “Il buon vino non ha bisogno di frasca” (Good wine needs no leafy branch.) “Buon vino fa buon sangue” (Good wine makes good blood.)
These are not calls to overindulgence. Rather, they are proverbs that express values which lie at the core of Italian culture: family, friendship, connection to the land, living life to the fullest. For Italians, wine is as much about a relationship with their culture and identity as it is about taste and experience.
An instructive and joyful expression of this relationship is Robert Crichton’s 1966 factual novel, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, later a 1969 film starring Anthony Quinn. Santa Vittoria is a small Tuscan village known for its vineyards and whose existence revolved around wine. At the end of World War II, after the fall of the Fascists in 1943, the residents of Santa Vittoria discovered that the Nazis were coming to occupy their town. When Italo Bombolino, Santa Vittoria’s bumbling oft-drunk mayor and other townsmen heard the news, they were strikingly unfazed. “We’ve expected it all along,” Bombolino said, “and there’s nothing much to be done about it.” But when Old Vines, a town elder, shouted “they are going to take our wine,” Crichton writes, “they seemed, for a time at least, to be turned into stone and to be so stiff that if they moved they would crack and fall into pieces on the stones.” Their stupefaction quickly turned into indignation and, with the leadership of a more focused Bombolino, they developed a scheme that included every man, woman and child to hide nearly a million bottles of wine. For working class Santa Vittoria residents, wine was their livelihood, their roots, their leisure time, their identity. As one of them shouted later on, “Wine is our blood.”
The importance of wine to cultural identity bridges class distinctions. The Antinori family has been in the wine business since 1385 when Giovanni di Piero Antinori became a member of the Winemakers’ Guild in Florence. Current family patriarch Marquis Piero Antinori is honorary president but his daughters Albiera, Allegra and Alessia, now run the business. Their headquarters remain in the 14th century Palazzo Antinori in Florence, and they have vineyards spanning Italy and California.
In a 2009 60 Minutes interview, Marquis Piero Antinori commented about how, over the centuries, the Antinori family made their mark in business, politics and religion, enmeshing the world of wine with almost every aspect of Italian life. Though now wine aristocracy, they, like the working class residents of Santa Vittoria, are connected to the land and to wine as a way of life. As Allegra Antinori said in the 60 Minutes interview, “I feel part of the land. I am owned by that land.” Albiera noted that the family still regards themselves as farmers and Alessia chimed in that “we appreciate nature and the countryside more than the glamorous city life.” For the Antinoris, wine, family loyalty and connection to the land are interconnected.
The centrality of wine to Italian cultural identity goes beyond business and the geographic boundaries of Italy. As a child during the 1950s, I occasionally helped my nonno Alberto, a Sicilian immigrant, make wine in the basement of his Brooklyn home. I can still remember the thick smell of fermentation, the aged wooden barrels, the stacked crates of grapes, the wine press with teeth and a big crank, and the shelves lined with label-less bottles of fresh wine. No doubt, these were a strong sensory connection for my grandfather to his working class Italian roots. For my grandfather—hardly an oenophile—wine wasn’t a hobby. It was about having a small drink (two fingers’ worth, horizontally, maybe three) in an ordinary table glass to accompany each meal. It was about passing some time in conversation connecting with friends and family. It was about one of life’s unquestioned, absolute routines. It was about pride in self-sufficiency. It was about maintaining a link to his Italian cultural identity.
And, of course, it is unmistakable that wine is a center of everyday life in contemporary Italy. Whether attending one of the many fall Tuscan harvest grape festivals or witnessing the Chianti-filled carts parading through Florence, enjoying a tasting at an azienda vinicola, grabbing a glass and a panino in the street, or fully indulging your senses in Florence’s sophisticated wine bar scene, wine is embedded in the fabric of everyday life.
In Italy, a country historically enmeshed in Catholicism, wine is not only the substance that becomes the sacramental blood of Christ; it is the lifeblood of culture and identity.