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A Death In Tuscany

A Death In Tuscany

Book excerpt

Dedication

To Nonno Domenico, in whose footsteps I learned to make wine

Prologue

It took a long time for him to reach this decision. Standing now, as he was, hands resting on the stone wall around this loggia, “his porch,” peering out at the vines his grandfather had tended for so many years. “How will they fare?” he asked the wind that tickled his nose and rustled the leaves of grapevines heavy with fruit. “How will the vines prosper without Nonno Filippo to talk to them?”

The breeze brought the scent of evening flowers, sagebrush, and roasted meat to his nose. Could it be from as far away as Siena, lit now by the flickering lights of sunset, or from as close as the grill at the outdoor patio where his grape pickers gathered at this time of year? Or could the scent be stirred by his memories, a beckoning to his youth, a reminder of what life was like before he left this storied land?

The decision. It would become the most important moment of his life, but it took a lifetime of moments to reach it. After a childhood in the wine country of Italy, he had grown up in America, adopted its culture and accepted its passions, but he never forgot the passions of the Old World. He never forgot the lessons he learned from his grandfather, his nonno, as the Italians say, whose mastery of wine was itself a mastery of life.

The decision. It didn’t involve only him, Phil Trantino, the heir to the family’s wine estate. It involved everyone related by blood or sweat to the land that bore this fruit.

The decision. He knew from the beginning what it would be. Shaking his head at this moment, staring out at the vines, he accepted his fate. Then he smiled, because this was what he was born for.

The Way It Was

“Another?”

The single word was all I heard, but I awoke from my daydream at the sound. A waiter was standing next to the table, expressionless, but ready to take my order for another drink. The first Campari and soda had gone down well, and my thoughts at the moment seemed to beg for another glass of the soothing elixir.

“Yes,” was all I said. I wasn’t in the mood for conversation, but neither was the waiter. He walked away and let me return to my reminiscences.

I turned my attention to the blackness beyond the window of the airport snack bar. It was all a bit surreal now, recalling the years I'd spent working the vines and making the wines at Castello dei Trantini with my grandfather. He was dead now, the victim of a foolish accident at our family winery in Tuscany, and I was waiting for a plane that would take me home to Italy, to his funeral, to the empty rooms that once were filled with his laughter.

Although I had not lived at the Castello dei Trantini since I was a boy, my memories of it were clear. I could easily conjure up the morning mist over the vines, the blustery breezes that danced across the rolling hills of the estate, even the smell of the rosemary and sagebrush that lined the roads leading up to the Castello. But if, as some people say, the aromas of youth are with us always, I will always be able to imagine the scents of the vineyard and winery that occupied my early years.

It had always been so peaceful at our winery, the sort of peace that reminds you of how pure life can be in this world. My parents were living in one wing of the Castello when I was born, and even after taking up housekeeping in our own home nearby, my days were still filled with activities at Nonno Filippo’s side. At the Castello life was adorned with long, lingering meals, weekly tastings, vineyard talk, and animated discourses about food and wine, all taking place under the medieval tapestries with scenes of grape trodding and winemaking that hung from the stone walls embracing the roaring fireplace.

In the flicker of candlelight, Nonno Filippo would wax poetic about this or that vintage. My father would argue about his choice of wines, others would take sides, or just be satisfied with devouring the wondrous meals that were served every night. Arms would wave, toasts would be made to settle a point, and by the end of the repast, everyone would be sure he had won the argument. Each would go off to bed, simply happy at the closeness of the family, the comfort to be had from eating and drinking well, and the inscrutable pleasures of life in Tuscany.

For us, wine was life. It was the substance of our being, and I expected to grow into the business and take over operation of Castello dei Trantini when I was of age.

Blinking away the memories, I came back to the present and saw that a figure had appeared in the window’s reflection. When I turned, I saw that the waiter had approached. He could have just left the drink, but this time he seemed like he wanted to say something. Perhaps he noticed my melancholy mood. But I still didn’t want to have a chat with a perfect stranger, so I just took the drink and turned back toward the window.

Sipping lightly at the rim of the glass, I let the sweet bitterness of the Campari coat my throat. It was the signature drink of Italy, and at that moment, I understood better than ever why Italian working men often quaffed just such an aperitif to fortify their spirits when sad, mad, or confused.

Settling back into my reverie, my thoughts focused on the days in the vineyard. I lived at the Castello dei Trantini until I was twelve and I remember well the return trips I made with my parents after our emigration to America, how I always looked forward to running between the long rows of grapevines and playing hide and seek in the winery. Even the aromas that waft up from the neck of a newly opened bottle of wine remind me of the childhood pleasures of growing up in so idyllic an environment. I'm older now, but the serenity of those times makes it hard to picture my grandfather being pushed out a window that overlooked the estate.

But, wait, I said it was an accident, didn’t I? Perhaps I should start at the beginning.

The vineyards and winery at the Castello dei Trantini have been in my family for generations. My nonno, Filippo Trantino, inherited them from his nonno forty-five years ago, and he continued to produce fine wines in the quiet tradition of his ancestors. The estate represented an entire world to him and his extended family, but I had always felt a strong, personal connection to the vines and wines, and this bonded me even more closely to Nonno Filippo.

In fact, I had always considered him my best friend. When I was young, I would follow him about the winery all day, mimicking his actions — and cut a distinguished figure for doing so. When chastising an employee for a particular mistake in the winemaking process, he had a habit of standing with his hands clasped behind his back. S,o I assumed the same posture, standing at his side during the scolding, and would always elicit grins or outright chuckles from the worker being admonished. This would inevitably draw Nonno Filippo's attention, and his own amusement at the mimicry would terminate the session or have it degenerate into one of laughter and much joking about who was really the boss.

I learned grape growing and winemaking from Nonno Filippo during those walks around the vineyards and winery, and I learned the history of the Trantino family as well. He told me how his grandfather, Vito Trantino had started Castello dei Trantini many years ago, and how it had passed on to grandsons rather than sons. In Italy, the first son is named after the father's father, so every man's namesake is his firstborn grandson. Vito Trantino liked the significance of this naming sequence and decided that the winery would pass on through grandsons. As it turned out, his namesake was killed in an automobile accident, and Filippo, my grandfather, inherited the estate.

As a child, I would awake early each day and rush out to the fields to join in the chores of the day. The Tuscan sun shone brightly almost all the time and the summer weather was warm and soothing. Working in a field of vines is like other farming, laborious and sweaty, but being outside among those who were committed to their work made it easy for a young boy to be happy. And knowing that something as divine as wine would result always seemed to soothe the aching muscles.

Working in the vineyard offered its own excitement for a youngster, with no prodding necessary from parents to earn one's keep. So, I became a fixture in the annual cycle of the vines, learning to prune in winter, dress the rows in spring, nurture the fruit through the growing season, then pick the clusters of swollen grapes in fall. Making the wine was my greatest thrill, circling between the massive tanks and winemaking equipment while breathing in the heady fumes in the cool damp of the winery. And I was not deprived of my chance to sample the finished product, since Italians believe that wine is life, and even children should be brought up to respect and enjoy it.

Perched on the crest of a hill, with its long lines of grapevines stretching out in orderly rows down the slopes, and flanked by grey-green olive trees, the Castello dei Trantini is a place of extreme beauty, one you would expect to see depicted in the bright colors of some brochure inviting rich tourists to travel to Italy. In daylight, the burnt orange color of the stone walls stands in equal contrast to the green carpet below and the velvety blue sky above.

As the sun set, drawing the light down like a curtain, the lights of nearby Siena would blink on in the distance. This was a cue for me, even as a young boy, to go down the mountain and watch the sun set between the ramparts on the western side of the castle. As the last flames of sunlight were extinguished over the horizon, and the cool evening air swept in, I could hear soft music wafting up from the workers’ houses along the crest of the lower hill. This became a solid memory for me, the bedrock of my life in Tuscany, and recalling it always made me feel closer to the land and to the Castello dei Trantini.

My parents, Paolo and Lina Trantino, decided to emigrate to the United States many years ago. My father had grown up in the Castello, the second son of Nonno Filippo, and as a young man he met my mother at the university in Florence. After their marriage they remained in Tuscany, and initially they lived in a wing of the family’s castle. But as their children were coming into the world, my mother insisted that they live a discrete distance from the Castello to ensure a life of their own, so we moved into our own apartment in nearby Castelnuovo Berardenga.

After nearly fifteen years of marriage, they decided it was time to explore the opportunities that America had to offer. Their departure was ensured when my father was able to land a lucrative job as an engineer in Maryland through contacts of the family. So, at an age when I was not still a child and not yet a man, I was forced to leave my homeland and become an American.

I remember well standing beside the taxi that would take us away from the Castello dei Trantini. My parents were bidding final farewells to our family who had gathered for the occasion. My younger brother was already ensconced in the car.

I waited until everyone else was aboard to make my goodbyes to Nonno Filippo. I was already as tall as my grandfather. I looked into his eyes just as tears began to gather on his lower eyelashes. It was a quiet though wrenching goodbye, neither of us knowing how well we’d fare thousands of miles apart, but Nonno Filippo wanted to keep the momentum of our departure. After a brief hug and one last rustle of my hair, he pushed me toward the car and toward my life in America.

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