Saturday, March 26, 2011

winemaking at brunnenburg castle

I love wine. You know this. I thoroughly enjoy it's flavor, texture, complexity, I enjoy the way it enhances a homemade or restaurant meal, and I enjoy the warm, happy buzz it brings if I drink more than I probably should. Today I'd like to introduce Maria Rainer who, now, also likes wine. She's a fellow traveler who has offered to share her uniquely amazing experience with wine as a contribution to the Plates from Around the World series.

One night in Venice, I procured a box of white wine for €1. Nik de Rachewiltz, the grandson of Ezra Pound and 20-something winemaking entrepreneur of Brunnenburg Castle, looked at me with furrowed brows and shook his head.  “We can no longer be friends,” he said in his mild German accent.

I probably shouldn’t have then told him that, until I’d begun studying abroad in Italy two months ago, I’d never even liked wine, cheese, or pizza.
In my defense, I’d never had good wine, cheese, or pizza until that autumn of 2007 when I and eleven other college students began living in a small town called Dorf Tirol in the foothills of the Italian Alps.  Nearly every day, we studied poetry, European mythology, and agro-archaeology within the frigid stone walls of Brunnenburg Castle under the tutelage of Mary de Rachewiltz and her son Sizzo, daughter and grandson (respectively) of one of modern poetry’s daddies, Ezra Pound.

Then, at least once a week, we had “work day,” which we spent following Nik the winemaker around their enormous property, getting dirt and splinters beneath our fingernails.
Let me get something straight: I’m not opposed to hard work.  I’ve mucked my fair share of stalls and I’ve trained hard to earn my black belts in Karate and Tae Kwon Do.  In fact, we girls often worked harder than the boys, who could often be found strumming guitars and singing gibberish in the vineyards below us.  Still, I’d never found physical labor more difficult than I did making wine at Brunnenburg.

Often, the work was tedious.  We spent more than one week tying and untangling “twisty-ties” around the netting that protected the grapes from birds and large insects.  Other weeks, we cleaned the trellising wires (which the vines use to grow upward) of old vines after Nik had pruned them earlier.  During the harvest season, we learned to differentiate between “gut” (good) grapes and “schlecht” (bad) grapes before picking them off the vines and placing them gently into buckets.  Our hands were unbearably sticky by high noon and gnats, bees, and all sorts of critters suddenly found us fascinating.

Still other times, it was genuinely hard work.  I’d never held a pick-axe before—and dare I say it was an empowering experience?  We dug new holes on steep hillsides for new posts and fences for both the vineyard and to keep the various farm animals (including ducks, furry pigs, and goats) from wandering.  I also handled a pair of wire-cutters for the first time in my life in Italy, earning some nasty blisters along the way.

Other times, I thought I was going to die.  You think I’m kidding.  At the beginning of every autumn, Nik has the students unravel old netting that’s been in storage for months and gently adhere them to the vine posts.  Brunnenburg’s vineyard is large not only in terms of lateral but also in vertical distance, meaning one false step and you’re likely to get impaled by a vine post on the terrace below.  Tip-toeing around the edges of the terraces to get the netting on all sides of the grapes was quite literally a life-threatening experience.  So was the time I was cutting rogue roots from the edges of one such terrace and fell 10 ft backward and below onto gravel, spraining my wrist and bruising my ego.  I did, luckily, get one month free of dishwashing duty.
Whatever.  All those aches and pains were more than worth the wine we made in late November, near the end of our time at Brunnenburg.  All of the girls—even the ones who’d been too stubborn to shave their legs when the hot water had run out—hiked up our pants and stepped barefoot into a huge, wooden vat of the grapes we’d so painstakingly picked earlier in the season.  It was just after sundown, and we couldn’t tell but for the sweet smell coming up from beneath our feet and the squishy feeling between our toes what exactly we were accomplishing. 
After a few minutes of grape-stomping, we tracked feet-shaped pools of grape juice through the vineyard and watched the stars come out over the vast Merano Valley.  Some nights later, we gazed over the same landscape with a glass of wine made by our friends who had studied at Brunnenburg the previous year.  None of us wanted it to end.

Sometimes, years later and continents apart, I take a glass of wine and approach a window.  It can be on the first floor facing a highway or the third floor facing a forest—it doesn’t matter.  I smell the wine with closed eyes and open them, still expecting to see hill after hill of grapes down to a valley you swear goes on forever, in a place too sweet to exist.

Incredible, right?! Here's a bit more about Maria, a freelance writer and blog junkie: She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education where she writes about education, online universities, and what it takes to succeed as a student getting an online masters degree from home. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop. If you'd like to to participateplease email your favorite place, foodie memory and photos to Hope you're weekend is wonderful.


  1. Glad to see education continues there. My class went there in 1999. We didn't slog as you did though.

  2. I was there in 2003. I'll never forget Sizzo, Mary, Brigitte, and of course Cleo!

  3. I miss it so much!!! :9


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