From the moment of his arrival in the Italian countryside, Jake was struck by the familiarity of the terrain. He sensed he had seen similar scenes elsewhere; the vineyards they passed on their several trips to and from Fiuggi, high in the mountains, as well as the forests of olive trees, seemed to harken to past summer days he had spent abroad.
Finally, it hit him. The Italian countryside resembled in close detail the agricultural fields Jake had visited in, of all places, Israel! The land of milk and honey could very well be known as the land of wine and oil. Jake wondered if the first Jewish slaves imported to ancient Rome 2000 years earlier by the emperors Titus and, later, Hadrian, had not noticed the similarity of the eco-culture they had left far to the east. After all, both Rome and ancient Israel were part of the Mediterranean basin with similar climates and growing seasons. Had their familiarity with winemaking and olive oil cultivation allowed the new Jewish arrivals to more quickly adapt to their new exile, as difficult as it might otherwise have been? wondered Jake. These and other questions remained theoretical to him in the following days. However, Jake’s daughter had other, more practical, ideas. As the Rabinowitzes completed their first week in Fiuggi, she suddenly offered this suggestion:
“Why don’t we visit a vineyard while we’re in Italy?” Marissa suggested to her parents. It was at breakfast following their memorable Shabbat Nachamu weekend with the Chofetz Chaim contingent.
“I know there are vineyards up north, but it’s too far a ride from Fiuggi,” answered Jake, not wanting to consider a lengthy trip to Tuscany.
“Ask our tour guide if there are any closer to here,” suggested Belle.
To Jake’s surprise, Davide informed them that a kosher winery existed not too far away along the coast south of Rome. They welcomed visitors and provided wine tastings as well. The Rabinowitzes instructed Davide to make all necessary arrangements for a visit, and so two days later the minivan set out on their excursion.
The winery, on the property of the Cantina Sant’Andrea in the small village of Terracina in the province of Lazio, was operated by several generations of Italian winemakers, the Pandolfos. Gabriel Pandolfo was the senior owner, ably assisted by his son, Andreas III, who would graciously welcome all guests upon their arrival.
The region in which the vineyard was located had a legendary history during ancient Roman times, but throughout medieval and later times, had been known more for its swampy terrain. This area southwest of Rome contained mosquito-infested marshes that bred pestilential diseases such as malaria. It was only during the early 20th century that relief came to the area through drainage of the swamps and land reclamation projects that allowed for agricultural development on the newly available arable lands. Vine cultivation in particular benefited from the rich soil.
The area had also been the scene of major, bloody battles during WWII, as the Allied army had landed in Italy at the Mediterranean beach at Anzio, located a mere 15 miles away from the vineyard.
“Welcome to our home. Our vineyards,” greeted Andreas, a tall, blond Italian, about 40 years old, as the Rabinowitzes descended from their van. “Come inside our azienda agricola to see our large wine selection.”
Jake explained that the Rabinowitzes were interested specifically in the kosher wines that were produced there. At the mention of the word “kosher,” Andreas brightened.
“Ah, we produce much kosher wine here. At the moment, we are not bottling any wine as it is not the proper season. But I would be happy to show you around our facilities so you can see how we produce the wine,” he continued.
Andreas then led the visitors through the sun-drenched vineyards, stopping every so often to grab a bunch of grapes from the ripening clusters: merlot, cesanese, pino and moscato to name a few. After about 15 minutes, Andreas stopped in front of a low-slung building and beckoned to the Rabinowitzes to follow him inside.
“This building is under construction at this time. We plan in the future to invite visitors, say parties of four or five at a time to stay overnight and sample our wines at their leisure. Currently, we offer kosher wine and cheese tasting to you, if you desire.”
“Let’s do it!” said Marissa, and her parents concurred. Soon they were sitting around a freshly laquered oak table in a cool, well-lighted, paneled room. Andreas entered carrying blocks of freshly prepared ricotta and mozzarella cheese, all marked as kosher supervised. He placed the warm edibles in front of the Rabinowitzes along with plastic utensils with which they could carve slices, if not slabs, of the still-warm cheeses.
“I would like to offer you a tasting from four of our most popular kosher wines. They range from sparkling and sweet to hybrids with complex flavor.”
In quick succession, Andreas poured samples of a Spumante, followed by a semi-dry Pino Grigiot, a Doucemente crafted from rare Cesanese grapes and, finally, a wine that his visitors were quite familiar with, a sweet white moscato. Alternating sips of the various wines with mouthfuls of the fresh cheese, the Rabinowitzes were soon stuffed to the gills, if not a little tipsy. That was fortunate because they had forgotten to bring lunch with them from the hotel.
“How much non-kosher wine do you produce each year?” Belle asked after placing her wine glass on the table for the last time.
“Most of the wine we produce here is kosher, because we can always sell that wine to the non-kosher marketplace; the reverse is not true.”
The wine and cheese party lasted about 45 minutes, following which Andreas led the Rabinowitzes on a detailed tour of the wine-making facilities secured in many places by Hebrew-marked locks and other designations that the equipment—then idle—should not be disturbed, assuring all proper kosher supervision was maintained.
“Where are the wine presses? Jake asked, conjuring in his mind barefoot Italians stomping on an assortment of grapes, historically an integral part of winemaking throughout the world.
“Oh, no,” Andreas laughed. “We haven’t stomped on our grapes for many years now. It’s, how you say, messy, and not too sanitary! Everything is fully automated at our facility.” Jake was quite satisfied with Andreas’ explanation; Jake’s slave ancestors, however, he thought, would likely have been perplexed by the changes in the winemaking process modernity had brought.
After completing the tour of the facilities, Jake and his group worked their way back to the hacienda and its shop where they purchased various colorful wine-related paraphernalia, including spigots and stoppers. They noted the many varieties of kosher wine produced under the Cantina label and promised Andreas they would be sure to purchase his wine upon their return to the States. Andreas, friendly to them throughout their visit, reminded them that he hoped other travellers would come to the winery in the future.
“As I told you before, we plan to operate a small bed and breakfast for visitors who wish to stay overnight at our piccolo casa! Tell your friends to come visit!”
Jake still had visions of future Jewish guests stomping on grapes with their bare feet.
“I can sense what you’re thinking,” Belle said, “but, no, there won’t be any stomping at this vineyard!”
With their wine-related booty safely packed in their van, the slightly inebriated Rabinowitzes drove back to the mountains of Ciocheria, Fiuggi and their now-beloved Grande Palazzo Della Fonte, a mere 40 miles away to the northeast.
When they finally returned to New Jersey weeks later, Jake rushed to the local liquor store. To his amazement, 10 different varieties of wine produced at the vineyard were on sale under the Cantina label. In the ensuing weeks, whenever Jake opened one of the many bottles he purchased, he couldn’t help thinking of his ancient ancestors, if not the modern vineyard visitors, stomping on the fragrant grapes of Lattium to make a potent brew.
By Joseph Rotenberg
Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to the Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.