Wisdom of the Wine-loving Wolf

A travel story by Paolo Zerbini

We left early in the morning, the day after the party. I’d turned 30. Why wake up? The Wolf had borrowed a tractor and 20 sturdy plastic trays, some red, and others the yellow of turmeric. He’d started to make good wine. One evening we polished off a whole demijohn, then I promised him that the next harvest I’d travel down to help him. It was a mistake: the Wolf always remembers the promises people make him. It might have been the crack of dawn the day after my party, but the Wolf wasn’t hearing any excuses: that Sunday it was harvest time. As luck had it, we couldn’t start before nine because of the dew, like in the poems we learnt by heart at school. The Wolf hadn’t even come to my party, “I only drink at home”, he said. “At my house, there’s nothing to break and get upset about, and the water’s always cold, just in case you’ve got to water that Montepulciano down a bit, it’s so darned strong!”.

The morning of the harvest Marzio didn’t say a word to me, he was driving. I wanted to pretend to be asleep to dodge his bad mood, but he’d have got so irritated that he’d have turned the car round and gone back. The Vineyard was in a tiny village called Sacra Torre, right next to the cemetery. They said it made the grapes sweet. The Wolf was bang on time, he always was, like a Grim Reaper. He was waiting for us wearing his Yankee cowboy hat, a white vest, Uncle Piero’s scruffy trousers and a gaze that looked like a smile, even though the Wolf didn’t actually smile, ever. To me he looked gorgeous. He’d got breakfast ready for everyone: fried peppers and sardines, bread and sheep’s cheese. With him, in order of their resistance to the sun and the harshness of the outdoors, we found: Peppino, the brothers Anacleto and Claudio, Marcello the policeman, Nuccio, and lastly Bruno, nicknamed “Chilli Pepper”. The latter was particularly inclined to turn up already drunk or to quit working at around quarter past ten. It was a hot September, the vine was sweating over us. The Wolf knew how to keep all those noble souls of the Abruzzo hills together, after all he’d be giving them a year’s supply of wine. He also knew that few things could get them out of bed on a Sunday morning, one of them being the sober awareness that one day of work equalled a year’s worth of wine, good, free wine. Because the Wolf didn’t sell wine, he drank it with his friends, who were like a family to him. He didn’t have many friends, but the ones he did were good… for a drink!

Now he lived alone with an old aunt from Sulmona, who once upon a time had built a small empire in the world of sugared almonds by inventing a favour that didn’t break when you broke just one almond off. She’d patented it and nearly made a fortune out of it. But then when the Chinese stole it, his aunt had said “They’re all thieves, the lotta them!” and that was that, she hadn’t wanted to talk about it anymore. 

From the vineyard you could see the Gran Sasso in the distance, always bathed in light from dawn to dusk. I thought how beautiful it was and that there were no mountains like the Gran Sasso where I came from, in the Marche. It’d be a long day’s harvest, and a long night too, listening to the Wolf talking about when he’d travelled around the “Iunaited Esteits of America”. He’d left his heart in the moonshine distilleries in Louisiana, in its bars and nightclubs. He’d bought that cowboy hat out there and started to write. He was a good writer. And he sang, how he sang! Gasping for a glass of wine at the end of the day, he downed just two, started to sing and never stopped. There was no stopping him, not even if you thumped him. 

I’d given him that nickname, “The Wolf”. No one else called him that. It’d come out as a joke, one day in January when I took him to the airport. He was setting off on one of his travels, that time to “Tailandia” in search of more sun and girlfriends. I said to him, from the car window: “Alessio – (pause), good luck you old wolf, you!”. And he raised both his hands in a victory sign and replied, “Ha ha! That’s me, the Wolf!”

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