Saturday, October 8, 2011

Moldovan Winemaking: Part 1

Hello! So its been a while since we posted, but that is mainly because we've been trying to write about the amazing experience we had making wine with our next-door neighbor, Doamna Elena, and her husband, Mihai. Since in writing I went a bit overboard with detail, we'll be posting this in four parts, hopefully one per day or every couple days, so stay tuned! 
The story of today (slash Saturday, September 10th) starts the Wednesday before with Ash and I plucking up the courage to go find Doamna Elena (Mrs. Elena) in the school. This was no small feat seeing as how we only had a room number and a name and we ended up walking in on her working and awkwardly starting a conversation in which we asked her if she would be willing to consider tutoring us in Romanian (she has been a Romanian teacher for longer than we have been alive). She seemed skeptical, perhaps bordering on annoyed (Moldovans are incredibly hard to read sometimes), but said that we should meet at her house (our next door neighbor!) at 5pm the next evening. We were thrilled to finally have gotten the ball rolling on finding a tutor.

So, at 4:59pm, we walked out of our host family’s gate, turned right up the hill, walked for exactly 27 seconds, then turned right again facing a green gate decorated with two large yellow daisies. The paint was faded, but not peeling quite yet. However our eyes immediately were drawn to the amazingly full and lush grape vines forming a nearly opaque ceiling and wall over the driveway; their magnificent bunches of red grapes pulling heavily on the metal framework holding everything up. We opened the gate and walked in. We weren’t sure what to do next as Moldovans don’t have doorbells. I tried knocking on the front door, then, when nothing happened, we walked back along the side of the house. Still shaded and awed by the grape vines, we tentatively called out “Buna ziua” (hello/good day), hoping we weren’t being extremely rude by just walking through her property. We rounded the back of her house and found her sitting at a table shaded by still more grape leaves reading an Italian newspaper.

For the next hour, we found out that Doamna Elena is an incredibly genuine and nice woman who speaks amazingly clear Romanian (we understood almost everything she said!), and will be out tutor for at least the next month! Her husband, Mihai, lives and works in Chişinău and only comes to Puhoi on the weekends. On our way towards the front gate (Moldovans always walk their guests out to the street), we commented on how beautiful her grapes were and said that we wanted to help pick them when it was time. She then let it slip that Mihai would be picking all the grapes from their small vineyard (after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all Moldovan families were given anywhere from .5 to 2 or 3 hectares of land in the mid-90s as part of the land privatization) on Saturday and that we could help if we wanted. Score.

Fast forward to Saturday.

Doamna Elena has told us they would be leaving “late, not early”, which left us with the conundrum of not knowing when to go over to her house. So, after a rough morning starting with oatmeal slow cooked in raw cow’s milk, and hot, steaming, French-press coffee (yes, we are doing Peace Corps, we promise), we made the same trek to Elena’s house and the same awkward entrance, complete with trying the front door then cautiously walking around back. There we discovered them, Doamna Elena, her son Slavic, and his wife, Oxana. Elena seemed amazed we had actually shown up and was all smiles as she told us to come back in an hour then we would go.

Fast forward an hour and repeat awkward, but not quite as awkward, entrance to Elena’s house.

It was immediately obvious that we would not be leaving until we had eaten together, which was a great bonus since Ash and I had somehow forgotten to eat lunch and the numbers on my cell phone screen told me morning was now in the past. Doamna Elena and Oxana had been preparing zeamă, basically chicken soup. However this was no Campbell’s. The chicken had, I believe, been clucking around the back of Elena’s property not too long ago, the plethora of veggies swimming in the broth were picked within a 100 foot radius, and she had added her own twist to this traditional Moldovan soup: freshly made pasta. We sat down outside under the grapevines, slurped (Moldovans aren’t shy with the slurping of soup…) our zeamă, and made toasts with homemade sour cherry liquor.

Soon we were all sitting in Slavic’s Mercedes sedan (he is a lawyer in Chişinău), listening and grimacing as the undercarriage waged battle with the ‘road’ that many people in the States would be hesitant to take a truck on. The smoke from Slavic’s cigarette wafted back into the back seat as we rolled to a stop atop a hill which overlooked the town of Puhoi and a few rolling hills in each direction. Further to the East, larger hills brimmed up, cutting short the view of what lay beyond them. We climbed out of the car, retrieved the two buckets, knives, pair of hand-pruners, from the trunk, and walked through the line of trees at the edge of the road to come out on the side of the hill covered in mature vineyards.

Step 1: Picking the grapes (să culeagă strugurile)

At first glance, the rows upon rows of grapes which covered the side of the hill on which we stood and extended into the valleys on either side were orderly and well kept, seemingly one large vineyard. We starting walking down the hillside among the rows looking for Mihai and soon spotted him towards the near end of one of the rows and after Elena said she brought workers with a smile, we shook his hand. As soon as we started figuring out how to pick the dark red, almost black, bunches of small grapes which hung off the vines, two things were readily apparent. First, our knives were not only a far inferior tool to the hand held pruners Elena, Mihai, and another younger girl named Adriana had, they were incredibly dull. This meant that instead of cutting through the stem which held the bunch of grapes in place, we had to saw back and forth and finally more or less use the knife to break the stem.

The second observation was that the immediate impression of order and maintenance which we had had looking out over the vinyards from the top of the hill was not a clear representation of reality. The rows we were working were indeed a part of a larger vineyard, but had been planted right around the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago and the concrete posts and wire strung between them had not been attended to much since then. In many places the weight of the vines had created permanent sags in the wire and the stout trunks of the vines themselves had grown to fit this curve; growing diagonally instead of straight up. Although Mihai and Elena’s portion (perhaps 20 or 25 rows which were about 50 meters long) had been tilled for weeds once this year, the rows downhill and West were overgrown with weeds. The grape plants themselves looked healthy enough, but holes in the rows where a vine used to stand and the browning edges of the leaves betrayed the fact that Mihai simply didn’t have the time or money to invest in intensive care anymore.

Ash and I slowly made our way along our first row, her standing on the uphill side and me on the downhill, both of us filling our buckets and coating our hands and wrists with grape juice which formed a nice glue-like stickiness once it had dried in the slight breeze and sunshine of early afternoon. Each time we had filled our bucket, we walked to the West end of the row where large white plastic sacks were waiting patiently to be filled. Mihai and Adriana had been working since earlier in the morning and had already finished about 10 rows when we arrived. The morning coolness and fog had been completely destroyed by the sun as it beat down on the hillside, warming the grapes and those of us picking them. We picked for about 2 hours until we had picked clean all their rows, the only way to recognize the last row was the weeds growing thickly up on the other side before the next row of grapes hanging even lower on unrepaired wires and posts.

......more to come....

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