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Adopt a vineyard in Cinque Terre

Adopt a vineyard in Cinque Terre

Rick Gush

Would you like a free 20-year lease on an unbelievably beautiful vineyard in Italy? Great! A government program in this cluster of tiny Italian coastal villages provides just such a service, and foreigners with vineyard skills are encouraged to apply.

For more than 1,000 years, the Cinque Terre farmers practiced heroic viticulture here. Generations of determined ancients piled up rocks on the cliffs and made narrow terraces on which they could grow grapevines. At harvest time, they used ropes to handle the baskets of grapes and negotiate the slopes. It wasn’t an easy life, but they struggled and they worked, and the residents of Cinque Terre managed to find a way to survive where none was offered.

But for the past 100 years, the stacked rock walls have been crumbling faster than they can be rebuilt and the residents have watched their heritage slowly disappear.

The Walls

The sheer audacity of the rock walls here is almost enough to provoke laughter. The few hundred families that lived here for all those centuries didn’t build just a few terraces. They made thousands. The average rock wall is more than six feet tall, a foot thick at the top and three feet thick at the base. The Cinque Terre area is only a bit more than nine miles long, but within that stretch of coastal cliffs there are well over 4,000 linear miles of rock walls. With that same amount of rock, these Italian farmers could have built a Roman-style road all the way to Moscow and added a side trip to Paris for good measure. The mind boggles at the grand scale of the stonework these poor farmers produced.

The History

When Byzantine armies conquered what was left of the Roman Empire in 640 AD, the inhabitants of eastern Liguria hid in the hills. Some found their refuge in a stretch of brutal cliffs, and by building a few terraces on the steep hillsides, the new residents managed to grow the crops they needed to feed themselves. Joining with the few families of fishermen who were already living in some of the rocky hillsides, and added to by the occasional group of Greeks seeking protection from the Byzantine emperors, several hundred families eventually joined the hardy groups, and a new sense of community emerged among the group of tiny cliffside hamlets.

Except for a few trading vessels, Cinque Terre remained isolated for the next 600 years. The farmers kept themselves and their families busy by building ever more terraces to take advantage of the sunny slopes. By the 13th century, terraces covered all of the best locations and the locals had developed their wine-making into a sizable business. Trade with the outside world began on a larger scale, and life finally started being much more pleasant for the hardworking people of Cinque Terre.

The Wines

The wine that made all this possible is a sweet Passito, a high-alcohol, well-aged wine made from raisined grapes. Other wines were made in Cinque Terre too, and a handful of excellent white wines with crisp and sometimes salty flavors are made here even today. But the sweet wine was the most famous and most profitable over the centuries.

For most of its life, this sweet wine was simply known as Cinque Terre Amabile. A few centuries ago people started calling it Sciacchetra (pronounced shock-ee-traw). One story says the name means “grape squeezing” (sciac) and “removing the rejects during fermentation” (tra), while another legend says it means “Press it and forget about it for a long while.”

The Beginning Of The End

In 1862, 10 miles away over the hills, work on the naval station at La Spezia started and this was the beginning of the end. The forest pathways that led across the Cinque Terre mountains became roads that led to the outside world, and many of the former Cinque Terre farmers went to work in La Spezia for attractive wages.

One problem with this new prosperity was that the idea of farming grapes on the steep slopes began to lose its appeal. In 1900 there were almost 4,000 acres of terraces under cultivation. By the time 2000 rolled around, there were less than 250 acres of terrace vineyards actively being cultivated. Today neglect and landslides threaten the heritage of a thousand years. Each collapse encourages further erosion and leads to additional collapses. Without help, the terraces won’t last beyond another generation or two.

The Park

A few years ago the area of Cinque Terre was proclaimed a national park, and the administration was put under the care of the regional park headquarters in Riomaggiore. But the park management isn’t the uniform-wearing, bear-feeding, forest fire-spotting crew that one might imagine. “The new park is not a nature preserve like so many other parks,” says Frank Bonino, president of the park. “We need to include the Cinque Terre residents and our guests and visitors as major factors in the equation for survival here.”

As a consequence of this philosophy, the park is currently administering a set of dynamic programs. The Adopt a Vineyard program is one of the most well-known efforts, but the park is also active in creating many other healthy experiences for both tourists and residents. The miles of spectacular hiking trails are legendary among active lifestyle tourists, and provide work and recreation for residents too. Herbal naturopathy is taught to all the schoolchildren in Cinque Terre and their parents. Local heritage crafts projects and historical lore programs are directed more at educating residents than producing souvenirs for the tourists. The official Cinque Terre souvenirs are in fact made by politically conscious Fair Trade factories in sister programs in Peru.

The Program

There are currently more abandoned terraces than cultivated ones, and something must be done. Well run commercial farms could make good use of some of the higher and less steep locations, and the park is currently considering allowing a few such projects.

But the heart and soul of the Cinque Terre terrace system needs more caring hands, hands as interested in the love of the land as they are the business aspects. The Adopt a Vineyard program is certainly a great idea. To nobody’s surprise the program is starting to find exactly the sort of participants who can breathe life back into the ancient system. Adopters are assigned 3,000-square-meter vineyards and expected to repair walls, plant new vineyards, and maintain a positive ecological cultivation regimen. Those who need physical help can get some assistance from local apprentice farmers employed through the park services. Many of the retired persons who have adopted vineyards here used local hired help to perform the most arduous physical work of reconstruction, and numerous local youths have taken advantage of the program to learn the wall building and viticultural skills of their forefathers.

The adopters are an impressive group that includes retired Italian businessmen, internationally renowned viticulturists and strong young local men who just like farming on the cliffs their ancestors created. Terrance Leighton, a UC Berkeley professor and winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1993, is reportedly one of the adopters.

The park did have to flex some political muscle to take over ownership of many of the abandoned plots. Accusations of favoritism appeared briefly, and the public expropriation of long-abandoned and uncultivated tracts was opposed by some of the young residents, though generally lauded by the elders.

The program is still in the very early stages. Forty adoptions have been sanctioned so far in the most critical areas, and that group has reclaimed 8 hectares and planted 20,000 new vines. Motorized monorails that can carry harvested grapes and materials have been recently installed on the cliffs, and are proving to be very low-cost, low-impact, high-results machinery. When new rock is needed for repairing the walls, it can now be brought in by helicopter. The heroic farming continues.

The Future

In the guidebooks, Cinque Terre is described as five villages. In fact there are more than a dozen little villages or neighborhoods strung between the five main coastal hamlets. A train line connects all five of the major locations and the coastal ferries run constantly. Maps, helpful locals and thousands of trail markers guide hikers through the maze of alluring trails. Many of the espresso bars even have an Internet terminal or two.

The physical charm of the villages is enormous. Crammed together like cartoon buildings, charming ancient castles and grocery stores are mixed in a way which reminds everyone that, as grand as history may have been, a rich and active community life continues today. In spite of a steady stream of tourists, the villages of the Cinque Terre have remained real villages, where families raise their children and laundry hangs in front of the windows.

There is still an element of controversy in the homegrown version of local history. Currently, historians from nearby Genoa are disputing the great story that farmers of old used ropes to hang themselves off the edges of the cliffs while harvesting the grapes. “Phooey,” these killjoys say. “The farmers would lower baskets of grapes into boats below, but they never actually hung from the ropes themselves.” Historians? Maybe, but let’s just call them “spoilsports.”

Contact the park: Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, 118 Via T. Signorini, 19017 Riomaggiore (SP) Italy. Phone: 39 0187 760000; Fax: 39 0187 760061. Web site: parconazionale5terre.com.

(Rick Gush is an American writer living in Liguria, Italy, specializing in agriculture and horticulture. He can be contacted by e-mail at edit@winesandvines.com.)

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