Harvest in Montefalco

As I weave through the packed Piazza del Comune in the center of Montefalco, joy – in the form of food, wine and their spoils – engulfs and consumes me. To my right, an old man is slicing prosciutto by hand from the leg, while hungry onlookers wait their turn for a slice. A few tractors over (that’s right, tractors), townsfolk sandwich salumi between wedges of fresh bread, handing out makeshift panini as fast as they can make them. As I spot an eager man slurping soup, even while the steamy sun beats down upon us – probably the only way to get a vegetable on this day – a woman thrusts a makeshift platter of biscotti in my face, desperate for takers.

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A few yards away, tweens in flowing burlap dresses with sunflowers in their hair dance innocently, alongside an impromptu acoustic guitar jam. Onlookers reach for cameras to document younger girls pressing grapes the old fashioned way, rose-colored juice trickling between their toes into nearby pitchers. Sweaty boys engage in an intense soccer match with an invisible ball, darting in and out of longer legs. The teenagers, they’re roaming the backstreets, celebrating a day of freedom. Finally the old folks, wizened faces showing the toll of many vendemme, yet incapable of fully hiding that immortal sense of wonder.

It’s the culmination of Enologica 2015, the region’s annual harvest festival. A weeklong celebration that includes wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, seminars and more. The early part is more geared towards press and trade, with serious presentations, panels – one of which, on Sagrantino around the world, included yours truly, representing the ol’ US of A – and the like.

As interesting as tastings and discussions are, the jewel of the event is clearly the vendemmia, an old school, traditional festival that brings out locals and tourists alike. (Having just spent the week getting to know this amazing town, I must, of course, admit to looking down at the day-trippers with disdain.)

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At 3pm on Sunday – actually a few minutes before, the only thing that ever started on time in Italy – tractors begin to enter the square, one by one, each representing a locality of grape growers in the region, 18 in all, plus one horse-pulled carriage and several donkeys. They’re decorated uniquely and carry anywhere from a few members of the tribe to a whole bunch of revelers.

As they creep into the square, horns blaring and motors revving, each tractor tries to outdo the next with bravado, cheer, daring or creativity. Singing is more about vocal histrionics, loud and enthusiastic if not on key. From our vantage at one of the cafes that line the square – where we camped out early to secure a spot (not free but worth it) – I notice a young boy’s terrified-yet-excited face as he sits on his dad’s lap, leading the tractor into town for the first time. Then comes a man we affectionately nickname “the Don,” sporting a shit eating grin, arms spread wide riding on the front of the tractor as it rolls in.

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enologica montefalco vendemmia tractor

The towns with many children tend to be more mellow, sharing smiles and waves, while those without kids prove more raucous, “clinking” their plastic cups, slurring words (at 3pm), swaying back and forth. It’s a wonder if these people make it to sundown.

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Once everyone’s had their turn to preen and showboat, food is served – no charge for anyone who’s there – as described above, alongside liberal amounts of Sagrantino wine (also gratis). The square becomes a wild, wonderful, free-for-all, onlookers and explorers sampling a variety of fare, enjoying a sunny, warm day, and sharing in the revelry. It’s a simple celebration, hearkening back to days of yore, a community celebrating its very lifeblood, and successful survival of another year.

Surely other towns in Italy (and beyond) welcome the harvest in a similar manner, but, standing in the middle of this mass of people, sharing smiles, cries of joy, and a shared purpose, it’s hard not to think — at least for a moment — that this is the most important one.

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This post was my entry in the #ItalianFWT group’s #FallinItaly theme for October 2016. Check out the other entries below: