EXCERPT FROM Angel of Alta Langa: A Novel of Love & War
Le Nuove Prison, Turin
Ceaseless ringing in her ears and jackboots reverberating on the stone floor of the hall woke her from a fitful sleep. How many were there this time? With each thud, the sounds grew louder and nearer. They were coming for her.
She rolled over on the putrid mattress, willing her body to ready itself for them. Bedbugs had feasted on her since her first night in Le Nuove Prison. Mice fought one another for morsels of her paltry rations. It was as though the vermin in her cell were allied with her torturers.
Blood from the wounds they had inflicted and her monthly blood that had come early stained her trousers. She touched her cracked lips, the scabbing gash on her head. The manacles they slapped on her when she was taken for interrogation cut into her swollen left wrist that now constantly throbbed—no doubt a fracture from the fall when they pushed her from the truck that night.
Her face, struck more times than she could remember, was swollen. Was she even recognizable? Even one of her most distinctive features, her soft, wavy hair, was now a dark, greasy snarl caked with blood from the gash on her head. That was the idea, she knew—to strip her of her dignity until she felt meaningless to herself and easily gave all she knew. Despite inflicting pain beyond telling, they were unable to break her.
They marched past her door, spreading terror throughout the cells, keeping the advantage of surprise. For whom would they come? Anyone, everyone. And when? Anytime.
The days since her capture probably numbered ten. Each time she returned to her cell, she scratched a notch in the thick grime covering the walls, but with consciousness ebbing and flowing, she was uncertain of the passage of time. Frigid air whistled through the wind-tunnel corridor. The naked bulb overhead and the glaring blades of light from the hall illuminated her world at night. It was always dark when she was taken for the sessions where, through torturous means, they attempted to extract information. Three times, she had been dragged into a truck and driven to a distant house of horrors where German, not Italian, was spoken. It was there they inflicted the worst of her pain. Otherwise, she never left the infamous Le Nuove prison.
When she no longer could restrain her screams, which she tried desperately to suppress lest giving the demons more pleasure, suor Giuseppina de Muro would play Ave Maria on a ramshackle piano. The dissonant strains calmed her. Long ago, the nun had come to Le Nuove as a nursing sister. Now she was the only source of comfort in the wretched place. Would the saintly woman ever know the far reach of her music? She sang to herself the comforting words of the blessed song she had learned from a loved one, praying for release from her agony, but if not, for protection of those whose lives were at risk if her resolve failed. And for her family, wherever they were.
Had all but the one partisan with her been slaughtered at the cascina that night? So it appeared from the silence as she was dragged, drifting in and out of consciousness, through the frigid darkness. The blasts of orange light shooting from the barrels of machine guns were all the warning the partisans had received. Then stillness. And flames. She heard a woman’s shrill voice call her name before she sank into unconsciousness from a blow to the side of her head. Who had betrayed them? Whoever it had been, she knew she had been spared that night for one reason: only she knew the names. Only she knew the location of the one they sought—the one she knew had survived, hidden in the forest.
All of a sudden, it was quiet. The jackbooted tormentors had stopped at her cell.
It was indeed her turn. Keys rattled, the lock turned, and tired, dry hinges squeaked as the iron door was opened. Through her swollen eyes, a vaguely familiar face she could not discern in the dim light came into focus.
“Alzati! Adesso!” one of the Blackshirts shouted. “Stand up, I said!” Before she could will her body to respond, someone dragged her to her feet, but her legs disobeyed. Down she went on the hard, filthy floor. Again, the Fascist screamed, “Up!” This time when she staggered, a male prison guard, who often leered at her and whose foul breath blended with the stench of the cell, slapped her bruised face and pinned her against the wall with his body. Suor Giuseppina often interceded when the lecherous guard was on duty. Not this time. She did not appear. “Wake up!” he shouted, his face pressed up against hers and his over-sized hands roaming her body, close to her breasts. “Enough!” ordered the man whose words gripped her throat like talons. The guard relented, and though bile rose in her throat, she willed her legs to obey.
No shackles this time. Did they believe they had broken her will to escape? To survive? She took her first tentative steps toward the open door when the owner of the still-obscured face spoke in that same menacing tone. “We meet again,” he hissed, contempt dripping with each word. “Did you really believe you would not be caught?” She knew the voice, and it filled her with dread. She tried to see his face in the hall light, but the Blackshirt jerked her left arm, pain and weakness sending her to the ground once again.
As they approached the outer door of the prison, fresh cold air brought into focus a world she believed she would never see again. The amber light the rising sun cast on the distant mountains signaled that it was early morning. She squinted in the unaccustomed sunshine. Overhead was a pale-blue, winter morning sky—its purity a blessing. In the distance, the familiar snow-covered Monviso called to her. The forested valleys of il Re di pietra, as the mountain was called, had given the partisans shelter in their fight against the Germans and the Fascist Blackshirts.
Now, the king of mountains was powerless to protect her, but the majesty of the early morning was speaking, and the gratitude in her heart was a comfort.
They stuffed her into a truck where the Blackshirt held her, clenching her fractured wrist. She cried out. He tightened his grip. Thankfully, her legs, though weak, remained intact, ready to spirit her away if opportunity arose. Did anyone know where she was? The partisans were known to save their comrades, to save those who saved them, but Le Nuove was a fortress.
Although it had been impossible for her to see their route on previous journeys, this time she sensed a different destination. The man whose face she still had not seen spoke her name again as though to cleanse his mouth of a foul taste. “I should have put a bullet in your head in the forest for all the help you’ve been. But it was pleasant to finally demonstrate the power I have over you—power I have always had. But when I catch that bitch who shot me…” he growled. So that’s why he had not appeared at Le Nuove for days after he had captured her. He would be dead had his assailant not been injured herself, struggling no doubt to hold the gun.
When they dragged her off the truck, she looked about at her unfamiliar surroundings, recognizing the unmistakable stench of death. The guards marched her to a bullet-riddled wall where, in slush mixed with human excrement, a high-backed, wooden chair sat facing the redbrick wall. A guard pushed her onto it and grabbed her arms, tying them tightly behind her back. She was now beyond pain. The awareness of her circumstances washed over her. She had heard of partisans who faced this favored form of execution once nothing more could be wrung from them. The place, they said, was known as il Martinetto.
The rope was tight enough to hold her steady. She tilted her face toward the blue sky and thought of those whom she dearly loved and whose lives she had protected. Yes, no doubt the partisans at the cascina were gone, but others who fought with them to free Piemonte from the Germans and their Fascist collaborators were safe. The work would go on and Piemonte would be free. Soon. This time, she heard, the Allies were coming.
Someone approached through the slush. She turned her head. Ah, the man. Finally, in the daylight, she saw his true demonic face she knew all too well. Those dark eyes, windows into Hell. He grabbed her matted hair and jerked her head to face the wall. I will meet the moment without malice, she resolved. And she felt the cold steel of his pistol at the base of her skull. He spat out her name.
EXCERPT FROM Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte
INTRODUCTION–FALLING IN LOVE
I love food. I adore wine. I am Sicilian on my mother’s side, and Italy calls to me deeply.
For over two decades, my husband, Dani, and I lived and worked in Switzerland. Piemonte was never far away, yet for a long time we followed the majority of wine lovers to Tuscany and Burgundy.
As a connoisseur of the road less traveled, I wonder—why did I wait so long to choose Piemonte, one of the most mesmerizing wine regions in the world? In English it’s “Piedmont.” But in this book, I opt for the local usage—Piemonte (Pyeh-MOHN-teh), with its gentle sound that is also craggy and faraway. Ultimately, Piemonte chose me, giving me the remark-able story that I am about to tell you. For that reason, too, I always call it by its proper name.
The Alps cradle Piemonte and dominate its diverse landscape of valleys, vineyard-carpeted rolling hills, and fertile flatland nourished by the Po River. Piemonte is home to myriad agricultural bounties—wine, rice, cheese, meat, hazelnuts, and the world-famous tartufi bianchi, white truffles. I found it hard to believe that so much treasure was under-discovered, but in the 1990s, it was.
To know Piemonte is to come to terms with big weather. On a bone-chilling November day in 1999, my mother—a second-generation Sicilian born in New Orleans—and I embarked on a trip to discover the cuisine and wines of Piemonte. My husband was away on business in China, but Mom and I were fine companions at table. Otis the wine dog came along as he had on so many previous wine adventures; he had yet to discover Piemonte. We were three for the road.
The daunting weather that I later came to understand as a test of will, and an element that crafted the character of the people who lived with it, was not kind to us. We were befogged and drenched, in Alba and in the countryside. As culinary explorers, however, Mom and I were happy with vitello tonnato (poached veal with tuna sauce); carne cruda (raw chopped Fassone veal); and tajarin (thin, egg-rich ribbons of pasta) with brown butter and sage, paired with two of the region’s distinctive grapes, Barbera and Nebbiolo. I savor the memories of this trip, the last to Italy that we made together, and the very most enjoyable.
Rain or no rain, I was like a truffle hound, my senses on alert, telling me something quite special in the region’s culture and people was hidden from view. Truth is, I needed to earn Piemonte. Like so many before and after me, I would find it the sweeter for that.
In February 2000, Dani and I returned to Piemonte, on the first of our 20 or so trips to the region over the next 14 years. Late winter foretold the imminent arrival of spring’s first green from which the season gets its lyrical Italian name, primavera. Still, the connection I wanted with the people and the land eluded me. Piemonte was resting, beautiful but eerily quiet.
The excitement around the 2000 vintage drew Dani and me back to Piemonte for one more attempt to warm to the region. It was early November, and for the first time I saw sun on the Langhe’s snow-covered vineyards, against the backdrop of alabaster alpine peaks. The veil had been lifted, exposing Piemonte in all her splendor. Taking a crucial step toward lasting love, I learned to accept with gratitude whatever fell from the heavens. But the Piemonte I knew then still lacked for people.
It was on this, our third, providential trip that Dani and I met Jeffrey Chilcott, cellar master of Marchesi di Grésy in Barbaresco. Our Piemonte experiences over the next 16 years would all be tied to the serendipitous visit to that noted winery nestled in the Martinenga vineyards of the Barbaresco denomination.
Barbaresco, like its noble cousin Barolo to the west across the Langhe, is a highly prized wine made from 100 percent Nebbiolo, the grape on which Piemonte’s vinous fame rests. The stringent DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) guidelines for growing and vinifying the treasured grape, include a minimum of three years of aging before a wine’s release. Additional time to cellar the wine for a few years more—to soften its often rough tannins, the naturally occurring acids that give a feeling in the mouth akin to biting into a green banana—and patience are needed to enjoy these wines. Trust me, enjoying this distinctive wine is well worth the wait.
We were on a mission to buy Marchesi di Grésy’s 1995 Barbaresco Martinenga. Earlier that year, we discovered the wine at Osteria dell’Arco in Alba and had been searching for it ever since. The vintage was the first of what emerged as a long string of high-quality, even stellar, years. Since it was our first experience with a Barbaresco we liked, we wanted to purchase some for our cellar at home in Switzerland. Little did we know that noble wine and our quest to find it would lead not only to many years of unique gastronomic adventure but to the very heart of Piemonte — its wine families, many of whom you will meet in this book. Over time, I was given access to private family histories of heroic men and women who rose from dire poverty to make their children flourish, who risked everything for the sake of humanitarian action in World War II, and who broke the mold holding back women and girls from education and leadership. To my deep delight, I found that the 22 wine families I inter-viewed for this book wanted their stories to be known. They opened up to me. Their trust is sacred to me.
En route to the hilltop village of Barbaresco, and the visit that would change everything for me, the heavy blanket of autumnal fog that lifts around midday, if at all, began to return. We drove up through the sprawling vineyards, denuded of grapes but brightly colored with red and golden vine leaves. The salesclerk at the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco in the old, deconsecrated church in Barbaresco’s center informed us that the Martinenga 1995 was finished, but urged us to visit the winery not far away. “Ask for Jeffrey,” she advised. “He speaks English.” What she failed to mention with her sketchy directions so typical of the region was that in the fog, on narrow, twisting roads with no shoulders and steep drop-offs into vineyards, finding Marchesi di Grésy would be an iffy—and risky —proposition. Our 1992 Explorer that we had affectionately christened “the Wine Panzer” got a workout as we drove up and down and all around the winding, narrow vineyard road searching for the winery. I became certain that day that God is a wine connoisseur and watches out for fools in search of great vinous creations. Just as we were ready to abandon our quest, the fog ever so slightly lifted and, like an apparition, the sign appeared: “Martinenga.” We had arrived.
At the end of a gravel road, a tall 30-something figure in Wellingtons wearing a short-sleeve shirt and khaki shorts, his large hands stained garnet red from racking wine, stood in the winery doorway. It was Jeffrey Chilcott.
We had found the winery on a rare quiet day when Jeffrey, a trans-plant from New Zealand by way of Burgundy, was able to spend time with us. It was the beginning of many hours over the following years of tasting the estate’s wines. After a nearly three-hour tasting that was in essence a course on Piemontese wines, we loaded our case of 1995 Barbaresco Martinenga—and a few cases of other beauties we discovered—into the Wine Panzer and drove away. Through the knowledge and warmth Jeffrey shared with us, I experienced that Piemonte aha! moment, the one I had been yearning for. With Jeffrey’s list of recommendations for wineries and restaurants, and his cell phone number, I knew that Dani and I would return to Piemonte—again and again.
I often think back on that “road less traveled” moment and wonder what life would have been like if we hadn’t found the winery and, more importantly, Jeffrey, that day. Piemonte’s cellar doors were, and in some cases still are, difficult to penetrate. Jeffrey, the iconic, affable “foreign local” with the soul of a Piemontese farmer and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge—and wine—helped open them. Through him, we experienced gastronomic escapes, learned about the region’s wines, and met families who produced them on both sides of the Tanaro River.
Jeffrey’s own passion for Piemonte, particularly its inhabitants, infected me. I began to meet people and learn stories no other outsiders knew. He tipped the first domino and everything fell into place thereafter. Those treasured relationships awakened in me a longing for the warmth of family and the sense of place that living on the same land for generations created. What would it feel like to be so rooted? To be born where you wanted to spend your whole life?
To understand the impact these families had on me, and why this book emerged from those experiences, I must take you back to 1976, when I left the small bayou-side town of Thibodaux, Louisiana, for Tulane University in New Orleans. Country girl to the big city. The New Orleans party scene consumed me, and I veered off course from my lifelong plan to study medicine, but the experience of meeting people from faraway places sparked wanderlust in me. I had already traveled to Europe twice and was primed for more.
Since then, I’ve lived in five different American states and a foreign country. Residential constancy was never an element of my life. Even in Switzerland, I had three different residences. Yet in Piemonte I discovered families whose roots were buried deep in soil they had tilled for generations. Many of the families you will meet, such as the Oddero family of Barolo, trace their roots on the land back at least ten generations. In researching the book, I learned a phrase in Piemontese dialect, bogia nen. The people who never move. Stubborn. Unlike my Sicilian ancestors, when the people of Piemonte emigrated, they usually returned. In December 1977, my Sicilian grandmother died. Frances Castrogiovanni Manale with her round figure and wrinkle-free, peaches and cream complexion was the glue that held my family together. Through many hours with her in her kitchen and at her table, I developed a passion for food and saw how it could bring families together. Her scrumptious oyster dressing was the most anticipated dish each Christmas. With her passing, the glue dissolved, and I pulled up the anchor. After my mom’s death three decades later, I felt entirely cut off from my Mediterranean roots. I had to find new Italian connections. Piemonte—craggy, shrouded in mist, at first forbidding but with the warmest of warm hearts—was the perfect place to put down new roots.
Often I’m told “family first, then Piemonte, then Italy” are the priorities in these parts, although some have interjected “favorite football club” after Piemonte. Each winery family we befriended strengthened my own growing ties to Piemonte. They gave me love. I happily reciprocated. Though a language barrier separated me from the grandmothers, who reminded me of the grandmother I had lost, they spoke naturally and uninhibitedly in expressions of love. Mothers and daughters had that source of great strength and joy, the lifelong unbreakable bond. As the youngest of four, with no sisters, I marveled at the women of Piemonte and their close-knit relationships. Could I get myself adopted? Over time, I began to feel that if they could not adopt me, I would adopt them.
When Dani and I left Europe and repatriated in 2007, we settled in the Colorado Rockies. Having grown up in south Louisiana where the highest points of terra firma are the hills supporting interstate overpasses, I’m mysteriously drawn to mountains. Finding my place in my new community in Vail Valley was a struggle. Returning to the States led me to passionately maintain our ties with our Piemontese friends. My soul was connected to Italy, to its culture, and most of all its traditions and the rhythm of the seasons. Even though America was the land of my birth, the confounding changes it was experiencing unnerved me. I needed to feel a sense of stability and constancy.
Finally, in early January 2012, I began to write. I had never taken to it before, but I found it cathartic. I discovered a voice inside that wanted to tell the stories of all my gastronomic adventures in Europe, particularly in Piemonte, and of all the unique and irreplaceable people whom I had met and come to love. The grandparental generation in particular gave me a sense of mission—I deeply wanted their voices to be heard.
As I wrote newspaper articles about Piemonte, I realized I had witnessed a seismic change in the patriarchal system that had dominated the region for generations. Through the years, many Piemontese women and men who revered their female ancestors and the roles they played in their wineries’ successes became not just my friends, but my role models. Their stories of their ancestors captivated me. Joy, tragedy, tenacity, and courage were present throughout their history. Though women were the glue that held so many families together through war, poverty, and political upheavals, there had existed a societal prohibition against their inheriting land and working it as wine producers. So, as I had done years earlier to get to know the wines of the region, I began to dig deeper. What I discovered were women transforming their lives and stepping out of the shadows that their grandmothers, mothers, and aunts had inhabited.
Thanks to the Internet that brought Piemonte to the world and the world to Piemonte, and to air travel that made Mondays in the vineyards and Wednesdays in Hong Kong possible, more changes occurred in two decades than in the two previous centuries combined. To some degree, the pace of change was, and still is, off-putting to a people who treasure stability and tradition. As real as any change I can name is the breaching of the patriarchal system that held women back. I discovered, too, that many wine family men were a willing and proud part of this change, starting as early as the 1980s when strong, courageous women like Chiara Boschis, Livia Fontana, Mariuccia Borio, and the trio of sisters of Marchesi Alfieri and Marenco took the helm of their wineries.
During the final decades of the 20th century, young women increasingly emerged to claim not only the work of winemaking but ownership of that work. In the 1990s, young women began studying oenology at the Scuola Enologica di Alba, the famed oenological school in the heart of the wine country. Today, they are working side by side with their fathers and grandfathers, learning a craft once forbidden to them. The children of these women will be one of the first generations to learn the wine business from their mothers as well as their fathers. Daughters are taking the reins of some of the most famous wine brands in the region, unimaginable only a few decades ago. The die is cast. I felt a tremendous sense of urgency to tell the story of this transition as the wine families themselves have experienced it.
Like so many writers who take up the craft, I discovered that I had not only a compelling story about others to tell, but a way, through writing, to exorcise demons in my own past—my losses, my wanderlust, and my lack of roots. I committed myself to writing a book that would capture and share the captivating, inspirational, and often heartbreaking stories of wine family men and women before they faded into history, untold and forgotten. And perhaps along the way I’d find myself more deeply than I had ever done, and find a measure of tranquility for my restless soul.
Postscript, February 2022
In April 2020, as the world descended into the darkness of pandemic, I escaped into my memories of Piemonte to find comfort. As I reminisced about the 21 years of my connection with Piemonte, the people there whom I loved, and all the experiences I had in researching, writing, and publishing “Labor of Love,” with my husband’s prodding, I began a new literary journey.
My debut novel, “Angel of Alta Langa: A Novel of Love & War,” released in November 2021, is a natural progression of my first book. I always knew a historical novel could be the progeny of “Labor of Love,” I just never expected it would take the seismic force of a pandemic to send me into the solitude I needed to write it.
“I believe greatly in women; they know how to be tough and gentle, and when they want to, they have more insight and are more quick-thinking than we men.”