© Patrick Tombola

Lagoon in a glass

  • TEXT FRITZ SCHAAP
  • PHOTOS PATRICK TOMBOLA

Every year 30 million tourists travel to Venice. And yet it still has a few secret backyards and gardens where magical things can arise – wine, for instance. We visit the guerilla vintners

On a gray September morning, Colleen McCann, 67, and Vanna Purisiol, 68, are sitting in the old monastery garden on the cemetery island of San Michele just outside Venice. Two women of mature years, red coral necklaces, golden earrings, and a beatific smile on their faces. They cut into a chunk of pecorino and open a bottle of wine. The wind is salty, the sky low-slung and gray. This is always a peaceful place, but today they are here not to relax, but to work: It’s high time to harvest the grapes in the wild vineyards of Venice. Colleen, a former physiotherapist, and Vanna, who used to be a teacher, both belong to the group Laguna nel bicchiere (lagoon in a glass). They are a group of 150 guerilla vintners. They have been searching out old vineyards in Venice and awakening them to new life since 2008, taming vines that have run wild, planting new ones. They pick the grapes and take them to Venice’s cemetery island and turn them into wine – 1500 bottles a year.

© Patrick Tombola
Wild winemakers: The Laguna nel bicchiere initiative is reviving the lagoon city’s wine culture

Wild winemakers: The Laguna nel bicchiere initiative is reviving the lagoon city’s wine culture

© Patrick Tombola

  The women let their gaze wander through the old monastery garden. It was here that Padre Fra Mauro created the most detailed and accurate world map of his day back in the 15th century. The buildings have stood empty for years, left to decay. More than 100 monks used to live in the monastery, but the last one left ten years ago. Now the facade plaster is peeling and the shutters are closed. This is the real Venice, the Venice now only to be glimpsed in very few spots around the city. Nothing in this place has been changed to attract tourists. Every Monday, Colleen comes here to see to the garden and wine cellar. Her little boat, moored behind the wall near the Number 4 ferry landing stage, rocks on the water, gently rising and falling. Nearly all of the gardens in Venice are surrounded by high walls to protect them from the salt of the sea.

The monastery yard was once the monks’ vegetable garden. Now the skins of the malvasía and dorona grapes the guerilla vintners harvested a good two weeks ago are lying on top of several compost heaps. From these grapes, they produce the dry white wine they claim brings the dead back to life. They’ve given it the name “In Vino Veritas.” It has a fruity taste, a fresh acidity and a mineral character, and it contains no additives. In fact, it’s the kind of natural wine that is also becoming increasingly popular in Germany.

Vanna is a Venetian born and bred; Colleen is Australian but has been living in the lagoon city for over 30 years. Both women are fighting to keep at least a few of the old traditions alive in Venice because, as they see it, the city has surrendered to mass tourism. So what goes on here on the island is about more than wine, it’s about the cultural survival of the city. As the wild winemakers agree, Venetians cannot move for tourists these days. More than 30 million people visit Venice each year as compared with the fewer than 60 000 who actually live in the center. “We want at least a little bit of Venice to survive in Venice,” says a resolute Colleen.

It’s about more than just wine, it’s about the cultural survival of the city, say the vintners

Once they’ve finished the cheese, Colleen and Vanna roll red plastic tubs out of the cantina, the monastery wine cellar, where the monks were already pressing grapes and producing wine in the 16th century. The barrels and bottles, tubes and corks are still kept there today. But Colleen and Vanna are committed to doing more than produce a good wine. They want to shape Venice and to do so, they are active in a variety of societies and initiatives; in groups that cultivate the classic Venetian style of rowing and others that support local artists and stage readings and markets that campaign to stop hotels from being built on the small, uninhabited islands. They also work in groups that organize demonstrations and campaigns aimed at prohibiting cruise liners from sailing right down the Canale della Giudecca – the steel monstrosities are a thorn in any true Venetian’s eye.

Last resting place: the cemetery on the island of San Michele

Last resting place: the cemetery on the island of San Michele

© Patrick Tombola

  No tourist comes here to the monastery yard beside the cemetery, the last resting place of such men as Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky. A whiff of basil wafts across from the small herb garden the vintners have planted. Whenever grapes are being pressed or wine is being bottled or labeled, the grape guerillas set up a long table on the path paved with gravestones and celebrate with food and drink. But today, there are only a couple of old women wandering among the graves in the cemetery. Colleen and Vanna sit silent for a while, enjoying the sweet, heady scent of the fig trees, before taking the boat back to Venice; the lighthouse on Murano is already flashing its beacon across the water.

The next morning at eight a.m., Colleen takes a ferry from St. Mark’s Square across to Giudecca, the island encircles the southern part of Venice. At nine o’clock, 15 men and women have assembled in the garden of a retirement home there. Dressed in colorful, they carefully snip bunches of grapes from the vines. Giancarlo Quadarella, who discovered and revived this vineyard, explains what’s good about it: “You can’t expect to produce elegant wines, but you can taste the lagoon.” Then he grabs a pair of secateurs and joins the others. The group works on in the rain until noon amid swarms of mosquitoes. There are sunflowers growing beside the vines, and the place smells of mint and lavender. Then the pickers prepare themselves a quick lunch, which they share beneath a persimmon tree. They cook pasta on a wood-burning stove, slice fresh tomatoes and open some bottles of wine. Making wine, drinking wine – eternal cycle. Then the pickers bring the grapes down to the jetty on a wheelbarrow, passing by the residents of the home that has a grandezza factor worthy of a luxury hotel.

Gallons not gondolas: Wine transport along the canals of Venice

Gallons not gondolas: Wine transport along the canals of Venice

© Patrick Tombola

  A heavy, gray wooden boat is waiting there, bobbing on the water. The pickers stack the crates onto the boat until there’s no space left for more, then they lay a tarpaulin over the grapes. Colleen is the last to jump into the boat – and they’re off! In the background, the long line of the Lido points toward the open sea. The typically gray-green waters of the lagoon are choppy today. The boat heads first for St. Mark’s Square, then turns off down a small canal toward Fondamente Nuove and finally on to San Michele. Waves slap against its bow sending saltwater splashing the passengers sitting up front, drinking each other’s health and squinting in the sun when it breaks briefly thought the clouds.

The boat ties up at two cracked wooden piles. Colleen climbs out onto the short jetty, opens the gate and takes the first crate of grapes handed up from the boat. Then the red plastic crates are stacked on rusty metal stands that are otherwise used to bring caskets to the cemetery. A boat with another ten guerilla vintners ties up. Again bottles are eagerly opened. Colleen, Vanna and Giancarlo pull off their shoes and socks, wash their feet with cold water from the well, roll up their pants and climb into the tub now filled with grapes, and begin to tread them so that the yeast from the skins is mixed into the juice of the grapes to trigger the fermentation process. A new vintage is born.

The troop strikes up old Venetian songs, recites poems about the vendemmia, the grape picking, and about the cycle of drinking, from grape to wine to intoxication. Then they remove the last twigs and stems and pour the juice and skins, the must (mosto), into large barrels, where it is left to ferment and ultimately become the “lagoon in a glass.” This wine cannot be bought. The wild winemakers serve it at markets. And there are three bars, where if you know the owner you may sample a glass. But you have to search for the bars just as the guerillas are constantly searching for new vineyards. Because even in Venice has become a walk-in postcard, the lagoon does still keep a few secrets to itself.

Winemaking ring around the rosie: The guerilla vintners tread the must

Winemaking ring around the rosie: The guerilla vintners tread the must

© Patrick Tombola

This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.