A story of what it means to be a vintner in Italy today

It was late. 

Well past midnight.

I was sitting on the back patio of La Cascina Roccamy agriturismo farm in the heart of Italy's Piemonte wine country.

Next to me, Giuseppe di Grasso opened yet another bottle of the wine he and Velda make on the slopes around the old farmhouse strung with grape vines and planted with fig and olive. There was a chicken coop out back, several fruit orchards. 

But tonight, we were sampling bottles of Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Barolo culled from the ghostly, moonlit rows of vines around us. 

The Di Grasso's seven-year-old son had been playing shy until he found out I was from Philadelphia.

"Just like the cheese!" He said. His parents laughed, shooed him off to bed, and explained that, of all things, American cream cheese was a current fad in Italy. 

Our talk drifted to the subject of agriturismo itself, how renting out rooms has become a way for farmers to make ends meet, and how family vintners even in this storied, storybook corner of Italy are having a rough time in this era of shrinking subsidies and growing wine conglomerates.

Then Giuseppe told me of a neighbor who had recently died in a tractor accident. 

"The family doesn't know how it can keep the vineyard," he said. Velda said she still shudders to imagine the poor wife, explaining to their nine-year-old son that his father was gone and never coming back. Giuseppe leaned forward in his chair with a sober look. 

"The morning after he died, the widow was woken up by the sound of machinery," he said. "She went into the cellar to find her son running the grape press. She asked what on earth he was doing, and he said 'Papá is gone. Now it is up to me to make the wine.'" 

Velda shook her head and excused herself.

Giuseppe and I stayed up an hour longer, draining the last bottle and talking of happier things.

As I climbed the outer stairs to my room, Giuseppe mentioned that he'd be leaving early tomorrow for a business trip, but would leave breakfast out for me. 

Next morning, after a clamorous 6am wake-up call by the ducks in the farm pond, I padded down to the great room to find a sumptuous spread of cheeses and prosciutto, warm bread, homemade marmalade, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and milk so fresh it mooed.

There was a clanking noise coming from behind a pair of giant barn doors, and I cracked them open to peek inside. 

The Di Grassos' young son was in there, running the bottling machine, making the wine while Papá was gone.