When I announced that I was leaving my magazine writing job after four years, nobody was surprised. “Sad for us, but happy for you,” my coworkers said. “Where to next?” When I explained that I didn’t have another position lined up — that I was packing my Brooklyn apartment into a storage unit and heading to work on a vineyard in Italy — that raised some eyebrows. By Sophie Dodd
Leaving a cushy full-time job? In this economy? I was making enough to pay for a Clinton Hill apartment that I shared with a friend, but like seemingly every other person in New York, our rent shot up to “pre-COVID” rates after our 18-month lease ended in April. Rather than cough up an extra USD 400 (INR 31,816) per month, I opted for a storage unit in Connecticut and a one-way ticket to Italy.
Why this writer left her job to work at a vineyard in Italy
Rent raises aside, I’d been aching for a change for quite some time. My work-from-home habits had devolved early on into shuffling from my bed to the couch, writing about celebrities whose lives felt impossibly removed from my own.
Language is something that has always sustained my curiosity, but my writing was faltering. Instead, outside of work, I began focusing on learning Italian. I’d fallen in love with the language when I’d visited Tuscany and Cinque Terre a few months before the pandemic; once the world shuttered, I started taking virtual lessons three times a week, chatting with my tutor, Valentina, from an ocean away. Month after month, conversational consistency eluded me — I knew I’d need to immerse myself in Italian in order to make the sort of progress I craved.
There was just one problem: in order to live in Italy, I’d need to quit my job. And if I quit my job, I’d still need some sort of income, plus affordable housing. That was when the idea of working on a vineyard began to take shape.
In tandem with Italian, I had been learning another language: wine. Throughout the pandemic, removed from the delightful distraction of restaurants and bars, I began paying closer attention to what I was drinking and how it made me feel. I wanted to be able to articulate what flavours I liked — that I’m a sucker for all sorts of aromatic, white-blossom-blooming wines, but can’t stand anything too yoghurty or melon-scented. I wanted to be able to go beyond “sharp” or “acidic” and say things like “has a bit of bite — think baby teeth,” which I saw on a tasting menu once and have been tickled by ever since. I wanted to understand the difference between what makes a wine organic versus natural versus biodynamic. I urgently needed to know how to pronounce zibibbo (an ancient Italian grape varietal that I’ve learned to love).
I wanted to write about wine, I realised, and I wanted to get my hands dirty in the process.
Instead, I first found my way into the most sterile environment possible: the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 certification course at the International Wine Center in Midtown. There, I tasted and talked my way through PowerPoints about grape varietals and growing regions and flavour profiles underneath white fluorescent lights. The course gave me the foundation that I desperately needed and the confidence boost to start vineyard hunting.
I knew I wanted a natural winery — a place where the grapes are organically grown and there’s limited intervention in the wine-making process, meaning low-to-no added sulfites or sugars. “Just make sure the wine is good,” my dad said.
Searching on Workaway — a work and cultural exchange site that features a wide range of farms, vineyards, and other exchange opportunities around the globe — I soon found Terramante, listed as a “small wine grape farm” in Umbria. The photos glistened with bucolic beauty: rows of vines set against resplendent, rolling hills, with sheep dogs milling about and an Italian-American couple at the helm. Claudia, Sicilian and in her 50s, smiled in dappled sunlight as she held up plump bunches of grapes as earrings. Ev, Midwestern and now 70, was pictured in the winery beside the stainless steel tanks. In exchange for five hours a day on the vineyard, five days a week, you’d live for free in an independent apartment on their property and eat with them. I was smitten: I reached out, explaining my interest in working on the vineyard and my desire to write about it. I noted my experience (none, besides copious amounts of drinking) and how long I could stay (I’d decided on one month, as a test run), and hoped for the best.
They replied saying they would be happy to host me, asking when I’d like to come. We settled on timing and I gave my notice at work a few weeks later, planning to work right up until the end of April before moving my things into storage and heading to Rome, where I’d catch a bus to the medieval village of Todi to meet them.
I’d set my sights on saving up USD 10K (INR 7,95,743) before leaving, but as that number continued to loom out of reach, I realised it wasn’t worth waiting until everything lined up exactly as I’d hoped. It felt fiscally irresponsible, to be sure, but I did the mental math of the freelance gigs I had lined up and knew I’d be able to make it work, given I’d be living expense-free for the month and had just received my final paycheck plus the security deposit from my apartment.
Unsure what I’d be doing besides “deleafing and other vineyard maintenance tasks,” as Ev told me via email, I arrived with an oversized suitcase and what I hoped was vineyard-appropriate workwear in early May. Claudia picked me up and drove me to the house; she was warm and quick to laugh, and I liked her immediately. As she showed me to my room — which was kept blissfully cool from the summer heat by the stone walls of the three-storey medieval tower in which they live, a former ruin they’d nearly bankrupted themselves to buy in the early 2000s, according to Ev — I felt radiant with happiness. “Benissimo,” I kept saying. Very good. “Bellissima.” Very beautiful. Everything felt hyperbolic. “I feel like I’ve been dropped into a fairy tale,” I said to them at dinner that night, having wandered through the vineyards, chicken run, and wisteria-laden pergola outside my room at golden hour, with the Tiber River trickling in the background and the air swollen with the scent of jasmine. They laughed at me, and said, “We haven’t put you to work yet.”
Work in the vineyard
That first week, my daily task was hoeing the weeds that had sprouted up between the barely budding vines. I worked alongside two other American women who were there on exchange as well, fast friends who helped show me how to angle myself to minimise back and wrist pain. They were best friends who’d been travelling around central Europe and the UK via Workaway for nine months, learning new skills in every country — stone masonry, hospitality work, jam making, woodworking, and more — in pursuit of one day opening up their own permaculture bed-and-breakfast together. We talked as we worked and the two of them opened up a world of possibility to me: that you could travel around for months like this, working and meeting new people and experiencing new places, with hardly any expenses. The next few months of my life started to clarify: Besides a few weddings and birthdays I needed to be back in New York for, I’d seek out work exchanges like this for stretches of time, ideally on vineyards where I could work in the morning and write freelance pieces in the afternoons. Giddily reporting this to Claudia, she cautioned me with one of her favourite quotes: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
As we dug into the clay soil, I imagined the last few years of clacking away on my laptop alone in my room as something compact, an era that I could scoop up and set aside, clearing space for the new memory my muscles were developing. At the end of each row, I’d turn and admire how clean it looked compared to the rows we’d yet to tackle. In real time, I could see the impact of my work – a new and rewarding sensation, one that’s rather elusive when you’re writing articles for the internet.
I always got into the swing of things just before Claudia rang the lunch bell. Forward, down, back: My body lurched and clenched as I dug up the soil, a movement that lacked grace, but seemed something holy, all that sweating under the Umbrian sun.
We’d all break for lunch, eating off ceramic plates that Claudia had fired and painted herself. She would whip up pasta with fresh tomatoes and handfuls of herbs from the garden, or I’d do my best to assist as she read out a recipe for chilled avocado and cucumber soup from her Italian cookbook. Most days we’d crack open a bottle of their rosé, called Eurosia (named after the patron saint of the 13th-century church from which they rent their winery in the hamlet of Montemolino; they were inspired when they saw her depicted in the church as dressed in pink and holding a bunch of grapes). The wine is a sangiovese-grenache-viognier blend that, for me, will always taste like berry-sweetened salvation from midday sun and sweat. Despite the many bottles I drank there (which I was glad to report to my dad were buonissimo), I rarely had a hangover, thanks to their organic growing methods.
After lunch, I’d set up under the blooming pergola outside my room, where I’d write into the evening. The roosters, cats, dogs, and geese would circle around as I worked on my stories, distracted but energized to be writing again.
Once the sun began to set, I’d head upstairs and chat with Claudia as we made dinner for the five of us. Sitting around their outdoor table, we’d talk about wine while we’d drink it and the conversation would wander. We’d go on about second chances at love (Claudia and Ev reconnected after her first marriage ended) and Italian hatmakers (they both have a charming appreciation for well-constructed hats) and wild Workaway stories (the girls had quite a few). Other nights, Claudia and Ev’s friends came over for pizza parties; everyone would gather around to sprinkle mozzarella and anchovies and herbs on the freshly made dough, and I’d get to burble to them in Italian. I wondered often if the romance of it all would have worn off after a while; besides a few fearsome encounters with all kinds of bugs, the days passed in a jewelled sort of splendour.
The sun got hotter every day and the vines started growing so fast that it seemed like if you stared at them long enough, you’d be able to see them stretch. We’d moved on from hoeing to pruning the vines and tying them up. We’d pull off the lowest shoots and any that were too close together or bore no signs of fruit, as they sucked energy away from the others. With the remaining vines, we’d tuck them between rows of wire and tie them up so that they’d grow straight and tall, making it easier to harvest the grapes at the end of the summer. By the end of May, it was too hot to work past noon.
Too quickly, June arrived and I left, bound for Rome to meet my best friend for a trip around Puglia and Sicily. Claudia brought me back to the bus stop where we’d met as strangers just a few weeks before; we hugged goodbye, and I teared up boarding the bus, unsure how long it would be before I could return. Just like she’d said, life was starting to happen already: Other plans had started piling up for the coming months, and there were only so many days I could legally stay in the Schengen zone without a visa (90 days out of every 180, to be exact).
We’d stayed up late the night before doing inventory, counting out how many cases they had of each of their wines. As we tallied them up, I did my own mental inventory: I’d lost a steady paycheck, but I still had an income from my freelance work. I no longer had health insurance, but in Europe, at least, I didn’t need to worry much about that. I wrote on my own schedule and had more time to travel and pitch stories that excited me. My Italian had improved a bit; there was dirt under my nails, and I could swear an approximation of biceps were budding. But when it came to what I’d learned about wine — taking into account all the terms and tasting notes and the physicality of turning grapes into something magic — I realised that what the vineyard really taught me is that I know nothing at all about wine. And that there’s no humbler or more rewarding place to start than with the soil.
This story first appeared on www.travelandleisure.com
Main and Feature Image Credit: Sophie Dodd
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