When the end of summer rolls around and grapes form their characteristic bunches of vibrant greens, bright purples, and dark reds, it seems as though they might burst with juices. This is when grape farmers across Sicily take to the vineyards to begin the process that brings us the wines we have come to love. Red wines from Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese, mineral-rich Etna Bianco made from Carricante grapes, the fortified wines of Marsala blended from Grillo, Inzolia, and Catarratto, and the sweet Passito wines found on the surrounding islands, made from Zibibbo grapes from Pantelleria and Malvasia grapes of Salina.
The official meaning of Vendemmia is “harvest” or “vintage”, referring to the grapes from a certain year or of particularly good quality. Although Vendemmia can certainly refer to the act of harvesting grapes, to the people of Italy it means so much more. Vendemmia is a culmination of the meticulous, back-breaking work that goes into producing wine, a celebration of what the land has given as a gift.
In the small villages of southern Italy, and especially Sicily, the cultivation of grapes is a family affair and everyone is included, from grandchildren to nonna. When the time comes for Vendemmia, the whole family will take part in it, because for them it is very personal. Celebrating the fruit of their labor, the Vendemmia is a moment of happiness shared with the family and everyone who took part in the harvest. After finishing the harvest, the family gathers around the table to celebrate the hard work they accomplished. They give thanks to San Martino, who was known for his generosity, and is the patron saint of good fortune and winemakers. The Vendemmia is very important as it is a shared moment; tasting the result of hard work, the gift of the earth, and the joy of making new wine.
Ever since moving to Sicily last year, I have dreamed of stomping grapes. Living out the iconic I Love Lucy episode is, I think, the dream of every woman of a certain age. So as Covid-19 restrictions loosened, allowing for special gatherings and festivals to begin again, I searched for a place to live out my grape stomping dream. We booked a Vendemmia experience with Trina, a local guide who has formed a partnership with a farmer near the hilltop village of Castelmola, above Taormina in Eastern Sicily. The first weekend of October we made our way up to Monte Venere, a small mountain tucked beneath the shadow of Mount Etna in the hills overlooking the Ionian Sea. The plan was to meet at our guide’s house and walk down to the vineyards to participate in the harvest, then head to another location for grape stomping, and finally back to our guide’s house to celebrate with a home-cooked meal.
Our directions included things like, “turn left after you pass the pink abandoned hotel”, and “when you come to three roads, stay left and you will pass in front of some barking dogs”. Although the roads up there have no names, we found our way nonetheless. As we got closer to our meeting location, I became more and more excited. Visions of Lucille Ball with her skirt pulled up to her knees, stomping in circles around a wooden grape barrel danced in my head.
And then it happened. Our brakes went out! That's right, the brakes went out while we were driving in the mountains of Sicily on a one-lane, dirt road with no guard rails. My husband's quick thinking and composure under pressure saved us (we won't talk about my reaction). And once we were stopped safely, I messaged our guide to tell her we weren't going to make it because we had to get our truck towed off the mountain. She immediately responded with, “Send me a picture of where you are and we will come to get you.” Despite my skepticism, she insisted that the truck was safe where it was, and did not want us to miss the experience. She told us that the farmer and his brother would be able to fix the brakes after the Vendemmia was over. By the way, if you were wondering whether there are still places in the world where strangers will go out of their way to help people, Sicily is definitely one of them.
I remember thinking that the possibility of a tow truck making it up those winding mountain roads was inconceivable. So if there was any chance that the grape farmer was also capable of replacing our brake line, we were willing to give it a shot. We agreed to leave our truck on the "side" of the road and move forward with the harvest. I admit we both suspected we would still have to get it towed after the fun was over. And luckily we had friends along with us who were driving their own car, so we knew that at the very least we had a ride home. At this point, we were already up on the mountain so we figured we might as well have some fun before we dealt with the truck.
We ended up being just around the next curve from our meeting place, so we were able to start the harvesting on time with the rest of the group. As we walked down the path to the vineyards, all thoughts of our broken-down truck started to disappear. Rows of grapevines appeared before us, with powder blue skies and views of Mount Etna in the distance. At the vineyard, we met the farmer and his family: Giorgio, Nino, Salvo, and Ranneri. Along with some close family friends that included Pancrazio, who we all lovingly called our Italian Santa for the day due to his long white beard and jovial smile.
We worked together to finish harvesting five or six small fields of grapes that were spaced out along the side of the mountain, weaving their way alongside roads, stone walls, old buildings, and an occasional clump of chestnut or olive trees. As we cut the last of the grapes from this year's harvest, they were loaded up in crates and carried to the truck. Every now and then we remembered that we had a truck sitting up on the hill, but whenever we mentioned it to anyone the answer was always "Va bene!", which means "it's all good".
Then it was time for the best and most exciting part of the day, the stomping! Instead of a wooden barrel, the grapes were loaded into a concrete vat with a built-in drainage system used for collecting the juices, but that didn't matter. When they asked who wanted to climb in first, guess who raised their hand? Now I realize that almost all wine production nowadays is done by machines, and that grape stomping is more celebratory than anything else, but that doesn't detract from how incredible this experience was in the least. We were blessed to have been part of the family for the day, and could not have asked for anything more special.
If you're reading this and wondering what happened to our truck, we left it on the mountain that day and our friends gave us a ride home. The farmer and his brother assessed the damage, ordered the parts from Palermo, and fixed it two weeks later when the part arrived. During that time, Trina sent me messages on my phone almost every day to reassure us that she had checked on our truck during her daily walk and that everything was fine. And when the truck was ready, we drove back up the mountain, met our Italian Santa for a cappuccino, and picked up the truck.
Our Vendemmia experience turned out to be special in so many unexpected ways. Of course, we had a blast learning how to harvest grapes and stomping the heck out of them, but I feel that we learned the meaning behind the Vendemmia celebration on the mountain roads more than in the vineyards. What a way to experience the true meaning of community! Here is my advice if you ever decide to take part in a Sicilian Vendemmia of your own. There are large vineyards and wine producers that will allow you to participate in a tourist version of Vendemmia, but a more authentic experience is with a small vineyard where you will walk away feeling like you're part of the family. And hopefully, your brakes will hold out!
If you're planning a trip to Sicily in the Fall and you want to experience an authentic Vendemmia, I highly recommend Trina as a guide. She also offers Sicilian cooking classes, arranges tailored tours, and has a beautiful property to host events such as private and small group dining, or even intimate weddings! Anything you do here will be a true experience of the mountain, its traditions, culture, and food.
If you enjoyed reading this, drop me a comment and check out some of my other Italian food articles below or on my European Destinations page.
Or read more about my Sicilian adventures here!