Not in the field nor the vineyard

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Perched on top of Rabaja just a short distance from Barbaresco, I sat waiting in the dark for the massive cellar door to open. A sweet smell of wine filled the air and the slow buzz of equipment filled my ears as Roberto flipped on the lights and went about his business of checking tanks. Wine making does not sleep this time of year and the process of fermentation must be constantly monitored and controlled. A year of hard work is now riding on the technical and artisanal ability of the vignaiolo. The cantina is where nature, culture and technology come together to produce wine, the embodiment of the complexity of these relations. This is what has been occupying my mind since I came back to the Langhe in Septemeber. Each day when I look out at the hills as I ride my bicycle to Pollenzo, I can’t help but feel the excitement and tension of the harvest.

When I returned to Piedmont, I had hoped to take part in the grape harvest, to learn first hand about life in the vineyard and the cellar this time of year. Sadly, I have found myself spending more time behind my desk than out in ‘the field’. There are a number of reasons for my lack of access to the sloping vineyards of the Langhe, but the main problem is the labour legislation that governs seasonal work, in this case the grape harvest. Between regulations that block foreign workers (I am a foreigner of the lowest order as a non-EU citizen or extracomunitaria as they say in Italian) and the unions that control seasonal labour, I have found myself gazing at the vineyard and peaking through the door of the cellar as a distant spectator. This is a truly frustrating situation for an anthropologist who likes to get her hands dirty and sweat next to the other workers.

Despite numerous contacts and some well-developed relationships with wine producers in this area, I have not insisted on taking part in the harvest. In Italy there is usually a way to get your foot in the door if you are persistent. I have not done this: I would hate for my friends and informants to incur a costly fine because of my presence in their vineyard. This is not the first time ethical issues have kept me from fieldwork and I have had to redesign my research. Practicing ethnography requires flexibility and creative thinking.

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