Father Biagio is waiting for him in the porter’s lodge. They take the stairs together. “Today is the first day of the wine harvest,” says the Master of the Novices in his soft, self-deprecating manner, “and it is likely to continue for the entire month of September.” A pause that allows for a slight modulation of tone. “Would you care to join us in the vineyards this afternoon or –” a quick sideways glance here “– would you prefer to rest on the first day?”
The monastery has consecrated over ten hectares of its lands to the cultivation of grapes both red and white. The vineyards stretch away to the northeast and south of the cloister Doppio like a lush green, ordered and furrowed sea. The white varieties of grape are predominantly Garganega, Chardonnay, Moscato and Soave; the reds are confined to Merlot, Cabernet, Corvina and Barbera. Between the rows as orderly as soldiers at an inspection, Lorenzo spots the occasional figure robed in black, a score of them, poised, seemingly motionless, next to one vine or the other. At the foot of each figure sits a basket. As he gets closer, he sees that each monk has a pair of clippers in his hand and that they are all in fact quietly and incessantly active, snipping away at the fruit and dropping the clusters in the basket. Out in the open, the sun is quite pitiless and the humming of the bees does little to lessen that feeling of late-summer lassitude
From a shed in the cloister Rustico, Lorenzo has been given a hat, a pair of clippers and a bright-red plastic basket. He and Father Biagio trudge down the row of vines, Lorenzo nodding a hello at each fellow monk whom he passes till they arrive at a vacant spot. At a distance, he sees Fulvio in his jeans and polo and smiles at him. In response, Fulvio looks at him expressionlessly for a good thirty seconds.
“Have you harvested grapes before?…Concentrate on the ripe and overripe clusters, the not-yet-mature can wait for the time being, we have the entire month ahead of us. When the basket is full, walk across to that tractor with its trailer – Father Onorato or Dom Lino will drive past with it, several times, before the end of the day – dump your grapes in it, come back and continue. Needless to say, finish with one vine before moving on to another.”
More purple than red the colour and some so ripe and ready that the skin of the fruit is about to burst; it is deceptive, just the number of clusters weighing down a single vine. The leaves hide a plump bunch that, upon being clipped, reveal three more. No other fruit possesses sugar in amounts as concentrated as grape and in quantities adequate to convert consistently to alcohol, and no other fruit has enough acids and tannins to make stable the resultant beverage. The process is complex, naturally, there is much at stake, and the quality of the wine begins with the precision of the timing of the harvest.
Father Onorato is in charge of the wine cellar of the abbey or – as it is referred to by its residents – the cantina. It is housed in a vast, medieval cavern beneath the cloister Pensile more suited to Inquisitorial questioning than the subtlest degustation. It is appropriately dark and cool down there, in part because the cellar abuts the 16th-century reservoir of the monastery. Its casks vary greatly in size, the largest can hold as much as two thousand litres.
Father Onorato does not labour alone at this noble calling. He is assisted by Dom Tiziano and a couple of other novices. Their duties are not changed as frequently as those of, say, the monks in charge of the laundry of the institution, wine-making being trickier, needless to say, than shoving the used clothes of seventy inmates into several machines, adding detergent, pressing their Start buttons and watching them revolve. In the course of the next few years, Lorenzo too will be asked for a week or month to work with Father Onorato.
Then, with time, he too would be able to tell when to begin crushing the grapes brought in from the vineyard and when to allow them instead to begin fermenting while bunched together in the cluster, by which means the natural weight of the fruit and the process of fermentation together cause the skin to burst even before the grape passes through the crusher, thereby ensuring that the final beverage has a subtler, mellower taste. Live and learn, even while cloistered in an abbey, of the wonders of the subtlest operations of nature at work.
Every year, the grape harvest is the labora for all the monks for the entire month of September. Everyone, save the ill and infirm, works all day at clipping the vines; even the novices attending lectures pick up their baskets and clippers after class and head for the vineyards. Yet, even though the harvest is work of the first importance, it does not mean that it supersedes the ora that month. In Praglia, the ora never stops. During the time of day spent outdoors, the bell of the abbey never fails to signal the hours for Sext, Nones and Vespers and on hearing it, the monks to a man put down their clippers and troop off to the church to pray.
By the end of Vespers on that first day of his return to Praglia, Lorenzo feels totally back in the groove, as though he has already been there a month. The sensation is neither pleasant nor unpleasant; pleasantness is not what he is looking for during his time here on earth. Or rather, what he feels is that if he can but get to the heart of himself, find out what it’s all about in there, the pleasantness and pleasure and purpose and all of that will resolve themselves.
During the lifetime that he is ready to spend in Praglia, ora et labora being as enduring as the walls of stone of the abbey, the routine does not change. What work the monks are given, however, changes every week, more or less. It is the Master of the Novices who decides. The prayers seven times a day, come rain or shine, from Matins at five in the morning to Compline after an early dinner, continue. As for the labour, September vanishes in the vineyards; Lorenzo divides October between returning to the cosmetics laboratory and tending to the bees in the apiary. It is only with the arrival of winter that Father Biagio, apparently recalling that they have in their midst a postulant trained in the Fine Arts, assigns to him the work of the restoration of damaged books.
Excerpted with permission from Lorenzo Searches for the Meaning of Life, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Speaking Tiger Books.