Screenshot of Lindsay on a ladder in the vines of I Borboni

The magic and tragic story of I Borboni – Climate change, building abuse and a few local heroes

In Articles, Winemakers & Vineyards by Lindsay GabbardLeave a Comment

Screenshot of Lindsay on a ladder in the vines of I Borboni


There's no scenic route into Aversa.
To arrive, you must pass through a mafia-laden area where, from what I'm told, a murder could literally happen in front of you. The buildings and villas are scattered amongst the unkempt fields of grass and rubbish, like a modern day scenographic setting of a Wild West movie. I feel as if I'm back in Detroit, off the rough and barren streets of 6 and 7 mile (which make 8 mile look like Las Vegas). Every stop sign had me a bit anxious. I glance down to the right of my shoulder to be sure the door is locked. We slowly approach our destination. Most of the streets have slow speed limits, making it impossible not to be a witness to your surroundings.
 
To give you an idea of the area, we are in the heart of the Campania countryside, about 20 minutes away from what is called 'Land of Fires' or 'Triangle of Death' (about 25 km north east of Naples), a name generously handed down to the region. This is the home of the world's largest illegal toxic dumpsite and landfill, which emerged during the 1990s and 2000s when Italy was suffering from a waste management dilemma. Childhood cancers and hospitalizations doubled, especially illnesses occurring in the first year of life. Liver cancers are still twice the norm for the area, desperate mothers protest for their children.
 
Animals here are spared no less misfortune - malformed fetuses, early deaths, and separation of animals who have signs of toxicity is required due to high levels of dioxins found in them. Dioxins of course find their way into the myriad of mild cheese products that come from this area, famous for its buffalo mozzarella. Even if only some 2.8% of the land was deemed unusable due to toxicity, the region has suffered from the tragedy in terms of reputation, trust, exports, and faced bans on products.
 
But, this isn’t the story…keep reading.
 
We pull into a private villa in the area, seemingly protected from what we witnessed on the drive, and young Nicola Numeroso approaches to welcome us at I Borboni. I gather he's in his 20s by the way his glance is slightly aloof and he saunters with a casual stride. Long black hair, parted in the center, hangs beyond his shoulders and his approach is casual and understated. Given his youthfulness, he almost seems better placed at a Bob Marley concert than running a winery.
 
 
He begins by introducing himself and mentions he's the 5th generation in his family to care for the business, going into the history of the family, and my initial impressions change quickly. We follow his lead as we plunge down 50 meters of stairs which open onto a labyrinth of underground cellars in the area, creating an entire underground Naples if you will, some of which were sealed up and only recently discovered. I'm fascinated. It's mid May and it's already approaching 80 degrees outside but down here, the temperature and humidity nips at your skin, a pleasant respite from the late Spring heat and I can imagine for the fermenting wines.
 
To exit, we ride up the elevator, expecting to find the vineyards on the property. But he tells us that most are about 10 minutes away by car, and if I must say, judging by the flat area we entered through which lacked any sense of rolling green hills or Tuscan cypresses, I have zero expectations and somewhat of zero desire to go to them. We tend to be yes people however, and we should get a video if the wine goes in the wine club, so we go.
 
Following the same scenic route in, the barren and flat land, and non-impressive area, we pass through strawberry orchards, pulling deep back into a somewhat rather industrial area and I'm clueless - where are these vineyards??
 
Nicola senses the perplexed look on our faces. Not riding together in the vehicle, we were prepped for nothing. Maybe that is his sales technique - tell them nothing and let it all unfold for them magically and whimsically. We walk towards the middle of nowhere, through a sandy field where you imagine children running around kicking a soccer ball. The terrain is flat and dusty, with patches of wild blades of grass blowing in the soft wind. Off in the distance I see some trees. As we get closer we unexpectedly start seeing what we are approaching, which appears to be oddly tall trees of some mysterious sort, arranged in long straight lines.
 
What we are approaching is the vineyard - married or maritata - between poplar trees with vines ascending to 15 meters or 45 feet tall! It was a fantasy land, so wild and unexpected and unlike anything I had ever seen before. For the next few minutes, I'm in my own world, photographing in complete awe.   How the first impressions from my drive in could be so amiss echoed as I shook my head in awe and dismay at my initial judgements.
 
A obvious thought immediately arises...how on earth do you harvest here?

 
To get an idea of the insanity of the workers, literally referred to as local heroes, who risk their lives daily so that we may sip the traditional grape Asprinio, we walk over to a long, tall, narrow ladder leaning against the vines. It weighs a couple hundred pounds and has to. It's a risky business being that high in the air on such a thin fulcrum with precarious connection with the earth. Even a little wind is enough to spell disaster. We don't even bother ask the rhetorical question of has anyone ever had an accident. Stability is utterly essential and the weight helps with that but so does the fact that each ladder run is carefully measured to be the exact distance which allows the harvester to grip it by firmly wedging their foot and knee between two rungs. Nicola also reminds us that two hands are needed for harvesting, which requires that your leg essentially do all the grip work. While they are busy doing their work, the harvester's ear is carefully located next to a divot in the top of the ladder, which will give off a whistling sound in the presence of a slight uptick in the wind, prompting them to get down immediately. The picked grapes are put into baskets and lowered with a rope system to children who will collect them below.
 
The next ensuing question...what is the point of training the vines like this? You'd have to ask the Etruscans, as this training method was taught by them. Ease is probably all it was, as the more formal concept of rows of vines came later and proved a sophistication with viticulture. But this traditional concept has remained through the centuries, especially in the area of Aversa and has been noted by various travelers included Goethe in his Italian Journeys. Later this style even came to serve a more interesting purpose - the vines acted as a 'wall' to slow down cavalry and stop them stampeding through the area, giving people time to report what was happening and flee during times of war.
 
The case may be less urgent these days for maintaining the vines to the standards of war time defense systems, but for the Numeroso family, this is tradition, in the same way that Asprinio is tradition. Despite the systematic, and paid, uprooting of this grape by the government in the early 1900's, this family pressed on to preserve meaning and significance in their lives and for this region.  When something is lost, it's lost often forever.  Hundreds of years cannot be recuperated overnight.  
 

Fast forward 4 years later....

Desperately seeking a sparkling wine for the wine club, a light bulb goes on - I Borboni. We had recently partnered with la Repubblica and this would also be a story and vineyard to report.  Alessandro calls Nicola and after the 'ciao, come stai?', I hear a long pause.....an 'oh my god'....... another long, disorienting pause.... and then 'well we'd love to come anyways'.
 
The vineyards had been completely leveled and uprooted by an unusual tropical wind storm which ravaged the area. Several hundreds of centuries of time and work lay massacred on mud and dirt, 18 meter tall, personally customized ladders included. Pruning and harvesting is an extremely risky job in these vineyards and the reality is, in a modern world, no one wants to do it anymore. Luciano and his son were two of the last remaining but Luciano had reached 75 years old and tragically his son developed vertigo so the vines had been left largely unpruned, not leaving enough space for the wind to go through them, instead acting as a wall which the the wind was able to blow down.  'I knew this day was a likely reality which would strike, but I never imagined this soon.' say Nicola in utter shock and dismay.
 
His story penetrates far deeper than just climate change, which is sadly ravishing and shaking up the world, from wild fires burning areas of land the size of US states, to wind storms, 4 year droughts, land slides, you name it. This story is about an everyday fight - one that doesn't hit headlines daily in newspapers or the evening news - about a family's attempt to stay put in an area which has been devastated for decades by organized crime, which has driven nearly everyone and all industries and businesses away. Most abandon the region in search of a 'better' life. Few have the strength to fight a silent battle everyday in an attempt to save a territory - but the Numeroso's have it. So losing this vineyard is also them losing the little that is left of saving the traditions of the area, and saving the area period.  On a local level, that is the real tragedy.

But for a little twist of irony, paradoxically, what would ultimately save the last remaining parcel of vineyards?  None less than the urban abuses of over-construction of homes built in the 80s and 90s - another tragedy which Nicola shakes his head in contempt about which have defaced the area - which acted as concrete walls, blocking the winds from taking down all their vineyards. On this tiny parcel remains, we stumbled upon Luciano and his son.
 
Luciano spoke in a dialect which was hardly discernable to me but the look on his face as he couldn't fight the tears told it all. This long tradition was everything to their family. Antonio, son of Luciano, was still pressing on, up and down to trim the vines, as he recounted his personal, tragic story of developing vertigo, rendering him unable to climb the 18 meter scalillo - or ladder. Behind his words, you sensed his guilt, even if he knows it was nothing he chose. Having a little curiosity myself of what it means to climb a skinny ladder which reaches into the sky, I take the challenge.
 
 
'This one is just a little one' Antonio says, which went up some 6 meters or so. That ladder he could still do no problem. I stood 2/3s of the way to the top and imagined then having to brace myself with just a knee while the vines were pruned and harvested (and that this was a tiny ladder by their measures!). The wind picked up and I was down. But up there is a whole different world, one which ports you out of the abuso edilizio or hideous overbuilding, to a place where some have the chance to find god - and one that may never be seen again.
 
Watch the full story for la Repubblica here:
 

On a personal note... This was one of the first vineyards upon living in Italy that made such a mark on my heart and hence why seeing the destruction here ripped it to pieces.  To discover a tradition, to see centuries of history maintained and to learn their historical context, and to taste with immense pleasure a glass of this land - that is why I love wine! 

Something else that has stuck with me - I observed and learned here how my first initial impressions of 'where are we' and feeling as though this place was going to be a total waste of our time, were foolishly wrong.  It's that American side of me that can so often stay on the surface of things or be quick to judge by what my eyes see.  How many stories are lost to the wind as we whirl around aimlessly looking for the next sparkling thing. 
 
Awe isn't usually found rationally.  

This story has so many historical and anthropological layers, which take time to assimilate and understand, but every story like this adds to my deeper appreciation of what makes Italy such a rich country - beyond its stereotypical Tuscan Sun and Neapolitan pizzas.  Thank you Nicola - it's stories like yours which have left a never-ending impression on my heart, opened my mind and given me a new level of awareness which I'll appreciate with every sip of your wines. 
  
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