Wine Crush

Sweet Visciolata and the Fleeting Joys of Summer

How an Italian wine showed me a different life — if only for a moment

Chris Malloy By August 17, 2021
Illustration by Nicole Jarecz.

As planned, I met Pietro at dusk. We drove from the town of Pergola deeper into the green mountains of Le Marche. The coastal glitz and city lights of Rome were hours and worlds away. After passing wheat, sheep, buffalo, and sunflower fields, and after getting to know each other a bit, we turned off at his family farmhouse. The thoughtful, unblinking Swiss Italian then cut the engine, silencing the jammy jazz. His whole family crew of five, and a few volunteer workers, sat at an outdoor table talking and joking, dinner plates shining with olive oil and torchlight. 

“Christof!” Paolo, the father, greeted me. “I hope you like zucchini!” 

I did. 

And then: “Have you ever tried Visciolata?”

“Visciolata?” I replied. 

“No?” he said. “You’re in for a treat.”

Paolo, who left the popular beach town of Senigallia to start this mountain farm decades before, poured two fingers of Le Marche’s beloved cherry wine. We clinked a salute and sipped. 

And then, for a few heartbeats, the world stopped. 

A summer in Italy

My path to this moment began in May 2008. A few days after I finished college, I left for a summer run of working on farms and vineyards up and down Italy. I was eager to trade my life of computers, caffeine, and air conditioning for one closer to the earth — maybe for the summer, maybe forever. 

Some 72 hours after holding my last senior week beer, I was holding a hoe on an agritourism’s vegetable plot, chopping at soil until sweat poured and my lips tasted like salt. There, within earshot of a highway from Bologna to Rome, I hoed, moved fences, and tended Sangiovese vines until the alien tremors of the weed whacker shook into my dreams. Next, I scythed grass and pruned in an Albana vineyard a few hours east, on a mountain farm near Brisighella, where the owner played cello at night and we washed our dishes with wood ash from outdoor fires that cooked rabbit or artichokes, making plates smooth and shiny. Third was a biodynamic farm near Rome, where planets and stars governed tasks. Next, my last leg began when I met Pietro in Pergola. 

Fields spread down from the stone farmhouse, low tracts of crops. Days were long. At first, they were pure garlic. 

In his blue tractor, Paolo slid a blade down a clay field, loosening whole bulbs one and two at a time. His wife Bini, Pietro, and a rotating cast lobbed them into his wagon. Sometimes, Paolo pretended to fall asleep at the wheel. Aglio, aglio, aglio we repeated like a spell. Garlic, garlic, garlic. Bini sang in German as we worked. She stashed chilled water for everyone in the shade. Lunch brought pasta, rivers of Trebbiano, Verdicchio, and Bianchello, and of course, zucchini. Over my month on the farm, we ate zucchini about a million ways. 

Days fell into a rhythm: morning work, lunch, siesta, afternoon work, dinner. And then the day’s cherry on top: Visciolata.

A cherry portal to a new world 

Ah, Visciolata! The shapes your mouth makes as you say the word, Visciolata, mirror the act of drinking it: vee — lower lip drops, mouth opens, show — lips close, as if taking a drink, latahhh — the unstoppable sigh that follows. 

Often fermented from grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, and the juices pulled from sugared sour cherries left to sun-dry in glass vessels, Visciolata is a dessert wine that goes its own way. And that way leads, on some elemental level, via sun and soil and fruit ripened on wild green slopes, back into a Marchese summer. 

Broadly, Visciolata ranges from sugar bomb to manna. Family recipes vary, and some have been honed for generations. Often, Visciolata sees a brief aging. As a general rule, more commercial bottles, those poured at town festivals, tend to be too sweet. The unnamed, unknown stuff made by our neighbors was more balanced — and on another plane. 

When made with skill, Visciolata’s particular sweetness dissolves into cherry’s dusky zones of flavor and an edgeless tartness, racing to a spiced, faint cinnamon finish. Every time I took my first sip of the night, I was a sandcastle crumbling into the sea. Every first, happy, sip erased the physical toll of the day’s work, but not its proud memory.

We sipped Visciolata in the farmhouse kitchen, gabbing about food, music, politics, agriculture, and Paolo’s legendary hatred of cucumbers. “Cetrioli,” he would fly into a half-comedic rant when others ate them. “Cucumbers! They use up soil and water but provide no calories, and they stink!”

We nursed it at the torchlit backyard table indefinitely, with friends telling stories and jokes, watching stars over the dark valley, and slapping down choice Briscola cards from the Italian deck of 40 used to play many happily rowdy games. 

For a dreamlike time, I passed into a parallel universe. This felt like where I fit in most, where I felt most natural — or was that just the endorphins, or maybe the wine, talking? Maybe, I thought in sustained flashes, maybe I could stay in a place like here forever.

Dark as liquid roses, sultry as a summer dusk, the Visciolata did nothing to dispel these searing wonderings. We put away liters from plastic cups at Pergola’s Festa del Vino, a citywide summer wine festival held in a nearby large town — and paid a high price when husking barley for eight hours the next day. We ordered it in the nearby village of Serra Sant’Abbondio, in a chummy bar where the only stranger was me.

We drank it late, when twilight faded and life’s infinite possibilities unfurled. We drank it at the peak of the day and my summer away from the world I knew, the peak of my summer coming to relish new ways of living, that for whatever reason — fear of change or risk probably — I would turn from, when at last, I trashed my garlic-reeking work clothes and left Le Marche. 

I hauled Visciolata home. Absolutely jazzed to share with friends, I loaded my suitcase with bottles until its zippers screamed. Back home, nicely cooled and caffeinated, I poured two dark ruby sips, one for my girlfriend, one for me. We clinked a salute and drank. She recoiled a bit — too sweet. I let the rich, sugary flavor unspool. As I did, I realized that somehow, the cherry spirit, cinnamon spice, and even the warmth had ebbed away. And then, feeling hope fade, at last waking up from sunburnt dreams, I admitted to myself that I tasted something new in my first American sip of Visciolata: disappointment.

The summer was over. The possibilities were gone. I haven’t had Visciolata since.