THURSDAY: Don Stefano


Copyright is held by the author.

DON FRANCESCO Napolitano looked up from his computer screen and out the window for a bit of relief from the dour message of the spreadsheet. More pleasant than the sea of red ink on his computer was the sight of his sprawling vineyard, the green vines tied to their stakes and running in neat rows as far as the eye could see, their fruits ripening under a blue sky and bright Tuscan sun. Such a beautiful vineyard, he thought. If only it was earning him more money.

He looked again at the numbers and shook his head. We produce one of the finest chiantis in Tuscany, he thought to himself, the very best in the estimation of some. It always wins the awards, garners the most favourable reviews, is served at all the fine restaurants in Italy and elsewhere and is a recommended choice of the most knowledgeable sommeliers. We should be turning a healthy profit. But sales are down and costs are up. What to do?

He was fretting over this question when his attention was captured by an object moving through the vineyard. It was a car coming toward his office, a cloud trailing it as it rumbled down the dirt road. When the car, a green Fiat, drew close enough for him to recognize the driver, he frowned more deeply than he had when fretting over his accounting. It was Don Stefano, his worst enemy in the world.

Or, more accurately, it was Stephen Simkin, American. He who had moved to Italy as a young man and built a business empire. He started off as a guide, conducting English-language tours of Florence in a hokey Italian accent, pretending he was a native and mangling the facts in order to make his tours more dramatic and scandalous. Not that the ignorant American tourists he squired around knew the difference. Telling them Michelangelo was gay! Imagine! He moved from that to teaching English to Italians, taking advantage of their desire to learn the tongue of international commerce and popular culture, and from that modest start had established English-language schools across the country.

The wealth from his language academies had made it possible for him to purchase the Alberti vineyard, just a few kilometers from Don Francesco’s. The failing vineyard that produced the high-quality but pricey Alberti Riserva Chianti Classico. That company was in even worse shape than Don Francesco’s was now and all the Tuscan winemakers were waiting for Simkin to lose his wealth in that money pit. It would have served him right. Did he think owning a historic Tuscan vineyard somehow made him Italian even more than calling himself Don Stefano — he even sometimes signed his last name as “Simchino,” not even a real Italian name – would erase his Americanness? His Italian was barely passable, if that.

And yet he turned Alberti around, mostly by aggressively marketing his wine in the United States — not the high-end Riserva, which he still bottled in limited quantities and sold to restaurants and a few exclusive wine shops, but his new creation, the mass-produced “Don Stefano” brand. That so-called chianti with its cloying sweetness that apparently agreed with the uneducated American palate – and, unfortunately, that of some Italians as well. He went all out to sell it with a television commercial shown in America featuring two fake Italians with their Chico Marx accents (Chico! That’s a Spanish name!) arguing over wine and finally agreeing that “Don Stefano is molto bene!” The commercials ended with Simkin himself, looking every bit the Italian vintner with his trim mustache and straw hat, holding up a glass of his wine. Americans lapped it up — with, as Don Francesco came to learn, the help of Simkin’s uncle, an executive in the beverage import business. Simkin bought out two neighbouring vineyards, and now his wine empire was — how do they say it there? — the 800-pound gorilla of Tuscan winemaking. Even if other vineyard owners laughed at his pretensions, they had to admire his very American entrepreneurial genius.

And here Simkin was driving up to his office, and by himself. What could he possibly want? To laugh in his face? No, that was not his way — Don Stefano’s encounters with his rivals were always civil, at least on the surface. Only underneath was he laughing at other winemakers, or so Don Francesco imagined.

Don Francesco walked down the stairs to the ground floor of the cottage that housed the offices of his vineyard. Just behind it was his much more substantial residence, a historic home of stucco and red tile, and behind that, tucked behind an olive grove, was the less attractive concrete factory where the grapes were crushed and the juice fermented. His secretary, Sofia, was busy at her desk. They exchanged a “buon giorno” as Don Francesco opened the front door to see Don Stefano’s car pull to a stop.

“Hello, Don Stefano!” he called as his rival stepped out of the car.

Buon giorno, Don Francesco,” Don Stefano called back.

Don Stefano was carrying a small leather satchel as he walked toward the door.

“Won’t you come in?” Don Francesco said. He looked his rival in the face. Simkin is my age, Don Francesco thought, maybe a little older — at least 50, and yet his face is unlined. A bit of gray in the hair, otherwise he could pass for 40. That was another injustice to add to his undeserved success.

Grazie,” Don Stefano replied as he walked inside, removed his straw hat and wiped sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. That’s the last Italian I’m letting you speak, Don Francesco thought. I’m not letting you pretend to be one of us.

“And how is everything with you and your family?” Don Francesco said in barely accented English with as much pleasantness as he could muster.

“Andrea is doing well,” he said. “Giuseppe is in college in the States. Dartmouth.”

Giuseppe, thought Don Francesco. Giving his son such an Italian name. Watch the boy change it to Joseph at first opportunity.

“And how is your family?” Don Stefano asked.

“All are well,” said Don Francesco, that being all he wished to share. “What brings you here? Something pleasant, I hope.”

After that much conversation in English it would have been awkward for Don Stefano to switch back to Italian, so he continued, “Don Francesco, I have a bit of a dilemma that I hope you can help me with.”

“I certainly hope so,” Don Francesco said, trying to sound sincere, but thinking, Me help you? Since when do you need my help? “But please have a seat. Would you like some wine?” He waved Don Stefano to a reception area with a table and comfortable chairs.

“Just some water, if you please. I’m sorry to barge in on you without notice,” he said as he sat down.

“Not at all,” Don Francesco said, playing the gracious host. “Signorina, acqua per Don Stefano, per favore.” Sofia left the room and came back with a water in a wine glass.

“Thank you,” Don Stefano said, and Don Francesco was pleased he was now conditioned to speaking English.

Don Francesco sat across from his visitor. “Now, what can I do for you?”

Don Stefano took a sip of the water before putting down the glass and wringing his hands. “Don Francesco, this is a bit awkward. But I — ah — need your advice on something.”

My advice? Don Francesco thought. He’s stolen half my customers and he wants my advice? Only an American would have such nerve.

But he betrayed no hostility as he answered, “Certainly. About what?”

Don Stefano searched for words for a few seconds before speaking. “Don Francesco, what do you think about my wine? Be honest.” He paused a second and added, “I trust your opinion.”

The question took Don Francesco aback. Why would he be asking me this?

“Are you referring to the Alberti Riserva, or your popular wine?” he said.

“Both,” Don Stefano said.

“Well, I’ve never had your popular wine,” Don Franceso said. “Many years ago I drank the Riserva, but I remember it being excellent.” Because of Paolo Domenici, your Tuscan master vintner, he added silently; you alone wouldn’t know how to make even a California rosato.

“That’s what I thought,” Don Stefano said, his dour expression the opposite of how Don Stefano thought he would react.

“So what is the matter?”

Don Stefano paused, groping for how to express his thoughts even in his native tongue. “I don’t like my wine,” he finally blurted out. “Can’t stand it.”

Don Francesco’s expression of shock was sincere, as Don Stefano continued. “I was meeting a group of visitors at my vineyard for a tasting, and I sipped a glass of Riserva with them. They all seemed to love it, but I almost spat it out. It tasted like — I don’t know — vinegar or something.”

Don Francesco was nonplussed. Such a confession was the last thing he thought he would hear from his rival. Not even a response in Italian formed in his mind.

“I think I’ve lost my taste for wine,” Don Stefano continued. “Not just my wine, but all wine.” He looked somberly at the floor. “I’m not sure I ever really had a taste for wine.”

“But — of course,” Don Francesco stumbled, until a sentence finally formed in his head — “You have owned your vineyard for — what — 20 years? Surely you appreciate the qualities of fine wine.”

“That’s just it,” Don Stefano said. “Even since before I owned the vineyard I went to wine tastings, even took classes in wine appreciation. I learned about dryness, fruitiness, texture, bouquet and all the rest. I gained an academic appreciation of what constituted a fine wine, and I learned to tell a good from a mediocre from a bad wine by taste. But — but — “here he groped for words again — “it was all academic. Knowing a wine is good wasn’t the same as liking it. Most food or drink that I like, I know as soon as I taste it. But with wine, I spent years, decades trying to learn to like it.” He sighed. “I failed. I put up the pretense of liking it, but it was hard. During a tasting with tourists at my vineyard a couple weeks ago I had to excuse myself to run to the restroom to vomit, and I’d drunk only half a glass.”

Don Francesco was at a loss for words, English or Italian. How could anyone, but especially a winemaker, not like wine? “Well —” was all he could say, and nothing followed.

“Here’s where you can help me,” Don Stefano continued. “Taste my wine and tell me what you think. Be honest. I don’t know if my wine is any good or not. I need an expert’s opinion.”

“But many people have commented on your wine,” Don Francesco said. “You know what they think. And Signor Domenici has the highest reputation. Surely that answers your question.”

“I don’t know,” Don Stefano answered. “Paolo — I don’t know if I can trust him. His job depends on my thinking he knows what he’s doing. And the people who visit my vineyard — well, most of them don’t know anything. They come to meet the famous Don Stefano in the flesh. They like my wine because they know they’re supposed to like it. To my face they praise it, especially the Riserva, say it’s wonderful, of course. Because they’ve decided ahead of time that it’s going to be wonderful. In America, of course, they buy Don Stefano mostly because of the commercials.” He paused and grinned a bit. “Those were very effective commercials. I hired the right agency.”

“Er, yes,” Don Francesco said hesitatingly. “Well, of course, I’d be happy to do a tasting if that would be of help.”

“Thanks. Molto grazie,” Don Stefano said as Don Francesco winced at the poor Italian accent. He pulled two bottles out of his satchel and a small box. “Here I have a bottle of Alberti and one of Don Stefano. And some crackers to cleanse the palate.”

He also pulled out two wine glasses and a corkscrew. As if he needed to bring those to a winery, Don Francesco almost muttered aloud. Don Stefano rather inelegantly removed both corks and opened the package of crackers.

He poured half a glass’s worth of one bottle into a glass. Light from the window illuminated the deep red of the liquid. “The Don Stefano,” he said.

Picking up the glass, Don Francesco didn’t bother with the wine-tasting ritual of visually examining the wine, swishing the liquid, sniffing the bouquet. This man is already wasting enough of my time, he thought. He took a quick sip and considered the taste before swallowing.

“It is a well-made wine,” Don Francesco said, resisting the urge to condemn it. “It is too sweet for my palate, but a lot of people like sweet chiantis. It is well designed for the mass market.”

“Okay, fair enough,” Don Stefano said. “Thank you for your honesty. And now for the Riserva.”

He uncorked the second bottle and poured a half glass. Don Francesco didn’t bother taking a cracker before sipping the wine.

He didn’t like what he tasted. But he expected that reaction from himself. He wished he could lie, but he was too honest by nature.

“Well, it’s an excellent chianti,” he said. “Fruity, just bold enough. It stands among the best chiantis. You have nothing to worry about, Don Stefano.” After a pause he added, “My compliments to Signor Domenici.”

He thought this would please Don Stefano, but it only produced an expression of worry.

“So what do I do, Don Francesco?” he asked fretfully. “I make one of Italy’s finest chiantis, but I can’t stand to drink it. I feel like a fraud. I should get out of the business, retire, go back to the States. Sell the winery to someone who knows what he’s doing. I could use the proceeds to start a new business. I could brew beer, which I do like. What do you think?”

An answer formed immediately in Don Francesco’s mind. Yes, you American pig, get out of the Italian wine business, and out of Italy. You have no business being here. You barge into our country with your pretensions, your American connections, your lust for money. You have no appreciation of our history, our traditions, of what wine means to Italian culture. You think you can become Italian? Well, you can’t. You are Italian a millimeter deep and an American down to the depths of your soul. So leave us, sell your winery and thousands of acres of vines to someone who understands and appreciates Italian wine. Me, for instance.

He almost said this. But as he caught the pleading glance in his rival’s eye he choked off those words. “Listen, Don Stefano. Your winery is going well,” he said. “It is producing good wine, even some fine wine, even — even if you don’t appreciate it. Why not relax and let Signor Domenici handle the wine? And you do what you do well, which seems to be the selling, and greeting your visitors. You have a good business going. I see no need for you to change anything.”

Don Stefano looked at his rival with mist in his eyes. “Of course, Don Francesco. Of course you are right. I was having a crisis of confidence. Now, thanks to you, I feel much better.”

He stood, pushed the corks back into the bottles and packed up.

“Don Francesco, I know you’re busy and I won’t take up any more of your time. Many thanks.” Don Stefano said. He stepped forward as if to administer a hug, but when Don Francesco stepped backward he offered his hand instead. They shook, with Don Stefano providing most of the energy.

Arrivederla and best of luck to you,” Don Stefano said as he carried his bag out the door and into his car. Soon the Fiat disappeared in a trail of dust through Don Francesco’s vines.

Don Francesco looked at the car, and the dust, disappear over the hills. What have I done? he asked himself.

He returned to his office where his loss-laden spreadsheet awaited him. “Sono un tale idiota,” he moaned aloud.


Bill Mosley is a Washington, D.C.-based writer. His fiction has been published in After the Storm magazine and one of his stories appears in the recent anthology Storms of the Revolution. He articles and essays of political and social commentary have appeared in publications such as The Washington Socialist and New Politics, as well as in his blog Outside the Box.