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Barolo Interview with Matthew Gavin Frank

Six months of illegal work — picking grapes 14 hours a day, sleeping in a tent by night, talking with butchers, vintors, and tough guys the whole time in between —  has cumulated in a book called Barolo, the memoirs of Matthew Gavin Frank’s life as vineyard laboror in the Barolo region of Italy. If [...]

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Six months of illegal work — picking grapes 14 hours a day, sleeping in a tent by night, talking with butchers, vintors, and tough guys the whole time in between —  has cumulated in a book called Barolo, the memoirs of Matthew Gavin Frank’s life as vineyard laboror in the Barolo region of Italy.

If the labels on wine bottles are meant to make the drinker dream fantasies of the places from which they came, then perhaps it was no accident that the art on the cover of Barolo is similar to that of a good bottle of wine: this seems to be a book to dream into.

As Matthew tells us:

Your new book, Barolo, is about your illegal work in the Barolo wine cultivation region of Italy, now, I am unfamiliar with what this illegal work consisted of and of the background of the story. What exactly were you doing there, and why was it illegal? Also, could you provide us with the background setting of your tale?

I came to work in the Barolo wine industry through a particularly serpentine series of events involving a childhood of microwaved omelets, a teenage culinary rebellion ignited by a horrible version of Creamed Chipped Beef on Texas Toast, a move to Alaska where I started that avant garde catering company (read: lavender tea with frozen salad cubes), an obsession with cookbooks, fifteen years of working in the restaurant industry, a trip to Barolo, Italy, an unexpected meeting with Raffaella Pittatore, who ran a farmhouse bed-and-breakfast there, and who allowed me to live out of my tent in her garden for 6 months, while she found me illegal work picking wine grapes and mopping cantina floors with a series of vintners, including the famed Luciano Sandrone. BAROLO, charts this gustatory evolution from microwave-dependent Big Mac eater to a guy who seriously muses over what he eats and drinks. It’s about a food-and-wine-and-life journey…

When I say “illegal,” I mean that the Italian government, and particularly the carabinieri, or “Italian Military Police,” were particularly overzealous in dealing with people like me—illegal migrant farm workers without papers. Just before I arrived, they landed their helicopters in a neighboring vineyard and chased down, beat, and carted off the illegal workers to some mystery holding cell, from where, (hopefully) they were deported without further incident. The offending vintners often then had a number of their crops destroyed, and suffered a hefty fine.  I had to keep one eye on the grapes and one on the skies…

It is my understanding that you spent six months living in Barolo in Italy, sleeping in a tent at night and picking grapes by day. Could you tell us a little more about how you came into this work, what it entailed, and a little about how life was while living and working in a small Italian town of 600 people?

Well, so much depended on my knowing the beautiful, beautiful Raffaella Pittatore, who I mentioned earlier, and who scored me the 14-hour-a-day work picking wine grapes and mopping cantina floors for the season with Sandrone. On my days off, life there was blissfully slow. Meals lasted four-five hours—it was an instructive way of living— exhilarating, informative, frightening, hallucinatory. And tasty. All the good stuff.

Could you share a particularly exciting or funny story from this book with us?

My first day in the fields, I met the crew. The three alpha males who ran the tractor-driving faction—Ivo, Beppe, and Indiano—introduced themselves to me through their scars, trying to one-up each other’s old injuries. I felt like I was trapped in some cutting-room-floor scene of “Lethal Weapon” or something. Ivo, this hairless, shirtless giant who looked like something to project a movie onto, learned English while working on his uncle’s Rottweiler farm in Oregon. Every other story he told involved him being attacked by one of these dogs, and he was compelled to show the scars as evidence with each repeated telling. As such, the guy was never fully dressed.

How about a story from working in the Barolo region that did not make it to publication or you have not yet written about formally?

Beppe, another one of the tractor guys, had his throat cut years ago (he would point viciously to this neck-scar during their “contests”). In spite of the fact that he couldn’t speak very well (his voice came out as a sort of deflated wheeze), and that his primary means of communication involved the flexing of his biceps and the playing of his jacks game (which he kept with him, always, like a child would a teddy bear, in his overalls belly-pocket), he was this indefatigable ladies man. Once, when I saw a young female crewmember kiss him on her way into Sandrone’s cantina, he retrieved the red rubber ball from his pocket and began bouncing it from the bumper of his Fiat Cinquecento, as if trying to calm himself down.

Thanks Matthew, what details should I enclose about how someone could purchase your book?

BAROLO can be purchased directly through the press at:
University of Nebraska Press Barolo Book

It’s also available through the usual online channels—Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders, etc. Also: Check out my “Barolo Book” Facebook page, and visit my website: www.matthewgfrank.com Thanks so much!


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Filed under: Food, Interviews, Italy, Travel Writing

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3716 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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