It’s the perfect middle-aged romance: a settled, financially stable English-speaking dreamer buys a house in a provincial Mediterranean village, fixes it up with the help of colorful locals, suffers a few amusing setbacks, triumphs over language barriers and bourgeois timidity, and lives happily ever after. Peter Mayle established the genre with A Year in Provence and it reached its popular peak with Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. One of the latest entries is Ferenc Máté’s A Vineyard in Tuscany: A Wine Lover’s Dream. This book is actually Máté’s second entry in the Mediterranean rehab genre. It’s a sequel to his first book,
The Hills of Tuscany, a chronicle of his time living in a farm house outside the nearly perfect Tuscan town of Montepulciano, one of the two or three places on earth I’d happily spend the rest of my days. Máté gets petulent after he’s unable to buy a vineyard ajoining his property, and he revives a boyhood dream to restore a ruin. (Somehow the sight of Soviet tanks in his native Budapest in 1956 skewed his boyhood fantasies to the hopelessly dorky.) His Stoic wife Candice, a nobler if less imaginative figure than Máté, finds a listing for a thirteenth-century friary in Montalcino and, despite not having any sign of a day job other than writing about Tuscany, Máté buys the friary, which is really a set of crumbing stone walls in a thicket of weeds.
Máté hacks his way to a Tuscan Eden. When he buys it, the friary has no electricity, running water, or usable rooms. The land has been occupied for decades by pampas grass, mice, and vipers. Most of the rehabbing is carried out by a band of masons, who toil for six months while Máté works off his anxieties by slashing through the wilderness to clear land for vineyards. Mortar isn’t a very lyrical subject, so he’s in barren land for a writer, but Máté exploits his great gift–his only gift, really–for finding sublime real estate. Just as we’re growing bored with his six-year-old son digging up yet another giant porcini mushroom, Máté stumbles upon a waterfall on his property. Perfect soil for syrah and a waterfall! Could any soul be more blessed? Máté’s most intriguing discovery is an ancient Etruscan city on his property. To my mind, an encounter with the enigmatic civilization of the Etruscans, the Romans’ first victims, is a much more interesting subject than Fosco, the terse foreman of Máté’s crew of masons, but the laws of the genre redirect attention away from anthropology back to real estate. We get one short chapter on the Etruscan city.
Máté’s book is supposed to be about a guy who realizes every wine lover’s dream of making a world-class wine in picturesque surroundings, but he’s more lucky than good. Máté clears the fields and plants the vines himself, but that’s about all his does. Throughout his remodeling project various experts arrive at his door, and none of them seem to demand a fee. His luckiest encounter is with a garrulous oenologist who takes over all winemaking operations at the Máté estate. Máté has the nose with the "sensitivity of a potato," but his wife can detect the tannin level of a Cabernet Sauvignon, so the family retires to Rome for two years while Candice enrolls in a sommelier course, thus allowing the vines to mature unmolested by Máté’s impatient machete.
Máté never fully earns our empathy. Who abandons Montepulciano for a viper-infested wilderness? At a time of plummeting American real estate values and a terrifying mortgage crises, it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who falls to pieces when he bottoms out his sports car while driving to his second dream home. Máté’s prose is workmanlike, with none of Henry James’s enthusiastic wonder at Tuscany’s charms. But Máté is a likeable guy, and he has big dreams. It’s hard to not admire his persistance in achieving them. He works hard. I was gripped by the drama of his first grape harvest and felt bad when his French oak barrels started exploding one night because of carbon dioxide buildup. I especially liked his wife, who has the elegant good sense of a Hemingway heroine. His anxieties and Hungarian darkness are oblivious to the everyday charms of small-town Italian life, but he ends the book on an arresting image featuring his inimitable wife celebrating the new year in the local village. Máté effectively serves up the romantic appeal of il bel paese, which is irresistible. Spend a day in Tuscany and you’ll understand.
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