Farmers like Ms. Occhipinti believe they “have a responsibility to the people of the future,” she said. “We are in a good moment: Young people are making wine, there is more sensibility. The most important thing is to think small, not: production, production, production.”
These biodynamic farms, I was realizing, are self-sustaining idylls. They grow what they need, they don’t produce much waste, they respect the land. I had become a believer.
It was right around that time that I let my small children roam freely — unseen, unsupervised — through the vegetable patch at the Fonterenza winery.
Fonterenza is run by two sisters, Margherita and Francesca Padovani. Fifteen years ago, the Padovani sisters transformed their childhood summer home, a 400-year-old palazzo in the hills of Montalcino, into a kind of winemaking Eden, a swath of Italian paradise removed from all the bad stuff in the world.
My children were pillaging the garden for ripe tomatoes and fallen plums. Through the thicket of cypress trees, I could hear their sounds of laughter, of playing, of a happy childhood. I was feeling pretty smug. Until I heard Margherita’s voice.
“They must watch out for vipers! They must! Children! If you see a snake, stomp the ground very hard!”
In an instant: a change of heart. Maybe chemicals aren’t all bad? Sensing maternal panic, Francesca suggested we go into town, Sant’Angelo in Colle, for lunch.
From the edge of the centuries-old hilltop town, the Italian countryside was laid out before us like a verdant patchwork quilt stitched together by dirt roads. We walked up to the main piazza, where one lonely child was walking around with a soccer ball as if certain there must be another child nearby who wanted to play. Farther on a man in an apron yelled something very loud at the window of an ancient building. The last time there was a census here, in 2011, the population was 204.
There were 10 of us for lunch: my husband, his parents, our children, the sisters Padovani, Margherita’s husband, John, and their infant daughter. We had pushed together a few tables on the terrace of Il Pozzo, a small trattoria serving classic Tuscan food. Under a canopy of white umbrellas, late summer sunlight poured in.
“Here wine is food: It’s our culture, our history,” Francesca said. “The wine has always been made by the farmers, not people who thought of themselves as winemakers. It is nothing but grape juice.”
“As it should be,” her sister said, finishing the thought.
The waiter laid out platters of warm, crisp fiori di zucca and insalata caprese, while Francesca filled our glasses with Fonterenza Rosso di Montalcino. (The proprietors of the restaurant hardly seemed to mind that Francesca had brought her own bottles.)
“The big vineyards make wine that always tastes the same,” Francesca said. “That’s not wine. Wine is about finding the beauty of the vintage, finding its personality: 2014 was a cold, difficult vintage; 2015 was the opposite — full and ripe and feminine. It should always tell a story.”
A short while later, the waiter placed bowls of pici al ragù and pici all’aglione in front of us, and Francesca stood to pour the Fonterenza Brunello di Montalcino around the table. Slow, heavy church bells reminded us it was midday, and gradually the sky clouded over. The landscape grew darker and a small stream of sunlight beamed directly onto a field of haystacks in the distance like a laser. The gods were playing favorites.
Instantly, the farmers knew what the rest of us did not.
“Grab your things — it’s going to pour,” Margherita said, wrapping her baby in a blanket and getting up from the table.
A second later, it was biblical, pelting the umbrellas like punishment. Rivers of rainwater gushed down the street. We all ran inside for cover (and caffe macchiati) — all but my children, who ran directly into the piazza, which had been transformed into a makeshift Tuscan water park.
I watched them jumping in puddles, arms outstretched, willing more rain to fall. Margherita stood next to me, shifting her infant daughter to her shoulder. I asked her if it was difficult to be a woman in her industry.
“People didn’t think we could do it,” she said. “And we didn’t know much. We planted half a hectare of cabernet sauvignon. That didn’t work. And if we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t have broken so much machinery. But we believed we were doing the right thing.”
Theirs is a romantic undertaking. These young farmers with their tanned skin and leather bracelets are living a kind of bohemian utopia: Make beautiful wine using only the tools Mother Earth provides. Let the moon and the stars be your guide. Think small and waste nothing. Listen to music and read Goethe. And when winter comes, bury your secrets in the soil.
“The biggest misconception is that this is witchcraft. It is not witchcraft,” Mr. de Prato had said to me, smiling for a moment. “Well, maybe a little.”