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How Italians Love Their Wine
Discover my family's devotion to wine, a fun Italian drinking game, and how today's Italians are getting as irresponsible about drinking alcohol as everyone else
Most Italians can't live without their wine. My Nonno Giovanni would come to our house every Sunday when I was a kid, and he would give us each $1 because we would put his glass of wine on the table next to his dish. (He also paid us for bringing him espresso after the meal.) When his doctor tried to take away that glass of wine, we had a tragedy on our hands. In fact, he never quite gave it up. He just started sneaking it.
Indeed, my people practically threw a party when research showed that one glass of red wine with dinner had health benefits. "I already knew that," said my father. "Why didn't they just ask me? They needed a doctor to say it?"
Every year when September arrives, the people in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples that was home to my ancestors, including Nonno Giovanni and my father, and others all over Italy celebrate the vendemmia, which is the start of the new wine season. They harvest their grapes, sing, dance, and eat and drink, of course. For Nonno Giovanni, the vendemmia was a labor of love, but it was also honest work. He sold homemade wine and worked for a winemaker when he lived in Ischia, which was his home for the first 50 years of his life. Even after Nonno Giovanni moved to America in 1960, he and his children continued to make their own wine every October. My father is still keeping alive the tradition.
Wine, which the Italians call vino, is a huge part of everyday Italian cuisine and culture. My father had his first sip of wine at around three years old. Since then, thanks to education, parents are no longer offering tastes of wine to infants and toddlers, nor are they even coating baby's lips with the good stuff. But kids in Ischia join their parents and grandparents for dinner, and they know the bottle of wine belongs on the table.
While most Italians know how to pair wine with their food (at the very least, white wine with fish and red with meat), they are not highfalutin about their vino. They can drink socially without their noses in the air. They even have fun with their drink of choice.
Nonno Giovanni, for example, often played drinking games with his buddies. They would play Scopa, and the losers would have to chug. They would be somewhat tipsy if they had poor hands, but they walked home (or were already there). Even today, my husband's family and friends recently played "Bevilo Tutto" during a house party for Ferragosto.
To play "Bevilo Tutto," everyone at the table has to start with a glass of wine. The crowd sings the following song:
Bevilo tutto tutto tutto (Drink it all all all)
The others sing the first verse until you chug your drink. When you are done, they start the second verse and the person sitting next to you gets ready for his or her chug. I have read that some Italians play this game in the order of age (from oldest to youngest, for example) rather than by your seat at the table. I suppose it is up to the players to decide. The game at our house was fun, and the song was so catchy that I still find myself singing it.
Of course, we were responsible. Those who had to drive did not participate, or they chugged Coca-Cola instead. No one drove home drunk. The family also only played one round of the game while eating a hearty meal of pasta with mushrooms, lasagna, and grilled sausage.
Things, however, are changing in Italy. The relationship with alcohol, even wine, is becoming warped. Enjoying a glass of wine with your meal or responsibly playing drinking games is being replaced with drunken foolishness, the kind we are used to seeing among young people in the United States. Young hedonists, who think the dolce vita means doing whatever you want whenever you want, are getting falling down drunk. I hear them in the streets of Ischia in the wee hours on Sunday morning, throughout the summer but especially in August when the whole country goes on vacation. These young people have been out since the night before, and no one seems to notice that they are missing. Some of them drink and drive, which is becoming a growing problem in Italy, too.
No one is saying Italy should give up on its wine or any of its other alcohol for that matter. But the country should reign in its youth and educate them on the dangers of excessive drinking. The true dolce vita, after all, is one of moderation.
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