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Wine Crush

A Clash of Cultures in a Glass of Wine

A year in Italy shows an American high school student a different side of wine

Zanny Merullo Steffgen By October 27, 2021
illustration of woman drinking wine in Italy
Illustration by Nicole Jarecz

A chilly March morning draped with mist found the tenth grade class of the Liceo Scientifico Georges Le Maitre wandering the grounds of a national park in Emilia-Romagna. 

Once we’d returned to the cabin by bus, the class split along gender lines. The boys took off their coats and tended to the grill while the girls gathered inside to set up plates of bread and line the picnic tables with bottles of soda and jugs of vino rosso. Later, as we gathered around the tables, tearing into rosemary and olive oil-slicked ribs and grilled sausages, we filled plastic cups with wine. For a moment I watched my classmates to see how they drank — did they smell the wine first? Roll it around in their cups like I’d seen in the movies? 

I tipped the cup toward my face, letting my tongue swirl in a sea of jammy blackberry flavor before gulping down the acidic, forbidden burn of alcohol. This was my first field trip since joining the Italian school on a study abroad program from the U.S., and the first time I’d witnessed Italy’s alcohol law at play. At the age of 16, Italians were graciously welcomed into a new world of beer and wine, although, for most, their first sips had come much earlier. 

My father, a second-generation Italian-American, had grown up drinking wine in his cola, and had raised me in the same tradition. While I’d tasted wine during special occasions with my family, it had never before been integrated into daily life in this way. There was something about drinking wine on a school trip in Italy that felt new and yet natural, a return to my heritage of wine drinkers. 

I quickly reached for water before looking around the table and glancing into the back room where the teachers sat with their own glasses of wine. Some of the rowdiest boys began singing “L’acqua fa male ma il vino fa cantare…” Water does you harm but wine makes you sing. Are they going to start slurring their words now? I wondered. But after the first half-full plastic cup of wine, even the troublemakers switched to soda and piled back on the bus.

My previous experience of wine at school had not been quite as casual.

The American way

During a crisp New England fall months earlier, I’d been walking down the stuffy dormitory hall in my all-girls boarding school when someone whispered, “Did you hear?” 

“Hear what?”

“Three seniors went to a day student’s house to drink wine. They were scared to drive back after drinking so they called a dorm parent to pick them up. Now they might get kicked out!” 

A few days later, someone saw the three seniors leaving the headmaster’s office, wrapped in a grave silence. “They’re suspended, stuck on campus for the rest of the term.” I raised my eyebrows, thinking back to the half-glass of wine I’d had at dinner the other weekend with my family. If the school had found out, would I have faced a similar fate? Was I lucky to be able to enjoy adult beverages with my family or did that just sentence me to an adolescence fraught with a quiet shame?

Embracing Italian culture

Months passed by in the town of Rimini, until I could string together full sentences in Italian and had gotten used to attending Sunday Mass. In order to maintain a social life in Italy, I immersed myself in Catholic traditions, despite an upbringing free from religious practices. On a Wednesday afternoon in late spring, at a “scuola di comunità, or community school, I sat waiting for Rosa from Naples to finish preparing lunch. Don Claudio, the local priest who sat across from me at the table in his parish, wore his clerical collar skewed sideways and teased the students with twinkling eyes. My friends and I jumped up when Rosa called for help, grabbed bowls heaped high with pasta, and set them down around the table. “Benedici, O Signore…” someone began reciting grace. After filling his own glass, Don Claudio put the liter bottle down and gestured for one of my classmates to pour some wine for the young ladies sitting next to him. “Grazie,” I thanked my friend, as he filled my cup up nearly to the brim. This time I swished the drink around in my mouth before swallowing. The biting acidity of the simple “vino da tavola, table wine, gave me a secret excitement for a pleasure I had once thought of as exclusive to adults.

Soon the din of teenage chatter was dampened by the clicking of forks against plates. After every few bites of spaghetti with peas, I took another taste of wine, looking around to make sure I wasn’t downing mine any faster than my friends. I was giddy with a gentle wine-induced lightheadedness, but if any of my friends felt the same way, they certainly didn’t bring any attention to it. When the chatter started up again, it was time to clear the dishes and help change out the tomato-sauce-stained tablecloth for a fresh one. Someone pulled out a guitar and began to strum, then we dumped packets of sugar into cups of espresso and waited for the discussion about Jesus and life to begin. 

The full experience

During my sixth month in the city of Rimini, the school year came to a close and my confidence in my ability to live in an Italian world reached its peak. Churning the pedals of my bike until the high whine of rusty metal faded, I whirled past the beach clubs with their colorful umbrellas on a pleasant June afternoon. When I arrived at the wide Viale Tripoli that stretched from the center of the old Roman city toward the beach, then banked right onto Via Tobruk, my stomach let out an audible cry. I parked my bike inside the gate, then walked into the open door of the first-floor apartment. There, my host parents and siblings sat around a table while the grandmother shuffled around the stove in heeled sandals. 

“Ciao!” I greeted them, then sat down at my place next to my host sister. The grandfather moved a dish of tangerines to the side, gestured for my glass, and raised a bottle of red wine. With a wink, he filled my glass halfway. My host sister began reciting grace once the pasta was served. While the family prayed, I glanced up and noticed how natural the glass of wine looked in my hand. It was no longer a privilege to drink alcohol the way it had been at home in the U.S., it was simply built into the foundation of a regular Tuesday afternoon. Another splash of wine accompanied the thin fried cutlets and greens doused in oil, then it was time for an espresso with Sambuca and an afternoon nap. If I felt tipsy, I was unaware of it, focused instead on the pleasure of pairing wine with an excellent meal. Any shame surrounding my alcohol consumption had melted into months of meals like this with my host family. Later that day, I watched from my computer as the seniors at my American boarding school walked through the auditorium in white dresses. I saw the girls who had been suspended clasp onto their diplomas with visible relief. They had emerged unscathed from their underage drinking.

In the years that followed, I, like my friends, downed shots at parties and filled up on cocktails. However, I continued to reserve a unique respect for wine and savored it in moderation. Along with that respect, a deeply personal fascination bloomed for all that went into making wine. The world of vinification and wine consumption represented to me a permission to enjoy myself that I had never felt in America. It was that permission of joy that led me through my early twenties and into a sommelier course that complemented my burgeoning restaurant career.

Legal at last

Nearly a decade later, I arrived home from my shift as restaurant manager and sommelier. At work I had spent the evening recommending bottles of Nebbiolo, cutting foil, and retrieving corks, pouring wine with the great ceremony it deserved. With half a glass of Valpolicella in hand, I untucked my shirt, and sat down on the couch. As someone of legal drinking age living in America, there was a certain flavor of freedom and joy missing from these swallows full of pepper and sour cherry. Even so, the memory of my first experiences with Italian red and the way wine had slipped seamlessly into my days at the age of 16 was enough for me to thoroughly enjoy my glass before bed. This time, without any trace of guilt.