Giancarlo Gariglio is the editor-in-chief of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of Italy, Slovenia, California, and Oregon. He lives in the town of Bra, where the Slow Food movement was founded in the late 1980s.
I was in America on February 21 when everything changed in Italy. That was when we became the first in Europe and the first outside of China to discover that the novel coronavirus was something more than the flu. It was something we had a read about in the papers, with a death rate of 1 percent. We tended to minimize the threat and even joke about it. Then everything changed in Italy. And it was immediately clear that despite our excellent public health system, it wasn’t going to be easy to face this disease.
I didn’t get back home to Italy until February 28. It was a very strange trip. There were already hundreds of infected persons and the world was beginning to look at us like we had the plague. But who were we to complain? In January, there had been reports of xenophobic attacks on Asians in Italian cities. In Boston, during the Slow Wine Tour, more than one sommelier called us to let us know that they wouldn’t be attending because there would too many Italian producers at the tasting.
It was a tough trip. We had been away from our families for 15 days and we were beginning to fear for them. When I boarded a flight from Munich to Milan, there were just 10 passengers on a plane that could hold 170. It was clear to all of us that our world was changing fast. We had left a chaotic as usual but healthy Italy. When we landed in Milan, Malpensa airport, one of the biggest in Italy, was deserted. It took us five minutes to get off the plane and it took just a few seconds for our baggage to arrive on the carousel. Usually it takes at least 20 minutes.
Outside the deserted airport, they took our temperatures as we passed through immigration (in Munich they hadn’t checked). What followed was a succession of disturbing news. Half of Lombardy had been declared a “red zone.” People couldn’t enter or leave a portion of the region. It had been isolated from the rest of the world. Over the course of just a few days, it had become clear that the rest of the most populous region in Italy was at great risk. It would later be closed with a decree issued by our prime minister. Throngs of people fled to the south packed in overcrowded trains. That was the day that our government decided to declare our entire country a “protected zone.”
At the Slow Food offices where I work, it was clear that we couldn’t stay open. The schools had already been closed for 10 days. Families with children didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t drop their kids off at their grandparents because the elderly are among those most at risk. Bra, where I live, is a small town in the countryside with around 30,000 people. Cuneo province where Bra is located is in Piedmont, the region that has the third largest number of infected persons and earths. Located at the foot of the alps, it’s on the margins, so to speak. We’ve been spared the worst so far, with roughly 300 infected persons in a population of 600,000.
But there is plenty of fear to go around. And you can feel it in the air when you go out, even though we rarely leave our apartment. We have been confined to our homes for more than 15 days. The streets are deserted. The cafés — one of Italy’s most beloved institutions where we gather regularly after work — were among the first venues to be closed by law. Then the restaurants and all the non-essential shops. The handful of fellow residents that you see on the streets are wearing surgical masks and it’s easy to gauge how terrorized they are. They step aside as we walk by. And we do the same, as if out of instinct. Surgical masks can no longer be found. I’ve been using a sleep mask that they gave me on an international flight. I just put it over my eyes and wear latex gloves when I go out.
Over the last 20 days, I’ve only left the house three times. And only to go food shopping for my family. Our two daughters haven’t been allowed out at all. My wife has only gone out once. The event that marks the passing of another day is the e-bulletin issued every night at 6 by the government’s office of emergency planning. They start with the number of people who have recovered. Then the number of infected, the number of people in intensive car, and lastly the number of dead. That’s the number that hurts the most. I’ve started an Excel file where I jot down all of the numbers. And that field is always the most painful to fill. On March 19, Father’s Day in Italy, more than 700 people died in just one day.
I get phone calls from people who live in the hardest-hit cities, Bergamo and Brescia (where Franciacorta is located). The stories they tell seem plucked from science fiction. My wife’s grandmother is 94 years old. She lives near Como in the region of Lombardy. A few days ago, she wasn’t feeling well and so the person who takes care of her called an ambulance. They were told that ambulances are now used only for people 50 years old and younger. Everyone else can only hope that God will protect them. This is the situation that has taken shape in the most productive area in Italy — Lombardy and parts of Emilia-Romagna, a handful of provinces in Veneto, and parts of Piedmont. The rest of Italy is in a holding pattern. There are cases of infection but not many of them. And the hospitals can still keep up with the crisis.
We are all worried about what the future will bring. We’re worried about work and what this will mean for Slow Food given that all activities related to wine have come to a stop. I usually take 40 or 50 flights a year for work, covering thousands of kilometers. Nothing will ever be the same and who knows what’s in store for us.
Since we’ve been on lockdown, I’ve been drinking wines that remind me how much I love my job. Italian wines, French, German, Spanish, and American. Some people say that you should only drink Italian. They’ve even begun using the hashtag #iobevoitaliano, #IdrinkItalian. Not me. I drink the world. If there’s anything that unites the world it’s wine and culture. I’ll never get tired of telling the amazing story of how it crosses borders. Because not just bad things cross borders. Beautiful things cross them, too: Wine, music, poetry, and friendship.