Red, red wine: A family tradition, just not for women

 Illustration by Leeay Aikawa

Illustration by Leeay Aikawa

By Cristina Pietropaolo

For many Italian immigrants and their families in Toronto, pressing wine is an annual autumnal event in garages and basements around the city. One wine-making season, when I was twelve years old and had just begun to menstruate, my grandmother took me aside and discreetly asked if I was “on my period.” Sensing that something was amiss, I hesitated for a moment before saying yes. She put her arm around my shoulders and steered me away from the basement stairs, gently telling me that she was sorry, but I would not be able to help with the wine that year—it would be bad luck. I was banished from the basement because my blood was a curse. I tried not to care about being excluded, but to be told that my presence might sour the wine due to a natural process beyond my control was a decidedly odd and unwelcome feeling. 

Wine-making has always evoked in me a feeling of family and tradition. I cannot help but wax nostalgic over the aroma of buckets of grapes plucked from the vines in the backyard and wooden crates of grapes imported from California by train, all mingling together in my grandparents’ basement. 

My grandfather presided over each step of the process, from first running the grapes through his homemade crusher to tasting that year’s first mosto (unfermented grape juice), which runs out of the press. 

My grandfather always said it was good, even necessary, to have a glass of red wine to go with a meal. As children, we drank a mixture of orange juice with a little wine at Sunday lunch, and when we were ill, wine was cooked into the broth and pastina (tiny star-shaped pasta) our grandmother prepared for us. Wine was believed to stimulate good, healthy blood in the body. 

In “Wine Makes Good Blood: Wine Culture Among Toronto Italians,” Toronto-born folklorist Luisa del Giudice suggests that, in Italian folk culture, menstruating women are barred from wine-making because their menstrual blood is considered bad blood—its very nature will compromise the integrity of the wine, therefore corrupting its healthful good blood benefits. Del Giudice speculates that belief around bad blood might “possibly be due to a perceived conflict of lunar phases, for both winemaking and menses were determined by lunar activity.” 

Menstruating women have long been associated with uncleanliness and physical and emotional instability. In this case, that instability was perceived to have a negative effect on the sanctity of the wine being produced; the segregation of a menstruating woman from the communal activity of wine-making was therefore meant to negate the “threat” that she supposedly posed. According to the Dictionary of Superstitions, “menstruating women are supposed to have an especially baneful effect on food when it is between one state and another.” For Italians, these restrictions extended beyond wine to food preservation: canning tomatoes, curing sausages, and transforming milk to cheese. My grandmother was excluded from these types of food preservation during her period, and she in turn imposed this prohibition on my mother and her sister. 

According to my mother, the menstruation taboo regarding food and wine was a woman’s secret responsibility to uphold; it fell to my grandmother to decide whether to do so as the family matriarch and culture-bearer. She felt it was important to pass on traditions, but also recognized that these traditions sometimes conflicted with who she was and how her daughters and granddaughters were raised. For most of my life, I believed that the taboo was exclusive to wine because my grandmother never prevented me or my sisters from helping with tomatoes or sausages. My grandmother died several years ago, and regrettably, I never asked her to elaborate on her reasons for maintaining the wine-blood taboo while disregarding the others. I suspect she would have said she continued it out of respect for my grandfather, since wine-making was his responsibility, whereas preserving food was hers. 

In trying to understand what is an ostensibly questionable belief, I inexplicably feel a bizarre sense of loyalty to this taboo. I suspect this stems from the respect I have for my grandparents and their values, despite their flaws. While the misogyny of this belief is indisputable, it seems too simplistic to dismiss it as little more than ignorant superstition. The taboo is rooted in an intricate system of folk belief and culture, in which people, religion, and land were tightly bound to one another. For contadini* like my grandparents, there is a saying: il vino è salute (wine is health), but wine is also sacred: the most important part of the mass in Roman Catholicism is the point at which wine is transformed into the blood of Christ. 

Until the second World War and the subsequent period of European mass migration, the culture in which contadini lived remained relatively unchanged, as did traditions and taboos. Many immigrants cherish and protect their traditions to feel secure in new and unfamiliar places. But if traditions are to survive, then they must also be adapted to new circumstances. Wine-making once was a community activity; now it tends to be shared among family members. Where it once reflected attachment to land and to faith, it now represents tradition and kinship. Likewise the taboo too has waned, from sincerely held belief to antiquated notion. 

After that day by the basement stairs, my grandmother never again asked about my period. Her expectation was that I was responsible for policing myself. When I was fifteen, I had terrible menstrual cramps and was late to help harvest the backyard grapes. I was worried that I might curse the grapes, and asked my mother what to do. She brushed it off at first, dismissing the possibility—but then she paused, suggesting that I not mention it to anyone, just in case. Since then, the power of the wine-blood taboo has faded even further in my family. My father has taken over the wine-making now, and every year he invites friends to join him. One friend brings his daughter along to help, and for her, the taboo is firmly in the past.

* contadini (pl.) loosely translates as peasant-farmer. It is important to note that in English, the word peasant has a negative connotation, whereas in Italian, contadino (sn.) does not. The majority of Italians who immigrated to Canada following the second World War were contadini.