Learned it on the grape vine
Aqua historiam non fecit (Water never made history) reads a sign strategically placed for visitors to the Cerletti school in north-eastern Italy. Well, perhaps not. But the Istituto Tecnico Agrario Statale "Cerletti" in Conegliano, north of Venice, was praised by the Italian prime minister Romano Prodi as a school that "can make a real contribution to the economic development of the country", for spending the past 120 years devoted to a singular cause: the greater glory of the grape.
Almost all the 400 pupils who attend this state secondary school will go into the wine industry - as technicians or researchers, as growers, or in marketing. They are the heirs to a quiet Italian revolution that began around 20 years ago and which has seen a major shift in emphasis from quantity to quality.
From being the world's biggest producer of wine - most of which was of the cheap and cheerful variety - Italy has become a leading exporter of fine wines. Today, supermarket shelves in Britain creak beneath the wide range of Italian DOC (denominazione di origine controllata, the guarantee of quality similar to the French appelation controllee) wines. There were 243 DOC wines at the last count, a far cry from the 1970s when only bottles of severe-looking Chianti and Valpolicella seemed to make it to the UK.
The province of Treviso, where the school is situated, has become an economic powerhouse in the prosperous north-east of Italy, with Benetton, a household name in fashion from Argentina to Australia, and half the world's spectacle frames manufactured within a radius of a few miles from here. But it is the wine industry that best illustrates the region's success: a rural tradition comingto grips with a technological future, and adapting instead of disappearing.
Machinery for the industry is exported from this province to all the major wine-producing countries around the world. Another claim to fame comes from the spumantisti - the people who put the fizz into wine. Technically, explains a local producer, they are the best in the world. And most of them are former pupils of the Istituto Cerletti.
Conegliano is in the northern part of the province, in the rolling hills that lie halfway between Venice and the Dolomites and which have the highest concentration of DOC wines in the area. It is white wine country, and the jewel in the crown is Prosecco, a sparkling dry white wine favoured as an aperitif.
The Istituto Cerletti occupies a rambling, 19th-century building on the edge of town. Behind it there are new classrooms, a boarding block (for 50 pupils), and beyond that the school's own vineyard, which grows about a dozen grape varieties, including Prosecco (on sale at the school at 6,000 lire (pound;2) a bottle, with a special label to commemorate the school's 120th anniversary).
In the distance the tractors are working. This year most of the vines are being replanted. As the school's head, Franco Pivotti explains, the life of a vine does not usually exceed 25 years.
As in any upper secondary school in Italy, pupils arrive here at 14, after completing compulsory lower secondary schooling at a scuola media. They can choose from between a five-year course, which leads to the diploma of "agricultural technician", or stay on for an extra year to specialise in oenology (wine studies), a major component of which is wine tasting (see story in box).
Emanuele Pivetta, a final-year pupil from near Venice, thinks that this year he has really understood what wine is all about. "I feel I can go out now and know what I am producing," he says. Emanuele does not have a wine-growing background. He came to the school because he was attracted to a traditional industry that was "close to nature". But he also knows that the school diploma will give him excellent job prospects. Potential employers frequently get in touch with the school to recruit specialist staff. A few days ago, says Eman-uele, a big distillery approached three of his classmates.
Signor Pivotti confirms that the school has built links all over the Veneto area, and beyond, to the neighbouring region of Emilia-Romagna to the south, which has no equivalent institution. Many of today's prospective employers are former pupils of the school, and the links between old members and the alma mater are strong. Rows of cabinets in the corridors glisten with carafes, decanters and other evocative glassware and ceramics bearing inscriptions from grateful alumni.
But as the industry has flourished, the school, faced with the problem of renovating an ageing infrastructure and the need to invest in new equipment, has suffered cash-flow problems. Last year a law on autonomy was passed giving schools partial control of their budgets. For Signor Pivotti, indicating with a flourish of the hand a couple of crumbling outbuildings, the new law has come in the nick of time, since it will allow the school to stimulate sponsorship agreements with industry.
"The state gives us only 50 million lire a year to buy new machinery - enough for half a tractor," he reflects. Fortunately, further funding has been provided over the years by an independent foundation comprising provincial and local authorities and an agricultural consortium.
Almost half the school's pupils come from wine-growing families, such as 18-year-old Francesca, one of a growing number of young women at the school. She is wearing the purple nail varnish which this year is di rigore with girls her age, a colour appropriately reminiscent of a grape harvest. Though hard-working, she finds the school timetable tough. She has 41 hours of lessons a week (Saturdays included), on top of which she reckons she has to do 10 or 15 hours of private study.
As well as traditional curricular subjects, there is a range of practical scientific studies such as zymology (the science of fermentation) and phytopathology (the study of plant diseases). These are the subjects she likes best. "At the beginning I found some homework tasks, like spending two hours tramping through the woods looking for diseased leaves, a bit strange, but not now," she says. "And I love the chemistry lab."
But Francesca, like most of the other girls in the school, is attracted by the marketing side. After finishing at the school, she would like to spend a year or so in France or in Britain, to find out "what other people's tastes are", and then come back to work, either in the family business or in a bigger company involved in export, or perhaps both.
She invites me home to see the family vineyards, along the strada del vino bianco (white wine road) that winds north-east from Conegliano towards the mountains. The gentle hills recall the backdrop of a Madonna and Child by the late 15th-century, Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, who was a master in bringing together figures and landscape in perfect harmony.
Francesca (full name Francesca Bevacqua di Panigai), it turns out, is the daughter of a count. Like Tuscany, this area has its fair share of nobilta, many of whose representatives still work the land. The count explains that family records go back to the year 1120, and a good many of those years have been spent growing wine. Some of his vineyards are in a geological micro-area producing a highly priced wine known as Cartizze, a superior Prosecco.
Francesca has an older brother who also attended the Istituto Cerletti - or the Scuola Enologica as most Italians refer to it - as did the count himself. Talking of the school in the count's cellars, it seems almost a family affair, a home from home.
So, I ask Francesca whether she actually chose to go there. "Oh yes," she says vigorously, "I did think about doing languages or going to a vocationally oriented school in hotel and catering, but the choice was mine and I don't regret it. There wasn't any pressure put on me."
The count smiles. "That's what she says, but I," he trails off, making a sweeping gesture of his arm that seems to embrace the surrounding vineyards and hills. As if to say, for the Bevacqua di Panigai family at least, that their choice of education is only natural.
THE ART OF WINE TASTING
The course in wine tasting followed by final-year pupils at the Istituto Cerletti consists of two hours a week of study in a "sala degli assaggi" (tasting room) faintly reminiscent of the dining hall in an Oxbridge college. The teacher sits on a throne-like seat at the head of the high table, flanked by pupils on either side, and along two side tables which complete a horseshoe.
The aim of the course, explains Professore Adrio Monaco, who has been teaching at the school for 22 years, is to allow pupils to check that, after everything else has been done, the finished product is "as God wants it".
Things start slowly. Most of the first term is spent practising with salt or sugar or other substances dissolved in water to develop a sense of the four main tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The quantities are gradually decreased to heighten pupils' sensitivities. They are then ready to move on to wine.
Four elements are needed to describe a wine in full. Clarity, colour, bouquet and taste. A list of adjectives looking more like a battle-standard than a teaching aid hangs above the teacher's seat. Thus clarity, or lack of it, can be described by words like "limpido" (clear), "velato" (veiled), "lattignoso" (milky); colour by "paglierino" (straw), "ambrato" (amber), and so on. For taste, there are more than 50 adjectives to help the apprentice. Some of them may look like the hackneyed terms of the wine journalist or travel writer, but for the wine producer they are the canonical tools of the trade.
Part of the lesson takes place in absolute silence. Pupils raise and tilt their glasses, swirl them, sniff them and sip the contents, but discussion then follows, because each wine has to be rated on a scale of 1-8, and a consensus of opinion must be reached. Tastings are never blind: pupils are given the name of the wine, the year, and told whether or not it has DOC status.
At the end of the course, the pupils should be able to distinguish confidently between Prosecco (straw yellow, fruity, harmonious) and the more prestigious Cartizze (straw yellow, slightly acidic, aromatic).