When The Faucets Ran Red

The northern Italian town of Castelvetro di Modena is just a short ride from both Bologna and Moderna (here’s a map), and as a result, it gets a reasonable amount of tourists. Some are there for the food, of course, but others appreciate the still-surviving medieval architecture; Castelvetro is home to a half-dozen towers from the area and this cool-looking castle. (The clock is a new addition, of course.) But for the 11,000 or so residents of the town, having that around is just part of everyday life. Castlevetro is, by most other standards, just a normal town with all of the accouterments of modernity common throughout Europe — high-speed Internet, electricity, indoor plumbing, and the like.

But if you went to brush your teeth here one March morning in 2020, you’d probably be concerned. That’s because you quite possibly would have seen something like the below (via CTV News).

A few weeks (if not days) before a massive wave of coronavirus deaths gripped Italy, concerns about the virus were already present. For a tourism-driven economy like Castelvetro’s, the damage was already one they could feel; as CNN reported, “80% of tourism structures in the area [. . .. ] had cancellations” by that point. In retrospect, that seems like no big deal relative to what would come next, but at the time, it was a crushing blow for the local economy. And then, on the morning of March 4th, a new plague hit the area. About two dozen of homes in Castelvetro all reported the same thing — their water had turned red.

Typically, red water isn’t a good thing — it could be rust, blood, or many other things which one doesn’t want at all, let alone in their drinking water. With anxiety already running high, many residents panicked, and understandably so. Clean drinking water is something many of us take for granted, after all.

The explanation, though, not only alleviated that panic, but also brought some smiles to some local faces. The red-flowing water taps weren’t poisoned. The water flowing from their faucets was being mixed with wine.

Not too far from Castelvetro is Cantina Settecani, a winery that, among other varieties, offers up a sparkling red wine called Lambrusco Grasparossa. According to Wine-Searcher, it “has pronounced aromas of violets, strawberries, fresh plums, and black cherries” and pairs nicely with “the local food specialty, zampon [stuffed pig’s trotters].” And at prices as low as $7 per bottle, it’ll hardly break the bank. But while inexpensive, Cantina Settecani doesn’t intend to give it away for free.

Unfortunately for them, something went wrong. Atlas Obscura explains

Castelvetro water officials and winery staff traced it, essentially, to failed circuitry in the winery’s bottling plant. According to [Settecani commercial manager Fabrizio] Amorrotti, malfunctioning valves partnered with pressure differentials to cause the wine, which was stored in a large silo, to shoot through water lines and be diverted into surrounding homes.

The good news, though, is that the accidentally-delivered wine was perfectly safe to drink; as the winery said on Facebook (translated): “The accident didn’t involve hygiene or health risks: it was only wine, but it was already ready for bottling!” The glitch lasted about three hours, during which the winery lost about 1,000 liters of their product, the vast majority of which likely went immediately down the drain. 

And in general, everyone impacted greeted the error with a smile. While some shared concerns about water safety in general — if something like this could happen so easily, the system certainly has some vulnerabilities — the free-flowing wine definitely brought a bit of joy to most. Giorgia Mezzacqui, the deputy mayor of Castelvetro, saw it as a short-term and potentially long-term positive; telling CNN that CNN, “at a time where we have very little to smile about, I’m glad we brought some levity to others. Hopefully some day they’ll remember us and will want to come visit us.”

Bonus fact: Zampon, noted above, is stuffed pig’s trotters (that is, stuffed pig’s feet). And while it is a local delicacy near Castelvetro, history — and language — suggest it wasn’t always that way. The idiom “high on the hog” is an informal way to express that someone is living a rich, elegant, and luxurious lifestyle, and eating pig’s feet is the opposite of that. As Phrase Finder explains, the idiom is likely a reference to eating pork: “the best cuts of meat on a pig come from the back and upper leg and that the wealthy ate cuts from ‘high on the hog’, while the paupers ate belly pork and trotters.”

From the Archives: The Greedy Cup: The genius way Pythagoras tried to prevent people from drinking too much wine.