More memories and stories

by Daniele Cernilli 04/14/20
391 |
Severino Cesari

Severino Cesari played a key role in the creation and publication of Daniele Cernilli’s books through his advice and presence both as an editor and friend.

“I’d like you to write something like Vincenzo Cerami’s Advice to a Young Writer”. Just the idea made me weak in the knees. “Come on, Severino, what makes you think I could do something like that? Cerami is a giant, I just write about bread and salami, as well as wine sometimes”. His replay was “You write well, I’ve read you a lot in Gambero Rosso, starting back when it was a supplement of Il Manifesto, and I think you can do it and plus I’ll give you a hand”.

Severino was Severino Cesari, one of the founders of Stile Libero, a fundamental series from the Einaudi publishing hose. I can swear to you that it went just like that and I had no idea how to write a book, even if I knew my subject well. Writing a book for someone who has only and always been a journalist is like asking a middle distance runner to run a marathon. Or someone who plays cards to pay chess. While it may seem a logical step, and not just in regard to writing quality and skill, it is a difficult if not impossible one.

It took us over a year to get the project off the ground, including several phone calls egging me on and even telling me to pull my finger out. “Daniele, I’m offering you an important opportunity, don’t waste it”. I then tried to change the cards on the table and came up with an alternative. “What if we do a book of small stories? This way I can catch my breath, run this marathon in stages?”. “Do whatever you want as long as you write and finally get something on paper!” And so I did.

What came out was Memories of a Wine Taster, a short, easy to read book, written by a journalist and not an author and with a quick pace of light prose, agile and without pretension. My meetings with Severino were almost like a jazz jam and I can’t count how many times he corrected even my smallest mistakes. “You have to be almost musical in your writing and we need to read everything out loud together, otherwise we’ll never know if it works. It has to swing”.

The result was an incredible success. It was back in 2006 and the book sold over 15,000 copies, outstanding for something dealing with wine. “We’ve produced a best seller,” he told me, “something that will be on the charts for years to come, to you realize that?” No, at the beginning I didn’t, not until one day on a Rome bus a man recognized me, I don’t know how, and told he how he read my work and thanked me for that little book that finally made him fall in love with the world of wine.

In other words, I became kind of a star. It also helped that the book was published by Einaudi, in its Stile Liber series, which Severino had invented together with Paolo Repetti, a childhood friend of mine with whom I had played table tennis in an almost Zen way, it being the most philosophical of sports. Then eight years went by and many things happened to me and to Severino. He had a lot of health problems while I left Gambero Rosso, which I had helped found along with Stefano Bonilli, another mutual and very dear friend. And it was because I was no longer there, co-editing the Vini d’Italia guide, a collaboration between Gambero and Slow Food, together with Carlo Pertini, its historic and charismatic founder, that Severino got in touch with me again. “Well, it’s been eight years, don’t you think it’s time to write something else?” He was a true friend, someone who at a time when I risked being passed over and forgotten offered me an opportunity to start again, in other words to survive. I was not the person I was before, I no longer had the media clout I had when I was co-editor of Gambero Rosso and in charge of what was then the most influential wine guide in Italy. Severino didn’t care about any of this. What he wanted was to have me write a book about life, a distillate of work experience and passion, something that would be my testament and not just a small, entertaining “journalistic” book. “What it will do is alter the depth of what you write, its weight and importance. You have already shown you can write, now you have to do write something serious”.

And this was even more difficult challenge. I was again writing stories but they were also about people, places and sensations. The book entailed many mornings and many afternoons of re-reading, discussions and changes. This is how DoctorWine’s Tales (and Advice) came to be, at a time when Severino was not well and would receive me in his splendid home in Via Carioli, in Rome. “I’ve read your final draft but I, if you allow me, would put the second part first, turn the meaning of the book around”. He was, of course, right, and aside from some stylistic changes it made the prose flow and the book easier to read.

When it came out, some important people in the world of Italian wine called, Angelo Gaja first among them, to congratulate me. They didn’t know Severino but should have since he had played such a key role in its realization.

I will remember my meetings with him for the rest if my life. The light, the coffee that his wife Emanuela would make, Severino’s voice and his composed laughter, his irony and advice. “Short sentences, please, and no rhetoric, no patting yourself on the back, never anything that does not make the reader feel involved”. Guidelines for writing and for life.

I don’t know if what I write now is self-congratulatory. Unfortunately, Severino is no longer here to scold and teach me. Then, again, maybe he is. I still seem to hear his voice as I write these words, trying to imagine what he would say, which I think would be “Please, don’t talk too much about me, I was only your mentor”.

He himself wrote that wonderful, moving, sad and courageous diary Con Molta Cura (With Great Care) published posthumously by Rizzoli. You just need to read it to understand who he was.

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September 2021
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