As a young boy I would sit out in the desert and talk to my old friend whenever my mom and dad were arguing or when I was alone and didn’t have anyone else to talk to. Growing up in Palm Springs was a gift. It was a small town (locals called it “the Village”), the night skies were breathtaking, and my old friend, Mt. San Jacinto, was considered an ancient and wise one by the Native Americans, the Agua Caliente Cahuilla tribe.
I would sit before that majestic pile of primordial rocks and pour my heart out, and old San Jacinto would talk back. Sometimes it would be in a dream, and sometimes it would be far in the future. But my meetings with the wise old man would be an important part of my upbringing and a source in my life for silent counsel and revelation.
From the years I lived in the desert and into the times when I would return, there have been special memories of events and encounters that oddly intersect some of my experiences on the wine trail in Italy. I’d like to share a few of them with you.
Capture the Flag
As Boy Scouts, we’d often camp around the desert. One place we camped was Chino Canyon, at the base of Mt. San Jacinto. I loved being a Boy Scout, for it got me away from home and feeling self reliant, an independence that, in those days, was a safe way to loosen the umbilical cord a little at a time. One of my favorite past times was playing Capture the Flag. Basically it is a free-for-all between two teams of boys, played in darkness. In the desert, if there wasn’t a moon, there were always plenty of stars to keep the night from being pitch black. We were two packs of wild boys, with few rules, intent on capturing players on the other side and ultimately, the flag. What I loved about it was the freedom, the uncertainty, with some fear of loss, and the thrill of victory. All this taking place under the desert sky, running around, not worrying about the snakes, tarantulas, scorpions, coyotes or bobcats. It was pure joy.
I liken it to a wine I had recently from Liguria, a Pigato. Also a desert dweller, in the semi-arid hills around Imperia, Pigato has that wildness and racy quality about it that is exciting and ultimately joy-giving.
Midnight at the Oasis
Another Boy Scout camping trip. This time we were at the 1000 Palms oasis. Surrounded by wind-whipped dunes and the occasional out cropping of Tamarisk trees. 1000 Palms always seemed exotic and mysterious to me. This time we were invited to a wedding ceremony of an Agua Caliente couple. I remember the music and the drums. It all seemed so natural, not like when we would go to Disneyland and see some watered-down re-creation of life in America before the European invasion. No, this was a simple ritual, performed with grace and respect. I loved it. I remember, for some reason, fried bread. And dates. After the wedding, we went back to our tents on the Western Front.
This time I recall a Franciacorta, a style called Saten, which is calmer and subdued. It has a nice toasty, yeasty nose, reminding me of the fried bread. And the silky quality of the Saten is a wonderful wine for a ceremony, even if it is only with baked eggs on a Sunday morning. Of course it would taste better if we were camping outside and cooking the bacon over an open fire.
Often we would hike up Tahquitz Canyon to the falls. Frank Capra made the place famous when he used it in a scene from his movie about Shangri-La. Frank was a Sicilian from the same village as my father’s parents. They spoke the same Arberesh dialect, so I have been told.
In the 60’s, hippies would go up to the falls, get naked and take LSD. I would go up there and film them. The 10 minute 16mm film I made has long since disappeared, along with some of those souls. But the place was so beautiful, and in the heat of the desert in the summertime, to walk a couple of miles and be able to take a dip in the cool mountain water was a thrill of nature. We were living in paradise.
What kind of wine from the trail corresponds with an experience like that? For me it would have to be a wine that would be white, cool and exotic. Something like a Malvasia from Lipari or a Torcolato from the Veneto. Just a little sip, not too much. Just a touch to rekindle such fond memories.
Engaging the Bruja
In later years after I had moved away, I went to a gathering in Palm Canyon. We had the baby with us. Somewhere along the way I got separated from the family, and in a little nook of the canyon, along the trail, a native woman approached me. She was young, like me at the time, and possessed an aura of power about her. She confronted me, not in an angry manner but as one alpha animal to another in the wilderness, testing the other's relevance. It was right out of Castaneda, but it didn’t scare me. It was almost like recognizing one of the creatures in the desert and knowing not to disturb its place. With rattlesnakes, one can sense them near by their unique odor, similar to heather, dust, a little mildew, rotting truffles and sage. The spirit woman wanted to know why I was here. I told here I was not here to disturb her or challenge her, merely to show my son the desert. I often wonder what happened to the bruja. Did we ever meet as children? Or was she a spirit, in the guise of a coyote or a spider, testing my will?
I am reminded of a Sicilian wine when I think of this memory. The wine is Lamúri from Tasca d’Almerita. Native red, Nero d’Avola, grown in sandy soils and tempered in French oak. Taking the indigenous desert daughter and confronting it with the wood of the Great White Father. Testing the will of the wine.
Lamúri, which means love in Sicilian dialect, reminds me of that moment in the desert when lightning struck.
I have never told these stories to anyone, but they make up a part of my core that is as important as my Italian heritage. It is my connection to this native land where I was born.
I have a childhood friend who is Agua Caliente. We have known each other for many moons. I think of her and remember her as a sister.
Sometimes when I dream I go back to the desert and visit my old friends, the shamans and the wise ones who watched over me when I was a young one. I also feel their watchful presence on the wine trail in Italy.