Sunday, June 12, 2016

Is the Time Right for “Big Wine” to Cast Their Footprint on Mt. Etna?

Rolling down SS120 from Randazzo to Passopisciaro, there’s a modern structure, empty and abandoned. It could be a dystopian bunker, built to survive the ravages of a lava flow from Etna above. Or a nuclear attack. But it’s a winery that nobody wants to talk about. So new, it doesn’t even show up on Google Earth. The structure looks like it was airlifted straight out of Napa Valley. It’s gorgeous. And it’s out of place. Will this be the place where “Big Wine” makes its stand on Mt. Etna?

On another road, past the huge lava flow of 1981, just to the east of Randazzo, on the way to the higher vineyards, we pass by a large, well-manicured estate. “The owner is from Palermo,” our driver remarks. “He’s in jail. Nice fellow, though.” It sits there, waiting for further instructions.

The real estate in Etna wine country is a diverse, changing landscape. Prices are rising, dramatically, almost daily. It’s expensive, like property in Chianti Classico. For opportunistic wine companies, it still might look like a bargain. To those hunkered down the last 20 or so years, they are scrambling to buy whatever parcels they can still afford. But a cloud hovers over this wine region. And some worry “Big Wine” is coming, if not already there.

There’s Italian “Big Wine” and then there are their multi-national big brother counterparts. Occasionally the two are meshed together, as in the case of Saint Michelle Wine Estates and Antinori. Other large companies like Gallo are rapidly expanding their import footprint in Italy. Kendall-Jackson put down roots in Tuscany years ago, as did Fosters (Treasury) with Gabbiano. Is Etna the bright, shiny object in the corner? Or is it a rabbit hole?

The stylish modern abandoned winery that no one will talk about on SS120 on the way to Randazzo could easily be mistaken for a project by Gaja or Antinori. Most likely it’s not. And many of the large wine companies in Sicily – like Firriato, Planeta, Tasca d’Almerita, Cusumano and Duca di Salaparuta – have already staked their claims. A large company like Gruppo Italiano Vino (G.I.V) hasn’t made it here, as far as I am aware. And other large companies like Zonin, are already ensconced near Butera, while Gruppo Mezzacorona already has two large production facilities, in nearby Acate and in westerly Sambuca di Sicilia. Italy’s “Big Wine” looks like they have already set their course. And so we look to the big multi-national players: Constellation, Gallo, The Wine Group, Fosters, Pernod-Ricard.

I don’t see it. But I’ve been wrong before.

If someone were asking me from one of those companies, or the top 20, what would I tell them about the “opportunity” to make wine (and money) on Etna?

Well, let’s stroll in the past for a moment. In its heyday, it has been reported that 92,000 hectares were planted to grapevines on Etna. Last week, I was told by two producers that about 4% of those hectares are still producing wine. One can see many terraced vineyards where vines once thrived. But many of the inhabitants on Etna self-evacuated after WWII, not because of a geological eruption. But because of an economic one. They left for the north of Italy, the rest of Europe, the Americas, Oceana, and they never came back. One only needs to drive through the darkened, gloomy, lava paved streets on Piedemonte Etneo to see an archetypal expression of “abbadonato.”

But those were before the days of AOC and DOC. Before the days of GPS and Google Earth. Before the days of climate change, when places like Bordeaux, Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto needed full bodied wine to fill out their anemic offerings during a weak vintage. Those ways and days have changed.

Still, Etna is a sexy flamethrower in the arsenal of today’s wine influencers. It might go the way of Gruner – back to its corner. But I don’t think so. There’s more to it than buzz.

Who could I see going to Etna, if they so choose? I could see an Aubert de Villaine from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. But he’s 77. Does he really need to? The folks at Vega Sicilia could expand their empire to Etna. I’d love to see a Paul Draper type start a project there, but he’s 80. Angelo Gaja would be right at home – but again he’s 76. This is not a landscape for silverbacks, no matter how vigorous their life in wine has been up to now. Etna is demanding - ask Andrea Franchetti or Frank Cornelissen, Marco di Grazia or Eric Narioo.

Could someone come up to any of those modern Etna pioneers and buy them up like Big Wine bought up Donald Patz or Adam Lee? Sure, and it would probably be a good deal for them. Again, I don’t sense that happening anytime soon. But I’ve been wrong before.

I’ll share this with you. The glory days of Etna wine are in the past. What the stragglers are doing on that mountaintop will probably never replicate the volume or the influence Etna once had on the wine world. But that’s OK. Etna has a lot of other things going on and wine is a segment of it. What I see the 50+ producers doing on Etna today is more like an eco-laboratory in which wine is a lively and vital undertaking. I love it. I love the wines. I love the idea of it being so remote and hard to get to and get into. And I love how the folks who have survived and been drawn to La Mutagna are redrawing the order and the quality. Already folks like Salvo Foti and the Benanti’s are finding the better places for white varieties. And the important crus for the red, of which “Firebrand Frank” Cornelissen contends there are 18-20 capable of greatness – they’re being parceled out, fought over and reclaimed. Big Wine isn’t interested in 1/3 of a hectare, planted 150 years ago to a variety of known and unknown vines on their native rootstock in Prephylloxera soil. It doesn’t make economic sense.

Still, there’s a voice nagging me, telling me to watch out for the rabbit hole I have gone down. There are 87,000+ abandoned hectares on Etna (less than half of what is planted in Napa Valley) which had a vital role once upon a time. Maybe they want their voice to be heard again. And maybe Big Wine is watching, waiting for their next move. Just maybe.

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

1 comment:

Marco Guardiolo said...

I do hope that you are right. But, but, if you are wrong, there is always the possibility of una grande eruzione! Not that I wish anyone harm, but then again I am anthropomorphizing the whims of 'a mutagna. Try not to get too close to the rim of the crater.

Your photograph of the buffeta rustica is still killing me. It's hard to look at it too long.

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