Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sicilian target practice without a license (or a seatbelt)

One of the intriguing aspects about winemaking in Eastern Sicily, especially around Etna and Vittoria, is how tradition has very little to do with it. While Tuscany is foundering with Chianti and their traditions, and Piedmont is riding a wave of popularity, Sicily, especially Eastern Sicily is in re-invention mode. Oak. No oak. Nerello. No, Pinot Noir. Chardonnay. No, Carricante. Moscato, sweet, no dry. Cement tanks. Inox, Amphora. For those who look at it, Eastern Sicily very much resembles the landscape in which it sits. Busy. Cluttered. Fast. But also in this confluence of things that don’t necessarily harmonize with each other, there is a spark of creativity that Tuscany and Piedmont could find inspiration from.


The problem of prejudice, that of the North looking down at the South, is still a roadblock, although I don’t see the younger generation wrestling with this issue as earlier generations have. I once was talking to a wine merchant, a Barone, from Tuscany. This was thirty years ago. He was concerned that the business the company I worked for was being diluted by too many importers. One especially, from the Marche/Abruzzo area, bothered him to the point that he mentioned it to me. “You know, Alfonso, it’s the problem of the South. The people, the way they go about their day, isn’t always so good for business.” I took it as a warning. I also felt the sting, as much of the DNA material that made me up came not only from the South, but from the Deep South. But I kept my hurt hidden, locked it up in a vault, to mull over for another day.

Over the years, I have seen more of what he meant, albeit it through my personal lens. In places like Campania, where earlier this year a group of us drove through the Triangle of Death, where for years toxic dumping has resulted in elevated levels of cancer among those living in and near the area. And one could see trash strewn recklessly on the highways and the back roads. Here we were in one of the beautiful places on earth and people were treating it like a dumpster.

As well, in Calabria, on the back road to the Comune di CirĂ², we almost couldn’t drive the car, for there was so much trash, broken concrete and potholes. Again, a place of beauty, once upon a time.

Sicily is not unblemished in this aspect. For years, I have witnessed minor and major transgressions against Mother Earth. On Etna, people systematically dump plastic bags filled with trash on the roads leading up to the mountain. And they extend reckless behavior in their driving habits – not wearing seatbelts, ignoring warning road signs, not stopping at intersections. As if the cornicello around the rear view mirror (or the neck of the driver) was all that was needed to stave off incidents.

I know I’ve gone off a little from my earlier thoughts, but the two are related, intertwined. After all these years, I do see that Southern Italy, and Sicily is in danger of losing more of their talent, because the changes in the modern world are developing so rapidly that it is much more comfortable to stick with what one knows. Some don’t wear the seat belt, and they are proud of their rebellious acts, as if they are a kind of 21st century Salvatore Giuliano for not wearing them. Large producers stick with their over cropped Nero D’Avola. And some chase trends, wasting valuable years planting “international” varietals, following a market that far too many other countries have already conquered. Who is going to beat the French when it comes to reliable and often affordable Pinot Noir? Maybe California can give them a run for it, especially for those wine drinkers who like their Pinot Noir a little darker and chunkier. Thankfully, we are seeing small swaths of Chardonnay (and Pinot Grigio) in Sicily being grafted back over to Catarratto, Grillo and Insolia. And while the jury is out as to whether these wines will ever be capable of producing a wine as great of the Chardonnays from France, thirsty wine drinkers, who just want a glass of wine to go with their fritto misto, are happy to participate in emptying the large Inox and concrete storage containers.

So, how does this all fit into the original thought about the contention that Eastern Sicily is experiencing a moment of creative burst? The wines are already in America, in Australia, in the Scandinavian countries and Northern Europe. Even the British Isles (for now). Restaurants and wine consumers who are plugged into the worldwide web are on to these wines – for their wine lists and for their dining tables at home.

Over the period of the last week, in my house, we ate steak, tacos, salmon, Greek salad, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, quesadillas and loads of fruit. When it was a meal where wine was appropriate, there were many options to choose from Sicily, from Frappato with tacos to Carricante with quesadillas. And with the garden preparing to launch so many eggplants into this kitchen, there will be more options for Sicilian wine on the table, from Etna rosso and rose to Cerasuolo di Vittoria and even a well-made Nero d’Avola.

What Sicily needs to do is get their home in order. Fix those stop signs that have fallen down and have caused their share of needless accidents. Start a conscious campaign of getting people to slow down when they drive on small country roads, many of which have fallen into disrepair. Pick up your trash, for God’s sake. You’ve turned Paradise into a pig sty. And then think about the time and the investment you (and the EU) are making in Sicilian wine and getting them out to the world. We’re ready for your wines, have been for some time. But we’d also like you - and I’m speaking to all my Southern brothers and sisters, not just the converted – to take your blinders off and look at the world you are living in, both abroad and home. And make it right.






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3 comments:

Marco Mascalese said...

Very telling. The last time (2000) that I was Siracusa I stayed at B&B Arche' (http://web.tiscali.it/BandBArche/centrale.html) situated prettily on the gulf south of that ancient city that is now owned by Germans and other Nordic tribes. My host, a very amiable young woman who holds an advanced degree in classical Italian literature, was very vocal in her criticism of the her fellow people. I asked her why things were the way they were in Sicily given the fertile historical matrix of the culture. She shouted back at me "i Siciliani!". I highly recommend this B&B. Not only is it beautifully perched in its position on the gulf shore, it is comfortably furnished with antiques and very tranquil. It is just down the road a piece from Il Faraone Ristorante http://www.ilfaraone.com where one can dine al fresco while looking at lights of the former NYC of Magna Graecia. When then you might have encountered Archimedes or Aeschylus at a cafe sipping Muscato da Alessandria, today one more than likely sees Germans or Swedes sipping on Schloss Vollrads VDP.Grosse Lage. Where was the second photo (porthole like) taken? I liked your first photo given the context.

Ciro Biondi said...

Alfonso I think you should have found a topic to write about, albeit negative or positive, of our land that hasn't been already discussed, have a look at this.

"With his Germanic urge toward efficiency, Goethe kept asking why some collection procedure couldn’t be instituted. The shopkeeper shrugged and responded that the men responsible for street-cleaning were powerful, that they received money for cleaning, but no one holds them to using the money for that purpose. “And then there’s a rumor,” he went on, “just a rumor, mind. Some people say it’s the barons who want to keep it like this, so that in the evening when they take their carriage rides the street will be soft and springy.” Having gotten started, the Palermitano went on about police corruption." Palermo April 1787, 229 bloody years ago!
The Leopard provided a key to understand what Sicily (not the Sicilians) is.
It is a place where the Gods are still living and because we truly think we are Gods, we don't want to change, why should we? Tommasi di Lampedusa underlines the fact that we can conduct a polite conversation discussing our weakness, but no way should anyone even begin to try to tell us what we should do, because this is something that we cannot abide by, as Don Fabrizio said to Mr. Chevalley.

Every country finds something to complain about, however, perfection which leads to efficiency may also lead to tedium. Sicily is a haven where one can escape back in time. We are still 'evolving' and are hundreds of years or more behind the USA, where they were campaigning 'Keep America Beautiful' in 1953. (The American 'litterbugging' is alarmingly illustrated in a couple of episodes of the TV series Mad Men) Nevertheless, people crave to find something that has been lost in the "normal" world, but there is always a price to pay, isn't there?

Ciro Biondi

Jay said...

The price, as Ciro points out, will be paid. In my opinion privilege more often than not enables a skewed sense of values based on one’s own personal standards and therein comforts. I would venture that the majority of Sicilians are deeply despondent about the garbage issue- it is pervasive. The issue is not Sicily it's garbage in general- it is a global issue. And the U.S. produces more garbage per capita than anyplace in the world. The U.S. is great at hiding the garbage, all of it- so it looks manicured and well groomed yet the fact remains that the hospitals are overflowing with with people who "pay the price" for America's brilliant ability to hide the garbage. Driving in Sicily- I grew up in NYC and I've driven cars, motorcycles , bicycles, trucks (large and small) in and around the U.S. as well as several other countries. I personally don't make a distinction between Sicilian drivers and Italian drivers. The U.S. drivers test is easy and the Italian drivers test is considerably more difficult and the death per 100,000 rate (adjusted for population) of each country reflects this- U.S. deaths per 100,000 = 10.6. Italy deaths per 100,000 = 6.1. Verging on half the deaths per 100,00. So one might not have the ability to negotiate the foreign driving culture but that by no means whatsoever indicates that it's actually more dangerous. Sicilian wine- If one is looking for wine they experienced someplace else, Sicily is not the place. Certainly, many have the opportunity to compare their wine experience cross culturally and the wine in Sicily has never been part of (for lack of a better term) wine gentrification. A scant review of the history of Sicilian wine reveals this. It has historically been exported in bulk to fortify northern european wines and has only been bottled recently as compared to northern Italian, French or Spanish wines. The beauty of the wine is it's individuality from winemaker to winemaker. This is the history, just as caponata varies from family to family. Then there is the remarkable diversity of the terrior as well as the climate and micro climates. What's exciting about Sicilian wines is not dusting off a 120 year old bottle of wine, or drinking a new bottle from a 200 year old vineyard. That didn't happen here - it happened someplace else. So to want/need or expect Sicilian wine to fit that mold is not in my opinion remotely realistic. Is there good wine in Sicily? I think the world has spoken and the the answer is yes. Is there bad wine here? Yes. Do I dare compare it to California wine? Yes. California - lots of winemakers making lots of money, making lots of (at best) mediocre wine. Everything in life is not meant to be orderly and predictable. If those are your tastes so be it. What dumbfounds me most is the writing off of an entire culture based on one individual’s perspective. This somehow is influenced by garbage and driving? Sicily is not a static object, it's a living entity that precludes- I took a ten day trip and things didn’t work out the way I thought they should have. I say this not in opposition Alfonso but with a tear of sadness for what you seem to have missed in your stint here. I understand the garbage was discerning, the driving was unnerving, the wine was unpredictable. What about the kind and beautiful people, the endlessly gorgeous landscape, the culture and of course the delicious wine that exists in what you see as a muddled mess?

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