Thursday, August 02, 2012

Sanctuary for the Soul

Twelve years ago at this time, life was a living hell. The summer was unrelentingly hot; my wife’s disease was entering its final stages and the two major wineries I was representing were incontrovertibly out of touch with the market. There was little or no respite, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. No retreat, no sanctuary. The fury of hell, with heat, disease and ignorance. A perfect trifecta for misery.

Twelve years later, that hell is not as acute, but the days are not without their challenges. Still we are enduring triple digit temperatures. There are challenges in my family orbit regarding health issues, and my dear Italians are giving us a break for the time. It is after all, the beginning of August. So for the next month, we are unencumbered, free as a bird. As long as we don’t fly too close to the sun.

In a moment of diversion, I came upon a lovely photo project, “Into the Silence”, by the Sicilian, Carlo Bevilacqua. In some of the more remote corners of the world, and especially Italy, Bevilacqua has lived and photographed folks who choose to live a simpler life of solitude.

I read often that where man goes, so goes the grape. And there have been places I have come across, on the wine trail in Italy, where the grapes live and grow in a simple way, with or without man.

Sicily and the smaller islands nearby are fertile ground for such sanctuary. Whether it be the Nero D’Avola under the shadow of a mystical mountain, which creates a cooler environment, there the grapes live and mature. But not without long days, filled with wind and sun and the searing silence that would drive most people mad. For the Nero, though, this is an almost perfect place.

Farther out on a smaller island, Pantelleria, Muscat of Alexandria takes the name Zibibbo and shuns any earthly comfort. Pummeled by intense sun and constant wind from Africa, little bushes stay low to the ground and in their meditation they grow slow and restrained. And after they give up their fruit, while most people are returning to their jobs and their homes from their August holiday, these clusters are splayed on the ground to be subjected to more heat and dehydration. Only to reincarnate as a passito of extraordinary singularity.

On the mainland, in Calabria, grapes that have trekked millennia from ancient cultures found a place in the hills. There, as in Bevilacqua’s essay, people work in solitude, growing, tending, laboring, harvesting and living until they have no more breath. And alongside the ancient grapes toil and fall and emerge year after year. Lonely, solitary, blissful.

Nearby in the land-locked quadrant of Basilicata, other ancient pilgrims have settled in the ancient stone dwellings. Even the buildings look like they were hewn out of stone. No conveniences, no streaming you-tube inanities. Once again, the elements, wind, sun, rain, pitiful earth. And stone upon stone. And from those stones some of the most solemn wine I have ever had.

Liguria, far to the north, on the border with France. Inland, in the province of Imperia, there is a stark landscape that Buñuel or Jodorowsky dreamt of. Stark, steep, remote, wonderful. To be a hermit here, as a human or as a grape, is to count the bees as your friend. The Rossese and other indigenous grapes leave their enological profiles behind, much in the way a monk leaves his family and his identity. What Yaqui shamans call total freedom.

Valtellina – Difficult to find and hard to live in. One corner of an Inferno vineyard I once spotted the perfect hermit encampment. Either that, or a place for a young man to take his sweetheart and make love under the Chiavennasca vines in the cool caress of an autumn harvest breeze.

Tuscany – even Sangiovese can stall the limelight. Near the Lardarello, one such hermitage exists for the wearied wine lover as well as the grapes, the sheep and the wild flowers. Even in the ever fashionable Tuscany, one can leave the world behind.

Umbria – St. Francis, Assisi’s most famous hermit and Canaiolo, Uva Canina, who would miss this grape? It is destined for the contemplative life. And Umbria, for the living and the dead, is a soulful urn for all who seek the quiet and the peace of the green heart. It is where I took the ashes of my wife, after she passed through our last summer of hell together.

And while not all things happen in the life of humans or grapes lead to the happy endings, nonetheless, that is the course of things. The cycle of life, the kite of the soul, flying in the wind above Assisi or Pantelleria, or Sondrio or Airole or Bucita or Matera or Pomarance. Any and all are suitable for a brief or an extended hermitage and all serve as sanctuary for the soul of wine or man.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Jaime Murua said...


I'm really surprised with some of the pictures that you have here. I love them. I wish to visit Italy, perhaps next year. I will try to visit a winery, do you recommend anyone?

Unknown said...

This is absolutely beautiful Alfonso!

Thomas said...

Great photos and mini-essays.

I particularly love the reference to Valtellina's remoteness: the one road into the area takes forever!

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