Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sicily 2013: The Dark Side of the Island – Etna with Salvo Foti & Co.

I was running late to the town of Passopisciaro on Sunday. Somewhere between Palermo and Catania when I tried to get onto the highway, the road was blocked and I had to backtrack 15 miles. Sicilian roads are famous for their quirky dysfunctional aspect.

I had arranged to meet up with Salvo Foti. “No problem, no problem, just let us know when you get to the church at Passopisciaro.” Passopisciaro is a small town clinging to the north side of the Mt. Etna. Salvo was going to show me around. When I got there he had Maurizio Pagano meet me and bring me in to his property where he lives with his family. There are many things written about and by Salvo and I recommend you to find them and read them(starting with Michael Housewrights wonderful posts) . I went off the grid and wanted to approach meeting the man without prejudice. Is he a god? I don’t want to know. Is he a devil? Again, I am not interested. One thing for sure, he is committed to Etna. I am interested in that.

We met at the house in the afternoon, lunch was in full swing. A handful of friends from the north of Italy were in town and they were eating and drinking wine. Salvo pointed to a seat at the table and poured me a glass of white wine, Vignujancu, made from Carricante, Riesling, Grecanico and Minella. The wine struck me like a match, filled me with an intense feeling, the acidity was bracing and it was sharp and delicious. The sirocco was blowing from Africa.

Vegetables, dear, dear vegetables. I was craving them and then Salvo’s wife served me a plate of fresh, green, wonderful vegetables. With the local olive oil. Bliss.

A rosé that Maurizio loves was opened, the Vinudilice, a field blend of Alicante, Grecanico, Minella and other minor varieties from the 100+ year old Bosco vineyard. Maurizio talks rapid-fire fast and shifts often in to Sicilian dialect. It’s like trying to keep up with Fernando Alonso on a Formula 1 course when you’re driving a Fiat Panda. But the wine was the interpreter. Good thing, I loved the rosé.

We tried several reds old and new but I was really soaking in the music, the sun, the conversation, the kids at the table, trying to get a feeling for what kind of person he (and they) are. I’m sure they were sizing me up too.

We ran over to the I Vigneri apartment where we tasted a sparkling Fiano before the friends parted. I stayed behind where I would sleep. Salvo tells me, “We will come to pick you up at 8 for more wine and dinner.”

Around 8:45 Maurizio comes around. His wife and daughter were at the pizzeria and he fetched me. Maurizio, I could tell he had something on his mind. He was talking very loud, very fast, very animated and he wanted me to know a little about himself and his passion.

Maurizio is 180 degrees from Salvo is his delivery. He’s animated and old-school. But he and Salvo share the same passion.

I liked Maurizio, he showed me his hands. “You cannot make wine by sitting at a desk and punching a button. You need these!” I could tell he was intent on delivering the creed of I Vigneri and I was filled with his passion, his energy. Who needs Etna, when there is Maurizio?

Sunday night – pizza night in Italy. Wine left from lunch, still bright, still fresh. No sulfur, no inoculated yeast. Just grapes.

When I taste wine like this I remember a wine I made when I was 14. Seriously. It was for a science project. Not to belittle anyone making wine with as little as possible manipulation. They just remind me of my first time.

A few years ago I remember trying an Asprinio at Terroir wine bar in NYC. That wine was a better, much better, version of my science project, but I noted the texture, the flavor and the sensation of that wine. And from there on when I tasted a wine, whether it was Gravner or Maule or any number of wines made in that style there was this thread of remembrance.

At the table, Maurizio shifting into 6th gear and deep Sicilian dialect (thinking I can almost follow him) I went into the ditch of my mind and thought a little about this.

I recalled what Dick Peterson told me at the California State Fair Wine Competition, talking about yeast. His point of view was essentially, why not have yeast that you can develop to insure a consistent, predictable and wholesome wine? And while I understand his point and share it often, I wasn’t in that territory. I was on the dark side of Sicily, with the lava all around us, and the mountain booming out regularly. In this almost surreal surrounding and this expression of natural wine, I looked at the people and started to think they were from another world. Indeed they are but that doesn’t make them weird or ugly or scary. Just different. There’s a little Mozart mixed in, a little latent hippie and a lot of connection to the land. Sure these wines are different, but so what? They are delicious, and really that is all that matters to me. But if I may peel off the layer of brain that was working this thought up.

I’m sitting there thinking, “What if they (the natural winemakers) are right and the rest of them (the rest of them being from the boutique to the industrial) are full of phooey?” What if our preconceptions about wine all these years have really been a dead end? Now, mind you, I’m just thinking about this, I’m not having an existential crisis. The mast on my ship will always sail me to the land of delicious wine. I’m very simple (and clear) about that.

Anyway, I riffed on that for a while and then watched Salvo’s little white poodle-wookie dog jump after a strip of leather, playing and going nuts over it. Just like that I jumped out of my mind and then back in, because of a dog.

So, the next day we go out to the vineyards. The old one on the high part ( maybe one of the highest vineyards in Europe) planted with all manner of grapes, Grenache, Alicante, Minella, Grecanico, all mixed up like a love in, a grapevine orgy. Old and new, 100 years old with new baby plants, just like life. Not those neat rows (not this vineyard) but life buzzing all around, the neighbor next door hands us some fresh strawberries. They are like drugs, the flavors pop and explode, whirl and whizz all around the palate. Strawberries grown in volcanic soil. I will never be able to enjoy a Driscoll ever again (not that hard to give up, by the way).

On the drive down to the Santo Spirito vineyard, we come around a corner and Etna appears. Instantly Salvo’s wife and one of his son’s shoot a glance at the top. The mountain’s got a hold over them. Me too. “You know Robert Camuto?” Salvo asks me. “Yes,” I answer. “He saw the Palmento here at Santo Spirito and loved it. I suggested he call his book Palmento.” Good call.

The vineyard is being replanted in sections. Etna behind is growling and fussing today. It’s a beautiful sunny day on the dark side of Sicily.

Inside the Palmento with the three lagars and the gravity fed fermentation area, this place is cool and dark and sexy. It’s old (1820’s) but it is very attractive in an odd sensual kind of way. Still working. I don’t know; it just struck me that wine made in here would be interesting. “Come here in October and crush with us. We have a band in the corner, a friscalettu playing the tarantella, and we stomp the grapes. It’s a great time. You’re welcome to join us.” Dear Salvo, music to my drooping ears.

Etna, it’s dark, yes. Dark with the stains of blood shed from centuries of grueling toil to fashion a life on this mountain. The wines, how can you not love them? They push all the right buttons inside me (sorry Maurizio) - they strike a chord inside of me (is that better?). I am in love with them. Red, white, rosé, the whole bunch.

Darn you, Salvo and Maurizio.

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