Thursday, July 11, 2013

La Muntagna – Etna’s influence beyond Etna

In trying to comprehend what Etna means, to the area, to Sicily and to the world beyond, one visit will not reveal much. There are those whose lives have been swallowed up by the mountain, so many willing Empedocles. But as an outsider, I can only observe, listen and hope to transmit the energy that is reverberating throughout the island. Believe me when I tell you, the energy is there. All that is necessary is for one to silence their chattering monkey brain, set it aside for the time being, and breathe in deep. The mysteries of the fiery mountain are available to all with open ears, eyes and hearts. It’s that simple.

What isn’t simple is trying to decode the striation of activity, both physical and metaphysical, that hovers right below the delicate topsoil. There are a few places to look for guidance, our own personal Don Juan Matus, if you will. Actually, La Muntagna has no shortage of shamans to guide one in the ways of the volcano.

Growing up in the shadow of a different mountain, I remember the conversations I had with my Southwest shamans, the spirits of the mountain. In talking with winemakers on Etna, they speak of similar things. The spirit of the place, the simplest explanation. But there is something deeper, like the vines stretching past the soil and hardened lava down to the core, searching for that nameless expression of place, that which makes the wines so particular, so intense, so delicious. We all want answers; isn’t it enough to sip the delicate red wine from a glass while a breeze touches one’s shoulders, sitting in the shade of an arbor?

On Etna, anyone not of the mountain is an outsider. They might come from Palermo, or Rome, or Tuscany. And they do come from outside Italy, from Belgium, from England, from the United States, from Mars it would seem to those who were born inside this zone. I caught a brief glimpse into the hierarchy of the mountain. It slipped through a little Sicilian dialect I was listening to. “What was that?” I asked. The answer was, “People from off the mountain come here but they are not of here. It is different to us.”

Looking at the mountain, I realized I was a Martian, all of us were who didn’t breathe our first breath with a little of the ash from the volcano. It’s a strong argument, and I totally understand. It's Something a Hopi elder once told me about his sacred place.

Yes, Etna is a sacred place, and those ancient vines and the even more ancient lineage of souls who have passed their lives working this mountain, this is the great argument to those who think terroir-driven wines are the only way. Yes, terroir, and Etna has a constantly evolving one at that. But without the human element, the keepers of the flame, these wines would be bulk juice for some merchant looking to make money on the mainland, in Italy or France.

I know, I’m rambling. It’s the fever from La Muntagna, I have caught it. It was my salvation from a rattled cage in Bordeaux. Once again, Italy saves my life, this time with fire.

So this time, my third trip to Etna, went deeper, darker, but still didn’t penetrate to the real life of the wine and the winemakers. I remember Salvo Foti’s invitation again, “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.”

“Us” being I Vigneri, a group of winegrowers in and around Etna and Eastern Sicily. People like Maurizio Pagano, the fast-as-a-bullet-talking-in-Sicilian-dialect Tonto to his Lone Ranger, Salvo Foti. These two forces of nature almost rival Etna in passion and power. Along with these two cumpari’s, there are others. Gianfranco Daino, who works in Caltagirone with Nero d’Avola, Frappato and Alicante. Salvatore Ferrandes, who works in Pantelleria, sans palmento but flush with dammusi and zibbibo. Massimo Lentsch, an “outsider” from Northern Italy who works in the Aeolian islands with his beloved Malvasia alongside Carricante, Nero d’Avola, Corinto and other idigenes. Mario and Manuela Paoluzi, the keepers, I Custodi, guarding the Etna vineyards and her traditions and the vines of Carricante, Minnella, Grecanico, Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Alicante. There are more.

Vittoria Savino (what a name!) between Noto and Pachino, south-eastern Sicily, making Nero D’Avola by a small lagoon, Pantano Sichilli.

Then there is Quincunx, with Massimo Ruffino and Thomas Schuster (another “outsider” from Northern Italy) who encompass the principles of I Vigneri but also let other “outsiders” like Nino Barraco (from faraway Marsala) who have formed a casual (but serious) group of like-minded winegrowers and winemakers. It reminds me a little of the men who gathered in their various villages to protect their women and children in earlier lawless days, but in this case these men ( and women) are defending their ideologies and their patrimony, even their terroir. Who else? Yes, Nick Hucknall, a middle-aged punk rocker, why not? If he’s got the soul to stand the heat of Etna, who’s going to bar him from trying? Or pry him from the bar?

That leaves us with the brujo, Salvo Foti. I spent maybe a day with him, and I observed. Observed the way he held hands with his wife. Observed the respect he had for his neighbor who, when he retires, will turn over his ancient vineyard to Salvo. I observed the way he interacted with his teen sons, both introspective boys, respectful, deep-thinking young lions, and how Salvo was shepherding them into manhood. Observed his interactions with Maurizio, both different as the two sides of Etna, but how they work together. And how people look to Salvo for his counsel, his calm determination, his timeless regard for the phenomenon of grape-growing and winemaking on Etna and in Sicily. He’s made from special stuff; he’s the spearhead. Go away from Etna, see his influence.

I did, I drove from the unctuous black pumice of Etna to the blindingly white powder of Chiaramonte Gulfi. I saw his transference from the mountaintop to the plains below. The exchange of energy, and in return wines with a sense of place, but also an overriding sense of "Sicilianita." And wines that speak to souls beyond the largest island in the Mediterranean.

Yes, this is a giant ramble, a Sicilian carousel. The dust of Etna, the sweat of Palermo, the sweet honey of Sclafani Bagni, yes. Sicily is not one country, but a universe of little worlds all formed together like arancini di riso, separate unto themselves but making something greater than any one thing. That is Sicily. And La Muntagna is the wellspring from whence this fecundity has come.

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Marco Murgo said...

Bravissimo, amico. You are a child of La Muntagna. Luckily Etna will take care of any hubris of the rock-star-celeb "winemakers".

arnold waldstein said...

So enjoying your writing on Etna.

I would quibble only slightly (with a smile) that indeed only one visit can change your life.

I am still inspired by my visit there a year ago:

Under the volcano in Etna

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thank you Arnold

I enjoyed reading your post (twice). That old vineyard is pretty amazing. And yes, the first time is always the one that gets you coming back, nothing to be ashamed of ( we all have to have a "first" time) - I'm sure you (and I) will return again (and again,hopefully) to this special place.

Happy trails, amico...

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