Sunday, September 28, 2014

On the Nature of Being Sicilian in the Wine Business

Lest you think this will be the obligatory paean to all things Sicilian, after these last days spent on the island, many things are simmering. Yes, it is a Sunday, and to the millennials this might sound like a sermon. Pity.

How does one explain the blood in the veins? How does one look at a street, year after year, and still struggle to recognize what is right in front of one’s eyes? How much analysis is required to decode the Sicilian passeggiata of the last 40 years? I am obsessed with this. This is my mental mistress, never letting me inside the private chamber, ever tempting me with the promise of understanding, of clarity, of revelation.

This is not just one’s life in wine; it could as easily be about chestnuts, or grain, wool or leather. Wine just happens to be the spot where the wheel of fortune slowed and stopped. And before this wine blog goes the way of the dinosaur, let’s try one more time to reach the inner sanctum.

We can romanticize it all we want. Driving through the countryside, windows down, the feral breeze rustling through what’s left of curls once thought to have been bequeathed by the gods on Olympus. Souls plodding along the narrow roads, leading to hillside towns where our ancestors once toiled, dreamed, made love and ultimately left. We come back to find a reason why they left this place, why America? Yes, why?

It only takes a moment to see why some of them left. They were left-handed in a right-handed world. They were ultra-adventurous in a proto-conservative land. Or maybe they were bored.

Still, those who remained, with all that life hands to any one of us, what difference did it make? Less competition from the troublemakers, now headed to Buffalo, to New Orleans, to Chicago, to New York, to San Francisco? More bread, more cheese and more wine for the stay-behinds. As if staying behind was a genetic defect.

Either, way the road was paved with the gravel of toil and long days. The rewards might have been different. In America there was fame and fortune. In Sicily, there was - what was there?

To the best of my ability to answer that, what I have found is that everywhere you go there are opportunities. Hard work brings more of those opportunities to light, but there also needs to be perception, cunning and smarts, if only of the street variety. The wine business in Sicily is such an interesting conglomeration of components, going back to the beginnings.

This thought germinated while I was sipping on a glass of Marsala in the little bodega I had lost track of in Palermo's La Vucciria. Standing there, looking at the casks on the walls, old friends from remembering them the first time I looked at them in 1971. Now the wine in those casks has aged, probably aged better than the mortals down on the floor of that bodega. We walk in, have our little chat, sip our dry Marsala, and saunter back into the screenplay of our life, running, running, speeding up. While the wine waits.

All the lives that are intermingled in the wine inside those vats. The many growers of grapes. The wood gatherers who barter to the vineyard owner, who is looking for long poles to prop his vines up with. The basket makers who provide the ease for gathering the ripe grapes. The farmer who grew the reeds, or maybe the gatherer who went down to the river to gather the wild ones, fighting off mosquitos, serpents and brigands in the process. The metal worker who forged the iron for the wine press, hotter days than the noonday sun, in a dark inferno, working endless hours to get the mineral in molten form so as to pour it into the die cast.

Imagine this two hundred years ago. And then try and imagine what it will be like in 200 years. This has been going on like this for longer. And we, the current fruit flies, buzz and hover and dream and love and hope for meaning, for connection, for love, for remembrance. And also for a decent glass of wine, from time to time.

On Monday, I will go back to trying to convince a young salesperson that their client needs a little more Nerello and a little less Pinot Noir on their wine list. I know I won’t be immediately successful. I will go into a shop and try to talk to the proprietor about making his wine section more “European.” Again, this is not a 90 day project. And I will ultimately end up on the floor of a restaurant telling stories about Pinot Grigio and Brunello, Prosecco and Valpolicella, hoping I might be able to also tell a tale about Minella or Insolia, or maybe even about the little bodega full of ancient Marsala in Palermo.

I am a slave to the wine gods, and at this point, willingly. It gives meaning to my otherwise insignificant life. And I know someday this will all be less than a memory to me, as it will be to even the youngest of us. But that someday is not yet here. So in the meantime, let the volcano inside me bubble and erupt, let the fecund fields give their bounty. Let the barrels rest. Let it all proceed in Nature as it has been for ages. And as it is in the life of this Sicilian in the wine business.

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