Sunday, June 05, 2016

A Wine Zealot's Survival Guide to Etna

After 30 years of going to Etna, I’ve learned there is a simple way and there is the hard way. I’ve done the hard way a time or two. Simple is better. I’d like to share a few tips for those who are aching to go taste wine on the mountaintop.

• Wear shoes with some kind of support around the ankles and with some kind of grip or treads. Be prepared for a hike. Vans or Chuck Taylors might look (and feel) cool, but after climbing around a caldera for a day, and slipping one time too many, you’re going to want some support.

• Layer your clothes (think California). It might get blisteringly hot in the day, but when the sun goes behind a cloud, a tree or a hill, it can get cool. Take something lightweight to throw in your back pack. Getting sick in Sicily isn’t for the weak of heart. Trust me. I know.

• Rent an SUV, not a cute little Fiat 500. Better yet, find someone with a Defender. Sicily, especially around Etna, is hilly and often unpaved. Leave your low rider home.

• Take plenty of batteries and chargers. You will need GPS, even when it takes you the wrong way up a goat trail, and if you lose power, you go from predator to prey in a flash.

• Pack light and wear the same thing. Wear dark or muted colors – Etna is dusty and the ash from the volcano is a constant occurrence. No one will judge you, not even Ciro Biondi, who gets the award as the best color coordinated winemaker on the mountain.

Let’s talk about food. On Etna your will find:

A plethora of pork and other red meat products – beef, veal, lamb.

Pasta in all shapes and sizes, prepared like you have never seen it. You will want seconds.

A regular occurrence of fresh fruits and vegetables. Tuscany, it ain’t. Thankfully.

A dearth of seafood. Ditto for chicken. Live with it.

If you are gluten or lactose intolerant or deathly allergic to eggs – you might be challenged. Not impossible, but you will have to be on your toes. And this isn’t California, where those kinds of conditions are catered to. You might get an upraised eyebrow, but not much sympathy. Hey, imaging being a vegetarian in Sicily in 1977 – I know – it wasn’t pretty.

If you like cheese you will be in heaven.

Accomodations.Find someplace where you can base yourself out of. Preferably with plenty of parking. And maybe someplace that is quiet but not too remote. We recently stayed outside of Randazzo at the Feudo Vagliasindi – it was all that and very affordable – friendly too.

Let’s talk about planning appointments and meeting with the people.

Try and plan one or two appointments a day. Three is pushing it. If the wineries are nearby, that’s the best strategy. Also be flexible regarding changes. Things happen. Pipes burst. Fermentations stick. Sicily has a lot going on – be of good cheer. And roll with it.

The wine community is forming. While Etna was a powerhouse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those glory days are gone. Etna is in reinvention. You are witnessing the re-birth. It’s really exciting. And there are people from all over the world who have come to Etna to make wine. They know wine. They hang with their Burgundian and Piedmontese and New California friends. It’s like one big giant Instagram reunion.

Want it clean and oaky? You got it. Want it hairy and funky? You’ll find it. Want to rub shoulders with the upper crust? You can. Want to sit under a shaded patio and sip on wine with a winemaker whose great grandfather planted the vineyard behind you? It’s all possible. If you’re a blogger or a podcaster, or a wine pro with letters after your name, leave your sense of self-importance with the luggage in the hotel room. These folks don’t know who you are. Even if you’re really famous (like Aubert de Villaine). Etna is the great equalizer. Be friendly and humble. Please.

That’s all I’ve got this round. You won’t “get” Etna in one trip. Or six. But I do find it fascinating, like Piedmont or the Douro or other places, where people have made great sacrifices to live in a rugged, unforgiving land so that they can make wine that makes people happy. I don’t know if Etna will be another Burgundy or Piedmont (I hope not) but it’s a really beautiful, nature-filled area, far from the cities and the noise and the distractions of modern life that we find ourselves wrapped up in.

The wines are delicious, the food is beyond baroque and there is a warm and friendly community waiting to show you what a life with passion in wine is all about.

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