Sunday, February 02, 2020

Italian wine and the pursuit of power

Meanderings from the streets of Palermo

I’m back in my family nerve center, if only for a few hours. It is winter, the moon solitary above the deserted streets, save for a few cold and lonely Africans setting up a table to sell their wares. Soon, the Palermitani will sweep out among the streets and the alleys, on their way to market or church or coffee. In the meantime, Palermo is all mine, and I do what I often do in Palermo, camera in hand, notebook in mind – I walk in search of where we are.

Along the way I come across my little wine bar, the one in La Vucciria. I step in to have a coffee, maybe with a shot of Marsala, just for old times. The place is far from the bustling spot it will be at noon, but for now, it’s mine, just as I’ve always held it in my memory from the first time I walked in with my uncle. It seems so long ago, 1971.

Over a strong coffee and a mellow shot of Marsala, my brain begins the thaw. The sun has yet to rise, but the day has begun, in this little bar, in a corner of this spot in Italy.

Italian wine, what it has come to. In New York City, the great bottles flock together to celebrate their ascendancy. There is where Italian wine got its mojo, became the power player it aspired to become. There, the prices rose, and along with it the fortunes of those quiet vignerons, who patiently worked the land, raised their children, and waited for their moment to shine. 1958, 1964, 1970, years which were not so great in the moment. But now are raised up to legendary status. And with that, comes money. And power. But for whom, one might ask?

It’s 7 AM and I’m back on the streets of Palermo, the coffee and Marsala having sufficiently warmed me for the trek I am taking. I’m walking to Piazza Cappuccini, where there is a little church. And next door the burial catacombs. I want to talk to an uncle of mine there, no longer living, but not silenced by death.

His wife came to me in a dream and said he wanted to see me, talk to me. And he didn’t want to make the trip to America. It made no sense, as dreams often don’t, but I instinctively knew there was something to it. So, I was walking the long walk, powered by caffeine and alcohol.

Along the way, the merchants were setting up in the Mercato del Capo, and I saw the artichokes and citrus, the tuna and swordfish, the fresh ricotta, and somewhere the smell of a fryer, cooking shells for the cannoli. The aroma of roasting coffee beans intermingled with the spices from Africa, the cloves and cinnamon, and the petroleum smell that pervades the Capo. It was Heaven. I stopped to take a few pictures, and then to my meeting.

I would have brought uncle something from Pasticceria Scimone, he loved the regina biscuits that his wife and my grandmother, all the women in those days, made. But he was beyond that now.

Uncle was a wine merchant of sorts. He did other work, after the war. But his love was for Marsala and for the unrecognized greatness of Italian wines. He felt they were as good as anything that came from France. In fact, his French friends in Palermo (there was a substantial cluttering of French ex-pats who made Palermo their home in those days), they saw no need to drink wine imported from France. I remember my uncle telling me what a friend of his once told him. “Mind you, I have nothing but love for the wines from my country, but I am living here now, and find the Italian way of life to now be mine. Call me a traitor, but I love the people, the food, and the wine too.”

Maybe that really was, and is, the power of Italian wine. But in 2020, people want a bigger reason, some thing with more heft to their pursuit of happiness.

“Ah, you arrived!” my uncle exclaimed. There he was, just like my aunt described in the dream. Dressed like a gentleman, sitting at the little bistro table among all his long-gone friends. It was all so very normal, just looking at him as if nothing had happened, not a day having passed since I first saw him 50 years ago.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Here, we have time. And we also have something those of you on the other side do not have the luxury of. Here we have the ability to crawl into something and take it apart without destroying it, and then put it back together. In minutes. And that is what we will presumably be doing for all eternity!” He let out his giant laugh, more of a guffaw, and took a sip from his cup of caffe’ latte.

“And so, you are probably wondering what the urgency was that I wanted to talk to you about. Really, there was none. But I figured if I didn’t get you here soon, you’d be on this side and there would be nothing we could do about it. Not that I think you, or anybody else, can do anything about it. But I want to tell you what I have been noticing.”

He put his cup down and stared at me, intently. It was a bit unnerving, as in this dark space, the diaphragm of his pupils were closed shut. It was a reminder that this wasn’t what it appeared to be. But I was there, and open to whatever he wanted to tell me. And I sensed there wasn’t anything I could do to help solve the dilemma he would be divulging to me.

“Down here, in the catacombs, we have quite the collection of wine. It appears an archbishop of Palermo was from Milan, and his family were large land owners in Alba in Piedmont, as was often the case. And they made wine. He had a collection of wine. And brought it down here with him. And once in awhile we gather and open one. These are wines that date to before the last great war, and like us, they are old. But not quite as dead as we.

“How is it, then that you living ones revere and search out the old bottles of wine, but ignore the old people who gave prominence to these wines? It’s just a number of questions I have to those of you on the other side. It seems so out of balance, to worship the old wines but to disregard the old people?

“I imagine that is why there are places like this. There is no place for us left to go in this world. So, they make these little prisons. Just like a bottle is a prison for the spirit of the wines within them.

“But opening a bottle, while it may release the wine and open the spirit up to a larger world, and to death, what does it do to the beholder? Does it make them wiser? Does it confer upon them greater compassion? Or does it infuse them with greater influence and status?

“Is that the destiny of Italian wine, to becoming a lanyard for someone wealthy enough to display it in such a ribald manner? Oh, the 1958, what a glorious year and we, the few, the chosen ones, have been in the right place at the right time, and with the right amount of Lire in our pockets to afford the price of admission to this little club you live ones so pursue?

“We have a code for admission here. It is very simple. All you have to do is die. And you get in here. Much simpler than your elaborate rituals on the other side. Well, I’ll tell you, but I rather think no one will listen to you, and maybe even you will not believe me. But I will tell you anyway.

“The pursuit of wine as an instrument of power, wealth and influence is a delusion. No amount of money, or power, or even intellectual curiosity, no matter how innocent, none of it will ever reconcile raising Italian wine onto the high priest’s tabernacle of wine for one’s self-gratification.”

At this point I started squirming in the metal chair, it was an uncomfortable feeling hearing this from a man long gone. But it had the ring of truth to it, even if I didn’t want to believe it. It was a tough dose to take. I, too, wanted to think if only I could be at the table and drink from the chalice, night after night, the greatness of Italian wine, that I would be part of that world, be accepted, be one of them.

As I bade my uncle my goodbye and walked back to the Centro Storico, where I was staying, I walked past a little trattoria that was just opening up. It was Ai Cascinari, and I remember having eaten there years ago. I wasn’t ready to go back to my room; my mind was all a tumble. And I had forgotten to eat breakfast. So, I stepped over the entrance into the restaurant.

I was led to a little two-top in the corner. And, as was the custom, they brought me a carafe of red wine, their vino sfuso. “From our family vineyards outside of Palermo,” was all the information they gave.

I took a sniff and a sip. It was as if all of Italy were in that glass. As if the hundreds of years of struggle and passion and blood and tears, and yes, sweat, permeated that wine. It had presence, it had body, it had the magic. It was what Italian wine had always been and would be for a long time for those who sought not the approval of the outside world. The experts in their tuxedos and their endless brindisi’s until the sun rises, die-hard revelers taking the view from the Top of the Rock, as if the cherry, to top off an epic experience.

But sitting at that little table with a bare bulb overhead to light the room, with the aromas of meatballs and eggplant caponata, fritto misto and panelle brought to the table and steaming hot, what more could anyone want? I’d had it all along, from the very beginning, and here I was again, right where I started.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Beautiful poetry. I can sense your sincerity and admiration in your words and accompanying photos. I am 29 and just now learning more about wine, thanks for taking the pervasive elitism out of it. Also, my father is 75 now and I do my best to call him daily and visit frequently as I no longer live with my parents. Ciao and grazie da California from an Italo-Americano.

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