Mt. Etna -Volcanoes, Vines, and the Holy Spirit is a 3 part series on how I came to meet Salvo Foti, the preeminent voice on traditional (ancient) winemaking on Mt Etna. I am releasing my post now to celebrate Salvo's visit to San Francisco this week. Tune in tomorrow to learn where you can meet Salvo and taste his wines.
New roads in Sicily wreak havoc upon GPS systems. As a matter of fact, old roads do as well. In the 5 hours it took to reach Randazzo on the north slope of Mt. Etna from the southwestern town of Menfi there were no less than 5 dead ends due to construction of new highways and from old thoroughfares that simply ceased to exist. This was Sicily after all and if invading armies with the latest technology over the centuries failed to tame the roads of the Mediterranean’s largest island then what kind of chance did I expect with my discount Fiat Punto and a 2009 Garmin?
One island does not equal one place and on the slopes of Europe’s most active volcano a sense of place and belonging to it are the driving factors behind perhaps the most exciting wine scene since Thomas Jefferson wrote his supplier in Marseilles seeking a fine white Hermitage. Mt. Etna is home to some of Europe’s oldest grapevines, many predating the devastating phylloxera outbreak that ravaged the wines of France and Northern Italy over 100 years ago. It is these ancient vines buried in the mineral rich volcanic slopes of a fiery giant that have inspired a pilgrimage to create the next great wine.
Tasting the wines of longtime producers Gulfi and Benanti as well as newcomer Tenute delle Terre Nere I knew there was something brewing on the mountain as well as under it. I needed to see for myself what was truly happening on Etna and if wine could be produced from the light bodied and pale colored Nerello Mascalese that was ageable, with a sense of place, and flavors that did not mirror or intend to mirror those of France’s burgundy as they have so often been compared.
I had worked in Sicily 6 years ago based in Taormina with Etna always looming in the distance. After my works and studies here I knew I would return. I did not know it would be for wine. I had lived with an amazing family in Taormina and my host father, Aurelio, would routinely open a plastic bottle of Etna Rosso he kept stored in the fridge to serve with dinner each night. The wine, while foxy (not tasting like wine made from wine grapes) cold, and not of high quality, somehow grew on me over nights of watching Italian “Who wants to be a Millionaire” and eating the most exquisite meals I remember vividly.
Every two or three days during my time in Taormina I would go out shopping and bring home some fine bottle of famous Sicilian wine to share with the family at dinner. Each time I would, Aurelio would drink a quarter of a glass of my selection to be polite, then open the Etna Rosso made entirely from Nerello Mascalese he filled in bulk from a local co-op. When I began to see evidence of this grape sneaking into wine shops here in America I could not help but be bemused and quite skeptical. Was someone actually importing the moonshine I drank in Sicily to the US and how would they market it?
To my great and happy surprise I learned that Aurelio was simply being a humble and supportive citizen. There were many options for Etna based reds and he just happened to like the cheapest ones. The wines grown near Randazzo are another story altogether and at the end of a very frustrating drive I was ready to know why.
...To be continued
Mt. Etna -Volcanoes, Vines, and the Holy Spirit is a 3 part series on how I came to meet Salvo Foti, the preeminent voice on traditional (ancient) winemaking on Mt Etna. I am releasing my post now to celebrate Salvo’s visit to San Francisco this week. Salvo Foti will be pouring wine and discussing how he makes the magic this Saturday at Biondivino is San Francisco's Russian Hill neighborhood from 6-8PM. Come out and enjoy the wines and say hello to yours truly as well as the great Salvo Foti.
I arrived at the charming hotel Parco Statella and visited briefly with their fine horses while a girl in a neighboring room rattled on in a language I would later come to find out was Georgian. After a bit I sent an arrival text to Salvo Foti, one of the most integral persons in the wine hierarchy of Mt Etna and as I would come to find out one of the most intelligent men I had met in many years.
Salvo arrived in a lived-in SUV with only 2 doors so my wife had to do the 1980s crawl over the seat belt to find her way to the back. Signore Foti is around 5’9” 155lbs, lean, and strikingly handsome. His grey hair would suggest he was over 50 but his youthful looks and svelte build indicate a much younger man. At first he appeared shy, although as I became more comfortable with my elementary Italian his obvious confidence and complete mastery of his own ideas came clearly to light.
The intended restaurant for the evening was closed on this day and Salvo suggested we see his home and enjoy some takeout pizza with him and his wife. In my 20 years living and working in Italy, I had never had takeout pizza that I did not eat right there on the street and certainly never with a family upon meeting them for the first time. Of course I should have known this would not be ordinary takeout. The pizza had cracker thin crust and the Fotis offered us giant capers from the island of Pantelleria and olive oil from 200-year-old trees to add to each slice as a compliment and an expression of Sicilian creativity and hospitality.
During the meal Salvo explained that his company I Vigneri came from Maestranzi dei Vigneri. A vineyard workers guild founded in 1435 to protect the traditions of grape growing on Mt Etna. Over the course of the time on Etna, Salvo and his team would reference the men or simply I Vigneri almost hourly. The ancestors of modern men seemed to be held in reverence almost like war heroes. It was as if the soldiers of the vines watched over the work done today offering approval and guiding the hands of the current vigneri. While this borders on superstition, the faith that the team put into this philosophy of curation, set aside over 500 years ago, seemed to carry them through the very difficult tasks of vineyard management each day. The overarching belief is that the only way to make great wine was to create great grapes and the only way to do that (on Mt Etna) is to follow the path of the vigneri.
The following day I met Galen Abbott, an American who resides in Catania and oversees vineyards and a 19th century winemaking building called a Palmento; in this case, Palmento Santo Spirito, or winery(loosely) of the Holy Spirit. Galen is brash and straightforward with an honesty that is rare in such a sensitive world. I liked him immediately. Lean, bearded, and wearing what looked like the most comfortable blue suit made in Italy, it is uncommon to meet an American who gets Italy (specifically Sicily) and its people so intrinsically. Galen spoke Italian like a character from Italian cinema’s great period of neorealismo;and like watching a great film I found myself simply wanting to know what was next.
I must have asked him 5 questions a minute in the first 2 hours of knowing him, with each of his answers more compelling than the next. He told me he learned Italian by moving to Padua in northern Italy and locking himself in his room with works of Dante and reading them over and over till he perfected the language; and 6 months later emerged to become a bartender at a local dive. I wanted badly to disbelieve him and dismiss his tall tale as an impossibility or a cutting room scene from Rainman. After what transpired at dinner that night I had no choice but to accept I had met a man of rare linguistic talent.
...to be continued
Mt. Etna -Volcanoes, Vines, and the Holy Spirit is a 3 part series on how I came to meet Salvo Foti, the preeminent voice on traditional (ancient) winemaking on Mt Etna. I am releasing my post now to celebrate Salvo’s visit to San Francisco this week. Salvo Foti will be pouring wine and discussing how he makes the magic this Saturday at Biondivino is San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood from 6-8PM. Come out and enjoy the wines and say hello to yours truly as well as the great Salvo Foti.
We walked all together through the vineyards at Palmento Santo Spirito and saw vines as old as 150 years resting next to new plantings. The cycle of life in Sicily is as clear as anywhere I have seen. Ancestral vines keeping watch over new ones managed by men following ancient rituals to the tune of making wine without the use of electricity. I assumed Salvo was kidding till he walked us through the dark and dank rooms of the Palmento and explained to us how the grapes are carried up the ramp by hand and into the lava stone pool where they are foot tread to break the skins and allow the juice and pulp to run free into the rock tank below. The temperature outside over 90 degrees while the stone and the vented windows keep the inside temps at 75 or less. This was how the Romans made wine said Salvo and yet they say what I am doing is illegal. Two thousand years of winemaking precedence cannot be wrong but the EU says it is illegal. I want to know so much more.
The Georgians met us at dinner. They were in town to bury a religious icon in the vineyards of a French wine distributor from the UK. His wife, a former winemaker at the famous Solaia in Tuscany and her brother an aspiring winemaker himself from Australia who had interned with the enigmatic Frank Cornelissen were part of the crew that evening along with a contingent of the hardest working members of I Vigneri. We had all convened on Etna like some backroom episode of “Wine Fantasy Island” and Salvo was certainly our Mr Roarke.
We dived straight into a magnum of I Vigneri’s signature Etna Rosso, Vinupetra. It was compelling in its uniqueness and strangely familiar in its weight. This infant vintage was only recently bottled (by Vinupetra standards) and its youthful fruit and exuberant acid were a lovely spoil to the fresh Randazzo sausage on the grill. Galen and I drank like Americans and ate like Italians. Salvo says Galen never stops talking in either language. I laughed heartily when Salvo said Galen spoke Italian better than him and I smiled broadly when Galen affirmed this. Italian was not Salvo’s first language after all, it was Sicilian. After tasting the Vinupetra I am certain his second language was wine.
There were no sparks from the volcano on this night. The smell of sulfur wafted in and out of the air and I wondered if it was all from the volcano herself or was it the sulfur/copper mix sprayed minimally on the vines to prevent rot. The cool night air pushed me to drink more vigorously and I was so pleased to see the ubiquitous bottles of Coca-Cola absent from this Italian dinner. The Foti children have never had McDonald’s and do not get soft drinks. The ancient Vigneri would like this. They would want them to drink wine, to commune with strangers, and perhaps to indulge in the occasional smoke.
At the end of our pizza meal the night before Salvo asked my wife and me if we wanted a cigarette. When we told him that we did not smoke, he simply asked “why not?” I had to ask myself this same question looking at a man 10 years my senior, in better health, more contented than I, and living with vines, volcanoes, and the Holy Spirit in his backyard.
Please visit us tomorrow evening with the wines of Salvo Foti at Biondivino in San Francisco