The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Friday, November 04, 2005

15 October: Siracusa to Taormina

I rarely agree with the commonly expressed opinion that the journey is somehow greater than being there, but this was a day of travel at its finest, a day where hours slipped outside of the conventions of tourism and brushed up accidentally against an increasingly elusive real experience. As we all alter the world we pass through with our actions and simple presence, there is a perverse, at times desperate, feel to travel in search of the authentic place. Simply put, how many more American wine buyers can the country people meet before their attitudes change to ambivalence, annoyance, and eventually commercial pragmatism. How many years and visitors change a Mediterranean fishing village into St. Tropez? What’s a semi-intellectual to do? One eye on these issues isn’t going to make a trip to Six Flags any more appealing, and we all need some R & R away from the familiar sights and sounds and chores and dogs from time to time. I’d say twice a year is my minimum, but for some reason, the corporate world consistently fails to heed my pronouncements. On the other hand, I am writing this in the garden of a 19th Century Italian villa looking out over the Ionian Sea as turtles and Japanese goldfish swim in the fountain to my right and date palms, banana trees and all manner of cacti shade the wife and me from the Autumn sunlight, so maybe I can bend reality to my will just a little. But that’s enough gloating, I won’t mention the arbor, the secluded island beaches, and certainly not the dolci. Just reading about cassata and granita expands the waistline, so I’ll save you the calories.

A return to our narrative. The small powder-blue hotel where we slept for four nights is on the northeastern corner of Ortigia, a little island covered in several millennia of crumbling architecture and narrow winding streets. Its location made an early and painless escape from Ortigia possible; walking the length of the island along its constantly battered seawall may only take 15 minutes, but try navigating the maze of baroque shops and houses in a farcically large rented Passat and you’ll understand the potential interminability of auto travel. In Ortigia, the locals still outnumber the vacationers (in October, at least) so the decision to leave for chic Taormina felt like a potential misstep.

There’s something latently optimistic about Ortigia – for one thing, I think every man, woman and child of the island, and probably a wide swath of the population of greater Siracusa, could be gainfully employed as masons in the innumerable restoration projects that are seemingly saving and returning to their original splendor a large number of local structures. And the ruins of buildings that would merit future attentions of this mason army are thick on the ground – several per street in my estimation. It is on the rise. And while these changes certainly court tourism and therefore you could argue that the employment of construction teams throughout Siracusa is fundamentally part of the tourist economy, it’s a far cry from renting paddleboats or selling gelato to hungry Germans along the via centrale. You still don’t have to strain to see ancient Ortigia. It hasn’t been passed through the sterile filter that turns these rugged and wild places into ubiquitous holiday destinations well-suited to servicing thousands of visitors annually in search of a place to put up their beach umbrella, a thoroughly modern toilet, a Tex-Mex bar serving frozen margaritas. It’s real enough to keep my skin from crawling and it shares the irrepressible natural beauty common along much of Sicily’s Eastern coast.

Sometimes I think we keep dogs because otherwise we’d never return from our holidays. I had that feeling beginning at noon on October 15th, 2005. From Siracusa, we drove north and slightly west, and after an hour we shed the suburban industrial sprawl of Catania and entered a region dominated by volcanic Etna, of black earth and precariously situated mountain villages. We stopped in Bronte for an espresso and to pick up a kilo of pistachios, for Bronte is the pistachio capital of Eastern Sicily and because one should never purchase less than a kilo of pistachios at a time, as it is the greatest of all nuts. I also like cashews and almonds, but if pistachios came deshelled, I’d weigh 300 pounds. Other than the nuts, Bronte is a normal small town blessed with extraordinary views of the surrounding valleys that decline precipitously from a ridge that forms its main street. While pistachios are a nice snack, not long down the road, lunch was required. We drove the Passat down an empty gravel road lined with porous volcanic stone walls hiding orchards and meadows. Sicily is rich in rocks. They build stone walls and buildings everywhere, and yet the earth keeps spitting them up. Every field is strewn with rocks of softball size or larger in this part of the island. It must make agricultural labor really fun.

After a buffet of local cheeses and meats (we generally travel laden with charcuterie – next voyage I may have to abandon the use of socks and undershirts so our trunk can fit more speck and asiago vecchio), I spied a very local-looking man whom my belly suggested might know the way to the closest wine cooperative or (better yet) local wine grower. He gave us vague directions which later in the day led us to vino, but better still he gave us walnuts, grapes and a guided tour of his little hidden garden plot, complete with ancient Italian wife pruning vines. It was as close to Sicily as I will ever be. As we plucked bunches of grapes and communicated in broken Italian, he seemed genuinely happy to entertain us, particularly when Megan mentioned we were from America. We had to go deep into the rural core of Sicily, but we’d found someone whose gut reaction to Americans wasn’t ambivalence or antipathy, but enthusiasm. At that moment, I wanted my country to be better, to return to an era when Americans abroad were not tempted to pretend they are Canadian. But let’s leave politics, as the feeling I’m trying to relate is not one of polemical anger or ideological fervor, but of sadness. This old Sicilian, in his traditional blue cap, suit jacket and vest, with one tooth and an overgrown plot of vines and trees the size of my front yard sunk into the hills surrounding Etna, was providing a simple lesson into the innately positive quality of human nature. I left happy, and the walnuts were delicious. He could have pruned the grapes more, but the farmer admitted that his vines didn’t have the sun exposure for wine grapes anyway. Across the street, his neighbor’s more favorably situated vineyards were dotted with ripe black nero d’avola cluster, strewn along gnarly old vines. We drove away to the north, in search of scenery and vino locale.

Parking is always a challenge in Sicily, even in the middle of nowhere north of Etna. The narrow cobbled streets and swarming Vespas that make parallel parking a joy in coastal towns are replaced by winding mountain roads lined with the aforementioned ubiquitous stone walls, creating miles and miles of blind-curve parking fun. We were getting desperate, as finding a way to stop near one of the many hand-scrawled “vendesi vino” signs without meeting our maker on the grill of an 18-wheeler barreling down the volcano was proving a challenge. We were near the “wine town” of Randuzzo, a no-horse cluster of simple volcanic stone houses surrounded by charming terraced fields full of vines with golden and amber foliage and white cows nonchalantly grazing and staring at us. As siesta, and the subsequent four hours of no commerce were quickly approaching, we circled back toward a very dour cluster of buildings that had both the semblance of a driveway and a large metal sign announcing vinous ambitions. Sadly, the driveway was courtesy of a small mining operation with which the property shared a border, but I wasn’t deterred by this wrinkle in the pastoral curtain. The vines that rolled out below the road to the valley floor surely belonged to this address, and let’s face it, we were short on options. Megan rang the bell affixed to the rusting gate and for a moment we waited. Shortly, a provincial-looking teenage girl wearing shopworn and dingy clothes and green Wellington boots hobbled around the foliage and abandoned wine barrels and cautiously encouraged us to duck under the gate. She seemed surprised that we were interested in buying wine, but after a moment of hesitation, affirmed it was possible, and led us down a flight of dark cement steps toward blackness, from which the typical sickly-sweet aroma of fermenting grape must was waiting. It was very dark. Megan later admitted to a moment of fear. Curing salamis hung from the wooden roof beams and stacks of bottles covered in mold were piled on the floor. I love old world cellars like this – icy cold, humid, little light, the only adornment a huge ancient wood fermentor and 8 large old oak casks which contained the winery’s 2004 vintage. We tasted both the bianco and rosso from cask, and they were perfect. Absolutely what this small, unwittingly traditional family winery clinging to the northern edge of dangerous Etna (there were serious lava flows as recently as 2003) should make. I’d give 100 points in the category of Etna vino locale, if points could in any way meaningfully describe this place and these wines. For the second time in one day, we had stumbled into the real Sicily. Dumb luck. Our mostly mute guide offered up some of their fresh, fatty salami as an accompaniment. She was a cousin of the family, left to play shopgirl as everyone attached to the winery was busy preparing to begin the 2005 harvest the next day. They would have several days of warmth and sun, so I’d like to imagine the black grapes hanging in their fields yielded more tasty wines.

The 2004 rosso was perfect for that tasting environment – it had aromas of red fruit, particularly cherries, was relatively light in texture, very exuberant, refreshing at cellar temperature, and it hadn’t shed all its CO2 yet, so from cask there was a slight fizz that rapidly dissipated. It wasn’t monumental or multifaceted, and certainly wouldn’t win many converts abroad. Delicious as it was, I don’t know if my store could sell it. That would not have stopped me trying. What did stop me was a linguistic rift that Megan’s decent Italian could not span, and the absence of all the winery’s key players. As we stood drinking the rich, earthy soft Etna bianco, our cellar guide quipped, “You need to learn more Italian, I need to learn more about this winery.” Ah, the frustration. As it stands, getting these country people’s wines through all of the import/export hurdles would probably have been a barrel full of headaches. They were still struggling with a front label for the bottled version of their wines. I’d hate to imagine the uphill battle of getting the FDA/BATF-approved back labels slapped on these 2 euro gems. As our host seemed increasingly embarrassed and frustrated at being unable to answer any of my probing wine-nerd queries, I omitted mentioning that moments earlier I had been interested in purchasing barrels, not bottles of their product. I was bummed out for the hour after we left – I’d found something real, so real that I couldn’t buy all of it to take home with me. I’m sure they have no trouble selling the miniscule production, so other than handing over a big chunk of change all at once, I’d be more trouble for them than I’m worth. It was hard enough convincing our tasting companion that we really wanted six bottles instead of the extremely affordable 5-liter plastic jug. I really did want that jug, but with less than a week and several destinations still on the agenda for the trip, I doubted our ability to finish the large container. And I knew we’d try, which could lead to our doing very little else. So we waved goodbye, laden with enough label-less bottles to keep our luggage clinking all the way back to N.C.

The afternoon’s drive was winding, pretty and uneventful. We arrived in Taormina in time to watch the sunset over the bay of Naxos from the balcony of our comfortable villa. Taormina is such an obvious place to become a tourist hotbed, and because of its multiple charms (Greek ruins, Saracen castles, a charming town center dotted with restaurants, fun bars and all the Dolce & Gabbana-stuffed shops you can shake a stick at, not to mention the absolutely breathtaking views of the shimmering, turquoise Ionian Sea) it is surprise! overrun with tourists. But it always has been. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton used to drink here, along with Tennessee Williams. The pretty central gardens were built for a mistress of King Edward VII; she lived on an island in the bay now owned by the World Wildlife Fund. She bought the island for 5,000 lire, less than our accommodations cost per night. The good old days. Taormina is a great place to put your brain in neutral, stroll around, eat seafood, recharge. So we did.