30 September 2010

Italy's Last Stand

A friendly sales person gave me a pre-publication copy of “Palmento, A Sicilian Wine Odyssey” by Robert Camuto, knowing I roll over for anything Italian.

Taking careful note of new vocabulary, following the author’s travels on a map of Sicily, I joined the journey. Caution: If you’ve read one too many Words on Books on Italy, stop here.

OK. Now that we are alone:

“Palmento” is not only an account of wineries visited and wines tasted. It’s also a tale of people, the widely various individuals the author encountered on that storied island.

At table with a winemaking family Camuto says, “I noticed that Rosa Aura was studying me. There was discussion in Italian about me – who was I and where was I from? After all, I lived in France, claimed to be American, and had a Sicilian name? I explained, in Italian, that I was born on Sicily’s westernmost island.

“‘Pantelleria?’ Bruno said.

“No. Manhattan.”

The wine story Camuto tells begins in ancient centuries with Greek and Phoenician settlers. It moves forward through Roman times, years under Arab rule (they grew grapes, too), feudal times, and modern Italy. In recent centuries young Sicilians often left their island for better lives elsewhere. Vines withered, farms decayed, and few locals prospered. It has only been in the past 25 years or so that abandoned ‘palmenti’ or old-fashioned hand-press wineries, have been restored by people ambitious to make something new and wonderful from the high volcanic soils of Mt. Etna and the grape growing weather found almost everywhere in Sicily.

Camuto’s adventures take him through places such as Palermo and Corleone where he encounters stories of the Mafia and those courageous souls who resist the Mafia.

Camuto meets Sicilians whose ancestors worked the land; others he meets arrived more recently. He encounters biodynamic and natural growers, others who insist on solely native grapes and yeasts. A number of winemakers import refrigeration, stainless steel tanks and additives in search of an internationally palatable result. No matter the philosophy, some wines are great, some not so much, as it is in all wine regions. The scene is evolving quickly.

Not all these Sicilian winemakers are male. In the chapter Due Donne, or Two Women, and in fact throughout the book Camuto meets interesting, independent women. Some have degrees or mainland experience in winemaking. One works the vines and creates the wines; another directs an enterprise. Each succeeds despite prejudice and resistance. Each in her own way is amazing.

“I didn’t do it for the money. I’m not making money,” (one) says. “I did it because I loved the land... it was the land speaking.”

Arianna Occhipinti, 26, who farms a contrada called Fossa del Lupo (Wolf’s Ditch) does not struggle with the media, the market, or faraway customers, Camuto notes. “Her difficulties have been with farmers in her neighborhood.”

One of her workers “said to (her) in a Sicilian dialect, ‘Listen, my son went north to work and he is a man. And you who are female, what do you want to do, stay here and work in the countryside of Sicily? Go north and you will have some hope!’”

Arianna stayed, with her family. She grows solid grapes and good wines, and her Sicily is changing once again.

So much for the wine. Then, there’s the food... Oops, no more time. Read this book! “Palmento, A Sicilian Wine Odyssey” by Robert Camuto.


“Palmento, A Sicilian Wine Odyssey” by Robert V. Camuto. University of Nebraska Press hard cover $24.95. ISBN 9780803228139. Published September, 2010.

The highly tasty and “official” book trailer for “Palmento” is on YouTube:  Camuto reads from his book at a book signing.

Camuto writes, "Yet it seemed to be only a matteer of time before -- like much of the rest of Italy -- it would lose something. I thought of the bridge that would connect Sicily to the Italian boot and the continent and an endless supply of fashion outlets, fast food, and doubt.

"Sicily, I thought, is Italy's last stand. In Sicily's heart, I thought, she must know this."

1 comment:

Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

I hadn't heard of this; thanks for sharing!

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