Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey
by Robert V. Camuto
University of Nebraska Press, September 2010
Hardcover 250 pp., ISBN 978-0803228139
(paper release expected March 2012)
I must admit to hesitating a little before I cracked Robert V. Camuto’s latest, Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey. It had nothing to do with the author. Camuto is a fine writer with a strong trail of flavorful projects—his inspired Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country will humble any Sideways-ascribing American pinot lover, as will his contributions to Wine Spectator and The Washington Post. And the man is no critic, getting his hands dirty (literally) by crafting his own wines in France with his family. No, Camuto loves, respects, and pours over his passion for wine. Mine were personal hang-ups. I am a bourbon man and, as such, my natural tendency is to find wine (and wine writing) a bit...dry. Fortunately, Camuto’s writing is far from that, and he lends his robust talents to this imbibed travelogue, a blend of detailed studies on wine and the people of Sicily who live it.
Camuto spent a year in the largest island of the Mediterranean, immersing himself in a culture that, of it’s own account, is multi-faceted and a bit conflicted. “In Sicily, life’s little laws and sense of order—let’s call them “constraints”—tend to have a need not to be broken so much as simply ignored,” he writes upon arriving. Soon, he is ignoring speeding laws and gastrointestinal codes of conduct by whizzing through the port town of Scoglitti and stuffing himself on raw seafood at Sakalleo, a restaurant where he’s chastised by Pasquale Ferrara, the dapper and enigmatic owner, for tapping out before the second pasta dish. This is precisely what the author is after—intimate, delicious moments, which serve as an indoctrination into a true Sicilian wine adventure.
After a short night’s sleep, Camuto is off exploring the island, staying in homes and rustic vineyards, choosing to shadow eccentric winemakers such as Titta Cilia, Giusto Occhipini, and Pinuccia Strano, whose Cos winery (the name derives from an acronym of the three boisterous co-owners) is working to restore Vittoria winemaking to peaks not seen since the nineteenth century. They adopt the wine-making practices of the ancients by shunning chemicals for natural pesticide practices, paving the way for new “old” styles of fermentation by abandoning oak castes in favor of clay amphorae pots to store and age their wine.
Camuto struggles with the wine, and instead of trying to pin down a signature vino that would adequately represent Sicily, turns his attention to the local wine presses (or, you guessed it, palmentos) of the island. In the process he encounters a cavalcade of eccentric winemakers whose conflicting ideas and philosophies complicate this search for the “truest” of Sicilian wines. Camuto does a spirited job of swirling these beliefs together, allowing the voices of different vineyards to resonate and respond to one another. We are introduced to the strong and determined Frank Cornelissen, a displaced European who scales the dark soil of Etna to harvest a more authentic grape for his “island within an island” biodynamic wines. Camuto sheds light on the capriciousness of the headstrong, sports car-driving Marco De Bartoli, a King Lear-esque paterfamilias whose vineyard of quality marsala wines has been stifled by Sicily’s ever-changing distribution laws and mafia-influenced bureaucracy. All these lives converge like varied grapes blended into a delicate vintage, all like-minded individuals married to a complex quest for the most perfect, if contested, national product of an island struggling to find footing and identity in the twenty-first century.
The more he travels, the more Camuto concedes that the heart of Sicily, and the wines therein, are beating to conflicting drums of modernity and traditionalism, and that both equally impact the people who live to produce these small-volume vineyards. “I had come to Sicily to explore its wines,” he writes, “but ended up discovering many other things...the way each generation cultivates the land and reaches out across time. The simple act of trimming a vine not only changes the life of the plant but also leaves an imprint for future generations.” There is no defeat in this admission. Not content to settle for “wine as platform for travel-memoir,” Camuto turns the soil, turning the book into a robust and full rumination on the people who pour their lives into their work. Camuto shows that a wine, and by proxy an island, are only as good or as interesting as the people who make it. From the peaks of Mount Etna, to the mafia-scarred Corrleone, he brings us along, sampling and celebrating the products and people of Sicily—letting us savor the purity of his palate and the honesty of his words among the ancient vines of the Mediterranean.
Va bene, indeed.July 14, 2011