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THE ORIGINS OF SICILIAN WINE AND CULTURE
The culture of wine in Sicily is both ancient and modern. There is evidence of vine training and wine production from the earliest settlements of the Phoenicians on Sicily's west coast and the Greeks on Sicily's east coast from the eighth century B.C. In the long parade of foreign powers and people who have invaded and settled Sicily, it was the Greeks who brought an established culture of wine to this island. For the Greek settlers from mainland Greece and its islands, Sicily was the fertile and wild frontier on the western edge of their Mediterranean world. The gods and heroes of Greek mythology also ventured to Sicily. Upon sailing to Sicily, the protagonist-hero of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus, together with his crew of men, approached the mighty Mount Etna and the untamed land of the Cyclops with more than a little trepidation. The Cyclops are the giant one-eyed creatures who in ancient mythology dwelled on Mount Etna (and who were reputed to eat wayward explorers). Homer gives us the following account of this forbidding race:
At last our ships approached the Cyclops' coast.
That race is arrogant: they have no laws;
and trusting in the never-dying gods,
their hands plant nothing and they ply no plows.
The Cyclops do not need to sow their seeds;
for them all things, untouched, spring up: from wheat
to barley and to vines that yield fine wine.
The rain Zeus sends attends to all their crops.
Nor do they meet in council, those Cyclops,
nor hand down laws; they live on mountaintops,
in deep caves; each one rules his wife and children,
and every family ignores its neighbors.
From these twelve lines, probably written around the time of the earliest Greek settlements in eastern Sicily, Homer tells us much about the image and reputation of Sicily among his fellow Greeks since Odysseus's mythical time during the Mycenaean Age, between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries B.C. He describes the island as a lawless but wildly fertile place. The natives are beasts who lack any farming skills or tools. The Sicilians, according to Homer, lack culture (i.e., the essential skills to cultivate soil). And yet the wheat, the barley, and the "vines that yield fine wine" thrive all the same. We also learn that the indigenous people are an insular patriarchal tribe who ignore even their own neighbors. Homer then adds that such creatures are neither explorers nor artisans but inhabit a generous land which a little industry could make an island of plenty.
The Cyclops have no ships with crimson bows,
no shipwrights who might fashion sturdy hulls
that answer to the call, that sail across
to other peoples' towns that men might want
to visit. And such artisans might well
have built a proper place for men to settle.
In fact, the land's not poor; it could yield fruit
in season; soft, well-watered meadows lie
along the gray sea's shores; unfailing vines
could flourish; it has level land for plowing,
and every season would provide fat harvests
because the undersoil is black indeed.
What is so striking about this description is how little the outsider's image of Sicily and Sicilians has changed in the intervening 2,700 years. Many of the cultural shortcomings and natural qualities that Homer chronicles are writ large throughout much of Sicily's history, for reasons that this chapter will explore. That may make Homer as much an epic prophet as an epic poet. The history and culture of Sicily, however, are far richer and more complex than any literary representation of them. Sicily has been defined and dominated by outsiders since its earliest time. Odysseus and his fellow Greeks were among the first. They would be followed in turn by Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish, Austrians, and Northern Italians. Sicily's fertile land, sun-filled climate, and strategic position in the Mediterranean made the island enticing plunder for the pillaging forces of these various outside powers. And yet the Sicilians themselves have played a central role in their land's history of glory, subjugation, violence, and unrealized promise. In the thirteenth-century world map known as the Ebstorf Mappamundi (which was the largest on record prior to its destruction by Allied bombing over Hanover, Germany, in World War II), the island of Sicily was portrayed as a plump heart-shaped apple or pomegranate smack in the center of the area between Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Sebastian Münster's sixteenth-century book of world geography, known as the Cosmographia, depicts Sicily as the cross-bejeweled orb (the symbol of Christian temporal power) in the right hand of the "Queen Europe" map. But by the end of the twentieth century, Sicily would sadly have no place in the popular cultural landscape beyond Corleone, the Mafia town made famous by The Godfather. For the modern wine lover, however, the search for Sicilian terroir demands an understanding of place beyond the conventional historical and cultural narratives.
GREEK ROOTS AND SHOOTS
Before the Greeks and the Phoenicians reached the shores of Sicily, there were at least two groups of "indigenous" peoples, the Sicans on the western side and the Sicels on the eastern side. The Sicans are thought to have come from the Iberian Peninsula and the Sicels from Calabria (the toe of Italy). There were also settlements in northwestern Sicily near modern-day Erice, Segesta, and Contessa Entellina of a people called the Elymians, believed to have migrated from ancient Troy (in modern-day Turkey). While documented archaeological evidence does not substantiate that these early settlers trained vines or made wine, there is botanical evidence of wild grapes during this prehistoric period. There is also speculation that the Mycenaean Greeks, who had an established culture of wine by the thirteenth century B.C., introduced wine and other luxury products to Sicily well before the earliest Greek colonies settled there in the eighth century B.C.
In an oft-quoted passage in the same book of the Odyssey that introduces us to the Cyclops, Homer offers a critique of the quality of Sicilian wine in comparison with the strong, full-bodied Maronean wine from the southern Balkan region (known as Thrace in his time) that Odysseus carried on board his ship. After Odysseus offers a taste of his wine to the Cyclops named Polyphemus, the native beast declares:
Surely the earth, giver of grain, provides
the Cyclops with fine wine, and rain from Zeus
does swell our clustered vines. But this is better—
a wine as fragrant as ambrosia and nectar.
According to Homer, a natural Sicilian wine made from wild grapes was no match for Greece's finest wines. To the modern reader, this might sound like the chauvinism of a connoisseur of Old World wines assessing the wines of the New World. However, it is well established that the Greek colonists brought their cultivated knowledge of vine training and winemaking to southern Italy and Sicily beginning with their earliest settlements. It is also believed that the Greeks brought distinct vine varieties from the Aegean to Sicily. Homer describes the vineyard of Odysseus's father, King Laertes, on the Greek island of Ithaca as having "some fifty rows of vines, each bearing different grapes—so many kinds—that ripened, each in turn and in its time." As a testament to the influence of the Greek settlers on Italian viticulture, the ancient Greeks referred to southern Italy and Sicily as Oenotria ("The Land of Trained Vines"). In the wooded hills above the town of Sambuca in southwestern Sicily, a young winegrower by the name of Davide Di Prima brought us to a clearing in a forest on a high plateau to see a stone pigiatoia ("outdoor winepress") from the fifth century B.C. These ruins are believed to be a place where a Sican settlement crushed and vinified grapes. While the age of this site does not predate Phoenician or Greek settlement on the island, it does point to an indigenous culture of wine that coexisted with such settlements.
Greek settlers in Sicily brought other vital elements of their wine culture to their new home. Archaeologists have discovered that the earliest Greek settlers traded ceramic wine wares with the Sicel native population in the coastal areas of eastern Sicily, including amphorae, large bowls, and other wine-drinking vessels. Archaeologists discovered a small pouring vessel from the fifth century B.C. called an askos near the central Sicilian town of Enna. It is inscribed with the word vino, among the earliest documented uses of this word prior to its introduction into the Latin language. One object that has not been identified in Sicel archaeological sites is the krater, or mixing bowl, which Greeks used to mix their wine with water in varying proportions depending on the occasion. This leaves open the question of whether the Sicels (like the Cyclops) drank their wine undiluted. Regardless, the evidence of this trading pattern demonstrates an immediate interest by the local Sicels in the consumption and culture of wine. Anthropologists call this process acculturation. This acculturation would have necessarily involved other elements of the Greek wine culture, such as the ritual of the symposium (which literally means "drinking together" in Greek). The Greek symposium was an extended after-dinner wine-drinking celebration (men only) that often involved the recitation of poetry, the playing of music, dancing, and other earthly pleasures. Archaeologists theorize that wealthier Sicels adopted certain elements of the symposium into their own cultural traditions. With the eventual intermarriage of the Greek colonists and the native Sicels, the assimilated Greek Sicilians added a new activity to their wine parties: the drinking game of kottabos. Kottabos was played toward the end of the party, when celebrants had emptied their cups and spirits ran high. The aim of the game was for each player to fling the remaining wine drops and sediment in his cup toward a suspended disc or other target to bring it crashing to the ground. The game became associated with Sicily, and its popularity spread to Greece as a fashionable staple of the Athenian symposium.
Beginning in the sixth century B.C., Greek Sicilian poets, playwrights, and philosophers were honored in the classical Greek world. The stature of such cultural figures in Greece suggests that literary exchanges were an integral part of the Greek Sicilian symposium. The Greek word symposium also refers to a category of literature regarding food and wine. Epicharmus, the Sicilian playwright and philosopher from the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C. (who was also a student of Pythagoras), is considered the father of the Greek comic play. The Greek word for comedy derives from comus, "wine lees," and literally translates as "lees song." In ancient Greece, drunken, rowdy processions in honor of the Greek god of wine, Dionysos, accompanied the harvest festivals. Epicharmus was the first playwright to introduce the drunkard as a stock comic character. The remaining fragments of his plays are also replete with references to the culinary delights of his fellow Greek Sicilians in the city of Syracuse. Epicharmus preached moderation and perhaps was using the vehicle of comedy to caution his fellow Greek Sicilians on the pitfalls of excess wine and food consumption. One of the many moral maxims attributed to him exhorts: "Be sober in thought! Be slow in belief! These are the sinews of wisdom."
The Sicilian-born poet Theocritus, who is credited with creating the genre of bucolic poetry in the third century B.C., celebrated the beauty of the Sicilian countryside and the joy of country life. In one of his idylls, Polyphemus (the milk-guzzling Cyclops of Homer's Odyssey) is a fellow Sicilian countryman who sings a love poem about the natural glory of Mount Etna, including the "sweet-fruited vine." From Theocritus we learn that Greek Sicilians even savored aged wine. In the idyll called "The Harvest Home" the poet refers to a four-year-old vintage opened for a harvest feast.
Darted golden bees; all things smelt richly of Summer,
Richly of Autumn; pears and apples in bountiful plenty
Rolled at our feet and sides, and down on the meadow around us
Plum-trees bent their trailing boughs thick-laden with damsons.
Then from the wine-jar's mouth was a four-year-old seal loosened.
Sicily by this time was widely regarded as the gastronomic epicenter of the classical Mediterranean world. Sicilian chefs were renowned in ancient Greece as the Ferran Adriàs and Thomas Kellers of their day. Sicilian raw ingredients, including cheese and tuna, were also prized as luxuries on the Greek table. Archestratus, a Greek Sicilian of the fourth century B.C., wrote a detailed poem titled "Gastronomy," "Art of Cooking," or "Life of Luxury" depending on the translation. In it, he describes and ranks the food and wine of the entire Mediterranean basin. Like Theocritus, he confirms that "gray-haired" wine is for special occasions. Like our modern wine journalists, he also assesses the relative merits of wines from various places. In one passage, the author compares the wines from the Greek island of Lesbos with the Bibline wine from Phoenicia, concluding that the Bibline wine is more aromatic than the Lesbian wine but inferior on the palate. Archestratus boasts that unlike other writers of his day, who just "like to praise what they have in their own land," he is able to critique wines from everywhere.
In chronicling the distinctions among various wines and foods throughout the Mediterranean, the poetic works of Archestratus and the Greek Sicilian Philoxenus provide ample evidence that Sicilians by the fifth century B.C. understood and appreciated the concept of place and its impact on flavor and quality. What was essential to this understanding and appreciation was the flow of people and goods between the Greek settlements in Sicily and the Greek mother cities (metropolises). Sicilian athletes regularly went to Greece to compete in the Olympics, and Sicilian cooks traveled through Greece as celebrity chefs on tour. In this same period the Greek city now known as Agrigento, on the southern coast of Sicily, built its magnificent temples with the wealth derived in no small measure from the exporting of wine and olive oil to North Africa. In time, merchants from other Sicilian city-states also entered the export wine trade and began to compete successfully with Greek wine merchants throughout the Mediterranean and as far north as Gaul in modern-day France. In the third century B.C. the ruling tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero II, commissioned the construction of a massive "garden ship" named The Syracusan. The top deck was carpeted with flower beds and an arbor of ivy and vines. Capable of carrying more than three thousand tons of crops and other cargo, the ship was renowned for both its opulence and its tonnage. Like Agrigento, the celebrated city-state Syracuse built its wealth on the production and export of abundant grain, olives, and wine. Hiero II himself controlled vast agricultural holdings and even wrote a handbook on agronomy. Both the poets and the merchants of the classical Greek world recognized the quality of Sicilian wine and food. The era of Sicily as a wine-producing and wine-exporting region had arrived.
ROMAN BREAD AND WINE
By the beginning of the second century B.C., Sicily was firmly under the control of Rome and would be relegated to serving as the granary of the Roman Empire for almost six hundred years. The fertility of Sicily, which had made it the land of plenty for Greek settlers and their vines beginning in the eighth century B.C., also made it the bread basket for the Romans and the succeeding foreign powers that came to control and exploit the island. In the mythology of ancient Rome, Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and grain, made her home in Sicily and as the creator of the art of husbandry was considered the first giver of laws to mankind. Unlike the cultivation of wine grapes and olives, which required intensive skill-based farming and harvesting, the growing of grain was more efficiently accomplished on large expanses of land. These vast farms, known as latifundia, were managed by wealthy absentee landowners (both Roman and Sicilian) and worked by local or imported unskilled slave or peasant labor. Following the end of the Roman era many of these latifundia were in the hands of the Catholic Church and increasingly a growing class of landed "nobility." During Roman rule the absentee landowner, as would be the case with ecclesiastical and noble landowners in subsequent epochs, would lease out significant holdings of land to an intermediate "tenant-in-chief," who in turn would wield enormous control over the peasant tenant farmers who worked the land. This pattern would ultimately become the foundation for the feudal economy that suffocated Sicily into the nineteenth century.
Excerpted from The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto, Frances Di Savino. Copyright © 2013 William R. Nesto and Frances Di Savino. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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