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Book Review: Palmento by Robert Camuto

About a month ago, newly immersed in this thing we now call self-isolation, the internets brought me a ray of sunshine. Or at least something that brought a smile to my lips and sent me down the grimy cobblestone streets of nostalgia.

“Sicily will pay half your airfare and a quarter of your hotel costs after this is all over,” read the headline. Now there’s an offer you can’t refuse, my friends. In order to help its tourism-driven economy recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sicily will be reimbursing tourists for large portions of their airfare and hotel costs if they come visit once Sicily re-opens.

When I read this news, I closed my eyes and remembered my first night in Sicily. I was barreling my way down the SS192 in the dark, my life in the hands of a typical Italian driver, craning my neck to watch an orange glow through the dirty windshield: lava spewing out of Mount Etna against the dark mountain silhouetted by the night sky. The exhausting car ride was followed by a dinner at a little hotel restaurant in which I was the sole diner. The pasta literally made me cry. I woke up to the sound of massive explosions, a quarter inch of ashfall on the car, and then (oh, heaven) a day spend tasting Nerello Mascalese. I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered. I must return.

All of which was why, when Sicily came knocking in my inbox last month, there was only one thing to do during quarantine: re-read Robert Camuto’s Palmento.

In the tradition of Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route or Sergio Esposito’s Passion on the Vine, Palmento is an aptly subtitled “Sicilian Wine Odyssey” through which Camuto charts a year in the island’s existence, bouncing between visits with winemakers, extended lunches, and harrowing night-time drives that should have prepared me for my own experiences, but somehow failed to capture the proper level of terror.

Camuto, like Lynch, has a storyteller’s gift for the little details that enrich and enliven a narrative, giving it warp and weft and making of it more than a simple recounting of events. Yet, for all his clear romantic infatuation with Sicily, Camuto brings a journalist’s keen sense of skepticism to his work. Neither over-awed by the trappings of the great wine families of the island, nor misty-eyed about the crusty old winemakers working their tiny vineyard plots, Camuto digs beneath the surface of everything in what feels like an attempt to grasp the essence of the place.

On a trip to Sicily years earlier, I’d sensed that I had landed on terra santa. It is a feeling that has only grown as I’ve come to know the island: from the anarchic street markets of old Palermo, to the morning stillness of the vineyards and lava flows of Mount Etna, to the vast grain-covered hinterlands that turn from vibrant Scottish green in spring to a nearly colorless brown under a scorching summer sun. Despite the legacies of corruption, emigration, violence and efforts to obliterate its patrimony or scar its nature, something sacred persists here: a natural, familial way of life tied to the farmlands, the forests, and seas of what Sicilians call their “continent.”

From the Introduction to Palmento: A sicilian Wine Odyssey

Divided into four parts corresponding to the four seasons, Camuto’s narrative begins with the kind of meal that marked my own initiation into the magic of Sicily, albeit with about 5 more courses than I was able to stomach. It then wanders through visits with winemakers great and small, exploring the depths of artisanship as well as aristocracy.

Camuto pulls on any number of threads as he seeks to understand what makes Sicily so unique, scrutinizing the history and influence of the Mafia and unpacking the deep connections that all Sicilians seem to have with Il Gattopardo, the 1958 novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa that is the best selling work of fiction in Italian history.

Palmento, I remembered before picking it up a second time, has this odd quality of being a wine book that somehow leaves the reader with much less of an impression of Sicily’s wines as it does a fascination with the island’s food, culture, people, and landscape. Certainly the book contains its share of wonderful passages about wine, like this one, in which Camuto begins to understand the peculiarities of Passito di Pantelleria, a sweet wine made in an ancient style from Muscat grapes dried on mats in the sun.

I was beginning to see that passito is, as the name suggests, all about the passage of time: the lateness of the harvest, the weeks the grapes spent baking in the sun, and its years of aging. Unlike most wines that absorbed time haltingly and unevenly, passito seemed time’s perfect reflection. If you knew it well enough, I figured, you could set your watch to it.

Palmento: Chapter 11: Child of the wind

Yet for every memorable detail about the wine, there are four more fascinating observations of the familial dynamics across generations of Sicilian wine royalty; cinema-like encounters with hitchhiking priests in an unseasonable snowstorm; and oh yes, meals — meals that linger long after the book has been put down, surfacing unlooked-for in the middle of the afternoon and prompting fantasies of either being adopted by a Sicilian family or simply just being held captive by one.

It seems to me that there are really two kinds of wine books in the world. Those from which you learn, and those in which you bathe, soaking up the passion and inspiration that make the world of wine so endlessly fascinating and utterly rewarding. There are plenty of the former, and precious few of the latter, but Palmento surely belongs among those few worth submerging in fully.

Though be warned. With half-off airfares promised on the horizon, you may want to do way more than just read it.

Robert V. Camuto Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey University of Nebraska Press 2011, $15.51 (Paperback). Buy from Amazon.