Julius Caesar wanted to build a bridge linking Sicily to the Italian mainland. Two thousand years later, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi intends to make that wish come true.
Robert Camuto hopes he doesn't. The travel writer spent more than a year touring Sicily's historic vineyards, markets, and kitchens while researching his new book Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey. Sicily's separateness makes it "a dramatic, magical place," said Camuto, whose 2008 book Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country won two prestigious wine-writing awards, the Prix du Clos de Vougeot and the Prix Jean Carmet.
"I love Italy, but have watched in recent years as much of Italy has lost a bit of its soul and traditions," Camuto said. "This hasn't happened yet in Sicily. ... In much of the south of France — as well as Italy — traditions are being buried by modern life and supermarkets and convenience.
"In Sicily, change has been slow, and I find that people still live life as it should be lived: with a pace and an appreciation that comes from the heart," continued Camuto, whose reading at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Thursday, March 24, will be followed immediately by a Sicilian-wine tasting at Oliveto (5655 College Ave., Oakland), where wines will be available for purchase by the glass.
"Talk about Eat, Pray, Love: To me, in Sicily, they all happen at once, like the time I ate just-made ricotta in the middle of a snowstorm on Mt. Etna," Camuto said. "I will never forget the moment because there was something nourishing at all levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual."
From a glass of ruby-red Fontanelle that smelled faintly of anchovies to a UC Berkeley graduate making organic red wines on Mt. Etna to the latest chapter in "the long and tragic story of Marsala," Palmento is a loving testament to a land and livelihood that are at once rugged and fragile. "Sicily is unique in the sheer diversity of its wine terroirs and indigenous grapes," Camuto explained. "The best wines don't taste at all like what you expect from southern wines: They are long and elegant and not at all heavy. ... In terms of winemaking techniques, you can find everything from traditional palmenti" — the old stone winemaking huts for which this book is named — "to small artisanal producers to large state-of-the art wineries. Around Vittoria, COS is Italy's number-one producer, making wines in clay amphorae as the ancient Greeks and Romans did."
A New York-born second-generation Italian-American with Sicilian ancestral roots, Camuto moved in 1979 to San Francisco, where he became a pop-culture journalist, covering the new-wave and punk scenes. Those days spent interviewing the likes of Charles Bukowski and Deborah Harry were more hectic but no less intriguing than his months on windswept Sicilian shores and slopes, which have "no gift shops with T-shirts and ball caps and souvenir wine glasses — not yet, anyway."