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robert camuto: letter from europe

A Well-Dressed Sicilian

The stylish cult wine producer behind Palari brings his Nerello experience to Mount Etna
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Salvatore Geraci of Palari in his new vineyard on Mount Etna

Posted: Feb 27, 2017 12:00pm ET

Salvatore Geraci is one of the world’s most well-tailored winemakers.

With his soft-shouldered suits from Naples and handmade shoes and shirts from London, the 60-year-old architect and wine producer is also one of Sicily’s most colorful characters.

“Coco Chanel said, ‘Fashion fades. Style endures,’” says Geraci in his new “garage-wine” vineyard in Passopisciaro, on Mount Etna’s north face. “I want to make wines of style.”

It is a compelling scene: Geraci waxing about style, smartly attired as a country gentleman in an old double-breasted blazer, while in the middle of dilapidated vineyards on Etna’s rustically terraced volcanic slopes.

But it makes sense. Just as Geraci’s career in architecture has been based on restoring old neglected buildings, his career in wine is all about stylish wines from old neglected terroirs and vineyards.

“I like things that are a bit fané,” he says, using the French word for “faded.”

As owner of the Messina-area cult winery Palari, Geraci helped revive northeastern Sicily’s tiny historic Faro appellation, where winegrowing had nearly become extinct. Since the 1990 vintage, he has made Palari Faro with a blend of local grapes, including Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Nocera.

Then in 2014, in his 25th vintage in Faro, Geraci bought 10 acres of organic vineyards on Etna from Sicilian folksinger Pippo Barrile, who for more than a decade had cultivated honey and produced wine in primitive conditions, selling his products in local farmers markets. “His wine was undrinkable,” quips Geraci. “The honey, however, was good.”

“To make a good wine is the easiest thing in the world now,” Geraci adds with a cool smile. “But to make a wine that is an expression of terroir that stands up to time, that is something else.”

Geraci’s expansion to Etna, where the reds blend Nerello Mascalese with a dollop of Nerello Capuccio, makes him perhaps the only producer of Nerello-based reds in these two very different appellations.

Faro has a maritime climate, its sandy vineyard slopes facing the Strait of Messina, looking out to Calabria on Italy's toe. Thirty miles southwest, on Etna’s north face, the climate is Mediterranean-meets-continental and the soils are black decomposed lava and volcanic ash from one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

“I was intrigued to make wine with the same grape in two interpretations,” Geraci says.

Though Geraci’s family has farmed and made wine in Messina province for generations, he discovered fine wines by way of Burgundy. In the 1980s, his success as an architect allowed him to become a collector. With the encouragement of legendary Italian wine critic and gastronome Luigi Veronelli, he decided to make his own wine from vineyards planted in Faro by his grandparents in the 1930s, recruiting his agronomist brother Giampiero and Piedmont enologist Donato Lanati.

From the first vintage of Palari Faro, 1990, the wine achieved an almost mythic status in Italy, praised by critics for its finesse and showered with awards. In the United States, Palari wines have received mixed reviews. (Wine Spectator scored Palari Faro’s 2005 and 2006 vintages 83 and 85 points, respectively.)

Palari’s Faro 2014—from a vintage considered exceptional for Sicily—won’t be released until 2018. That may also be the case with the 2014 Etna red. “I will bottle it and release it when I am convinced,” says Geraci, adding that he didn’t harvest in 2015 because “I was not convinced of the grapes.”

To understand how the two wines differ, I drive to the Palari winery, housed in the cellar of his family’s weathered 18th-century farmhouse above the Messina coast.

Fermentation is begun on native yeasts in steel tanks on a covered terrace, and it finishes in barrel in the vaulted cellars below. In those cellars are stacked hundred of barriques filled with Palari’s Messina-area wines, including the Rosso di Soprano blend, along with one large cask for the 2014 Etna red.

Giampiero, 50, fills some glasses from the cask. The Etna wine is more potent in color and alcohol than the Faro wines and has deep leathery aromas.

“My wines from Faro have a sea influence, with notes of salt,” Salvatore says. “The power of the [Etna] terroir is much more muscular. … You have to try to calm the fire of the soil.”

Palari produces a little more than 1,600 cases a year. The debut Etna bottling will add just around 300 cases.

All of this remains a gentleman’s hobby. Geraci says he isn’t about to quit his day job.

“I have to pay for the barrels,” he shrugs, “and the suits.”

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