They are storied wines — the white, a Catarrato, and especially the red, a Nero d’Avola. They carry meaning from an American writer’s 50 years in Sicily, her husband’s winemaking passion, their daughter’s embrace of her agrarian roots after cosmopolitan wanderings, an inspiring student revolt and a growing international thirst for natural, indigenous wines.
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“The next morning the children and I go down with baskets to the vineyard where the red grapes grow,” wrote Mary Taylor Simeti in her 1986 memoir “On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journey.” (She’s also the author of “Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food, and Travels with a Medieval Queen.”) Her two children, in bathing suits and rubber boots, stomped on the harvest in a plastic baby bath. The first year, the vineyard produced … vinegar.
It got better. “The white is indigenous to Sicily, dry, slightly bitter, floral, with a slight taste of almonds,” Simeti said. The red, said Tim Mortimer, operations manager of American distributor Jenny & François Selections, is “aromatic, expressive, with a floral note on the nose, acidity in balance, and a lightness rare in Nero d’Avola.”
Americans who have delighted in Simeti’s writing will soon get to experience her wine, too. Jenny & François are set to begin importing it to select stores soon.
A family passion
At Bosco Falconeria, the farm Mary and her husband Tonino took over in 1966, Nero d’Avola has been grown since 1933, when it was a strong high-alcohol “cutting wine” shipped to northern France and Germany to strengthen too-light wines. By the late ’60s, they were producing very good wines.
“We were very excited about it,” said Simeti, now 71. “It was at the beginning of the renaissance of Nero d’Avola in Italy.”
They sold it to friends and other customers in Palermo. By the ’90s, though, when it looked as if their children wouldn’t be returning, they had the local winery make the wines for them. That changed again in 2005, when their daughter Natalia, who worked in museum administration in the United States, decided with her husband and children to return to Bosco.
“She had had ever since she was tiny, a very clear sense of what she did not feel ready to face, together with the courage and determination to go after what she really wanted,” is how Mary described her then 12-year-old daughter in “On Persephone’s Island.”
The wine is organic, grown without irrigation, from indigenous varietals, made without sulfites or industrial yeasts.
“We produce less, but what we do produce is in its flavor and taste,” Simeti said. “We are making wines that are in my husband’s genes, that have been in the family for generations, and my daughter has become very passionate about it.”
This year, they’ve produced about 10 thousands bottles — about 1,500 Nero d’Avola — but they can triple capacity if the market is there.
An anti-mafia stand
The wine is pure in another way: No mafia influence. In “On Persephone’s Island,” Simeti describes mafia terrors, and the nascent brave youth-led anti-mafia movement. Since 2009, her wines have carried the “Addiopizzo” label. The Food and Drug Administration asked for information about the label, which literally means “bye-bye protection money.”
The addiopizzo movement began with a group of students in Palermo in 2004 who wanted to start a wine bar but realized the mafia would ask for their price soon enough. So they plastered Palermo with stickers on walls, light polls and phone booths that read: Un intero popolo che paga il pizzo é un popolo senza dignita. That is, “A people that pays the pizzo is a people without dignity.”
The movement now includes more than 700 firms, including 39 wine producers, who’ve signed the pledge not to pay pizzo — and to report any attempts to collect it to the police. More than 10,000 consumers have taken out memberships.
“The anti-mafia movement has come a long way in the past 30 years,” Simeti said.
Mary Taylor Simeti’s wines heading for the U.S.
And so Mary Taylor Simeti’s excellent anti-mafia natural organic Sicilian wines are coming to America. The wines should show up any week now in a few stores in selected U.S. cities. For those of us who love Simeti’s books, though, with their graceful blending of food culture and history and ancient myth and family stories, the real pleasure would be drinking a glass while reading a new Mary Taylor Simeti book.
“The farming and family life and writing all feed each other,” she said. “There are no compartments in my life. On the whole, it’s been a privileged life to write what I wanted. I’m working on a fun writing project now, about wildflowers. But I think I have at least one more serious book on the back of the stove. It may be totally scorched, but I hope I can still make it.”
Natalia and Tonino Simeti at Bosco Falconeria in Sicily. Credit: Totò Le Moli