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Educating Peter in Sicily

In Lettie Teague’s brilliant new book, Educating Peter, she instructs film critic Peter Travers on the basics of wine. Here, he teaches her about The Godfather on a tasting tour of Sicily.

The Godfather is the greatest American movie ever made, according to my friend Peter Travers, the film critic at Rolling Stone. Better than Birth of a Nation, more significant than Citizen Kane; it’s the original American epic, or, as director Francis Ford Coppola called his creation, "the biggest home movie in history." But The Godfather is also what comes to mind first for many Americans (like Peter and me) when they think of the island of Sicily, the place where The Godfather and the Mafia both began.

There are many other things, to be sure, Sicilians would rather be famous for—such as their wines, which have shifted from simple commercial stuff to some seriously ambitious bottlings in recent years. Made from native grapes like Nero d’Avola and Carricante as well as non-natives like Syrah and Chardonnay, Sicilian wines, particularly those made from Nero d’Avola, have become fashionable lately because they offer great quality for the money. Indeed, the local wines have become a source of pride among Sicilians and a subject they’re happy to discuss—as much as The Godfather and the Mafia are not. Or so Peter and I learned during our Sicily tour.

Peter and I had been tasting wines from Sicily in the course of creating my book, Educating Peter (due out from Scribner this month), a chronicle of Peter’s oeonological transformation from wine tyro to would-be savant. Peter was particularly keen to visit Sicily not just because he liked the big, juicy Nero d’Avolas we tasted but also because of The Godfather.

"I’d love to see Bar Vitelli, where Michael Corleone meets Apollonia’s father, and the church where Michael and Apollonia were married," Peter said, naming two famous landmarks from the film. And taste some great wines? "That too," agreed Peter. And thus the story of our Sicilian adventure: a search for great wine in a cinematically significant setting.

"I was on the set of The Godfather when they were shooting the movie in 1971," Peter recalled as we waited in the Milan airport for our flight to Palermo, Sicily’s largest city. "I was a teenager," he added, "but I was on assignment for Reader’s Digest. Brando came over to tell me specifically how much he hated Reader’s Digest." Where had that been? "They were filming a scene on Staten Island," said Peter. "I don’t think many people realize how much of the movie was made on Staten Island."

By the time Peter and I finally reached Palermo, I was wishing we’d chosen Staten Island instead. It’s about a 14-hour journey from New York City to Palermo; there are no direct flights to Sicily from the States. And when our taxi plunged into Palermo’s infamous traffico (reputedly some of Europe’s worst) and barreled the wrong way down a four-lane thoroughfare, I found myself longing for the comparative civility of a Manhattan rush hour.

But Palermo, located on Sicily’s northern coast, is not only near some of the island’s best wineries, it’s also where several scenes in The Godfather III were shot, most notably at Teatro Massimo, the famed opera house. The Corleones go there to watch Cavalleria Rusticana, after which Mary Corleone, played by 19-year-old Sofia Coppola, is rather dramatically killed on the opera house steps. "We have to see the Teatro," Peter insisted. "First we have to go to Spadafora," I replied.

Spadafora is one of the newest stars of the Sicilian wine world. Owned and run by Prince Francesco Spadafora (who gave up the fast life in Palermo for life on the farm), the Spadafora winery is "up in the clouds," as Peter described its mountainous location about an hour south of Palermo in the lush green district of Monreale (a one- to two-hour drive, depending on traffico). Spadafora is chiefly famous for Syrah.

"Why Syrah and not native varietals?" I asked the prince, a boyish-looking 50-year-old attired in a decidedly nonroyal windbreaker, which was stained and frayed around the edges. "In 200 years, a grape like Chardonnay will be considered native in Sicily," the prince replied, with the assurance of a man whose family has been making such things happen for hundreds of years.

The prince grows Chardonnay but the white grape he favors most is Grillo, a native Sicilian varietal, with a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc-like acidity and slightly exotic aromas reminiscent of Muscat. "Grillo is a very elegant grape," the prince told Peter and me, as we savored his bright, mineral-inflected Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto blend (the latter is the most-planted white grape in Sicily, but it’s not nearly as interesting as Grillo).

The prince planted Syrah in 1990, back before the start of the modern Sicilian wine revolution, which the prince dated as taking place sometime between 1993 and 1995. "Before that, there were only four families with cellars of any reputation," the prince said.

The prince seemed to be onto something with non-native grapes. His 2003 Sole dei Padri Syrah was most impressive: big and rich with a Rhône-like nose of roasted meat and spices and a clean, modern edge. The wine has been fulsomely praised by Italy’s leading wine magazine, Gambero Rosso, which called it "highly intense." As the prince watched Peter and me taste his reds and whites, he declared, "I made these wines with my own two hands," with a note of delighted disbelief.

Peter wondered why the prince didn’t make Nero d’Avola. "I learned that Nero d’Avola is the wine of Sicily," Peter said. "Why don’t you have one?" The prince shook his head. "My sales agent in Rome asks me the same thing. Everyone wants Nero d’Avola. And a lot of wineries in Sicily make Nero d’Avola. Even in places where Nero doesn’t grow," he added with a raised eyebrow.

Once back in Palermo, Peter and I rushed to Teatro Massimo but it was closed. There were, however, the famous steps, which Peter photographed over and over. "Maybe you can fall down and pretend that you’re shot," Peter suggested. I declined and we repaired to a local pizzeria instead, where Peter complained our peperoncini pizza "tasted like anchovies." (There are a lot of anchovies in Sicilian cuisine.) We shared an unmemorable half bottle of Corvo bianco partly because Corvo was the wine Coppola drank while filming in Sicily (it’s the biggest wine brand in Sicily, then and now) but mostly because it was the only half bottle on the wine list.

The next day, Peter and I traveled to the town of Sclafani and met with Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita, of Tasca d’Almerita, whose family is one of the four that Spadafora cited as making good wine in Sicily before the early 1990s. In fact, Tasca d’Almerita, founded in 1830, is the largest winery in Sicily, as well as the most famous, with the longest track record of producing first-rate wine from its Regaleali estate. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive inland from Palermo to Sclafani, where Tasca d’Almerita was the only winery for a very long time. "In Sicily, all the vineyards were by the sea in the beginning because it was easiest for shipping. Now we’re developing vineyards in other places too," explained Tasca, who was in charge of the winery’s production for many years before assuming the duties of export manager. Sales have been very good, he reported—especially to the United States this year. "We have grown by 25 percent in the American market alone."

"How many good wineries are there in Sicily?" Peter asked Tasca as we sat and tasted the wines. "There are 20 now; there were six good ones 10 years ago," Tasca replied. I saw Peter writing this down. "And 50 years ago?" Tasca lit the second of a dozen or so cigarettes and thought for a minute. "There was one," he replied with a laugh.

The last wine we tasted of a half dozen or so (including a very good white blend, the 2005 Nozze d’Oro) was the gorgeously ripe and concentrated 2003 Rosso del Conte. It’s the greatest wine that Tasca produces and arguably the best Nero d’Avola in Sicily, around $50 a bottle. The first vintage of Rosso del Conte was 1970, said Tasca. "You know the movie they were preparing to shoot that year, don’t you?" Peter asked. Tasca did not. "The Godfather," said Peter. Tasca shrugged—the response we received every time we mentioned the movie (or for that matter, the Mafia) in Sicily.

The only person who even mentioned the Mob was Count Paolo Marzotto, a wealthy industrialist from the Veneto, with whom Peter and I dined that night at an otherwise empty restaurant in Palermo. ("Everyone knows the Mafia controls the water," the count complained when the topic turned to vineyard irrigation.) The count, who created Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, founded his 10-year-old Sicilian winery, Baglio di Pianetto, a half hour’s drive south of Palermo, when he was unable to buy the Corvo brand. The count told us that his goal was to make interesting, affordable wine and he believed in using both native and non-native grapes to accomplish this end. "I introduced Viognier and Petite Sirah to Sicily," the count told us. "And now several other people are planting them too." Peter and I both liked the count’s crisp, floral and reasonably priced ($15) 2005 Ficiligno, a blend of Viognier and the native Sicilian white grape Inzolia. His 2003 Ramione, a Nero d’Avola and Merlot blend, was a good, simple, fairly priced red.

The count had invited another friend to dinner as well—Antonio Cognata, the general manager of Teatro Massimo. "We were just on the Teatro steps," Peter said to Cognata as I explained our joint mission of movies and wine. "Then you must come to the theater and I will give you a personal tour," said Cognata. "I’ll even show you the box where Michael Corleone and his family sat in Godfather III." But we were leaving for Taormina the very next day. Perhaps we could take Cognata up on his offer when we returned to Palermo at the week’s end?

Everyone we met approved of our plan to visit Taormina, Sicily’s most famous seaside resort. But everyone disapproved of our plan to get there by train. "No one takes the train in Sicily," we were told (which helped to explain all that traffico). Peter and I soon found out why: Not only were the trains very slow, but some seemed less suited to transportation than museum display. We’d thought the count’s wife was joking when she’d said, "They send the broken-down trains of Italy’s north to Sicily."

Taormina is famous for its breathtaking views of the sea and Mount Etna, but that wasn’t why Peter and I had made it our destination (just as well, since our rooms were located in the basement of our hotel). We’d chosen Taormina because it was located halfway between the wineries of Mount Etna and the village of Savoca, where scenes from The Godfather (Bar Vitelli, the church) were filmed.

Etna is the most exciting wine region in Sicily right now; quite a few new wineries have been built on its slopes in the past several years, many of them funded by foreigners like Mick Hucknall of the British pop group Simply Red. When Hucknall started his winery, Il Cantante, he hired Salvo Foti as his winemaker. Foti is considered one of the most gifted interpreters of native varietals in Sicily, most famously at Benanti, the Mount Etna winery Peter and I were scheduled to visit the next day.

But first we were bound for Savoca, the hilltop town that Coppola chose as a stand-in for the city of Corleone, which even 35 years ago had been deemed by the director as too big, too modern and too ugly to film.

Some three decades later, Savoca, a gray, stone-front town, was (still) none of those things. But it didn’t look particularly prosperous either; in fact, the streets were deserted. Even the famed Bar Vitelli, which Peter approached with all the reverence one might a holy shrine, was empty—it looked more like a stage set than a commercial enterprise.

The only other person in the bar besides us was Maria, the wizened proprietor. She gave Peter and me a hard stare from behind a glass case of Godfather souvenirs, as if she knew we weren’t there to buy bottles of her electric-yellow liqueur, even if they were emblazoned with Brando’s face. Not that it looked like Maria had done much business since Coppola and company were last in town; everything was covered with a fine coat of dust.

"Maybe we should have a glass of wine," said Peter, looking around for the wine bottles. "You know, mark the occasion."

"I don’t know if that’s a good idea," I replied. But we ordered two glasses of the house red anyway.

"That’s some of the worst wine I’ve ever had in my life," Peter remarked as we left the bar and walked up the hill toward the church, Santa Lucia, where Michael Corleone was married to the ill-fated Apollonia. "I think that bottle has been open for the past thirty years." But how had Peter felt upon finally seeing the famous bar? "I don’t feel anything yet," Peter admitted, "although I might wake up in the middle of the night screaming, ’Don’t make me drink that wine."

The wines of Benanti, which Peter and I visited the next day, were a different story. Founded in 1992 by Dr. Giuseppe Benanti, a titan in the pharmaceutical trade, Benanti was the first winery to establish Mount Etna as a serious wine region. Prior to Benanti’s arrival, Mount Etna wines had been dismissed as rustic and simple—or worse.

Salvo Foti led Peter and me through a tasting of the top Benanti wines, including a few solidly made blends from native red grapes like Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, as well as one particularly spectacular white wine, Pietramarina, made from the ancient Carricante grape that’s only cultivated in the volcanic soils of Mount Etna. Although it’s just recently become available in the United States, this is the wine that put Benanti on the world winemaking map.

Rich, almost Burgundian in character, with notes of almond and a refreshingly strong acidity, the Pietramarina was unlike any Sicilian white I’d ever had. Foti offered three different vintages: 1999, 2001 and 2002. Peter and I both favored the 2002, which was the biggest and the most showy although it still tasted quite young, its acidity pronounced, almost electric in the mouth. "I can’t find the word to describe this wine because I’ve never had anything like it," said Peter. "It has so many flavors."

"Such as kerosene and anise?" Foti suggested. Peter agreed. "Although normally I wouldn’t be happy to find those things in my wine," he said, "this is different. This is one of the best Sicilian wines I’ve ever had."

"This is not a wine of Sicily, it is a wine of Mount Etna," Foti corrected Peter, with a stern look.

"Well, it’s a great wine anyway," Peter gamely replied.

"It is a wine of civilization," Foti intoned. "Man dies but civilization continues. And wine is the best of civilization, not just the past. A lot of the past you don’t want evoked."

"Like the past described in The Godfather. I’m finding a lot of people don’t want to talk about that," Peter said, a bit petulantly since no one seemed willing to discuss the movie. Foti, like the others before him, said nothing. Peter tried a new tack. "Have you ever been to Savoca?" he asked.

Traveling back to Palermo, on a train seemingly of the same vintage as the one that Don Vito Corleone took to escape Sicily at the turn of the century, Peter reflected on his search for what he called "the terroir" of The Godfather. "I realized that The Godfather is an American, not a Sicilian, story. And what I came looking for really isn’t here."

He did, however, find terroir in Sicily’s wines. "I had no idea there was so much good Sicilian wine and I understand the wines so much better just by being here. Except Corvo. Even drinking Corvo in Sicily couldn’t make it taste good. But wines like Sole dei Padri and Pietramarina are amazing. They symbolize the best of Sicily to me."

Peter and I made it back to Palermo in time for our Teatro Massimo tour. Cognata, as promised, even arranged for us to sit in the same box as Michael Corleone had. This, said Peter, was the closest he’d felt to the movie during our trip. But it didn’t bring him closer to Sicily. Instead, as Peter observed, "Americans may think they understand Sicily by watching The Godfather, but a much better way is by drinking the wines."

Published March 2007
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