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November 2019

Visit with Frank Cornelissen on Etna

8 years ago when I originally met Frank Cornelissen, he told me that he was spending all his money on buying more land on Etna.  He said that more than anything he wanted to make wines that taste like liquid volcanic rock.  He said he wanted to see Etna established as one of the premier wine regions in the world. 

Those goals sounded audacious back then, but Frank has stuck by them and is on his way to achieving them. That's crazy. 

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Frank pouring wine at lunch

Three and a half years ago I visited Frank on Etna.  He'd just upgraded his bottling line, installed ultraviolet lights everywhere, argon on the bottling line, ozone injectors in the heat pump systems, etc.  Frank had gone all out to keep the winery clean and avoid any contamination in the wine.  His goal wasn't just to ferment wine that tasted like liquid volcanic rock with native yeast and bottle with no sulfur or other additives, he wanted the wine to come out totally clean and stable every time.  His logic was "what's the point of all his work if the wines taste different by the time people get to drink them?"  He wanted people to experience his vision the way he intended.  

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Fermenting grapes at Frank's winery

In these 8 years since I met him, Frank's wine making has changed a lot technically, but the changes are completely in the pursuit of his goals.  So this time around I was excited to see Etna with fresh eyes.    

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The famous filtration device

The first afternoon that I met up with Frank, the son of a close friend had flown to Sicily to ask his advice about transitioning from being a high level race car engineer to becoming a wine maker.  We hopped in the car and headed to a restaurant for what turned into a 4 hour lunch.  Talk ranged from what starting a business will do to your life, the quirks and pressures of the wine business, to the conflict between the business and romantic sides of making wine.  And politics and cars and I told a lot of stupid stories.   It was great and lots of catching up.

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The new more gentle wire insert for the destemmer.  

Something Frank said that stuck with me was that you have to push past your limits to the realm where things break and then pull back to a place where you're comfortable and can exist sustainably.  It's a sentiment I identify with personally.  Frank went on to say that technology can fill the spaces where you're less comfortable once you push throw that ragged edge to where things may break.  We talked about it and he clarified this as meaning that with technology or more accurately technique, used in the right way, you can create a bit more space, a bit more time.  As an example: in wine making that can mean maybe you don't have to do the fermentation as fast, maybe you can be a little bit more deliberate and thoughtful.  With everything perfect you can stretch the primary fermentation of some of the red out even longer because you know that the hyper clean winery and soft destemmer and vibrating sorting table and C02 in the press all bought you a little bit more time before any kind of unwanted bacteria growth could start.  And you can do it with out resorting to using enzymes or sulfur in the process. 

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In the Barbabecchi vineyard


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Old vines in Barbabecchi up where the Magma comes from 


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I think originally, (18 years ago?) Frank was rebelling against the broad trend of to much technique and technology destroying the honest sense of place in many wines he had experienced.  Through experience and experimentation Frank has honed his technique in order to find that fine line of using technique to set up the natural processes of fermentation to be able to cleanly run their course.  It's the idea of technique as a framework that is out of sight and allows the land to speak.  He's still fermenting with native yeast and not adding anything to the wine, but he has nearly 100% more wine making experience than when I first met him.  He's producing about 130,000 bottles now.  That's a whole different scale.  In my own experience, my wine wholesale company is a completely different structure from what it was 10 years ago because the structure that worked at that scale would be impossible at the current size.  It's like I've had 4 or 5 different companies over the years.  Similarly Frank started out making wine essentially out of a garage and now has a winery that has gone through 17 years of technical evolution and refinement.

Working on the same project for nearly 2 decades changes your perspective, not just of the project but also of time and progress.  I saw this in another subject that Frank and I touched on: making the step from great wine to exceptional wine and maintaining that quality over time.  Frank has proven to himself that he can make exceptional wines.  He's also proven to himself that he can consciously evolve and improve what he does in order to address issues or new problems he identifies.  But making exceptional wine is a moving target so you have to put those two things together.  Expressing the unique character of each vintage, and doing it at an extremely high level seemed like something Frank was rolling around in his mind.    We agreed that a lot of the changes you make to get there are very small in impact, but they may be big and hard to accomplish in reality.  Technology came back into the conversation here.   Frank has been trying to customize much of the equipment he uses in order to increase his options.  For example he's changed to a larger pump with a larger diameter output that ends up being easier on the grapes (a larger volume space at the same pump pressure decreases velocity).  Another example: Frank also added a voltage inverter to step the voltage down and effectively give the pump a lower speed range that is also more gentle on the grapes.  The bottling line that uses argon through the whole process includes a leveler to make sure each bottle is at exactly the same volume when filled with wine: all of these things give him more options.  Having more options and flexibility allows him to respond to different vintage situations with more finely tuned inputs that just achieve exactly what he wants...or that's the goal.  But getting companies to custom manufacture new equipment takes time. 

We drove around for part of a day looking at different vineyards that Frank has planted or recently bought with the goal of planting.  He's aiming to get up to about 150,000 bottles of production per year, feeling that is a good sweet spot where he can still be very hands on and keep quality extremely high, but it will give him the margins to have a slightly more robust operation.  And, to repeat myself, more vineyard sites in a way mean more options....  It was cool driving around and stopping to see people because it opened my eyes to how much Frank has really become part of the community.  Sure, he's been here on Etna for 18 ish years but I heard all kinds of stories of how hard it was for him as an outsider when he started.  Etna is a unique place and people can naturally be skeptical of outsiders.  But as we went and got breakfast and wondered around people would stop him in the street, wave and honk as he went by, it was really clear that the community has accepted him and appreciates the attention he's brought to Etna.  

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Tasting through wines from the same Contradas but from different wine makers

Reflecting after the trip: I can't think of another contemporary wine region that has risen to prominence like Etna in as short a time.  Even more unique is that one of the driving forces behind Etna's rise is a guy who's a poster child for the natural wine movement.  Etna's rise as a wine region is due to the hard work and sacrifice of many people.  Passopisciaro, Terre Nerre, Salvo Foti and others have done a ton of work to advance Etna's reputation, but Frank is one of the absolute top flagship producers on Etna and I think it's really unique that he is a "Natural" wine maker.

So Frank is in a refinement and evolution phase.  He's building a house for himself finally that will have an attached warehouse (he and his family have been in a little rented apartment all this time).  Frank has always sort of been a lightning rod, for how he makes wine, that he's from away, that he has big goals; I don't know if he's exactly made his peace with that situation but he's certainly used to it now.  Bottom line: people can like or dislike what he does, but it's impossible to deny that he took a huge leap years ago, stuck by it, and has accomplished a hell of a lot since then.  At this point you can't deny the importance of him, his wines, and Etna.  Everyone is free to like or dislike Etna or Frank's wines, but they've been pretty important in modern wine culture.

20191111_131203Frank's new vineyard up near Rampante and Monte Dolce.  He's planning to build some old school rock terraces on the edges for vines, but probably not plant it all.

Parting thought from Frank: people think Etna is an extreme place.  If Etna was an extreme place then how do vines live to 150 years old?   If Etna was extreme for vines they wouldn't live half that long.  It's not an extreme place for viticulture (maybe for people), but for viticulture Etna is a unique and special place.  

The Contrada system on Mount Etna

 

I recently spent 4 days on Mount Etna and visited Passopisciaro, Frank Cornelissen, I Vigneri & Salvo Foti, Eduardo Torres Acosta, and SRC Vini.  I work with Frank, Passopisciaro, Eduardo, I Vigneri, and Romeo Castello so I wasn't just there for fun.  

Etna is to me one of the most exciting wine regions in Italy.  Top reason is the land and climate.  I mean; it's an active volcano that is also the tallest mountain in Italy south of the Alps.  The steep terraced vineyards crawl along the broken surface of the volcano, sometimes facing, east, then north, then west, and back all in the space of a few 100 meters.  The weather can go from raining to sunny or even both at once in the distance of a Kilometer.  Sicily and Etna are just off the coast of Africa, so summers are long and warm, but up on Etna vineyard temperatures can swing by 25 degrees Celsius between day and night.  Warm salty humid air comes of the Ionian sea and runs smack into cold air cascading down from Etna's almost 11,000 ft peak.    

A result of that crazy terroir/weather and Etna's heritage of small contadino farming, Etna has an interesting system of named vineyards.  It's sort of like premier cru vineyards in Barolo and Burgundy, but not as codifed yet.  Most all of these vineyards have existed as named entities for generations as names used by the locals to understand and talk about the crazy volcano landscape they were farming.  Just like Burgunday, Barolo, and Barbaresco most of these vineyards have many owners who each have different pieces.  So the names aren't recognized or controlled by any regulatory body and as such borders are fuzzy.  

The Contrade (as they're called locally) are important and each has its own character.  Etna is still emerging as a world class wine zone; in 2012 there were 30 something wineries and today there are more like 130.  More and more wineries are bottling individual Contradas separately and putting the names on their labels so I'm sure that over time borders and recognition will firm up.  As my contribution to moving that process along here's all the info I've got, including a fantastic map!  

Contrada Vineyard Map Mount Etna

I'm so excited to have gotten my hands on this map.  It's hosted here in high res so click on it to open it in a new window and then zoom in to get a better view.

!Disclaimer!

Land, weather, terroir are just pieces of what makes a wine.  There's also farming.  And wine making.  The Contradas are important because they are part of how the people on Etna understand and make sense of farming there.  So understanding them can help you better understand the wines.  But you can't boil wine down to rocks and sun.  The decisions made by the farmer/winemaker about whether and how to prune, when to rack, whether to allow cover crops, whether or how much to work the soil, how to press, do you press?  do you just use free run juice.....   So wines from the same contrada but made by different wine makers are obviously going to taste very different.  Frank and I spent an afternoon drinking wines from the same contrade specifically to make that point.  Thanks Frank!

Contrada Rampante

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Here's a great example.  Frank and Passopisciaro disagree about where the borders of Barbabecchi and Rampante are.  So the picture below of Frank's sign saying "Barbabecchi" is only a couple hundred yards from Passopisciaro's sign saying "Rampante".  It's hard to tell from the map above that shows Rampante, but Contrada Barbabecchi is also listed there.

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Contrada Rampante

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think Frank maintains that Rampante is lower down in between Marchesa and Monte Dolce.

Contrada Barbabecchi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Porcaria


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I don't even see Porcaria on the big map.  I know it's somewhere in the Solicchiata area, but I didn't visit it this trip.  I did go visit it 3 and a half years ago though with Vincenzo from Passopisciaro.  It's flatter and several hundred meters lower down than Barbabecchi.  The soil seems to be finer and Vincenzo said the wine from here is usually a little richer, finer, and approachable a bit younger.

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Guardiola

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Guardiola is another high elevation vineyard near Barbabecchi but maybe a bit more exposed.  Andrea Franchetti's Passopisciaro winery is actually located here in the middle of the vineyard.  The higher reaches are really up there and I think Franchetti has mostly planted that part to Chardonnay.  Lower down near the winery he's planted some Petit Verdot and Cessanese.  Below that there's old vine Nerello Mascalese.

Contrada Guardiola Etna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

90 year old Nerello Mascalese in lower Guardiola

Sciara Nuova

Sciara Nuova Contrada

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Contrada Sciara nouva Etna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sciara Nuova is over in the west of Guardiola and at slightly less elevation over all.  Guardiola is a bit steeper, extends further up, and the folds of the land face sometimes more east or west.  Sciara Nuova, at least what I saw, was a bit more just north facing and open, probably getting great sun and also plenty of wind.

 

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Sciara Nuova looking north at the Nebrodi Mountains.

Monte Dolce

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Monte Dolce is on the first map of all the Contrade, but it's show as an actual peak: the sweet peak.  Vincenzo explained it as a newer (like several thousand years old) volcanic vent up above Solicchiata.  I ran all back and forth through and around it and it seemed generally more flat and there was a lot of new planting in it.  

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Here's some new planting by Passopisciaro in the Monte Dulce Contrada.  If I understood right, the little hill just beyond the vineyard is the actual Monte Dolce.

Chiappe Macine

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I totally can't find Contrada Chiappe Macine or any of the other Contrade shown on this specific Contrada map on the big map up top.  And I've never visited it.  But it's lower down and abuts a more recent lava flow.  Oh well, next time I'm back on Etna I'll go find it.  

Calderara Sottana

Contrada Calderara Sottana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I visited SRC Vini and their winery is right in the middle of Calderara Sottana, so here's a picture of that.  Again, a bit lower down and at this spot not terraced.  

Contrada Calderara Sottana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SRC Vini's new winery in Calderara Sottana


Visit to Lamoresca in Sicily

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On my second day in Sicily I left Etna and headed south in the general direction of Gela on the south coast.  It was rural rolling farm country interspersed with just empty sharp rocky ridges.  I found Lamoresca without much trouble though. Lamoresca is nearly an houra and a half south but you can still see Etna on the horizon hulking over all the hills. 

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Filippo met me in the driveway but was clearly worried because I was early and he was doing 5 things at once.  I assured him that I had come early specifically to go running, so I took off for an 8 mile run and he finished up what he was working on. 

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When I got back Filippo was all fired up and immediately took me down the street to see his new project: a giant outcropping of eroded sand stone rock that he'd bought!  Hooray!  It's actually super interesting and unusual for the area (mostly rolling hills of sandy clay) and it came with an abandoned house, over grown prickly pear cactus orchards, and more olive trees. 

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I think it's something like 12 hectares in total that he just bought!  The soil was really unique: super light airy very fine eroded sand that compressed and was springy under my feet; it made me think of videos of walking on the moon.  Filippo is mostly going to plant olives and cactuses here, but he is planning a few hectares of Frappato on an open piece of sand.

 

Here's a video of Filippo and I talking about the soil.

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Filippo explicitly said that he thinks of himself as a farmer and not as a wine maker.  Most everything he talked about was planting this or that, the work trimming, the cover crops he's working with, and the new agronomist he's hired to try to fine tune the natural ways he tries to keep the vineyards healthy.

The prickly pear cactuses were so overgrown and covered in brambles that you couldn't even see the rock outcropping.   The property had been abandoned for 30 years so Filippo has had a great time going through cleaning and cutting and exploring.  There's also an old house on the property and workman were in the process of putting a new roof on it.  

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Filippo plans to make it into several apartments he can rent out as a sort of agri-tourismo.  He's trying to make the house pretty authentic and what a Sicilian house would have been like a couple generations ago.  He even bought old used hand made terracotta tiles for the roof instead of new ones.  Is all the work really worth it?  Probably not according to Filippo, but he sure does enjoy it and that's why he's doing it all.  He just really loves farming and the land there!

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Filippo had also planted a couple hectares of fava beans so that he can harvest and then plant them as cover crops on his vineyards as opposed to buying seeds like he does now.  Currently his vineyards were planted with a mix of herbs, daikon, fava beans, and chick peas in order to replenish nutrients and aerate the soil.  He was super excited about seeing the new cover crops starting to come up and how the daikon roots would help work the soil with out anyone manually doing anything.

Then we tasted through all the Lamoresca wines that were in tank.  They were so beautiful!  I write about good wines very often, it's sort of what I do, but the Lamoresca wines have an energy, purity, and beauty that's really rare and on another level.    He talked a lot about how he wants to make "True Wine" and doesn't want to get pigeon holed as Natural Wine.  He does farm naturally and ferment with wild yeast, so yeah they are natural wines.   I get the feeling he's uncomfortable with having any label attached to himself.  He seems to like doing things his own way.  That's probably part of why he chose to make wine in an area where no one else is (and that he's from there).  He doesn't want his wines to be thought of as Natural Wines because he doesn't want to be a part of a "movement", also because he feels that the natural wine movement is too excepting of flawed wines and that some "Natural" wines don't actually express terroir.  One example he offered was a pet nat made in a hot sunny place, but harvested early when the grapes weren't too ripe in order to make a light and easy drinking wine. Filippo argued that doesn't really express the climate and terroir, which is a pretty fair point.  In a pet nat like that you're tasting technique more than anything else.  As an after thought as he was turning out the lights in the winery he said "oh yeah, this is the winery." 

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He quickly ran through "the grapes come in, they ferment in open tanks, I press them off with that wooden basket press, I've got those cement tanks and botte back there."  He was very clear that he sees all the real work happening in the vineyard and then he just keeps everything clean and precise in the winery and makes sure the wines are doing what they're supposed to.  He's pretty much there at the winery all the time and tastes the wines in tank and barrel every day so he has a very clear understanding of how they're evolving and if he needs to do something like rack a wine to a different tank.

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In another contrarian mood he talked about how popular his Frappato is and so as a result he's decided to focus on Nero d'Avola because he thinks it's under appreciated.  And I have to say his Nero d'Avola was searingly good and drank like exciting lush racy Morgon.

When I asked why his wines are so pretty and precise he would only say that it was a reflection of his personality and that it was due to his excellent memory of everything he has tasted over the years.  There was a real continuity of thoroughness and thoughtfulness and aesthetics through everything around the azienda and he was up front that he takes pride in it.

Some of that awareness comes from the many years he spent in Belgium running a restaurant and selling wine there.  It gave him more of a cosmopolitan understanding of wine culture than the average farmer.  He moved there to follow his Belgian wife (they'd met in Italy), but after over a decade he decided he wanted to start spending more time back where he grew up in rural southern Sicily.  He bought the land that would become Lamoresca in 2000 with plans to plant olives on it.  At some point though Filippo started to think "why not plant vines too?"  And so he did in 2005 and slowly, little by little, he started on this path.

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Tasting Wine at Pianogrillo in Chiaramonte Gulfi Sicily

In the morning I headed over to Chiaramonte Gulfi to find Pianogrillo.  Lorenzo was outside supervising some work with the olive trees and also a special breed of black Sicilian pigs they raise on the farm.  Pianogrillo is a 100 hectare estate that's been in his family for many generations.  He seemed super involved in the details of day to day running of the farm and seemed to be particularly passionate about working in and with nature.  

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First he gave me a short tour of the family house, which long long ago had been a fortified watch tower protecting the surrounding valley. 

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The house was beautiful and he showed me a cabinet of Greek and Phoenician artifacts that his family had found while working in the fields.  They had a little family chapel that was still consecrated, and an amazing old traditional Sicilian marriage cart!  It seemed like he wanted to rush through all that and get to the wines but those classical Greek ceramics were insane.

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He showed me an area where he's experimenting planting vines and olive trees together.  This is super traditional but rare now.  Lorenzo is experimenting with it to see if shade from the trees can help protect the grapes as the climate keeps warming.  

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The winery is a high point on the ridge with the olive orchards all around.  In fact Pianogrillo is very famous in Italy for their olive oil and that's their primary business.  I wouldn't call the wine an after thought, Lorenzo is too obviously focused on it and the quality is too good.   Pianogrillo only making a few thousand cases of wine per a year so it must be a drop in the bucket compared to olive oil.  

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After touring the property we went into his new winery and tasted through all the Pianogrillo wines.  It's a nice clean simple modern winery.  Lorenzo was also clear that he sees himself as a farmer and not a wine maker who intervenes and makes the wine through chemistry.  They're certified organic and pretty much just use stainless steel to preserve the wines freshness.  The limestone in the soil seems to often give the wines more acidity.  

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Lorenzo particularly loves Frappato and we both agreed that it's a grape that deserves more international attention.  The Cerasuolo di Vittoria in particular was fantastic.  It's 50/50 Frappato and Nero d'Avola and sort of reminded me of an awesome uplifting Morgon from Beaujolais.


Revisit to Etna

My solo running trip to Etna 3 and a half years ago to Etna was a life changing experience.  It was incredible but it was also over whelming so I've wanted to go back and see Etna again.  I've also seen a lot of new wines and producers come out of Etna since then, so it really felt important to get back for several reasons.

So now I'm staging to get to the airport at 4 am and board an early flight to Rome and then JFK and on to Portland.  I visited 7 wineries and spent almost a week on Etna plus a couple days down near Noto and Chiaramonte Gulfi in Sicily.  I'll be putting up posts about all the individual producers in quick succession, but here's a broad reaction to what I just saw and experienced.

Sicily has taken some big steps in making serious wine and establishing recognized wine regions and types.  Etna is the hulking volcano that you see from everywhere but there's a lot happening down south and out west too.  



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My first stop was up in Milo on the slopes of Etna.  Milo is totally different from what we think of as Etna because it face the sea and you can feel it in the air.  It's much more influenced by the Mediterranean.  I visited Simone Foti and had a great time talking about their particular micro climate and how they only grow white grapes here.  The top of the vineyard is just over 900m.  Simone's father, Salvo, has been making wine around on the north slope of Etna in Randazzo for years but recently bought this property after buying grapes here for years.

20191107_174204Simone pointing out Cataratto and Minella in their vineyards.
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Down South and Lamoresca

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On the drive I stopped to take a picture of this old Fiat.  An older man in coveralls came out of the house and motioned me to follow him

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Turns out he had a shop building Fiat race cars and machines his own high performance parts

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Individual throttle bodies and carburetors on a Fiat 600!

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The name of his company is La Spina.  It's cast into that sick rear oil cooler on his personal Fiat 695 Biposto race car.  It had a sequential 6 speed transmission.  Which is pretty insane.

Anyway, then I got back to wine:


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Then I went down south and visited Filippo Rizzo at Lamoresca, a domaine he built from scratch after buying olive trees and empty land back in 2005.  This is sand and clay here.  The grape varieties are Frappato and Nero d'Avola (and he grows a bit of Vermentino too).

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Filippo had just bought this hill of decayed Sandstone and is so so pumped to clean it up, re build the abandoned house, plant more olives, plant more vines, and on and on.  He's a super excited positive guy.  His Frappato is almost unbelievably beautiful but he was more focused on Nero d'Avola partially to be a contrarian.  The Nero was also brilliant and reminded me of great Morgon.
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It is a really unique geologic feature and now Filippo has over 20 hectares has farming.  Most isn't vines.


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Lorenzo and I at Pianogrillo in Chiaramonte Gulfi.  Lorenzo's family has owned this estate for a very very very long time. This is Frappato country down near Vittoria

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In between the olive trees you can see some of Lorenzo's Grillo vines.  Notice the soil is pretty white because of all the limestone here

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Lorenzo's winery

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In case you needed a reminder of how crazy Sicily is, heres a cabinet or Greek and Phoenician artifacts Lorenzo's family has found in the fields over the years


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Look at that guy throwing up from too much wine!  I love the subject matter of ancient Greek ceramics

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And that guy is riding a dolphin!

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Lorenzo's family chapel

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A traditional Sicilian marriage cart that's been in Lorenzo's family

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Then I went to Etna...

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Tons of new construction in Linguaglossa


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It doesn't really seem like a problem, but Etna has developed a lot as a tourist destination and a wine region

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I made it to Cave Ox.  A wine bar with a few rooms for rent.  Convenient 


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Classic wild overgrown abandoned building on Etna


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Land Frank has bought adjacent to the Rampante Contrada.  He's planning to plant some of the ridge tops but also mix in chestnut trees


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This house/palazzino across the street from Frank's looks empty.  I wonder what it would cost....

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A new custom barrel for in the destemmer that Frank had made to be more gentle on the grapes.


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Fermenting Nerello


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The vineyard Magma comes from



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A fuzzy shot of Vincenzo, manager at Passopisciaro 


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Eduardo the one man show that is Versante Nord.  An awesome guy and talented wine maker doing things right.  Guys like him are what Etna needs to keep moving in the right direction 


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Rainbow over the 120 year old vines of Passopisciaro in Contrada Guardiola 

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SRC's new winery


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Very densely planted Nerello at SRC.  SRC  is another small new natural winery that's making some really authentic and elegant wines from several different Contrada they have vines in.  They're making a little less than 2000 cases per year but they certainly have room to grow in this winery.  


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20191112_134330

A small basket press at SRC.  they also have a serious brand new pneumatic bladder press.  


20191112_134330