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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the Barbabecchi vineyard
Old vines in Barbabecchi up where the Magma comes from
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.
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.