Kris Pathirana‘s latest article for Ben Franks Wine shares his pleasure for the wines of Etna in Sicily, and how drinking a great wine can offer a moment of clarity over your life and the decisions you make.
This wine column will be about wine. Yes, really. Generally, I am motivated to write by things that bother me on a deep spiritual level, like racism, book banning, and people who wear socks and slides (see you at The Hague). But I currently have an uncharacteristic desire to celebrate only that which gives me joy. Y’know, like a person. I did fear this would seem comparatively lightweight, until I saw that Adrian Chiles had written a Guardian piece about beaches being overrated… and if this generation’s Christopher Hitchens can grace us with such cutting-edge, cultural observations as sand being rubbish, then I can definitely just say something nice about wine without it being a thinly veiled polemic.
Perpetually overlooked in favour of Chianti (yawn) and Brunello (nosebleed), Etna Bianco e Rosso are the unappreciated gems of Italian wine; the Claudia Cardinale to mainland Italy’s Sophia Loren. Beautiful, wild, and untamed, Sicily has retained the same herbaceous, pastel hues immortalised in The Godfather Part II, but its ancient, earthy, primal truth, is arguably best told through the terroir of its wines. So much about wine is perception – the food, the company, the occasion – but we seldom remember the details. The mind is not a camera and memories are not a photograph. Moments dissolve like watercolour, and evenings melt into a warm haze of time well spent. Yet when it comes to the wines of Etna, not only do I remember everything, but they seem to provoke a peculiar out of body experience for me; like a game of musical chairs where I alone have noticed that the music has stopped. I sleepwalk outside of myself, like some somnambulistic Sartrean protagonist, puzzled at the strange, meat-puppet dance in which I have been included. This is a heavily romanticised way of saying that I have stopped listening and disappeared into my own little world.
The first time was in Rome. I had recently moved to write a new script and was having dinner with a very successful Director. I forget how the meal began, but when the Etna Bianco arrived, I was already on the receiving end of a soliloquy about shooting schedules. The wine was effervescent. Surprisingly rich and complex for a Carricante, yet still fresh, with a pillowy acidity that delivered ripe peaches, white blossom, and a long, almost Burgundian finish. I can still taste it. So engrossed in this little Etna spiral was I, that I barely balked when the Paccheri alla Gricia arrived with sauteed artichokes atop it (cc. New York Times). Suffice to say, I had drifted from a conversation it would be prudent to make a good impression in. The wine easing me outside of myself until I realise what is rankling me about this well-meaning, yet meaning-less conversation. He’s missing it. The meal, the scene, the city – the joy of life’s table all around us. We are eating the most Roman of all dishes in the Eternal city itself, there is an aqueduct outside that’s been flowing since ‘I, fucking, Claudius’ and you’re talking camera set ups in a car chase? Since moving to Rome, I had been working so many hours racing to finish the script, I had neglected the reason for moving in the first place. To live. What good is leading an artistic life, if you cannot recognise life’s true pleasures when they’re staring you in the face?
“Suffice to say, drinking alone in the kitchen was not what either I nor the bottle had in mind. However, it was one of the most delicious wine experiences in memory.”
Readers may remember my last piece about being plant-based for a year, and wondered if I would ever break and eat meat again. Spoilers: I broke. It wasn’t so much that I fell off the wagon, as crashed the wagon into a bus… and then ate the wagon, the bus, and all the passengers on board. When the moment came, as is my wont, it came in a moment of sheer petulance. I had recently moved to Bath and was en route to a meeting two hours away, only for it to be rescheduled as I pulled into the station. I have many abilities, but none more so than my ability to dwell on something until my rage burns with the fire of a thousand suns. So, the return trip home was more than enough time to think it was a good idea to crack open the straight Nerello Mascalese, Etna Rosso that I had been saving for a special occasion. Suffice to say, drinking alone in the kitchen was not what either I nor the bottle had in mind. However, whether it was the gloriously grouchy finish, the minerally notes of regret, or the high acidity of rail company profits, it was one of the most delicious wine experiences in memory. Vibrant blackberries, juicy cherries, the silkiest of tannins; yet somehow still hinting at that volcanic minerality that makes Etna so singular.
However, with the delicious anger dissipating with every sip, I found myself consumed with a fierce appetite I hadn’t felt in years. As I considered my fridge options of purple sprouting broccoli and avocado, I once again disappear down the Etna rabbit hole of one single thought. This is not who you are; like a man realising he’s wearing someone else’s clothes and they’re all made out of hemp. Fuelled by the primordial force of Mount Etna, I knew what I needed…
I had often wondered what the epic meal would be to usher myself back into carnivorous lands. The bone marrow toast at St. John? The Canard à la Presse at Otto’s? Nope. It was a £1 packet of Milano Salami from Tesco Express. I am the girl who dreams of losing her virginity beneath the roaring fire of a log cabin, and then actually loses it in a Ford Focus behind a Chiquito’s… And yet. With the Etna Rosso clinging to every morsel of fat, no salami has ever tasted better. All becomes clear. This is what you are. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. You can feel bad when you’re dead (which now that you’re clogging your arteries with animal fat again, will probably be sooner). And while you’re at it, stop trying to be a well-adjusted, suburban member of society, and move back to debauched, unpredictable London, where you belong… Etna had spoken.
Cut to four months later, and I am out in said London with a new group of friends, all wino-peeps, and we are taking it in turns to choose a bottle. There is an Etna Rosso on the menu, and as I had never tried a single varietal Nerello Cappuccio (so named for the way the grapes shelter from the hot Sicilian sun under their hooded ‘Cappuccio’ leafy canopy), it’s an easy choice. What I did not realise, was that this wine was a ‘natural’. Personally, I feel there is an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ collective psychosis when it comes to Naturals. There are some decent ones, mostly those that don’t taste ‘natural’, and still adhere to the basic tenets of proper wine. This natural however, tasted not unlike the volcanic remains of pureed Pompei peasants (Vesuvius, not Etna, but you get the idea). And it’s not just me, everyone hates it. It’s the film Only God Forgives in a bottle. Not because it divides opinion, but because anyone who likes it is wrong.
Wine folk have an almost unparalleled capacity to sound obnoxious when overheard. That’s anyone, not just soft boy Saturday Kitchen presenters, who grotesquely marvel at flavours like a nitrous-addled infant tasting ice cream for the first time (thus proving there is nothing that cannot be ruined by a man in red corduroy trousers.) But when you’re on the inside, the shared nerdiness and eagerness to exchange ideas, can make wine people as open-minded and welcoming a bunch as you could hope to meet. However, ‘wine bantz’ is not a thing. But having collectively dropped eighty notes on this dross, the pseudo-middle-class ribbing is justified. It is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever put in my mouth, and I’ve been to a Prezzo. Usually, this would be the precise moment where self-loathing would creep into my subconscious. “If the people you grew up with could see you now, so bourgeois that you’re taking pot-shots over acidity? They would punch you in the face.” And yet… Etna.
“The wine does not matter. The food does not matter. These shared experiences, even the bad ones that we lost for two whole years, are what adds up to an actual life.”
All I can hear is the staccato hum of friends enjoying each other, laughing – laughing at me, mostly. The inane insults from the Assistant to the Regional Manager of Banterbury bounce around playfully like a child’s balloon. Post-pandemic, you realise how much you’ve missed this. The wine does not matter. The food does not matter. These shared experiences, even the bad ones that we lost for two whole years, are what adds up to an actual life. These are good people. And I am happy… I know. I was as surprised as you.
No, Etna has no transcendent magical powers, and is unlikely to conjure absinthe-esque evenings of the Belle Epoque. But for whatever reason, their wines have coincided with moments of clarity that have provoked larger thought and more tangible action. There is some connective tissue with the terroir that I just don’t feel anywhere else. Yet like everything in this game, the connection resides exclusively in my head. But that’s okay. We choose to drink wine precisely because it evokes thought and contemplation, and because we know those feelings simply could not be provoked by drinking anything else. There is no Etna Green Fairy, but we should be grateful for the introspection and clarity, however it arrives.