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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Name On The Bottle

I meet Calogero at his Palermo office, but his heart has already left for the hills.

So we follow.

A lawyer by day and a wine producer whenever he has a spare moment, Calogero Leone runs his vineyard on property his family has owned for some 200 years.

It’s hard to imagine that countryside this beautiful exists so close to Palermo, a city where green space is rare and one of the best-known parks is covered in asphalt.

Though Leone grows and sells enough grapes (without turning them into wine) to employ several people, he only completes the process and puts his name and the vineyard’s – Tenuta Mariano – on 5,000 bottles per year, a paltry five percent of what he grows.

He takes me out into the vines to show me how they are slowly turning the family business from a quantity to a quality production. Several workers are out between the rows, already trimming back a good hunk of the new growth.

“Cutting back like this means we make 50 percent less wine but the quality is better,” he says. “Unfortunately, there isn’t a direct correlation between lower volume and a higher selling price.”

He’s a stickler for quality.

“We started the changeover in 2000 and have had two years where we didn’t produce,” he says.

So… in seven years of existence, there were two years where you bottled no wine?

“It wasn’t good enough.”

Later, as we head to meet a producer/friend of his, I ask why he wanted to make this switch.

The first few minutes of his reply seem to be the Sicilian version of vintner babble, but as we drive through the rapidly changing countryside, he lets me in a bit.

“As you get older, you encounter difficult situations, even pain,” he says. “I now prefer a quality of life that gives value to things.”

We pull into the Ceuso vineyards in Calatafimi Segesta, a small- to mid-sized producer run by the Melia brothers and their geologist brother in law.

“He does the accounting,” clarifies Vincenzo Melia (left), the agronomist.

Vincenzo is clearly distressed by something that happened just before our arrival and his shoulders don’t relax until he opens a bottle of their white wine and its smells (pineapple, most notably) drift across the tasting room.

He picks up on Calogero’s vein of the quality that a smaller producer can give to their wines.

“You can make wine more economically if you’re a big producer,” he says, waving his arms in a mix of exasperation and relief, “but the little producer can make more animated wines that have more soul.

“I prefer to sell my wine with my name on it.”

This is Joe Ray reporting from the Motherland.

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