Salvo Foti is the frontrunner of a company of winegrowers and producers, I Vigneri, operating around Mount Etna in eastern Sicily. They owe their name, Vigneri, to the old winegrowers guild established in Catania in 1435. This important association of vine cultivators, working in the Etna region, was the bedrock for professionalism in wine growing and production. Today, 600 years later, Salvo and Vigneri aim at achieving “excellence” in wine through a non-invasive agricultural model, full respect of local traditions and ancient grapes as well as a strong ethic based on harmony with the volcano Etna and the natural vineyard’s environment.
Terraced vineyards on the north slopes of Mount Etna, Castiglione di Sicilia.
The renaissance of Etna wines over the last decades can be largely attributed to natives like Salvo Foti—and visionaries like Frank Cornelissen—who invested in this wine region against all odds to promote environmentally sound agriculture with a simultaneous return to traditional farming.
This is an extract from a short interview I had with him in the last days.
Livio: Describe your activity as food artisan?
Salvo: My family, my dearest friends and I are all winegrowers on Mount Etna. This is rather our life than our job. Because we use non-invasive tools and systems, we do a lot of manual work both in the vineyard and in the cellar and we constantly aim at being in harmony with nature—our environment and the volcano—of which we are a part, not above. Our vineyards, rich in biodiversity, represent our terroir and everything there is in it. In our vineyards different vines live together, young and old. Each brings something and together they all participate in creating a typical and unique wine. Like in human society, all stages of life, cultural and social expressions are represented and, together, create a community. We want our wines to be the most genuine, truest expression of our territory and of our thousand-year-old Etna wine culture. That is why beyond our “face,” we personally put our hands in everything we do.
L: What’s your client base like?
S: Our customers have always been predominantly, around 80%, foreigners. More than 20 years ago when, first in the family, I started to bottle—all previous generations produced only bulk—our wines were bought overseas. In Italy our wines had no consideration and they were not adequately paid for. These were times when the fashion of fermented grape juice was elsewhere, certainly not Etna. Today, as then, our major markets are USA and Japan, followed by England, Germany, France, Canada and northern Europe. For two years we have also been in China.
L: When did you see things changing after the pandemic of Covid-19?
S: The change, or rather the perception of the change, was felt only in March and not before.
L: What has changed in your day-to-day activity?
S: Nothing has changed in the vineyard. Nature does not stop and we are working the land as best as we can, preparing for the next harvest, even in these uncertain and unpredictable times. We are in a new, surreal situation, which we feel not so much in our work in the vineyard, that continues as usual (if you want to see our work find us on Instagram), but in the lack of human contact. In recent years we had grown accustomed to receiving many people from all over the world that were visiting Etna and with whom we spent very intense moments of sympathy and humanity. We miss those times a lot.
L: How long can you stay in business in this situation?
S: Many have suspended orders, many have postponed payments. We don’t know what will happen in the coming months. Until harvest we must resist by necessity, continue our work and invest more of our money. We shall see. We have already had to stop our work and investments in the cellar and we will not know when it will be possible to resume these activities.
L: What do you foresee in the future?
S: We are worried about the future, but this will not stop us. In the past, in different ways, we have suffered other crises, especially us, people from the south, people from Etna. I still have a vivid memory of how, not long ago, we local Etna winegrowers were hardly considered. Nobody liked our wine and nobody wanted to buy it. We have to thank those very few “visionaries” who, then, came to Etna to discover our wines, to buy them and give us the possibility of a future, which for me and my family meant the possibility of being able to continue working our land, and not having to emigrate as my father and mother had to do.
L: What’s your wish for the years to come?
S: That we can resume in reasonable times to live again in a “Human” way, without fear and worry of being able to shake hands with people, embrace them and share a bottle of wine together. I hope, however, that we will all understand and appreciate the meaning of a handshake, a hug, and all human connections: these are not and cannot be considered trivialities without weight or relevance! By now we should all know the great value of these gestures between people. It can take very little to lose them, and being unable to express them with our loved ones, our friends and colleagues. We must treasure and give more meaning to values and above all sincerity—I would say sacredness—and never forget that a handshake in our grandparents’ times had the value of a contract.
Mount Etna ecosystem, groves and slopes…
L: What have you learned from this experience?
S: That the only certainty we have is change! That what we consider obvious is not! That Nature—or God if you like—makes no distinctions as men do. It’s time for all of us to be less selfish. To walk our talks, give meaning to our words, and effectively respect the Earth we live on.
L: Are you expecting help from the state?
S: NO! In Italy, especially in the south, there are complex dynamics in which the most deceitful, the “strongest,” the richest are more likely to get help, rewards, opportunities than the most virtuous or meritorious: that’s crystal clear to everyone. On the other hand, the one who makes an “ethical” choice—as a true craftsman—who is respectful of the environment and the people with deeds, does first and foremost for himself and would do it regardless beyond aid.
L: Finally please nominate or suggest a person that you would like to see us interview.
S: Franco Di Stefano, Molino Soprano
Salvatore D’Amico, Cantine D’Amico
When driving across the country roads of Mount Etna you will encounter many palmento, aka ancient cellars, built-in black lava stone made of basins where the grapes were crushed and processed to make wine. Their unique architecture consists of 3 or 4 rooms on different levels to exploit the gravity which lets the must flow into large tanks where it is fermented.
In the video below there’s a testimonial of the-making-of wine in one of Salvo’s Palmento.