Claudio Sottile: Following NYC Dreams to Sicily and Back

Everyone has dreams. And in New York City, there are many to be realized. Some dream to be a Broadway star, slick Wall Street fat cat, righteous jazz musician, down-to-earth yoga teacher, determined business owner, hungry activist, or even an honest lawyer. The possibilities are endless. And still there are others that dream to make wine out of grapes.

Claudio is one of those dreamers whose wine dreams have come true. Claudio grew up in New York City and spent summers on his grandparents’ vineyards in Castellammare del Golfo,Sicily. Castellammare del Golfo is a mountainous maritime region in northwestern Sicily, near Palermo.

Within the Castellammare del Golfo region, the vineyard sites are located in the valley of Monte Inici. Cool, salty winds swirl into the valley from the sea and turn “maestral”(as Claudio puts it in our interview below) with a constant motion, making for special ripening conditions. The soils are a composite of limestone, calcium, red sands and clays that retain heat and further modulate temperatures. Ranging from 300-700 meters above sea level, there are two blocks of 35-40 years old vines: one is the south-facing Catarratto; on the other side of the valley is the north-facing Nero D’Avola.

Harvest was a sacred pastime for Claudio’s family for reasons of tradition and income. Big wine producers valued the vineyard location and bought grapes regularly. Claudio would only return back to school and New York City after harvest was done. It was important to his family that Claudio witness and be a part of harvest. And needless to say, harvest with family made an indelible impression on Claudio’s life.

With his grandparents’ passing, Claudio took ownership of the family vineyards and soon felt a strong urge to do something more remarkable in honoring generations of hard work and tradition. Year after year Claudio would maintain the vineyards, yet he always dreamed to make wine and sell it in New York City. In 2017, he took the jump and committed to bottling artisanal wine made from his family’s vineyards. The results are an indispensable representation of Sicilian viticulture and tradition.

Grape Collective sat down and talked with Claudio Sottile of Iniceri Wine.


Marco Salerno: How does a New Yorker end up with a winery and a wine company in Sicily?

Claudio Sottile: My family comes from the northwest coast of Sicily, in the province of Trapani. The town is called Castellammare del Golfo. The vineyard has been in my family for well over four generations, and I'm the fifth generation. My ancestors were farmers and for the most part, viticulturists. Grapes have always been kind of the main crop, and then after that is olive oil, grains, almonds, things like that.

This vineyard in particular was planted by my grandparents about 35 and 40 years ago. It's always been kind of part of our culture, our history, our family. And about five years ago, my grandmother ... whom was running the vineyard at the time and was also 89 ... fell ill. That was really when I was very hands on for that vintage. You know, I have a sister and my mom, both of which don't have a ton of experience in farming, viticulture, things like that. That's when I said, "You know what?"

As a kid, my sister and I would spend our summers there with our grandparents. Our parents would take us out of school ... The very next day, school was over ... Put us on a flight to Sicily, and we would spend our summers there with our grandparents. And the most important part was that we would come back late. You know, school had already started, but we would come back around the second week of September because we had to see the harvest.

Harvest is a very big part of the culture in the area because it's all predominantly farming land. We would, for better or worse ... As kids, it was a little bit boring. And then, as we got older, we got a little more excited. I think the quaintness of the vineyard that we experienced throughout the summer really morphed for us those last two weeks because of all the commotion. There was a lot going on. The workers were coming in from abroad, so we would hear other languages being spoken. And just this hustle and bustle. And it would be from 4:30 in the morning till about 11 a.m., you know?

And then it went back to this quiet, almost serene space. And then we're excited for the next day again. Having done that since we were children and really it being this special place for me is where I decided, "You know what? I don't wanna lose this." So I took over management five years ago. And then I quickly ... I got my butt kicked the first harvest. And then by the second, I started gaining a little more comfort with everything and organizing everything, and I quickly realized that the vineyard is certified biological, which is a little bit more ... It's a little more intense than organic viticulture standards or organic farming.

So 2017 was our first vintage, and we produced ... While we grow a lot of indigenous ... We only grow and deal with indigenous grapes. Catarratto, Nero d’Avola, to name a few. And those are the ones that we felt were not just the best in the purest expression of the terroir, there territory

So you mentioned your area, Castellammare del Golfo. What's it like to grow wine there?

Castellammare is this tiny fishing village on the northwest coast of Sicily. It's in the gulf, and about three miles west of us is Trapani, which is a big port ... Actually, it's three kilometers or four kilometers. But Castellammare's this really cute, quaint fishing village. It's got a beautiful port. It's on a hill, and everything is downhill. You know, the town starts at the top and goes all the way down to the marina. It's really picturesque. It's really beautiful and relatively quiet. But what a lot of people don't know is that Castellammare has long been known for the land to be very fertile.

So we're about two miles inland from Castellammare, and we're in a valley ... Which is called Contrada Inici. The Contrada Inici sits in the valley of Monte Inici, the mountain. We're in this long, narrow, arid valley. You have a west and east-facing slopes. For hundreds of years it was known as kind of the granary of the Mediterranean. A lot of heirloom grains that are now popular and were predominantly grown there. And then Castellammare is called Castella because there's a castle on the water, right?

So the castle sits at the top of one of the largest granaries of the Mediterranean. There's caverns that go down for 50, 60, 100 meters. And so ships would pull up and it was all gravitational feed. They would load it from the top. The grains would sit in these caverns. And then the ship would pull up and they would open one slot, and it would just float through.

It's a really unique place. Being in a valley, I've learned that you have ... The topography is very, very drastic. At the base, you have clay, red sand, predominantly dry soil. But there's a lot of clay, so it retains moisture. And then it climbs. And we're talking about 300 meters above sea level. And it'll climb all the way to 700. And at the top, engulfed in caves and lots of mineral deposits. But what you find is a lot of limestone and calcium. We have sections of the vineyard, for instance, where the Catarratto grows, that you don't see any soil. It's literally white stone for five acres, four acres.

It's a really, really unique topography. It's very drastic. And it's cool because there's these microclimates that exist within the valley that make growing wine there specifically very, very unique and different. It's funny. We have a section of the vineyard that if you walk five feet to the left, you can't grow any vines there. The vines just don't take. It's just the land really dictates what you can and cannot do. And a lot of that has just been passed down through generations, you know?

But the valley boasts like a mistral wind. While wind patterns are typically north to south, east to west, you'll find just this wind blowing every which way. That's really the unique quality of the Contrada. Contrada Inici. To grow grapes to make an elegant wine, you really need good sun exposure but not too much. You need a decent water source but not too much, you know? Vines really have to struggle a little bit to create something that's unique and different. However, the extremes kind of work in an adverse way.

On the property we have these mistral winds that help relieve the vines of some of that intense heat that we get in the afternoon. Being on a west-facing slope, we do catch kind of the late afternoon sun, which tends to be the most intense. But the beauty is the topsoil, limestone, and calcium, it'll start to heat up throughout the day, and it'll stay warm at night when we have ... You know, the temperatures kind of drop relatively drastically, being at a high elevation. So these stones will keep them relatively cool throughout the day 'cause they ... When we're getting that intense heat ... And then will start to warm up and stay warm throughout the night, when we get that drastic change in temperature.

So it's a really, really unique place. And I think the beauty of it is really when you're taking a walk. You start at the base or at the bottom of the valley, and you start walking, making your way up in elevation. And you start to see the soil composition just change. And it's really amazing because ... Previously, I never really ... You don't notice those types of things when you're just farming to produce grapes to sell, right? But as a winemaker now, you really appreciate it because you taste it in the vines, you know?

So it's really cool and it's really unique, but it's very hard work.

So Claudio, can you tell us about your wines?

2017 marked our first vintage, our first estate-produced wines. The two that we produced was Catarratto, which is the white and Nero d’Avola, which is the red. The white is called Abisso, and the red is called an Eremita, and this kinda correlates back to what I was saying before. We're trying to make a true expression of the place that we're in. So there's two caves in the valley. One sits relatively close to the vineyard, and one sits directly across from the vineyard. One's called Abisso, one's called Eremita. And there's a local folklore that says that Abisso and Eremita have this kind of gravitational pull between the two, which explains the maestral winds on the property.

Our winery's called Iniceri, and the reasoning behind Iniceri is that kinda plays in tune with that. So Inici is the area, Monte Inici. And E-R-I means, "Of that place." So our focus is really to produce wines that come from that area.

Within our land, we never plan to produce a Pinot Grigio, which is not indigenous and that we don't grow on the property. Abisso and Eremita are the two wines, and we thought that to pay homage to the area and the place, you know? Something that, for me, is very, very special. And a relatively unknown history of the valley, you know. About ... I don't know ... Less than half a mile from the vineyard sits a castle which belonged to origins of the San Clemente from Spain. So there is a lot of history and a lot of folklore, and the beauty is that we're making wine ... An unknown wine ... from an unknown part of Sicily, you know?

There's kind of that mystique and my branding and everything that we've kinda done. And you can kinda see the bottles are very, very plain. And I specifically did that because of the yin and yang, because ... The red. I wish I had a bottle. It'll be out in March. The red is actually white, and the white is actually black. And that's to kind of demonstrate that yin and yang, that pull, that black and white. Being that it's an east and a west-facing slope, you really do have a portion of the day ... The sun is beating on one, and then the other's dark and vice-versa, you know?

We really wanted to, in every way, not just in the wine but in its packaging, in its wording, in its core essence ... explain to people. And it could be, you know, directly, like we're doing You and I, or indirectly by simply just seeing it on the shelf. Hopefully for people to kinda look at it and say, "What's this negative space? What's this kind of blankness to it?" And maybe want to do more research and ... You know?

You can make a wine and you can put a really cool label on it, to sell. It'll probably sell. And I've done the analysis of a ton of wine labels, and I've talked to experts. I've talked to people who knew nothing about it. The reality is ultimately I did what I felt was right, what I felt would explain ... Or at least try to explain and demonstrate the place, the area, the territory, and really the wine, you know, because while there's thousands of vineyards in Sicily that ... There's not many indigenous grapes. And Catarratto's a primary indigenous grape. There's so many expressions of this one particular grape.

You can be in Sicily and you look at a wine list, and it's predominantly Sicilian producers. You're gonna see 20 Catarrattos, 10 Grillos, five Inzolias. But it's really that maker, that producer and where the vineyard is and how they make wine that transforms it into something that's really, really special.

I wanted to make a pure expression of the grape and the territory. And that's something that really, really comes out in the wine. Like a Catarratto, it's got heavy citrus notes, floral ... a really beautiful acidity that, depending on where you are, it could be too much or it could be not enough. But we have this section of the vineyard that we bottle this really kind of the cream of the crop. It's the best of the best. It's a very high elevation. It's about 600, 700 meters above sea level. It's enveloped with all topsoil, limestone. And the minerality just really comes through and shines in the grapes.

When you first smell it, it smells like a typical Catarratto. You taste notes of lemon and pomelo. There's a little bit of herbaceousness, like bay leaf and kind of green grass. But then, on the palate, it's just this beautiful minerality that just kinda cleans the palate and lets the nuances of that citrus and the floral notes to really kind of come through and stay on the palate.

You know, we could pop the wine right now, and it'll still be slightly effervescent. And that effervescence is the minerality. It's those stones, those stones that the vineyard owner complains about that he can't get the tractor up there. It's those stones that make working that part of the land incredibly difficult.

And so, that's kind of the uniqueness of it all. It's our first vintage, and I think we've made kind of the beginner mistakes, but the one thing we didn't do was alter the wine to be something other than it is, you know? It's a true, true expression of the place, you know?