Reviewed by Melissa Oliveira
“Italy began for me south of Naples, in a modest-sized town perched on a tuff stone cliff above the Mediterranean,” Robert V. Camuto writes in his latest book South of Somewhere: Wine, Food, and the Soul of Italy (University of Nebraska Press, October 2021). In many ways, it is a revolutionary statement, particularly for a wine writer like Camuto: When people think of Italian wines, the ones that readily spring to mind probably come from north of Rome, not south of Naples. Sadly, Italy’s South tends to evoke images far from the big, famous red wines of Tuscany and celebrated cuisine of Emilia-Romagna. The south represents a contrast, a foil; on pre-Unification maps, it is the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and its roots are feudal, agricultural, and deeply religious. If Italy’s North is one of the world’s most famous fine dining and drinking destinations, the south has been a place that many left in order to escape hunger and poverty; if your ancestors, like mine, immigrated from Italy in the early 20th Century, they likely came from the economically devastated south. Today’s Italian South is aging rapidly and still struggling to retain young people with work and quality of life.
Still, if we scratch at the surface a bit, is there something to the modern Italian South beyond these issues? As Camuto’s ancestral home, where a summer visiting family changed how he thought about food and wine forever, he is motivated to find out. His foray into the question naturally focuses on wine. Now, after making a career writing books and articles about the famous French and Italian wine regions, Camuto finally gets to apply his wine-writing chops in South of Somewhere to the overlooked — and maybe even underrated — Italian South.
Structurally, the book dedicates a chapter to each southern Italian state, moving through the mountains of Abruzzo to Umbria, Campania, the slopes of Etna and Vulture and so on, profiling a few winemakers in each region. The Italian South, Camuto argues, is undergoing a winemaking renaissance, and indeed every winemaker in the book is an innovator of sorts trying to bring something new to the ancient work of making wine. In these pages, we meet one winemaker reviving a nearly extinct grape variety and learn about how another hand-separates the detritus from grapes to produce a product better than if a machine were used, which damages the fruit.
With Camuto, we meet an array of characters changing the narrative of southern wine: dynamic and politically engaged young people, old men who have been making wine their whole lives and a few women steering the family business in a completely new direction. In the words of one of the winemakers, Andrea Feraioli, “I don’t want to make a wine better than the next one. I want to make a wine that tells a story — the story of our territory.” All were invested in showing the world that Southern Italian wine is not a rough, provincial product, but something quite special and underrated. I could see how these winemakers were up against stereotypes of their own region, and how that translated to how the wine world viewed their wine. On the flip side, while reading Camuto I could also imagine that they were relieved of the expectations of such famous regions or appellations; they could afford to innovate from the edges. Indeed, a recurring theme is how much these wines are very beloved, not in Italy, but elsewhere in the world: Japan, New York, or Las Vegas.
That said, the family memoir of wine and food I expected from the jacket copy was a bit different from the book of profiles I read. In some ways, I wanted more: more memory, more of Camuto’s personal connection. When Camuto goes there, it is great, as “in each winemaker and family, I found some deeper meaning in wine as a kind of hope.” I found the connections he draws between wine and the future to be so valuable, like when he talks about young people choosing to settle around Etna instead of emigrating because of the wine production, or how the diversity of grape varieties in southern vineyards provides protection against some of the problems plaguing the monocultural vineyards of richer regions.
Though the many long and detailed descriptions of wines were admittedly lost on me, I appreciated Camuto’s attention to the nuances and contradictions of the place: the grit needed to make something others prejudge as having little value, or the persistence of enjoying wine and life even under the pervasive shadow of organized crime, or the spirit of innovation and flexibility in a field that values tradition and conformity.
For me, it was the focus on the people making the wine that make this book special, more than the descriptions of the wine itself. The emphasis on specific regions reminded me of Ann Mah’s Mastering the Art of French Eating, but South of Somewhere is more like a wine-based sibling to books like Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily or Mary Taylor Simeti’s Persephone’s Island, a book I can never recommend enough. One of my favorite profiles is of a Basilicatan winemaker, Elena Fucci, who had plans to go to university and settle elsewhere. But when her family discussed selling everything, including the house she grew up in, she corrected course, studied winemaking, and brought what she learned back home. In this region, where, as Elena’s father Salvatore said, “People here sold the grapes, and they starved,” Elena instead started a label that was winning awards after just a couple of years. Caputo shows how those who are busy reviving winemaking are, perhaps, also helping the region itself revive.