Welcome to Enoteca Picone, a temple for wine culture
June 2018, Palermo
Palermo is a place to be discovered and experienced, a city that vibrates and shakes you to the core, the vendors on the streets, the cars, the scooters that dodge between tourists tired by the summer’s heat.
It is now almost evening, the sun is setting, filling the narrow streets with rays of orange light.
We have almost reached our destination, our pilgrimage has led us to a parking space where in front of us there are plants and white orning above a doorway where old fashioned typography spells out "Enoteca Picone".
Since 1946, the historic Enoteca Picone has been one of the main reference points in Palermo, a meeting place for oenophiles and curious newcomers to this world of wine. With more than 7000 labels, Picone reminds us of a library that displays Italian excellences and beyond.
Today, it is run by the fourth generation of the Picone family, which entrusted the establishment’s management to Vera Bonanno.
We walk through the large glass doors, dark wooden shelves stocked up with bottles and typical Sicilian produce give the enoteca a certain austerity, which is softened by the fun bright green of some of the walls. A long counter occupies the left side of the entrance, and behind it, smiling, there is Vera, greeting us with a hug and a glass of wine in her hand.
Vera is the soul and the heart of this place; like the frame that completes a painting, already beautiful, but not perfect without it.
She does the honours and takes us on a walk inside. High shelves stand out on the walls of the room, and walking between them under the soft lights, feels like taking the grand tour of Europe: Italy, France, Germany; there is something for all tastes and characters.
She stands in the middle of all those bottles, reassuringly confident.
Vera talks about wine, and in doing so, she builds up a world around her subject, as if she was drawing a sketch and the curious by stander finds oneself inside her creation.
By untangling a series of perceptions and linking up ideas, she can make seemingly incomprehensible concepts pretty easy to understand, with the utmost simplicity.
We sit down and talk, remembering the first time we met in Hong Kong few months earlier.
It is curious how true friendship can travel far, how passion creates invisible but concrete bonds between human beings and how some experiences stay in the heart, forever.
Between a laugh and another, we begin talking about her life; we are curious to see how and why this woman has created this microcosm of Picone, and how she came to analyse wine in her completely ‘Vera’ way.
How did you start in this industry?
I started 20 years ago, it was just a game, as happens to many.
I was 14 and my boyfriend, whose father worked in the wine world, introduced me;
we were together for 6 years, when he left me, he also left me with the biggest gift.
This moment for me was like he had set a path in my life.
But often in life, the first path is not the one you take; the extraordinary thing that it comes back to us, somehow.
The people I met in my life were always decisive; they made me realize that I was doing the right thing, that the way was my way. They helped me turn a path that was foggy into a clear scenario; sometimes with an unexpected encounter, a simple word at the right time, the fog rises, and the shapes become figures.
I say so because for me to get into the wine field was not immediate.
Before, I was a restorer, like an artist with very precise rules to respect.
My first job was helpful in some way for what I do now.
In the restoration you have a problem, you analyse it and solve it… in wine it is the same thing.
When did you became aware of your love for wine?
Mine is a passion that turned into an obsession and then into a vocation.
I felt that I wanted to do this and nothing else, that I would be realized and that I could give something back.
But it was not easy to listen to my heart.
Nowadays wine is a fashionable thing; but when I started 20 years ago, everything was different. Nobody talked about wine, nobody knew what a wine shop was.
Besides, I am a woman. Back then, the society was very conservative.
Women did not have an identity; they were someone's wives or they were inside the wine because it was a family thing. Not by choice.
The female figure was relegated to iconographic, traditional fields, or at home.
We, the few ones, were called "the chimeras", mythological almost unthinkable things.
Then they happened to create all those associations as "women of wine" that, in my opinion, instead of integrating women, were pushing them aside.
By consequence, we were conceived as part of the association, not of the world of wine itself.
At the time, some of my friends made fun of my choice, interpreted as the whim of a girl. My mother also disapproved, for her, my passion was madness, a leap into the void.
It's been 20 years now and I do not regret anything, I’m happy to have persevered and made that leap.
I started at the Wine Bar, the first in Palermo, it was called “Mi manda Picone” (Picone sends me). By day I restored paintings, and in the evening I was serving wine; later on, I decided to devote myself only to that. I was not sorry to leave the restoration, because I was never to be the best, I have been true to myself. I felt the wine flowing in my bloodstream; it had become a need.
And what do you love about this?
When I worked at the restaurant, the thing I liked the most was the relationship I could have with the person sitting at the table: I studied him, I chose the wine for him, paired with the dishes, while trying to establish a close relationship.
Then I played a game: at the end of the dinner, I chose a dessert wine for each person at the table, based on what I had observed, and I gave a series of adjectival motivations that linked the person to the wine. And all the knots were melted: people can learn a lot about themselves through their wine choice.
In the wine bar the rules of the game change.
In the wine shop you have a smaller range than the restaurant: an infinite stock of bottles and a customer with little time for you, which are two difficult things to combine.
In the shortest time possible you have to guess what the person wants to make him happy, understanding him with just what you feel and see.
When I was selling a bottle at the restaurant, I hardly ever went home and wondered if I had done the right thing; while in the Enoteca I ask myself every day if pleased my customers.
I do not want to talk about wine as if I’m discussing rocket science. I talk about wine because I love it, and taking the topic less seriously is necessary, considering what wine is in the end.
It 's a thing that goes in your body through the bowels, which brings happiness and sadness. On that, I make up my own unique story.
What do you require to do your job?
The talent, first of all. Then the nose, the immediate perception and concentration to not to be influenced by what others suggest. This is also a rule in life.
How has your palate changed over time?
A lot, like when you see the photos of when you were little and you think "How did I?"
In wine it is the same: you look back and think "but how it could I have been passionate about this?". The taste changes, refines and perfects, you know everything you do not like anymore and what you need.
How do you define your taste?
I am very versatile, adapting to my own mood and to what I feel at that moment.
Sometimes, I might want something extremely simple, some other something refined and elegant.
What do you drink if you feel simple?
Lambrusco and piece of salami, why not ?!
And If you feel like a lady?
Champagne, my great love.
If you would have a last night and three bottles, which ones would you drink?
Champagne Egly Ouriet, Vielle de Vrigny:
Egly because is a pinot meuniere hundred percent; at that time he was maybe the only one fool producing it, this uniqueness roughness and austerity has always enchanted.
The white tiger of champagne despite the grape is red.
Riesling, JJ Prum:
JJ Prum's Riesling is the most romantic thing you could wish to drink.
In front of the terraces sipping a bottle of the 80s (year of birth of his daughter) you find yourself in front of Wehlener Sonnenuhr, "the sundial" of slate black soil on ungrafted vine. How he manages the acidity and sugars with a refined elegance in a way that you feel pushed back in time.
Barolo, Cascina Franca, Conterno:
Cascina Franca has been an overwhelming love; the love that starts from your insides, going through your bowels, legs and head. For me he has no competitors…it is immense, original and simply perfect!
Last curiosity... recalling the wine game you were doing at the restaurant: which sweet wine would you pick for your friend Keti (founder of Certa)?
I met Keti few years back and we got along, immediately.
She is an overwhelming woman, full of energy but very fragile at the same time; I would think of
a wine with a lot of sugar that you don't feel on the palate... an ice wine for example. It is a sweet wine with high acidity and high sugar levels, two very different things pointing at different feelings. It is a very special and difficult wine to make: you have to have the perfect climate conditions for its production; and this can happens once every five years, making it very exceptional.
-Back in time to when the wine was stored in wooden carboys-
For more visit --- www.enotecapicone.com