food / travel

How One Family’​s Wine Saved A Remote Italian Island

Making the sweet wine Passito is backbreaking work but has given Pantelleria, an island off the Tunisian coast, a new lease on life.

At the Donnafugata vineyard
At the Donnafugata vineyard
Flavia Amabile

PANTELLERIA â€" It’s the first day of grape harvest on this remote Italian island. Biagio smiles as he picks grapes in the blistering heat. “Passito is the work of our sweat,” he says, referring to the sweet straw wine that is putting Pantelleria back on the map. Despite the heat and the rough terrain, the sweet grapes here give life to a wine many seek to imitate but few are able to match.

Pantelleria, one of the most beautiful places in Italy, would have been abandoned long ago if not for the quality of its grapes and the hard work of pickers like Biagio. From fashion designer Giorgio Armani to French actress Carole Bouquet, people have come from all over Europe to seek refuge in this far-flung paradise in the Mediterranean Sea. Even though Pantelleria is beautiful, the island would have struggled to survive without the Passito grape and the dedication of one Sicilian family to grow it.

In 1989, Giacomo Rallo purchased several hectares of abandoned vineyards on Pantelleria. The grapevines here are difficult to cultivate. Reaching a maximum height of 10 cm (3.9 inches), the vines grow on mountain terraces that descend into the clear blue sea. But Rallo was determined.

Vineyards spanned half the island 50 years ago but now cover only a tenth of Pantelleria. Rallo’s vineyard, Donnafugata, breathed new life into the cultivation of grapes on the island. Rallo has since passed away but his son Antonio carries on his work. Donnafugata employs 35 to 40 people around the year and up to 75 workers during the harvest season.

It’s 35 degrees Celsius on the first day of the harvest. The temperature rises to 37 degrees in the tunnels where the picked grapes will be laid out to dry â€" an essential step in making Passito. Work begins at dawn, with short breaks for a morning snack and for lunch.

Biagio, 51, worked as a mechanic in the Sicilian town of Marsala before moving here in the year 2000. “Working on Pantelleria’s vineyards is much better. I prefer working in the sunny countryside rather than staying indoors inhaling car exhaust,” he says. He and 10 other farmers arrived on Aug. 16 and will stay here another two months, that is, until the end of the harvest season.

“You have to bend down to pick each bunch of grapes,” explains Biagio. Calling the work tiring is an understatement. Each picker bends down hundreds of times, picking the good grapes and discarding any that are rotten or dried. After a morning’s work, the boxes of grapes are taken to tunnels, where they’re placed in special greenhouses with open sides that protect them from Pantelleria’s humid nights. Bunches of grapes are laid out to dry in the tunnels for 30 days until about mid-September, when the grapes are individually picked and their juices are drained.

Pantelleria’s Passito has provided work to many people as long as they can commute to this island located 100 km away from the Sicilian coast. Workers in the local wine industry have to spend most of the year on the island. “Harvest season is a cakewalk, the real work comes in winter,” says Vincenzo, 48, who came to Pantelleria three years ago after leaving his stationery shop in Marsala.

Winter on Pantelleria involves braving strong winds to carry a water pump through the terraces, spraying water to remove grass, and digging basins to plant the grapes. It’s a complex process but one that people are passionate about. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Ali, 65, an expert on the complex drying techniques needed to make Passito.

“I’m proud of doing this work,” says Vincenzo. “Back home they made a bet that I wouldn’t be able to take it and that I’d return after 15 days. Three years later, I’m still here and I don’t plan on leaving.”

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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