Culture: A Devastating Earthquake Destroyed the Sicilian Town of Gibellina. Wine and Art Helped Rebuild It. | Wine Enthusiast
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A Devastating Earthquake Destroyed the Sicilian Town of Gibellina. Wine and Art Helped Rebuild It.

Cantine Ermes, Sicily’s largest wine cooperative, describes itself as mosaico di identità, or “mosaic of identities,” referring to the wide variety of people, places and grapes that contribute to its winemaking operations. When passing through the rolling hills of the Belice Valley, you’ll find Cantine Ermes’s home and primary growing region; “mosaic” also appropriately describes the landscape. Amid the patchwork fields of grapes and grains, however, one patch is especially remarkable: a stark white field of plaster carved into a maze; a massive art installation that immortalizes the spot where, in 1968, the ground shook, and a 5.5-magnitude earthquake literally decimated Gibellina, a town at the very heart of the Belice Valley.

The 1968 Belice Valley earthquake was more than just structurally seismic for the area. The cataclysmic disaster gave rise to a reimagined Gibellina, and alongside it, Cantine Ermes—what would become one of Sicily’s most important wine cooperatives. The history following the earthquake is one that illuminates the inextricable link between wine and art in Sicilian culture.

An aerial view of the mountain town of Gibellina made January 15th, shows what Italian news sources have termed "a scene of complete destruction." The destruction here and in several other small towns is the result of violent earthquakes which rocked the extreme western tip of this island early January 15th. No definitive toll of death and injury has been reported in the worst seismic disturbances to hit Italy since the earthquake of 1908, which killed 75,000 persons.
Bettamnn Archive / GettyImages

The Catastrophe

Triangulated by the towns of Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento in Sicily’s northwest lobe, the Belice Valley was already a workhorse in Sicilian winemaking prior to 1968. “The province of Trapani was one of the largest wine regions in all of Europe,” says Rosario Di Maria, president of Cantine Ermes. “In years past, Belice Valley wines were usually used for bulk wine, not for bottling,” he says, noting why the region’s wines tend to lag behind other Sicilian viticultural areas such as Etna, Vittoria or Marsala in recognition. With its myriad soil types, altitudes, microclimates and favorable wind conditions, Belice Valley farmers grow a variety of Sicilian grapes such as Grillo, Nero d’Avola and Frappato. The area also lays claim to native Perricone, a fresh but full-bodied red typically used for blending that is beginning to see more varietal bottlings.

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While the earthquake completely toppled the buildings of Gibellina, as well as many others in a dozen nearby towns, the area’s vineyards remained largely unharmed, presenting a unique dilemma for the region’s farmers and winemakers. In the aftermath of the earthquake, unable to logistically contend with providing basic necessities for nearly 100,000 citizens displaced by the event, the Italian government was strongly incentivizing the people of the Belice Valley to leave. “They were processing passports in two hours and offering people a one-way ticket to anywhere in the world,” says Di Maria, whose grandfather was among the Belice Valley growers and winemakers affected by the earthquake and one of many who chose to stay.

On the heels of the depopulation of many Italian regions, including Sicily, following World War II, this additional loss of population could have easily foretold the death of the Belice Valley and its wines. “The circumstances were so difficult, and the conditions were so limited for the people of Gibellina,” says Di Maria. “There were a lot of incentives to go. Those who decided to stay decided to rebuild, because they believed in the area.

A drone view of the Cretto di Gibellina (also known as "Cretto di Burri") in Sicily, Italy, a town destroyed in the 1968 Belice earthquake.
Drone view of the Cretto di Gibellina / Getty Images

The Reconstruction

Among those who believed in the area, none did so much as Gibellina’s mayor, Ludovico Corrao, a well-connected politician and lawyer who, along with the region’s farmers who refused to abandon their vineyards, was committed to seeing Gibellina rise again from the rubble. At a site about seven miles from the ruined city, his vision for a reimagined Gibellina—Gibellina Nuova—was that of a town centered around public art. At his invitation, during construction that would last well into the 1980s, artists and architects from throughout Italy were invited to contribute designs, installations and sculptures that would shape Gibellina Nuova as a living museum. In a related project, the earthquake site of the former Gibellina would be forever enshrined in plaster, its streets carved into a three-dimensional map by artist Alberto Burri; a haunting memorial known as “Cretto di Burri.”

While Corrao’s artistic vision might seem fanciful for what was largely a farming community recently devastated by a natural disaster, for the supporters of the project it spoke to something fundamental about the DNA of Sicily and Sicilians. “Wine and art are Sicilian culture,” says Enzo Fiammetta, director of the Museum of Mediterranean Wefts at Gibellina’s Orestiadi Foundation, a multidisciplinary arts collective and museum launched by Corrao during Gibellina’s reconstruction. “Some of the earliest Sicilian artworks, from the time of the Greek occupation, were wine jugs that depicted vinification,” he says. “Ludovico believed strongly in the relationship between wine and art that defines the culture here.”

Corrao’s vision then was more than just a “Utopia Concreta,” the original name given to the project; it was a beacon for many people of the area, including the grape growers. “To work in the fields and remain to support the project of Ludovico Corrao was a second chance for the people of Gibellina,” says Di Maria.

Italy, Sicily, Trapani district, Gibellina Nuova, Mother Church by Ludovico Quaroni
Alessandro Saffo / SIME / eStock Photo

The Birth of Cantine

Ermes Capitalizing on the rising tide of Corrao’s resurrected city 30 years after its demise, in 1998 nine of the family farms that had been in the Belice Valley since before the earthquake joined forces to form a winemaking cooperative centered in Gibellina: Cantine Ermes. Among them was Di Maria’s father, Pietro Di Maria, who had been working the vineyards and making wine with his father-in-law, Di Maria’s grandfather.

Wine cooperatives that represented the interests of small growers were not new to Italy; certain cantine cooperativa or cantine sociali date back to the late 1800s. They had not yet taken root in the Belice Valley, however, an area that especially stood to benefit from strength in numbers given the difficulty of the decades following the earthquake. “In an agricultural system which witnesses so many small plots, what could a small grape grower do to profit?” asks Giuseppi Bursi, vice president of Sicilia DOC, the modern consortium that protects and promotes Sicilian wine standards. Now, “the role of cooperation in Sicily is absolutely fundamental,” says Bursi, “given that more than 70% of grapes are vinified by wine co-ops, the majority of which are found in Western Sicily.”

The establishment of Cantine Ermes, then, was another way that Gibellina rose from catastrophe. “Being part of a wine cooperative can guarantee small-scale vintners the possibility of having continuity from year to year,” says Di Maria. To that end, in the 25 years since its inception, Cantine Ermes has grown from the original nine to over 2,500 associate growers, the majority of whom are located in the Belice Valley, growing grapes for three different Sicilian labels under the Cantine Ermes umbrella: the aptly named Epicentro, Quattro Quarti and Vento di Mare.

Italy, Sicily, Trapani district, Gibellina, Gibellina, art and landscape from new and old towns

Agronomists within Cantine Ermes’s employment work with individual farms to establish standards of quality. Factors such as vineyard altitude and age, soil type and farming practices determine the price farmers are paid for their grapes, as well as which of the three Cantine Ermes labels they grow for. According to Di Maria, it’s possible and not uncommon for farms to move up a tier, further incentivizing quality grape production for the area, and raising the overall profile of Belice Valley wines. In its history, no farm that is part of the Cantine Ermes cooperative has ever had their grapes level down. “Improving the pay for co-op members is the only way to sustain Sicilian grape growing,” says Bursi, speaking to the larger scope of Silician wine cooperatives, “allowing farmers to keep farming grapes and preventing vineyards from being abandoned.”

“It was never about resurrecting buildings,” says Fiammetta, “but about resurrecting a community.” Buoyed by those twin pillars, modern-day Gibellina is a living homage to its complicated history, a city-sized gallery where the artistic and the viticultural constantly reflect off of one another.

With 67 public artworks and multiple museums in a town of only about 4,000, contemporary Gibellina also houses one of Cantine Ermes’s major production facilities, as well as an offshoot winery founded in 2008 called Tenute Orestiadi. A partnership with the Orestiadi Foundation (on whose board Di Maria also sits), Tenute Orestiadi itself houses a barrique museum in its cellar, another partnership with the Brera Academy of Fine Art. Two of Tenute Oriestiadi’s highest crus, Bianco and Rosso di Ludovico, are a tribute to the town’s founder. Tenute Oriestiadi’s labels bear symbols devised by an artist who imagined and visualized a common language of the Mediterranean. The Tenute Oriestiadi winery, also under the Orestiadi Foundation umbrella within Gibellina, features a Moscato vineyard to honor various styles of the grape grown throughout the region. Thus purpose-built with art and wine at its core, “in Gibellina it is an inescapable link,” says Di Maria, “especially for us who live it on a daily basis.”

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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