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Sicilian Roots

Local lawyer, Tommy Spina uncorks his family’s heritage. 

By Jan Walsh

Photography by Beau Gustafson 

Local criminal defense lawyer, Tommy Spina got into the wine importing business by happenstance. While traveling to Sicily to research his family history, his cousin Marco Spina suggested Tommy bring the Sicilian wines to America. Afterwards the two men along with other family members and friends formed Sam Spina Importing Company, with locations in Birmingham and Palermo.

The company is the namesake of Spina's grandfather, Sam Spina who came to America in 1902. “He was small. But he was a tough cookie. It took a lot of courage to jump on a boat and head for the United States with only $8 in his pocket,” Spina describes. A few years later Sam opened the original Sam Spina Importing Company on Morris Avenue. “He sold foods including olive oils and dry goods to small, local grocers,” Spina describes. He died in 1950 one year before Tommy was born.  Sam’s sons Paul (Tommy’s father) and Dominic continued the family business until the 1960s. Today Tommy and his wife, Johnnie, nicknamed, “The Cup Bearer” for her passion for Sicilian wines, continue to travel to Sicily—tasting, discovering, and adding more wines to the company’s successful portfolio. 

Sicilian wines also have a storied history. According to Greek mythology, wine grapes have grown in Sicily since Dionysus, the god of wine, planted them there. They actually date to the 17th century BC when ancient civilizations were making wine on the island. In 8 BC the Greeks brought new varietals and innovations of pruning, varietal selection, and low vine training. And later in 1773, British merchant John Woodhouse introduced a system to blend wines from different vintages, and produced the first Marsalas to take home to England. Since that time Sicily has been best known for its Marsala—sweet, dry fortified wines produced in the seaside town of Marsala. Later the global Phylloxera epidemic led the Sicilian government to subsidize the growth of high yields of grapes, which unfortunately resulted in production of lesser quality, bulk wines. Yet in more recent history, winemakers have reached for higher quality and expanded the palate for Sicilian wines. 

Today Sicily is the third largest wine producer in Italy. Its best-known varietal is Nero d'Avola, an indigenous black grape, pronounced, ˈneːro ˈdaːvola, meaning "Black of Avola" in Italian, named for the town of Avola. Tasari Nero D’Avola 2014 is a luscious, fruit forward, medium body red. It is dark and shiny with violet hues, sweet tannins, and expresses notes of cherry, plum, and hints of pepper. Inzolia is a lovely, white Italian wine grape planted primarily in western Sicily, where it can be blended to produce Marsala wine. Parva Res 2014 is light yellow in color, with nice acidity, and offers crisp notes of orange, pear, pineapple, stone fruit, and almond. Grillo is a white Italian wine grape that was planted in the Province of Trapani by 1897. Today it is grown throughout Sicily and in the Aeolian Islands and is used in making Marsala. Tasari Grillo 2014 is an exotic white that is golden in color, full in body, creamy, and balanced in acidity. It boasts notes of lemon, apple, peach, wildflower, cashew, and herb. They are a good value for good wines, ranging in price from $10 to $15. “We ask people not be intimidated with unfamiliar varietals and give them a try,” Spina encourages. And they are widely available locally in wine shops, grocery stores, and restaurants, especially Italian restaurants. 

Published, B-Metro magazine, July 2016



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