On the day we catch Marcin (Öz, of The Whitest Boy Alive), it’s a scorching 45 degrees in his adopted home of Ortigia, Sicily. Though he’s more likely to call it his ‘permanent vacation.’ He’s just got back from working at the vineyard since sunrise. An afternoon swim off the rocks, moments from his front door, is calling. This is the pace of life since he chose to pursue the proverbial carte blanche, swapping a musician’s life in Berlin to try his hand at winemaking.
The move to Ortigia, came after a series of visits over to see his best friend and former bandmate Erlend Øye, who’d found a home in Syracuse, when a neglected vineyard sparked a sudden idea. Now, ‘another day at the office’ is his winery, Vini Campisi, founded with his friend Sergio, a third generation lemon farmer, which lies outside the city. Back in 2014, there was little to assure their success besides the omen of region’s name: Buonivini ‘good wines,’ and soil steeped in 2,500 of winemaking. “Some of the things that I managed to realise in this first year, without speaking the language, without knowing anything about wine, it was close to a miracle really, ” he says. And yet it, he’s pulled it off with accolades. Today, instead of records, he now releases satisfyingly musical wines, with names like ‘The Cure’ and ‘Red Red Wine’. It’s this freewheeling attitude that continues to lay his winding path: His latest act is pursuing a decade’s long desire to enter gastronomy, opening up a small takeaway fish bistro, Oz e Cappuccio, using his home recipes. Lounging in the shadowy indoors of his place in Ortigia, Marcin explains the at time radical choices that he leaves to steer his life.
Okay, we’re going to start large: Why did you decide to change your lifestyle and make wine?
Well, I’d arrived at a certain point of satisfaction with all my projects. I thought, ‘Well basically either you could just continue what you’re doing, but at 37, if you still have a lot of energy, which I did, you could also just drop yourself into the deep water and do something else. It wasn’t at the point where I was looking for something to do, it just happened and when this option came up it seemed too good not to try at this point in my life.
How did the idea to make wine come about?
The story is that I met some guys, but there was one guy in particular, Sergio, who was already a good friend of Erlend. He had a huge impact on me just by being himself and working in agriculture in a very cool, modern way and using new technology on their farm to be sustainable and organic. For years I was coming here and knew I just badly wanted to do something with them...but I didn’t know what. His family also had a vineyard in a very important spot in Sicily where Nero D’Avola comes from originally. It was too much to take care alongside the lemon farm and so when one day a neighbour came around and made an offer to buy the vineyard they were considering it. But, also, being a family of famers they never sold a piece of land and thought ‘Hm, we don’t really want to sell but actually maybe we should.’ And at this point I thought, ‘Wait, isn’t this the thing we could do together?’ And then they looked at me and said, ‘Sure’.
So you started off as a complete beginner?
Well, I said to them ‘I’m just gonna try. Will you be okay to not sell for another year and give me chance?’ It was kind of like a plane that doesn’t have a pilot, and then along came a pilot, a young one that can’t really fly yet. But since without the pilot the plane can’t take off, even a bad pilot is better than no pilot. So they said, come si dice, ‘Go for it!’
What were your expectations before going in?
I had the feeling that maybe this, agriculture, is the ultimate thing to do. It’s something that you have an idealistic idea of and the city kid that I was I had no clue. Of course, I knew it would involve hard work and that it’s unpredictable but at the same time, there was the challenge to cultivate things from the ground up and experience the symbiosis of the human being and the plant. Maybe the fact that I didn’t know too much about it helped a lot, because if I had known the dimension of what I was going for I might have got scared! The more you know, the bigger it gets. It’s a little bit like the universe, the more you understand, the more you realise how exponential it is. The life of a human being is not enough to get to that point, But, at least I will understand something…
And where are you at now with the winemaking?
Well, I physically moved in October 2014 just after the harvest. So 2015 was my first vintage and until now the only vintage that is in commerce, the new one will come out this winter. The 2016 will be different because the winter was different and the summer was like this and like that and certain things happened, you know? It’s like everything that happens also to me during the year of wine, in the vintage, has some tiny influence on how the wine turns out. It will always be this grape from that place of earth, in that position on the island of Sicily, with that sun and sea and that wind from that direction...but of course all those little factors will change around a little bit, and the wine will be different every year. This is my idea of how wine should be made. Not a brand that you tweak and squeeze to become the same as last year just because that’s the taste of your client, no if your vintage is different, then that’s the most beautiful thing.
So, despite the hard work and long hours, are you more satisfied with your lifestyle know than you were back then in the music scene?
It’s more that I just love to do stuff. In love when shit happens, you know? For me the way there is the goal, not arriving. Because once I’m there I already want to go back or somewhere else. Satisfaction is really hard to achieve because I have goals that are so far away, that’s why basically I’m always on my way there. But maybe I did it on purpose, I chose goals that are really hard to reach so I have more fun for a longer time getting there.
It’s interesting, when you’re performing as a musician you’re bringing pleasure to people and now you’re doing that in a different way with wine and soon food, with the restaurant...
Yeah, there are a lot of parallels. Basically, we also ran the record label for The Whitest Boy Alive. Which means we were always involved in the process of how the song would evolve from the beginning through recording, through producing the CD, making the cover, creating the final product, all those processes were done in house by us. We thought, we can do it ourselves and we did. But that was kind of a miracle too that it worked out. And by following the processes from A to Z, there are a lot of similarities with winemaking. You’re also making maybe one of the most complete products that there is in a sense: from the cultivation of the plant, to harvesting the fruit, the transformation of the fruit into something else, and then the process of aging in the barrels, to marketing and commerce.
And with all this going on, are you still making music?
I’m not making music, I’m playing music. There’s a little group of us playing acoustic music just to have fun. There are some really good singers around and plus Erlend lives here as well, so we’re always playing in some way.
Seems like the right way to live. What it is it about Sicily that made you think, I have to move here?
It was a combination both of both the people and the place, which is really magic. I live on this tiny little island, Ortigia, surrounded by the sea next to Sicily, I mean it is connected by a bridge, a very short bridge, but it’s a world of its own and it’s a labyrinth of tiny little roads. It’s very cozy and extremely beautiful and a little run down. There’s an incredible charm to it because it was a very important ancient city so you feel the energy of thousands of generations of humans who have passed through here and left a little fingerprint on this place. And I’m in the sea.. I’m always one minute away from jumping off a rock into the sea. I can go before work or after, or in the middle of night. It’s an incredible luxury. And then there’s the people that I met, my business partners, my friends. I also gravitate towards people because of how much they are doing and want to do in life and not because they want to make money – no – but because they’re really pursuing what they want to be doing.
Does it feel home now?
Well, since I’m a foreigner I feel like I’m going to be a foreigner forever and even though I speak quite good Italian, even some Sicilian, I will always be an outsider. And because I’m forever an outsider I always feel a like I’m on holiday even if though I live here. It’s like a permanent vacation. But not because I’m not doing anything. More because I’m constantly somewhere else in the sense of – not home – not where I belong, but this is totally fine. It’s not a negative feeling. It’s positive. I like it. It’s like a vacation.
I guess it’s also the fact that it’s you yourself that’s chosen to be there?
Yes, exactly. Nobody’s sent me here to work, nobody told me to do this. That’s what I mean, I don’t feel home, but I’m not homesick. I’m just feeling like I’m somewhere else all the time which is cool. And, I don’t feel the urge to go somewhere else or go on holiday because I’m already somewhere other than home.
Can you tell me the local approach to leading a comfortable life? Has it rubbed off on you?
Here, the climate basically dictates how to behave. After lunch, it’s impossible to do anything. If you try, you’re stupid. Then of course the food, the most important thing in the world. Food here is the first, second and third topic of conversation. That’s also the most beautiful thing I learnt here. Before, I had problems with communication. Basically I was shy and I didn’t know how to start talking to somebody I didn’t know. And since being here, I know just enough to ask, ‘So what did you have for lunch?’ And nobody will ever think it’s a strange question. Everyone here will explain to you exactly what they had, how it was made, who made it. And then of course there’s going to the sea, that’s the 4th and 5th topic of conversation in the summer.
When you first arrived? How was it to change the pace of your life completely from being in Berlin. Was it strange or did you really need that?
I’ve become mega pragmatic in the sense that I have a goal and whatever it takes to get to the goal, I will do whatever it takes. So I don’t have a problem with changing my lifestyle. I don’t have a problem with setting my alarm for 4.30am. You just get used to it. You have to be ready because it’s the field that’s telling you want to do, but you don’t have to die of overworking. It’s hard work. It’s very different from working in the city with music, but you adapt. If this is what you want to do then there is no problem. You just do it.
It’s kind of like what you mentioned before about you being a person who believes in the journey not the arrival...
Yeah. I believe that everything you do will bring you somewhere, you know? Nothing is for nothing. So even if next year or in five years I should arrive at the conclusion that you know, a Polish boy from Berlin has nothing to do in Sicily, then I’ll go back. I still had an incredible experience, and I learned, became I hope a better person then also.