Screw French Wine. Benvenuto, Vino Naturale.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this might be a whole new way to swish, swirl and drop pretentious adjectives.
By Wesley Tomaselli
It was 2003, and a young Italian student named Arianna Occhipinti was growing frustrated with the man.
The machine she was raging against wasn’t a big, bad corporation. Sitting in a classroom at the University of Milan, learning the ins and outs of acid titration and yeast, she grew hungry — shall we say thirsty? — to disrupt the winemaking world. Her objection: the Francophile conformity adopted by so many enologists. She’d witnessed many winemakers adopt a factory-style production process geared toward reproducing safe, boring wines instead of going interesting or natural. “I couldn’t help think that young winemakers were being shaped with only one mindset,” she reflects.
In short, she chose not to be a winemaker but rather a wine farmer.
Which is how she became, at 22, a hyperambitious entrepreneur whose focus on an earthy — dare we say crunchy? — au naturel wine zeitgeist is earning her accolades. Arianna has developed a cult following in the U.S., after a prominent New York importer discovered her just two years into her career. It doesn’t hurt that she’s the niece of a popular Sicilian winemaker named Justo Occhipinti, whose methods of winemaking seeped into her at an early age.
“We usually think of the winemaker as the most important part of the system. But I think nature is the most important,” says Arianna, now 31, from her home/vineyard in Vittoria, Sicily. Blame the 1970s, when the stainless steel fermenting tank became the hot commodity for wine production. Makers in Napa Valley like Robert Mondavi started toying with wine chemistry rather than trusting the grape, aiming for specific flavor profiles that were most trusted on the market. The new kids from California wanted to beat the French, and that meant fudging the American West’s terroir. Wine was veering toward industrial processing — and away from farming.
Arianna laid out all these concerns in a letter to Italy’s famed late artisanal wine advocate and journalist Gino Veronelli, who wrote back, providing his kingly blessing. Yes, he said, she should go against the grain. It was OK to undo wine’s scientific revolution. In short, she chose not to be a winemaker but rather a wine farmer. With a loan of 150,000 euros in hand, she started farming one hectare of grapes — which today has her producing 120,000 bottles of wine per year, at around $35 per bottle retail.
Her process is fit for a nostalgist, sharing as it does similarities with the drink’s agricultural origins in the Dionysian and bacchanal times of Rome and Greece: no pesticides, no chemicals, no artificially jump-started fermentations and no additives. Arianna has chosen to make wine the way it has always been made, professor of enology at the University of Milan Attilio Scienza tells OZY. “She’s never felt she has to correct what nature knows better than man.” Indeed, her tastes make her zeitgeisty-chic; between organic crazies and farm-to-table lovers, foodies want more of the “back to basics” in their wine, says Megan Krigbaum, deputy wine editor of Food & Wine magazine, who knows Arianna’s wine well. That comes through in both flavor and method — people want less steel and more amphora.
Arianna’s jet-black hair spills rebelliously over her shoulders from a green wool cap sitting atop her head. Her round, dark-featured face lights up with “a domanis” and “arrivedercis” shouted to her Sicilian farmhands. They leave the cellar, done for the day, but Arianna sticks around late. Olive trees dot the perimeter of her vineyards. Her grandmother Margherita’s family has been making olive oil there since the 1600s. Arianna says she takes after her grandmother’s “revolutionary spirit,” admiring her daringness to defy Sicily’s traditional social values during her youth. The two often sit and chat about Italian history and politics. And like her grandmother, Arianna makes olive oil as well.
The wines Arianna makes in the province of Vittoria in southern Sicily are indigenous varieties that have been grown on the Italian island for centuries. She has a penchant for the grapes Frappato and Nero d’Avola. Los Angeles-based sommelier Rachel Kerswell says the latter could turn out “heavy-handed, dark-fruited, oftentimes cloying.” But Arianna, she says, turned it into something with a “beautiful, elegant, pure, clean expression.”
The thing is, the natural-wine obsession could be a soon-to-fade trend. Arianna seems aware of that: Organic is out there and might dissipate. Plus, she’s ironically unhip in her home of Sicily, where farming is “something lower. Not a profession.” To be fair, it’s certainly not glamorous. She works until midnight during the harvest, she says. “And then we get up at 6:30 a.m. and go back at it.” Naturally.