Life Lessons with Stefano Girelli, Sicily’s organic wine guru

The pioneering organic wine entrepreneur on tackling Yosemite’s tallest summit, relaxing to George Benson’s grooves and putting Cerasuolo di Vittoria on the map

Words by Adam Lechmere

stefano girelli

You can’t help but feel confident for the future of wine when it’s in the hands of a man who first climbed El Capitan at the age of 51. El Cap, as any armchair climber knows, is the fearsomely difficult 2,300m vertical wall of granite in Yosemite National Park. It takes three days to climb – and when you get to the top you can look straight down and see the spot you started from. ‘That’s how vertical it is,’ Stefano Girelli says happily.

Girelli was a climbing nut as a child, but a bad fall at the age of nine destroyed his confidence. ‘I didn’t touch a rock again for 40 years. Then a friend persuaded me to start again when I was 51 and I’ve never looked back.’

Climbing requires ice-cold nerves and laser-like focus on the job in hand – perhaps characteristics that serve one well in the wine business, where a single (very expensive) decision can take years to come to fruition. This is especially true when you’re working in the experimental area, specifically that of reviving forgotten grape varieties.

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Climbing is a passion for Stefano Girelli, pictured here conquering Yosemite's El Capitan

Girelli is the third winemaking generation of his family. Natives of Trento in the north of Italy, his forebears produced wine in the late 19th century and went on to build a major negociant business, Casa Girelli in the 1960s, owning Villa Cafaggio in Tuscany and a US distribution arm. In 2005, Stefano and his sister Marina sold most of the business to concentrate on Santa Tresa and Cortese, their two premium wineries in Sicily. Another part of the group (with which Marina is not involved) is The Wine People, an export company that sells wine from across Italy in 43 countries.

Sicily’s potential is huge, it has so many indigenous varieties, the climate is perfect for organic viticulture, and it’s really rural, so has that authenticity

‘Sicily is the most important for me,’ he says, noting that it’s going through something of a revolution as wine drinkers worldwide turn to more artisan, authentic wines from local varieties. ‘Its potential is huge, it has so many indigenous varieties, the climate is perfect for organic viticulture, and it’s really rural, so has that authenticity.’

Santa Tresa and Villa Cortese work primarily with local varieties – the whites Catarrato (and its clones), Carricante and Grillo; reds Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese and Frappato. The wineries take in one of Sicily’s lesser-known appellations, Cerasuolo di Vittoria in the south-eastern corner of the island – a DOCG for which Girelli is a passionate champion. ‘It’s a unique place and it deserves recognition. The soil and clones are very different and the wines have finesse and elegance of a totally different style to the rest of Sicily.’

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Santa Tresa champions local varieties, ranging from the white Catarrato to reds like Nerello Mascalese

It’s here that he is actively searching out ‘forgotten’ varieties, like the spicy, deep-coloured red grape Orisi which, called O, has just been released under the Santa Tresa label.

The origins of the grape are lost in history. One theory is that it’s an ancient natural cross of Sangiovese and Montonico Bianco – though Girelli is doubtful. ‘Sangiovese doesn’t have that kind of colour and tannin, and Montonico is a white grape. So that might just be a legend.’

The reviving of such grapes is a long process: moving from experimentation to a commercially-viable wine can take years. Orisi started with a plot of 16 vines and graduated to a vineyard producing 2000 bottles, which are now on sale. The next revived indigenous grape they are working on is Albanello Bianco, of which they will have a first vintage next year, and ‘there are others to be discovered,’ Girelli says.

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The revival of Orisi has been a long-term project for Stefano Girelli

But he’s the first to admit that the revival project is very much in its infancy. ‘This is a long-term strategy – we’re just starting to see the reaction. Selling 2,000 bottles is one thing, but 100,000 bottles is much more difficult – you need to have a serious market.’

For now, Girelli divides his time between Trento and Sicily. At 63, he has no plans to retire (‘you can never retire from a family company’) but his daughter Priscilla and her husband Rodrigo are in the process of taking over the company. When will that be made official? ‘I don’t know exactly when, but it will happen. She needs to get to work – and I need to go climbing.’

What was your childhood ambition?

I was crazy about swimming and used to train daily. My ambition was to go to the Olympics; it never happened, but I was selected for the European Championships.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?

Life goes quickly. Enjoy it now… it could be too late.

What exercise do you do?

Sport is an integral part of my life. I regularly go mountain biking, skiing in winter, and climbing. I loved climbing as a young boy but had a bad fall when I was nine and I didn’t touch a rock for the next 40 years. Then when I was 50, a friend persuaded me to go climbing with him and I’ve never looked back. I’ve climbed El Capitan [in Yosemite, a grade VI, the second most difficult technical grade] – that’s a three-day climb, sleeping on the wall. As I live in the Dolomites I go every weekend.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

Losing my patience.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?

My car: I drive an Audi Q7.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I’m very happy to live were I live now, in Trentino. I’ve travelled a lot and this is where I feel most comfortable.

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Stefano Girelli says he feels most at home in his beloved Trentino

If you could do any other job what would it be and why?

The same as I do now. This is the best business. Great product, great people. I’m really privileged to work in the wine world.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?

I would take a very large beach umbrella.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

Personally – to be able to fully appreciate what we have. From the business point of view – to put the appellation of Cerasuolo di Vittoria [Sicily] on the map, so that people recognise how great it is.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

This is a difficult one. There are so many things. I would maybe enact a law giving equal rights to people and animals. Any human being, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, should have equal rights and opportunities, and this, I’m afraid, is still far from happening. As for animals, we should live together with them and see them as an integral part of the world we’ve been given: this means we should respect them – and not see them as a source of protein.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?

George Benson and Bruce Springsteen… very different but equally talented.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

I love ice cream – particularly stracciatella, and pistachio. I could easily eat a kilo.

What’s your secret talent?

Never giving up.

When were you happiest?

When my children were born.

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Girelli with his daughter, Priscilla, who is slowly taking over the business from her father

Who do you most admire?

By far the person I admire the most is Nelson Mandela. What he went through, and what he achieved, has no equal.

What’s your greatest regret?

Not being able to enjoy family more.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

My music tastes vary quite a lot. But on a night alone on a sofa… certainly any album by George Benson.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?  

Sportswear and sports shoes.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

I’ve gone through different phases on restaurants. One of my favourites at the moment is Rifugio Maranza [a mountain refuge in Trento], which has a menu prepared with local ingredients – I like a restaurant that represents its locality.

What time do you go to bed?

9.30pm at the latest. I love to wake up early when it’s quiet, and no one is around. It gives me time to think.