Meet Your Maker: Sonia Spadaro Mulone

A vineyard guardian and wine producer from the Etna DOC in Sicily, I had the chance to meet Sonia Spadaro Mulone from the Santa Maria La Nave winery when she visited Martín Berasategui’s restaurant, where I used to work, in San Sebastián in Spain’s Basque country. (You can read more about that experience here.)

She was looking to sell her amazing wines to us and because of the passion with which she talked about her Etnean vintages, we were immediately intrigued by this terroir. I visited her vineyards, got to know her family, ate delicious Sicilian food and today we have a wonderful friendship. She is a very generous and kind person with so much to share and so here, she tells us her story. 

Sonia at Casa Decime Vineyard.

Where did you work before starting your own project?

I wanted to become an archaeologist, but I ended up graduating with an honours degree in Economics, despite the fact that I hated it. My personal life was a mess at the time and any future project was tremendously uncertain plus I didn’t drink wine until I was 25! Everything was going in a direction clearly far from becoming a wine producer!

Then 10 years ago, when I was thinking about leaving my little Sicilian hometown to explore the world, I met my true love and my life changed course. On our first date in Taormina, an authentic jewel of a Sicilian town immersed in pure Greek culture, I tasted my first white and, thanks to the romantic atmosphere and the scent of the Arabian jasmine from the secret little square where we were having a candlelight dinner, I had an epiphany: that wine touched the strings of my soul. It had always been my destiny but only then was I sure of it. I then started tasting more wines and became so intrigued that I trained as a sommelier and started investing my energy in the world of wine.

Sonia during harvest 2017.

What are the most important characteristics of the region where your winery is situated?

Santa Maria La Nave is a boutique winery on Mount Etna in Sicily that focuses only on niche production of Cru wines from the volcano’s native grapes. I have two vineyards and the first is on the northwest side of Mount Etna – the highest active volcano in Europe and a Unesco World Heritage site –  located at 1,100 masl and is among the highest and most extreme vineyards on the continent. This vineyard qualifies as extreme not only because of the altitude but because the volcano’s side is very wild and tucked-away but also exposed to extreme weather conditions. From this vineyard I produce small-batch Millesulmare, a Sicilia Bianco DOC fine white wine from a local and ancient grape variety called Grecanico Dorato, as the old farmers used to do many years ago in that extreme and wild part of Etna. This vineyard is the result of mass selection over the past 15 years from ancient and abandoned pre-phylloxera vines. From a small plot I’ve selected some grapes to produce a Metodo Classico called Tempesta, a limited edition. I produced Tempesta in 2015 and 2016, but the following years didn’t produce the perfect sugar and acidity balance I wanted to achieve, so I decided not to produce it… but maybe it will work out in 2020.

Grecanico Dorato harvest.

The second vineyard is located on the opposite side of the volcano on the south-east side on a crater called Monte Ilice, where I produce Calmarossa, a full bodied and elegant Etna DOC from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes. This vineyard is simply incredible, because it is located on the steep slope of an ancient crater that’s not even 1,000 years old and the ancient vines – some are pre-phylloxera –  are planted on fine black volcanic ashes; it’s stunning. I bought this very old vineyard from Don Alfio who had been taking care of these vines for over 50 years and after several years of hard work, I brought it back to its ancient splendour. I learned a lot from Don Alfio, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago. 

Nerello Mascalese grapes (Sonia’s and Don Alfio’s passage of heritage).

I’ve kept all the old fruit trees, as is the local tradition on Etna and they are really stunning. In the Monte Ilice vineyard there’s also a very ancient winery planted around 1600. Unfortunately it was damaged by an earthquake on 25 December 2018, but I’ve started a complex restoration and in a few months it will be back! 

Mount Etna is an amazing place and a blessed wine area. The key peculiarity is its enormous diversity. The terroir is so complex, the volcano, its size and altitude and its eruptions over thousands of years have shaped an incredible diversity. My two vineyards are an hour’s drive apart but it is like working in two different continents. And, if you plant the same Nerello Mascalese vine with identical DNA in Monte Ilice or in the Monte Rosso crater, less than two kilometres away from Monte Ilice, you’ll get incredibly different results.

I don’t feel like I’m the owner but more like the custodian of something I need to preserve and enrich.

On average Monte Ilice is located at 800 masl and its soil is composed of soft black ash that absorbs water like a sponge, while Monte Rosso is at 500 masl and made up from red stones and is full of iron. So close, but such different worlds. There’s also a wealth of biodiversity: fauna, wild plants and autochthonous fruits and grapes. We have dozens of indigenous grape varieties, many are almost extinct. The connection between the volcano and man is also very old and over the centuries, has created several agricultural practices, which change based on where you are on the volcano. I love Etna’s incredible diversity!

Pruning Vigna Casa Decima in the snow.

Could you define yourself personally and professionally?

I’m free-minded and passionate and that strongly influences every decision in my personal and professional life. Doing my work requires a tremendous amount of energy, and even more so if you’re a woman and a mum. Without passion it would be impossible. I believe this is reflected in what I do, in primis, in my young son, Diego, who smiles and greets the sun when he wakes up and wants to see the stars before going to sleep, and in my wines, which simply reflect the grapes they come from and tell the vintage’s story without any cosmetics. As Don Alfio used to say: “Nothing grows without passion, there’s no way around it!” 

Monte Ililce with Don Alfio.

What made you fall in love with winemaking?

When I had my wine epiphany, I started to devote a lot more time to it. My husband’s family has had a vineyard on Contrada Nave since 2000, producing bottles for the family and friends then selling the remaining grapes. The first time I saw this little vineyard, I fell completely in love with it. The vines looked happy in the mountain sun and the main crater was so close that I felt I could touch it with my hands. And since everyone in the family was busy looking after the vineyard, I volunteered to help, but I immediately realised that it would be my life. That morning I fell in love with this little vineyard!

With Diego in Monte Ilice.

How did you decide to start your project?

I was already taking care of Contrada Nave and after a few months there, there was a revolution in that little vineyard. I immediately moved to organic viticulture and reduced yield. I reintroduced some biodynamic practices that farmers here used to apply. The wine started to taste completely different – I believe it recovered its soul! I was so proud! One day, the Benanti family, friends and renowned wine producers on Mount Etna, offered me a place at their stand at Vinitaly, the most important Italian wine fair. They had tasted my Millesulmare and suggested I present it there. I didn’t have a website nor a price, but I accepted their very kind offer and was overwhelmed by requests. I also had a request from Pope Francis’s chef, who introduced my Millesulmare onto the pope’s menu. One day, my father-in-law asked me if I was keen to continue taking care of the little vineyard, because no one in the family could devote energy to it. I replied that I loved that vineyard and a few days later, without even asking for it, he transferred its ownership to me. It was an unexpected and amazing gesture from him. I would have taken care of the little vineyard anyway, but I immediately felt a huge sense of responsibility to protect my vines, a responsibility I feel every day. 

The Monte Ilice vineyard appeared a few years later. Don Alfio had bought it when he was my age and half a century later, when he was over 80, he was looking for a “successor” because working in Monte Ilice was too hard for him. In fact the vineyard was already suffering and in need of a restoration. Although it seemed a totally crazy venture, I was so enchanted by the beauty of that vineyard, by the old pre-phylloxera vines, the view, the wind, the crater! I took over from him, and embarked in a crazy restoration of the ancient vineyard. Don Alfio was beside me for all the key steps, he was my mentor, a pure soul. I miss him so much, although when I am in the vineyard I still feel his presence. 

So it all started from the little vineyard and from a series of coincidences and real pure souls beside me, but to me it all seems written in the stars.

At Monte Ilice with Don Alfio.

Do you have a professional dream?

I’m very proud of the development of my little “secret” project in the Mount Ilice vineyard: I managed to reproduce few vines from three ancient native and almost-extinct varieties (defined “reliquia”) in a dedicated area. The varieties are known as Terribbile (it is apparently called this because the variety was able to resist phylloxera), Madama Nera and Madama Bianca. These varieties are very rare gems, no one grows them and it is almost impossible to find them even in the oldest vineyards on Mount Etna. I am very committed to protecting these treasured Mount Etna varieties. My dream is to understand these varieties, taste them and produce single varietals from them, extremely limited productions to rediscover tastes, which had been forgotten. As I said, I wanted to be an archeologist and this is my way of bringing something back to life.

Wine from Etna has enormous potential. Its peculiarity is the enormous diversity in terms of soil and bio and agricultural practices.

Another dream I have is to give a tribute to Don Alfio, my mentor, a gentleman who I considered to be like my grandfather and who saved the Monte Ilice vineyard with more than 50 years of love, passion and very hard work. He managed to protect some very ancient and pre-phylloxera white vines. There are more than 10 local vine varieties, mainly Carricante, but also Catarratto, Lucido, Minnella, Grecanico, Insolia, Zu’ Matteo, Madama Bianca and others. Don Alfio always told me that the ancient farmers who cared for the vineyard centuries ago managed to select these vines in order to make sure that different grape varieties mature at the same time. Over the years, I always sold these grapes, because I was too busy with restoring the vineyard and focusing on Calmarossa. But I was impressed by the grape quality and surprised to see how different vine varieties could all reach perfect maturity all at the same time, as Don Alfio proudly said. Encouraged by friends and clients, last year, I decided to harvest these grapes and devote a special wine to Don Alfio. It will be an Etna DOC Bianco (around 1,000 bottles) and will be called Il Re D’Ilice (the King of Mount Ilice). I don’t know when I’ll bottle it, but I’ve tasted it a few times and I’m very excited.

My ultimate dream is connected to my relationship with my vineyards. I don’t feel like I’m the owner but more like the custodian of something I need to preserve and enrich. My dream is to continue devoting all my energy into these little parcels of heaven and make sure to keep enriching until the next guardian takes over. Don Alfio did exactly the same.

Don Alfio at the ancient winery.

Which season of the year do you prefer?

I love autumn and its rains, a season when nature becomes more inward-looking and spiritual. But in September and October I always risk having a heart attack because the grapes are still on the vines (I pick during the second half of October and sometimes in November for the Grecanico Dorato), so during these months there’s a risk of losing everything in a few minutes. Hailstorms, strong rains, sometimes wildfires and wild animals all put the harvest in danger. Then one morning, magically, I wake up at 4am and I harvest.  

Vigna Casa Decima.

With which other wine producer would you like to make a wine?

I love dessert wines and I’m sure the Grecanico Dorato grapes from La Nave vineyard have huge potential to make a sweet wine. I don’t have enough grapes, neither do I have botrytis cinerea, but if the winemaker at Château d’Yquem was willing to try a crazy venture on a volcano…

What rules do you follow to produce wine?

They are simple: I consider wine to be a fermented fruit juice and to have a great fruit juice, you need to start with great fruit, there’s no other way around it. Most of the work is undertaken in the vineyard looking for wine Holy Grail: the perfect grape. In the winery itself, everything should be minimally invasive so as to respect the grape and the vintage. Of course, I don’t use any pesticides or chemicals; in fact, I bought a small plot nearby because the previous owner used chemicals. We prune the vines with the descending moon so “they don’t cry” and I try to harvest during the full moon. 

Harvest 2017, two months’ pregnant.

How do you make your wines reach many people’ sensitivities?

I first need to feel something from my wines. They don’t leave the winery if I’m not proud of them. They are ambassadors of what I do and of the vines they come from. If I feel true emotions when I drink them, then I know they’ll be appreciated. 

What is your view of Etna DOC wines?

Wine from Etna has enormous potential. Its peculiarity is the enormous diversity in terms of soil and bio and agricultural practices. Several producers understand the real excellence is to leverage this diversity while others remain blinded by the myth of quantity, and if you search for quantity and you move away from the single vineyard or single-parcel concept, you’re missing the real essence of Mount Etna. There’s still a lot to do, but average quality improves every year, so I think Etna can have a stable role in the top wine regions in the world.   

Vigna Casa Decime with Mount Etna in the background.

What’s your biggest adventure as a wine producer?

My whole life is an adventure because when you do something with love and passion, it’s like living a beautiful dream. But I believe the greatest things do lie in simplicity. One morning in October 2017, I woke up very early to harvest in Monte Ilice. I saw the most amazing sunrise from the vineyard, the moon was still up and I could see the sea becoming red. I was with Riccardo, two months’ pregnant and I touched my belly and felt an incredible sense of joy and fulfilment. If I had the possibility to visit any place in the universe, I would choose to stay there in Monte Ilice with my husband, my two-month belly and my vines.

With Diego at Monte Ilice.

What’s the most recent thing you learnt?

I have spent a lot of time with Simenza, a Sicilian agricultural producers association who cultivate ancient grains, tomatoes, artichokes and fruits. There is a huge wealth of authentic products grown by a small number of families for generations. People who devote their lives to save an ancient grain species or families sharing tomatoes seeds that are impossible to find anywhere. This incredible wealth is our planet’s wealth. 

When we buy something, we‘re voting for the process, practices and values behind the product we are buying. We can do a lot simply by choosing and buying the right things, especially when it comes to food. We should all protect small farmers who treasure biodiversity, healthy and fair agricultural farming practices and stay far away from producers who destroy and pollute our planet to gain a profit by selling “industrial” food. We need to be informed on what it is behind every ingredient that reaches our tables so let’s use our vote carefully! 

Flora during harvest.

What do you feel when you create and drink wine?

When I smell and drink wine, I embark on a journey and try to understand what happened in the vineyard the wine comes from. So for my wines, I try to smell the vineyard and look for acidity and minerality, a small but complex archive of what happened there. For instance, in December 2015, Etna’s crater exploded, covering the Contrada Nave vineyard with a few centimetres of volcanic ashes and small stones: free organic fertiliser! The 2016 vintage has very strong volcanic and mineral notes because those grapes recorded the eruptions and transferred them into the wine. Decanter magazine included the 2016 Millesulmare among the 50 most exciting wines of year. 


What is the biggest difficulty you face?

It’s a big challenge to balance family and professional life as I travel a lot and logistics are complex. And when you work in extreme vineyards like mine there are plenty of challenges. The work is manual, the steepness and presence of ancient lava rocks makes it impossible to use machinery. There are also plenty of “enemies”: last year, two wild pigs dug a big hole under Contrada Nave’s fence. Thank God the grapes weren’t mature enough for them so they did not eat any, but their efforts looked like a tractor had worked the land. A week later and I’d have lost the entire vintage. Wildfires have also partially damaged the vineyard, for example in 2017 it was so dry, birds attacked the vine and I lost a big part of the Monte Ilice grapes. But all this is part of the game!

Sonia and Diego at La Nave vineyard.

Taking into account how the Covid-19 is affecting all areas, what adjustments and changes have you made so far and how do you see it from here to harvest?

Covid-19 has limited our ability to move freely, so I had to suspend some planned tastings. But my production is very limited and in general I have more requests than I can satisfy. Fortunately for me, I don’t think Covid-19  will have a dramatic impact. Although the temptation to reduce costs and work could be strong in the vineyards, I continue to give the maximum attention to all our activities. After all the huge work to restore Monte Ilice and to protect Contrada Nave, it would be a terrible mistake to relax my attention on them.

Working in the winery.

How do you see the trend of wine 10 years from now in your country?

The million dollars question! I think consumers are becoming more sophisticated and aware. They want to understand what’s behind a wine, the story, the practices, the vineyard. I think many are moving away from big brands and searching for little jewels, and want to know if agricultural practice is sustainable; they challenge what doesn’t convince them. Based on this, I believe the wine scene can only improve! More sustainability, more research, greater diversity.

Casa Decima vineyard mother vines.

Please choose one of your wines and tell us what food would you enjoy it with?

I love my Calmarossa a bit colder than the sommelier textbooks say, at around 11ºC-12ºC, with sushi or shrimp tempura. It may sound strange but in Langosteria 10, one of the top restaurants in Milan, they pair Calmarossa with oysters. I was sceptical, but then I tasted and loved it. I believe Calmarossa’s minerality and elegance leads to a fish-pairing match made in heaven. 

The map of Etna used as inspiration for the labels.

Check out last week’s Meet Your Maker with Matías Etchart of Arco Yaco in Calchaquíes Valley in Salta, Argentina (in Spanish.)

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