Our tour completed, we head back to the original building on the estate – an enchanting modest villa Francesco shares with his wife Nina who has prepared Sunday lunch. I say lunch but this is a lavish spread of homemade Sicilian delicacies laid out across a suitably rustic table on the veranda. The setting couldn’t be more idyllic. We are surrounded by flowers and foliage, there are shimmering olive groves and abundant fruit trees in sight, and vines, lots of verdant vines, and all to the backdrop of Etna. As the food and wine flows, our conversations overlap to be as vibrant as the setting.
This morning Giuseppe has flown over from Milan, where he lives with his family looking after Tornatore’s other businesses. Nina had asked him to stop off at Castiglione di Sicilia en-route to pick up some local cured meats and cheeses to complement our lunch. He seems visibly happy to be here, where he grew up. “From these hills you cannot hear any road sounds. The place has stopped in time,” he says as he digs into his mother’s specialties: the caponata and Sicilian meat terrine.
Francesco Tornatore’s family were Sicilian farmers. He was the first to graduate from university in Milan with a degree in engineering, which led to great success and much international travel. Longing for some footing in his ancestral land, in the 1990s he began purchasing plots of land around Castiglione di Sicilia.
Soon, winemaking went from being a small hobby to becoming a business. A modern winery was built on-site and in 2012 his eponymous label was launched.
“We are from a farming family and when I wasn’t at school, I often helped them out. I worked a little but dreamt a lot,” Francesco recounts in Italian, his face charged with passion, as his son translates. “My parents had a small house and when it rained, sometimes it also rained inside! My dream was to one day have an organized and efficient business, to build a beautiful house and a beautiful estate with a dry wall surrounding it.”
He met Nina, a local teacher, while giving her driving lessons. Soon they were to marry and raise two children in this home. “I postponed the wine project until my industrial business was fully established. This was so important, as I didn’t want to have to make money immediately; but to build the business slowly, slowly. I did everything for free at first – I would have people over for wine tasting for free. What I had was the passion then, and Tornatore remains a passion; otherwise, we wouldn’t succeed.”
Nina leans over to tell me her fondest memory of raising a family here is when her daughter, Maria Angela, was married in this very spot. “Everything was so beautiful,” she says, “bello,” pointing to the enchanting garden that surrounds the veranda where we are still enjoying a seemingly endless lunch.
Giuseppe interjects. “It was really nice growing up here. I went to school in Catania and learnt to ski on Etna. You can ski and see the sea below. It’s very beautiful. Now my job, my mission, is to make sure we don’t destroy this love and passion my parents share for here.”
These vineyards around the family home are the first plots of land Francesco purchased and cultivated. “My father would bring me here as a child every Sunday. The company was created because of my father’s passion. He loves this land, working on the land and the process of winemaking,” says Giuseppe. “We don’t want to make an immediate profit from the wines, for us it remains a passion project.”
We have been enjoying Nina’s delicious lunch, with new dishes arriving even before we have time to finish the last. I try to communicate my gratitude using my elementary Italian. She is affectionate and generous and shares her caponata recipe with me. Federica Campo, the hospitality manager, is busy opening a selection of wines, occasionally intersecting our conversation with explanations of the vintages. The atmosphere is suitably jovial. It feels like being amongst family.
Giuseppe continues: “We continuously invest in the business and we never cut corners. We don’t buy in any grapes, which is unusual here since many winemakers buy in their grapes. This way we can keep our quality. And we are constantly working to make our wines better and better. This, and the family passion, to me are our winning points. You know, my father is passionate, but so is everyone else, including my mother.
“What makes us different from the other wineries is we like to be real, and we entertain our guests here like today. I believe people are looking for real-life experience,” says Giuseppe as his father interrupts with: “We are naturale.” He then asked his son to translate the rest: “There are a lot of good wines around the world, but what makes Tornatore wines stand out is the story, the passion here, this unique land.”