For Sonia Gambino, the story of her winery is one of making lemonade out of lemons - or rather, phenomenal wine out of serendipitous grapes.
In early 2020, Sonia Gambino made the move from city life in Milan to work at a winery in Marsala, Sicily. Almost as soon as she made this transition, the country subsequently shut down due to Covid. The northern and southern connections of Italy were severed in this lockdown, resulting in the immediate loss of her new job.
Sonia's family originally hails from Sicily - specifically, a little town called Maletto. When Sonia found herself unemployed, she trekked to the other side of Sicily to seek refuge in a very old vacation house in Maletto still owned by her family. This little house, while rich with memories of summer getaways, was lacking in many basic amenities, including running water. Sonia made it her mission to fix up the place, and spent her afternoons in the garden learning to grow fruits and vegetables. She faced struggle after struggle trying to make her life in this home - so much so, she planned to move back to Milan as soon as the lockdowns lifted.
Every afternoon while Sonia gardened, an old farmer in his 80s would stroll by on his daily walks. The two eventually got to chatting as he gave her gardening tips, and they became fast friends. His name is Don Vincenzo, and he just so happened to own a vineyard right in the village of Maletto - though he was struggling with upkeep. Sonia’s interest was piqued, and she went along with him to check out the vineyard.
Sicily’s wine regions are almost exclusively on the west end of the island, far away from the little eastern town of Maletto, so Sonia hadn’t even considered that there would be wineries on this side of Mount Etna. As soon as she stepped on to the property, she saw a wide variety of grapes (some over 100 years old!) and diverse, interesting plants. “Ok - there is something really interesting here!” says Sonia, recounting her thoughts upon the first visit. “I was overcome with the sense that I had to make wine here.”
By this time, it was May of 2020. Sonia had a proposition for Don: let her fix up the place a bit, and stay through the harvest season until September to experiment and make some wine. He obliged under one condition: that she left him 365 liters of wine a year, so that he had a liter to enjoy every day. The wine-making journey began, and her plans to head back to Milan quickly faded away. They cleared out a corner for her in his abandoned garage, and she set out on her quest.
The older folks in town were so fascinated by Sonia working on this old overgrown vineyard, as young winemakers weren’t common in the area. They often stopped by to talk to her, and through the chatting, she learned that her very own grandfather was once a winemaker in the region - a fact totally unbeknownst to her beforehand. “Here, you can’t find wineries,” Sonia says of Maletto. “There are no big vineyards - it’s just familial vineyards around.” She started visiting the small family vineyards frequently upon invitation. “This is a real treasure.” Sonia recalls thinking. Everyone wanted her to take their grapes for her winemaking expedition.
With many more grapes from neighboring vineyards in her possession, she had to carve out a bit more space beyond a dusty garage corner. Within a month, she built a work space from the ground up, but she didn’t have the people she needed to help. Sonia enlisted the help from friends and family from all across Italy to assist - and she ended up gathering around 35 people during the harvest season to work at the vineyard. Word spread, and people from all over town came to help as well.
The result? Gustinella Wines - wine that captures the essence of an entire village.
Due to the high elevation, many common types of Sicilian grapes don’t properly ripen in Maletto. Instead, they have a focus on Grenache (for red wine) and Grecanico Dorato (for white wine). These grapes, fertilized naturally by the volcanic soil of Mount Etna in the hot southern Italian weather, create beautifully light and delicate wines. Though delicate, they are still rich in flavor.
To complete the fairytale, while working on the vineyard, Sonia met a local man in Maletto who owns a Pistachio farm… and they just welcomed their first daughter together. “My destiny was to come here and to stay here, I think,” Sonia says, smiling. “My roots are here.”