On his isolated Sicilian hilltop, Francesco Spadafora is fueled by a cocktail of passions: He’s a reflective nature lover, a creative cook and an exacting, self-taught winemaker.
“I have three nicknames here,” jokes Spadafora, looking up from an iron gas-burning stove on which he is fussing over lunch on a bright winter’s day.
In the kitchen with family, he explains, he may playfully be “Concetta,” evoking an Italian nonna. On his tractor, he goes by the sturdy Sicilian moniker Calogero.
“And in the winery,” he says with a laugh, he is a perfectionist vigneron. “I am François!”
For 30 years, from outside the commune of Monreale in northwestern Sicily, this scion of a noble landowning family (an older cousin holds the title of “prince”) has been a discreet player in the island’s wine renaissance. About 35 miles southwest of Sicily’s coastally located capital, Palermo, sprawls his 450-acre Dei Principi di Spadafora estate, more than half of which is under vine.
Up until a few years ago—before he parted ways with his financially troubled U.S. importer at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—Spadafora had a solid reputation among American consumers, having released 17 wines that scored 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings. They were topped by his juicy, flagship Syrah, called Sole dei Padri, which is cask-aged a decade before release. (While the current vintage is 2012, the last rated by Wine Spectator was the 2009, at 92 points and $95.)
Spadafora—trim and outdoorsy at 67, with longish, graying hair and a white beard—is now joined in the business by his daughter Enrica, 27, who helps run national sales. Father and daughter hope to reenter the U.S. market soon, which is promising for American wine lovers. For, in addition to the Syrahs that emerge from the cool high hills here, Spadafora makes some deliciously elegant reds from Nero d’Avola and mouthwatering, spicy whites from Grillo.
On this day, Spadafora serves a carefully crafted starter of marinated sardine atop a chickpea fritter drizzled with orange reduction sauce. He pours glasses of the Grillo-based Principe G 2019, and we dig in.
“The sardines lift the palate, the fried chickpeas serve as a base, and the orange brings it together,” he enthuses. “Then the wine brings things back up.”
The pairing was sublime, leading me to wonder: Why don’t we all know more about Spadafora?
Part of the reason is he doesn’t get out that much.
An aristocrat who grew up close to the land, Spadafora is clearly more of a hands-on farmer-gentleman than a managerial gentleman-farmer. He has never been fond of big cities in general nor of globetrotting to sell wine, and is counting on Enrica to fill that role in the future.
“I am attracted to the land and plants more than I am to people,” Spadafora confessed as we walked his steep, sandy, hillside vineyards earlier that day. “Sometimes, I think too much so.”
As a young man, he studied law in the 1970s but never practiced it. Instead, he returned to his family’s main agricultural interest—a wheat and livestock farm in central Sicily.
Then in 1988, after the death of his father, Spadafora left that farm to his brother and came to live on the vineyard property that had been used by his father to produce bulk wine.
The rumblings of a resurgence in Sicilian wine were in the air. The Spadaforas were close friends with the Planeta wine family. And Planeta’s pioneering family patriarch, Diego Planeta—then the president of Sicily’s Instituto Regionale della Vite e del Vino [Regional Institute for Viticulture and Wine]—chose the Spadafora vineyards as an experimental site to test 15 regional and international wine grape varieties.
The team rented part of the Spadafora winery for its micro-vinifications, conducted by leading Italian enologist Giacomo Tachis, who had helped relaunch the Tuscan wine scene with its new generation of super Tuscans.
Surrounded by that energy, Spadafora couldn’t help but catch wine fever.
Working organically from the start, Spadafora replanted his family vineyards to what worked best in the experimental sites: Syrah, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sicilian varieties like Nero d’Avola, Grillo and Catarratto.
“Tachis,” he adds, “was like a second father to me. He was a friend who wanted to share his knowledge.”
In 1993, Spadafora bottled his first groundbreaking blend—a deep red blend named Don Pietro after his father and made from Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot fermented with native yeasts.
After some years of success, in the late 1990s, Spadafora hired some noted Italian enologists as consultants. But, he says with a shrug, “At a certain point, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it alone.’”
Today, helped in the cellar by enologist Luciana Leonetti, 28, Spadafora produces about 12,500 cases a year from a portion of his crop. His eclectic offerings, from brut nature sparkling to sweet late-harvest wines, are labeled with the region-wide Terre Siciliane IGT designation.
The rest of the crop is sold to local cooperatives and wine giant Gruppo Italiano Vini’s Tenuta Rapitalà. He keeps production naturally low by dry farming and not using fertilizer, opting instead for cover crops—hoping that demanding less of his vines will help them grow old long after he is gone.
On the clear morning of my visit, from his perch on a slope, Spadafora looks over the adjacent vineyard hills, which seem to collide with each other as they rise to 1,300 feet, with exposures in all directions.
“With all this, I can play,” he says. “Making wine is like cooking … And it all starts with the land.”