Regaleali has been one of Sicily's most important wine estates for nearly two centuries. But Alberto Tasca d'Almerita, who was named managing director of his family's winery in June, has his sights set even higher.
"To attain great quality, you have to pay attention to every last detail," says the 31-year-old, driving his new four-wheel-drive Audi A4 along the hilly roads of rural Sicily. Regaleali is located about 80 miles south of the bustling city of Palermo. Tasca d'Almerita has been working at the winery since 1992, doing everything from planting vineyards to managing sales. "We had to create a new team at Regaleali if we wanted to make changes, and everyone needed to work better together."
Tasca d'Almerita's dream team includes his brother, Giuseppe, 40, who is the principal winemaker, and Carlo Ferrini, Tuscany's hotshot consulting enologist, who has guided the winemaking at Regaleali for the last three harvests. They are already delivering the goods.
What was once a lackluster range is rapidly becoming a lineup of bright and racy wines, both red and white. Regaleali's top wine, Contea di Scaflani del Conte, is made mostly from Sicily's indigenous Nero d'Avola, blended with a hint of Perricone; the 2000 vintage rated outstanding, showing exotic fruit and polished tannins, and the 2001, tasted from barrel, may be even better. The standard Regaleali white and red are good wines for the money, usually around $10 a bottle in U.S. wine shops, and recent vintages have scored in the mid-80s. The Regaleali estate produces about 250,000 cases per year.
"We changed our philosophy in winemaking," says Tasca d'Almerita, during a tasting of his new releases at the winery. "Before, we made easy and delicious wines. But we lost some of our focus."
While leaving the winemaking to his brother and Ferrini, Tasca d'Almerita is responsible for everything else at the company, from management to sales to communications. This workload leaves little time for his wife, Francesca, and infant son, Alessandro Leone, and even less for sailing, one of his great passions. But the future of Regaleali is his top priority at the moment.
"Look at these vineyards," says Tasca d'Almerita, standing on the top of a hill on the estate. "They are fantastic. The weather is so perfect we seldom have to treat our vineyards. Our grapes are essentially organically grown."
What were once fields of grain are now planted to grapes, about 740 acres altogether. Almost all the modern and perfectly manicured vineyards are on beautiful, southwest-facing slopes at relatively high altitudes, allowing the fruit to ripen slowly, even in the strong Sicilian sunshine. Many people mistakenly believe that Sicily is nothing more than a natural oven that overripens grapes. In fact, many vineyard areas on the island resemble the best grapegrowing regions in California's Central Coast -- where hot, sunny days and cool nights ensure the even ripening of healthy grapes.
But nature is not infallibly generous, even here. "We had some difficult years, such as 1996," Tasca d'Almerita admits. "In Sicily, you have so many excellent harvests that when a difficult one arrives, you can have some big problems. Sometimes you think that you can only make excellent wines, but that can be dangerous."
It's the young Sicilian's job to make sure that the winery's efforts never lapse. And Tasca d'Almerita believes that building a strong relationship with key customers is just as essential as making good quality wine.
"You have to be close to the market," he says. "You need to know what people think of your wines. If you are not out communicating what you are doing, then it doesn't matter how good your wines are."
The challenge for the vintner now is to communicate the present and future of winemaking at Regaleali to wine lovers in Italy and around the world.
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