Giuseppe Benanti, a forerunner for the rebirth of Sicily's now thriving wine scene on Mount Etna, died Feb. 1. He was 78.
"Pippo Benanti was a charismatic, visionary and ambitious winegrower," said Alberto Aiello Graci, owner-winemaker of Graci winery. "He helped to set a glorious path for the wines of Etna, believing in their value from the beginning, and investing with seriousness and passion to position them among the great areas of the world. We will all remember him with great respect." In some ways, Graci and many other winemakers on Etna’s slopes today followed in Benanti’s footsteps.
Prior to making wine, Benanti was a successful executive in the pharmaceutical industry. As president of SIFI, a Sicilian-based company founded by his father, he helped to strengthen the company with his commitment and progressive policies. Benanti’s forward thinking also extended to Mount Etna, where he saw the potential in the area’s simple table wines, even while most versions at the time were produced only for home consumption.
"At the end of the 1980s, he called me to say that he wanted to come with me to Etna to see if there was any opportunity to purchase land," recalled Francesco Tornatore, owner of F. Tornatore winery in Castiglione di Sicilia and co-owner of a joint project on Etna, Carranco, with Piedmont’s Giacomo Borgogno & Figli, owned by Eataly’s Oscar Farinetti. "The following year he bought a piece of land bordering mine, in the Pietramarina district."
In 1988 Benanti established a winery named Tenuta di Castiglione based in Castiglione di Sicilia, on the north side of Mount Etna, where his great-grandfather was born. He tapped a young Salvo Foti as winemaker for his new project and enlisted the aid of consulting enologists from Piedmont and academics from Burgundy and Piedmont. In the 1990s, he expanded via a partnership with vine growers in Santa Maria di Licodia, on the southwestern side of Etna, and he helped to develop a name for Etna by establishing a wine route for visitors, La Strada dei Vini dell'Etna. He renamed the winery Benanti in the 1990s and moved to Viagrande, its current location, on the southeastern side of the mountain.
"[Benanti was] seen at the beginning, by us natives, as a bit visionary," said Tornatore. "[But that vision] was realized within a few decades, as his wines from Etna [became] famous and appreciated in Italy and all around the world."
Notably, Benanti’s wines were the only wines from Etna reviewed by Wine Spectator at the start of the 2000s. Ultimately the winery would be lauded for its red blends and particularly for its Pietramarina white. That bottling, made from 90-year-old Carricante vines planted at roughly 3,100 feet above sea level in the town of Milo, led the way for the surge of interest in Etna whites in the past decade and highlighted the ageability of these wines.
In 2012, Benanti passed the running of the family winery to his twin sons, Antonio and Salvino. But he was still a regular presence at the winery and at tastings and events, until very recently. Today, Benanti produces 14,000 cases of wine annually from 60 acres of estate-owned vines and long-term contracts. Last October, Benanti’s sons began a new chapter in the winery’s history with the sale of a 40 percent stake to Renzo Rosso, founder and head of the Diesel clothing brand.
"Giuseppe Benanti was truly a pioneer, who started to believe very early in the beauty and the potential of the wines from Mount Etna, and who travelled around the world to communicate these values," said Alessio Planeta, whose family winery makes bottlings from six estates spread across Sicily.
"Giuseppe was a courageous and uncompromising man," added Tornatore. "He focused on the quality, typicity and uniqueness of Etna. He [helped] all the others, [those who] sold grapes or bulk wine for the markets of Veneto and Piedmont for many years, to find the courage to invest and to start bottling [their own wine]."
Benanti is survived by his wife, Carmen, sons Antonio and Salvino, and his grandchildren.
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