Industry Icons

How Arianna Occhipinti Won Over the Wine World

This Sicilian wine phenom has become a modern icon with her terroir-centric winemaking practices and the elegant, singular wines they craft

Arianna Occhipinti poses while smelling a sample of red wine
Arianna Occhipinti began her career as a winemaker at an early age. Photo courtesy of Arianna Occhipinti.

Arianna Occhipinti could only ever imagine making only one type of wine: “human wine.” The lauded Sicilian winemaker gleaned a fascination with wine at the age of 16, after accompanying her uncle Giusto Occhipinti, the founder of COS Winery, to Vinitaly, where she was taken with the event’s energy and positivity. Not long after, she began studying viticulture and enology at the University of Milan. 

Over time, Giusto Occhipinti instilled in her the importance of working in harmony with nature and using traditional, artisanal winemaking techniques to emphasize the authenticity of the terroir, and Occhipinti produced the first vintage under her own label at the age of just 22. Though her wines embody natural and biodynamic practices that are becoming increasingly known, they are also transcendent of them. “They are a pure expression of the territory of origin,” says Occhipinti, “and whose identity and originality should be preserved as much as possible.”

But beyond her steadfast commitment to terroir-transparent winemaking, what, exactly, made Occhipinti such a phenom from the very start of her career? Sommeliers, writers, and even her longtime import partner point to the somewhat indescribable character and energy of not only her wines, but of Occhipinti herself.

A Terroir-Centric Ethos

Occhipinti has always adhered to the principles of minimal intervention: mass selections, indigenous-yeast fermentation, bean and oat cover crops, aging mainly in raw cement, and no irrigation, late harvests, chemical selections, new oak, or filtration. Though she follows biodynamic and natural farming practices and subscribes to the harmonious interconnectedness of the land, winemaker, and agriculture, she prefers not to label wines according to these methods. Rather, Occhipinti refers to them as wines born out of love for the vineyard and the soil.

The terroir, Occhipinti believes, must be the protagonist of every wine. Her focus is on Frappato and Nero d’Avola, grown on low-producing vines ranging from 7 to 65 years old in the region of Vittoria (though Occhipinti chooses to label her wines with the broader Terre Siciliane IGT). In the case of these two indigenous grapes, the terroir imparts freshness and elegance, thanks to vineyards’ cool, less humid, sheltered location within a valley, and the soil, which is sand atop calcareous and stony layers. “The vines work on this interplay of sand and limestone,” she explains, “which is fruit and silkiness on one hand, and acidity and energy on the other.” 

Indeed, Occhipinti believes that her curiosity about the wine world at such a tender age allowed her to delve into its complexity and depth, and that her connection with the vine continues to imbue her very identity. Her winemaking philosophy is firmly entrenched in two core values: “Respect for biodiversity and the vineyard, and acceptance of the land with wise gestures of sensitive and natural agriculture, which considers wine as a living being,” she says. 

A Superstar Debut to the Global Wine Market

From the beginning, Occhipinti says, her wines received a positive response in the market, which was initially intrigued by the project and the young Sicilian winemaker behind it. But initial curiosity can only be sustained if it’s matched by quality—her hallmark, then and now. Interestingly enough, she encountered the biggest obstacle in her own backyard. “It took a few years for customers to recognize us as credible, especially considering the figure of a young woman with ideas and a different and sustainable agricultural product—[both] not so common at the time,” she says.

In 2006, Occhipinti brought on Louis/Dressner Selections to import the second commercial vintage of her wines into the U.S. The team trusted Occhipinti’s vision before she was even established and remains her sole U.S. importer to this day. “The wines were almost immediately a hit,” recalls Kevin McKenna, a partner for Louis/Dressner Selections, thanks to the U.S. market’s burgeoning interest in Sicilian wines, Frappato’s novelty and appeal to red wine drinkers, and Occhipinti’s young, affable, outgoing nature.

“She proves that ‘great’ wines can also be elegant, nuanced, lower in alcohol, and easy to drink.” – Joe Campanale, Bar Vinazo, Fausto, and LaLou

Visibility subsequently increased when the importer took her on tour with other winegrowers—including to the Salon des Vins de Loire and a wine fair they organized around the time of natural wine event La Dive Bouteille—increasing Occhipinti’s reputation in the industry and with European consumers. “We were really her first and foremost champion, frankly,” says McKenna. “The wines really leapt into a wider orbit of fandom with the first releases of the SP68 wines.” Journalists took notice—Alice Feiring was an early proponent of Occhipinti, and a New York Times article spurred interest—and wine directors like Levi Dalton, Lee Campbell, and Juliette Pope became devotees.

Occhipinti’s Fine Balance of Approachability and Complexity

Joe Campanale feels fortunate to have come up in the industry at the same time as Occhipinti. The co-owner of Bar Vinazo, Fausto, and LaLou, all in Brooklyn, and co-author of Vino: The Essential Guide to Real Italian Wine, says he was immediately drawn to her wines, and featured her first vintage on the first list he ever wrote. He also recalls her wines taking off quickly and seeing them all over lists in New York and beyond. Initially he could easily purchase them, but in 2011 they were allocated and the following year became the most allocated wines in the Bowler Wine portfolio. 

“They had an elegance, a giftedness that was very different from what we saw out of Sicily then,” says Campanale. “She was so young and doing something different from the norm—we’re the same age and I felt her wines and story spoke to me on a deeper level.” 

So taken was Campanale with her expressions that he’s featured them on every wine list he’s created since. He calls Occhipinti a seminal figure in the industry, right from the start, and describes her trajectory as a skyrocket. “She was just making such singular wines that people got really excited about,” he says. “In a matter of years it went from this cool insider wine to a highly sought-after item.”

Arianna Occhipinti poses amongst the vines of a vineyard on a sunny day
Occhipinti says her wines are “a pure expression of the territory of origin, and whose identity and originality should be preserved as much as possible.” Photo courtesy of Arianna Occhipinti.

“Her wines have energy without being fussy, and they are also still at a great price point for consumers to explore biodynamic wines that are also delicious,” says Julia Coney, a wine journalist and wine consultant for American Airlines who is based in Washington, D.C. and Houston, Texas. “I haven’t met any wine professionals who have had her wines who don’t love them.” Coney first discovered Occhipinti’s wines years ago while listening to the hosts of podcast The Crush rave about them; after sampling the SP68 Rosso, a blend of Frappato and Nero D’Avola, she joined “the Arianna fan-girl club.”

Campanale believes that while Occhipinti’s biodynamic commitment is commendable, it’s the deft way in which she conjures elegance from natural winemaking process, and balanced restraint rather than heavy-handedness, that sets her apart. “She proves that ‘great’ wines can also be elegant, nuanced, lower in alcohol, and easy to drink,” he says. Among all her expressions, he adds, the medium-bodied, aromatic, fresh and vibrant Il Frappato, a 100 percent Frappato from Vittoria, is iconic. “It’s exceptionally drinkable while simultaneously complex, somehow distinctly Sicilian yet also unlike anything else produced.”

Kai-Michelle Coleman, the managing partner and buyer of Simple Syrup Wine & Spirits in Brooklyn, looks for sustainably produced wines and discovered Occhipinti’s bottles in 2018. She believes the brand has been so successful because the bottles are so relatable, no matter the demographic of wine drinker or the occasion. She spreads the buzz about releases like the SP68 Rosso 2020 and the SP68 Bianco 2021 among her clientele, who quickly become repeat customers. Coleman even propagates her plants in repurposed Occhipinti bottles. 

“As the anomaly woman who suffers from a slight sulfite intolerance, Arianna’s wines really stand out—taste aside, she is absolutely killing the biodynamic wine scene,” says Coleman. “Minimal intervention, low sulfites, and an innovative approach to winemaking from a region that is overrun by men; she’s young, vibrant and beautiful just like her wines.” After briefly meeting her a few years ago and nervously gushing over her wines, she was awestruck when Occhipinti poured her a sample of Frappato.

While Occhipinti inspires many professionals, she is equally influenced by others in the industry. She cites Elena Pantaleoni, Giovanna Morganti, and Giuseppe Rinaldi as being particularly impactful to her thinking and approach.   

As Occhipinti approaches her 20th vintage this year, she’s reflecting on the past two decades, while deciding where to direct her energy in the future. Through it all, she keeps a laser focus on her vision: “Producing wines that faithfully express the unique character of the Sicilian terroir, while respecting the environment and the region’s winemaking traditions.”


Sign up for our award-winning newsletter

Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.

Kelly Magyarics is a wine, spirits, travel, and lifestyle writer in the Washington, D.C. area who holds the WSET Diploma. You can reach her on her website, and on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.

Most Recent