Some folks perfected sourdough starters or binged on episodes of Tiger King during the 2020 pandemic doldrums, but in Jesi, Italy, Evanston transplant Alexander Rocca and his wife taught themselves how to run a vineyard.
Now in its third season, the boutique estate winery Pietro 17 produces about 5,000 bottles a year and features two offerings: an orange (or skin contact) wine and a reserve Verdicchio, both available through a recently launched international wine club.
Rocca, 43, moved to Jesi fresh out of college in 2002 to teach English and pal around with his brother Mason, a former Evanston Township High School star athlete who was playing professional basketball for an Italian league. “I originally came over for a life experience, an adventure,” he said.
Instead, he fell in love not once, but twice – first, with the winsome local girl who became his wife and later, with the seductively scenic countryside. Famous for its rolling hills and picturesque vineyards, the Marche region sits serenely between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea and is renowned for producing aromatic white wines, especially Verdicchio.
It was here, in the heart of wine country, that Rocca and his wife, Laura Giuliani, were raising their three children in 2020.
Rocca was working for iGuzzini, an architectural lighting firm where he now heads up marketing and communications, and Giuliani had paused her career to focus on the family. The idea of owning a vineyard had been a dream for the young couple, but it was a fantasy overshadowed by long workdays and the demands of child rearing.
“We had talked about it for a long time,” said Rocca during a recent Zoom interview, “but never really thought it was feasible. It was sort of like one of those ideas for when we retire. And then, along came the pandemic. I was furloughed a couple days a week. For the first time, we had time during the week.”
Harvest time is family time at the vineyard. Helpers include Rocca and Guiliani’s children (from left) Alessandro, 14; Maria Vittoria, 12; and Ginevra, 10. Credit: Pietro 17 archive photos
Neither Rocca nor Giuliani had professional experience in winemaking, although Rocca had helped with harvests at local vineyards and Giuliani had grown up immersed in the wine culture of the region. Undaunted, the couple forged ahead. “In April 2020 we decided to give it a go,” Rocca said.
The first step was lining up experts, including a professional winemaker and an agronomist, to help formulate a strategic plan and identify the right property. Next, Rocca enrolled in an online course at Sonoma State University and earned a wine business management certificate. Between April and December of that year, the couple traversed the Italian countryside, visiting vineyards, talking to winemakers and trying to gain first-hand knowledge of the business.
Hunting for a ‘premium quality vineyard’
The most difficult part, said Rocca, was finding the right vineyard. “Our project was to make a premium quality product and we needed a premium quality vineyard. Quality vineyards are not easy to find because if they’re quality vineyards they are already being farmed by someone else.”
One morning Rocca was cycling on a winding country road near the Marche town of Staffolo when he passed a property with a for-sale sign. The parcel included a 4-acre vineyard, a house, a pigsty, a woodshed and two barns.
“We just got lucky,” said Rocca. “This guy’s family had owned the vineyard for hundreds of years, but he needed to sell.”
Rocca and Giuliani moved quickly and by January 2021 the Staffolo property was theirs. Under the tutelage of their agronomist, they learned to prune and train the vines, most of which were planted in the 1970s. Because the previous owners had been selling the grapes, not making wine, the couple had to change the way the vines were managed in an effort to emphasize quality over quantity. They chose to preserve the 50-year-old vines, which Rocca said were still producing exceptionally fine fruit.
Doing it by hand
“As vines get older, they tend to take on different shapes,” he explained, “and each one is different, so it forces you to do everything manually. We’re happy to do things manually. That’s what we want to do.” Commercial vineyards, by contrast, typically replant more frequently to achieve the uniformity necessary for mechanization.
In December of 2021, Rocca and Giuliani undertook the complete restoration of the vineyard’s physical structure. Leaving the vines intact, they replaced old, damaged posts and support wires to better serve the plants and to promote continued growth of high-quality fruit.
Rocca said the four-month project caused a stir in the regional winemaking community. “No one does it, because it is an enormous expense. The locals said we were crazy. Most people just do it when they take out old plants, but the base of our whole philosophy was preserving this old vineyard and these old vines because, for us, they were just incredible.”
Wine aficionados can judge the quality of fruit for themselves. The two Pietro 17 wines are produced exclusively from estate grapes grown using organic methods. According to Rocca, the vineyard is currently in the second year of a three-year process to become organic certified.
In a converted barn on the property, he executes most of the winemaking tasks himself to produce the vineyard’s distinctive offerings. Available now, the 2021 Marche Bianco IGT, is an orange wine blended from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes that sells for 25 euros. Available June 1, the 2021 Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Reserva Classico DOCG is made from 100% Verdicchio grapes and is priced at 35 euros.
Pietro 17 wines are currently sold in select Italian and European restaurants and shops. In the United States, the product is available only in Colorado, but Rocca hopes to expand distribution to Illinois soon. Until then, Club 17, his new international wine program, can ship bottles to locations around the world, including Rocca’s hometown of Evanston.
The winemaker maintains a deep connection with the city where his parents, Bart and Catherine Rocca, and several other family members still live.
“I strongly believe growing up in Evanston helped prepare me for living in a different country,” said Rocca. “Evanston is such a diverse community and one that offers so much for developing youth, with so much focus on the importance of believing in oneself and that with hard work and dedication anything can be done.”
I am hoping that when the wine becomes available, Wine Goddess on Main Street will add Rocca’s vino to its already large selection. But Rocca’s wine has provenance–he grew up in Evanston!
Finally, an article about Italian culture and Italian- Americans. More of these words of European immigrants need to be told. We all, not just a few, have necessary stories to be told. Bravo. This one was a glimmer.
My ancestors came from immediate neighboring villages near Jesi. (sassoferrato and Arcevia.) my mother was one of those immigrants.
Nancy, great job! You’ve really captured the story of the winery.
Nice article. Owning an Italian vineyard and winery sounds like a dream albeit a lot of hard work. Are visitors welcome?
I believe that I met Antonio’s parents when they purchased their Evanston home some 30+ years ago; I represented the sellers.
Thank you RoundTable and Nancy for a very nice article. We are humbled you and your readers are interested in our story.
Saul, you are right it is a lot of work, a labour of love for sure. Visitors are welcome, we love showing people around, though we do ask people to contact us ahead of time and make an appointment.
It is so interesting to see how your generation from Maple St has grown up. Who could have guessed?