Originally from Hong Kong, Stef Yim began his wine career working as a sommelier in fine dining establishments in Los Angeles. His passion for wine soon led him to the Lake County area of northern California where he learned winemaking, and then on to Europe where he took part in wine exhibitions and explored the wineries of Italy. It wasn't long before Stef gave up life in the service industry to pursue a future as a winemaker in Europe, finally ending up on Mount Etna in Sicily, driven by his fascination for the region and the energy of the volcano.

Stef started his own winery in 2015, Azienda Agricola Sciara, where he focuses on producing organic, natural wines from old vines that showcase the diverse soils and altitudes of Etna. Grape Collective talks with Stef about his winemaking journey and the natural wine scene on Etna.

Christopher Barnes: Stef, how did you get into the wine business?

Stef Yim: Well, I started as a sommelier. I actually started as a bartender. It was back in Los Angeles 18 years ago.

And so you were working in LA, you were tasting wines. What kind of wines were you into at the time?

Well, I was just open to anything because being trained as a sommelier, we got to taste everything. I didn't have any preference or anything. Basically, I got to practice my palate, got to train my palate. So, we tasted maybe 60 to 100 wines a day. Blind, most of the time.

And talk about volcanic wines. What was it that got you interested in volcanic wines?

We had this tasting group in the sommelier group. The sommelier group, it's called the Court of Master Sommeliers. So we had a group of people that would hang out sometimes on and off before we took the exam. And so we got to taste a lot of wine to train our palates. We kind of challenged each other with the wines that we brought together. And a lot of times, I was amazed because since we tasted the wine blind and a lot of times it kind of fooled me, I thought that almost for certain, that was Pinot Noir, but it turns out to be Nerello Mascalese or some Baboso Negra from Tenerife. So things like that, that's how it drew me into that kind of mindset of volcanic wines, that idea, "Wow."

It's really the evolution that totally amazes me even until today. And the wines that are made from the volcanic soil are very multifaceted and it just kind of has been like that for the last many times of tasting. So I am really fascinated by it. I didn't start to be a winemaker until 2008 when I got a chance up in the north of California. So I started over there and I followed a couple of people and started learning about making wine, but I was driving back and forth from LA all the way up to the north, northern California, not Napa though. Not the Sonoma Coast, all these familiar places, no. I was up all the way north in the regions called Lake County, Lake County District. So there was a place called Cobb Mountain. So there was where I'd started making the wine and of course, being guided by couple other people. 

Actually, it was a funny story. It's a long story. So I was a sommelier and I tasted a lot of wine at that time. I was at a wine event in San Francisco. It was back in 2007, I believe, if I'm not mistaken. And there was a wine event called the Family Winemakers. So you have all these small family winemakers gathering for pouring their wine. And so I just happened to be there and I tasted the wine called 3000. So now, let me roll back a little bit. And so I tasted the wine and said, "No fucking way. That is not a California wine!" My experience back in 2007, I didn't have that broad of a spectrum of palate. And when I spotted something, it totally thrilled me, something didn't taste like California wine.

So I was kind of amazed by it. And then I asked the guy, "Where the hell is that? It's definitely not from California." He said, "No, yeah, that's from California." "And there's no way it's a Syrah." "That is a Syrah," he told me. So I was totally, I don't know, amazed by it. And he told me, "Oh, there's this wine called 3,000, because it's made from a spot in Lake County in the elevation of 3,000 feet." I said, "Wow, this is the highest I ever heard." That time in California, I never heard of anything more than 1,500, 1,200. Probably the most where you find most of them in the Napa Valley side of it. Then I was the wine director for an enoteca so I immediately placed an order with this guy and he told me he sourced the grapes from another guy so that's how they make the wine together. 

What was it that made you say, "You know what? I'm going to go for it. I'm just going to give up everything and I'm going to find a winery and I'm going to go for it?"

Actually, at that point, I got fed up by the work, because working in the restaurants, service industry, you don't get home until like three, four o'clock in the morning. So I got fed up. And then finally, I threw in the towel and said, "I'm going to take a break." And I took a break and I flew to Europe just by myself. I flew here. Not here, here, but in Italy. And I went to the shows and I went to all the wine exhibitions and visited all the wineries. It was back in 2010.

So that's how I started. And I came here in 2010 as well and then I went to a couple other places in Sicily. And then I was fascinated by this place, of course. The volcano, the live volcanoes really captured my heart here. Subconsciously already I was very much into volcanic wines. So that's the reason why I made my first stop here during the trip. And then I found a guy who was hiring and looking for somebody for help in a winery. So I flew back. Anyway, first I got back in the States and then I came back to France and took the winemaking job. 

You were in the South of France? And what kind of grapes were you working with there?

I was working with a varietal called Tannat. A hundred percent Tannat.

That's a pretty full on wine. That's a pretty tannic wine.

Indeed. Yes. I love it, because maybe part of it, I love tea and I was serving that in a restaurant back in LA before. So I was kind of like, "This is a very interesting grape and has a very long longevity and I think it has a lot of potential." So I went there, I visited like 12 different wineries and I'd make stops and then I ran into a guy that  was from Belgium and he started his winery there back in 1990 at that time.

And talk a little bit about the natural wine scene on Etna. So Frank Cornelissen, he's kind of the guy that everybody talks about. Maybe just talk a little bit in general about the natural wines that you find on Etna.

Well, first of all, Frank is an amazing guy and he definitely inspired me during my very first trip here back in 2010. So that was one of the very first few people that I met during that trip. And I also met Salvo Foti that time and he showed me the place near Caldarara. At that time, his cantina was near Randazzo. Actually I think it was closer to Passopisciaro. So that was like 12 years ago and these people are totally very inspiring to me. The way that they chose to come here and to put in the focus on this land considered abandoned at that time, especially Frank came here like 1999 or 2000, somewhere around there. To me, it was amazing. Instead of going to Barolo or Tuscany or Burgundy, places like that. And so something opened my eyes. 

And there's something quite electric about the mountain. You take somebody like Frank, and maybe we can just talk a little bit more about Frank and how somebody can leave their life in a place like Belgium and be attracted to this mountain. The power of the volcano, the power of making wine here.

It's the energy. It's the positive energy, I guess. And partly because I think he has a very good palate to start with. As far as I know, he wasn't a winemaker before. I think his family was in the wine merchant, importer business, if I get it right. So he has a very good palate and he knows all these regions. He definitely poked his nose around as to where to make the wine, I guess. He knows where to poke his nose around. That's what I meant, what place has the potential to make good wines. 

And more specifically, though, not only did Frank do this crazy thing, which is leave your home country, move to a volcano and make wine, but he's like, "I'm going to make natural wine."

It was a much earlier revolution, I guess, right? Yeah, back in France. Everything started near the Loire. There was a big revolution there because of Nicolas Joly back in the early 90s, '93, '94 at that time, I remember. 

And how would you describe the difference between natural wine made on Etna and more conventional types of wines made on Etna? What do you feel making wine naturally provides to the essence of the beverage?

I think it's very important to me. That's the path that I chose. That's what I believe, making a natural wine. That's what I practice. That's what I believe, because first of all, let's say if we are not practicing natural wines, there will be considered as what's the point of coming to a place like this if you are not making natural wine? You see what I mean? Because the reasons are that because you want the originality, the environment, the terroir, the altitude, the flora, the microorganisms to be showcased in your wine. If you are not going natural, there's no way you can do it. You cannot say, "Oh, the wine's from Etna," but are using tons of chemicals, tons of treatments.

And that, you kind of kill, you kill everything that's alive in the grapes, in the juice. So I don't consider that as authentic to me, which is just my personal opinion. If you're in a place, doesn't matter where it's from, Etna or Barolo or Gevrey-Chambertin or the place that I worked in Madiran, it is important the wine speaks for itself. With too much of interventions, the wine, it kind of loses its identity. So that's something to consider if you're not doing natural. If you're not doing everything natural here, anywhere, you can't really get the essence of the place.

Talk a little bit about the winemaking community in Etna. It seems to me like Sicily is this country that has been conquered and assimilated by so many different cultures over the centuries.

Well, it is a good thing that a lot of people have come here for the last 10, 15 years from all over the world. And I think everybody has their own approach. So my approach, like previously mentioned, I'm more gravitated towards more natural. More of a mentality that to kind of portray the style, the character of the grapes, the varietals, the land into the wine. So some other people might have their own approach, signified by their winemaking style. 

And other people might come here to try to bring up the best of Nerello Mascalese, you know what I mean? So everybody has their own approach. So I think it's great. There's nothing else better than that, other than just going all in just one dimension. Like I mentioned before, that's part of the reason why everybody comes here, it is the multicultural, the volcano, the soil. And to me, I think it is very important to find a piece of land with diversity, with the diversities of altitude, the elevations since we're in the era of climate change right now, and that altitude.

I don't know whether winemakers realize that or not, or they just come here because of the name of Etna, but I think to me, it plays a very important part. Very important reasons for me why I got here in the first place, because not only is there a live volcano, but we have the choice of being at a different altitude. So that kind of contributes a totally different character into the wine. You can use the same grapes, but you kind of make a different style of wine. So that's what fascinates me. 

And talk a little bit about the climate here, because it's Mediterranean, but it's also maybe kind of almost Alpine.

Definitely Alpine. Where we filming here right now is definitely Alpine. It gets so cold here. Just a couple days ago, it was only two or three degrees. I was working here during the day, it was like three degrees. So you can imagine what the nights are, temperatures during the night, but during the maturing seasons, the month of July after the flowering, July, August, and September, it's pretty acceptable. And during the day, there's very good amount of sun exposure. And during the night, it kind of cools down, but it doesn't cool to a point that you kind of get frost, you know what I mean? This kind of climate kind of makes the vines struggle. It kind of makes it very stressful. So which is very good in a way. So it produces very good phenolic compounds, it produces a very good color, it produces a very good purity, a good amount of balanced acidity. 

And talk a little bit about your vineyard here.

And this particular spot is 1,180. Hence, I call the wine 1,200 meters. We are almost at 2,000 meters. This part is so different than any other part further down the mountain. The grapes always have that flair of freshness in there. It is amazing. It is so transparent. It has weight, but the weight is almost like you feel it, but it's not there. So this is the kind of style from this particular land. The aroma is very fruity in a way, almost like a Burgundy, but with the kind of  volcanic flare to it, with that minerality, with that very interesting, I would say, almost like rhubarb, strawberry, wild strawberry, things like that.

And look at the color of the soil. They are a lot more copper, sandier than all these vineyards down there. So here, if you look at the land after we til it, and later on, you see the sands are so fine. Almost like on the beach. And what makes the difference is being the sandy soil is the water retention is a lot higher and being up here, we definitely want that moisture in the land, because sometimes, it could be quite dry because the wind, you are high up here, you are right on the top. So it gets really windy, very dry here during some of the seasons. 

And you have pre-phylloxera vines here, right?  Some really old vines. Talk a little bit about your vines. 

Oh yeah. There are a lot. Part of the reason why I came here, when I realized that I could get a piece of land, I made an offer during the trip when I was here in 2014. And I made an offer because there's nothing compared to this place. Not just because there's a volcano, but the altitude, the diversity of the altitude. And also, the old vines are very... they're very old. We call it pre-phylloxera vines or they call it Piete Franco. Piete Franco means the original rootstock. What they refer to is something before the phylloxera things happened. So that was back in 1890 something, 1880 something. Anyway, so there are a lot here, I realize. So being a trained sommelier, I'm very into old vines as well. Not just the varietal or the volcano or anything, just any wine made from old vines. They're very special because they don't have that many in the world.

There's not that many left in the world. And to be able to find these kinds of old vines just scattered around at Mount Etna is just a dream for a winemaker, is a wet dream for a winemaker. Just say that. For me, it's like when I spot something like that, it's like, "Hell yeah! This is the place. I'm not going anywhere else, not even if you give me a grand cru in Burgundy, forget about it. This is the place." I think this place has the potential to make amazing wine, and will be on par with the grand crus from Burgundy. Jancis Robinson compared this place to Burgundy back in 2008. She wrote an article about Etna being the Mediterranean Burgundy. I don't know if you ever read that article.

So because the Nerello Mascalese being at these kinds of environment has that characteristic of a Pinot Noir in a way, but also, it depends, of course. Depends on the year, depends on the vendemia (harvest), the year, it depends on the pattern of the climate of that particular year. But on the other hand the grapes they also find the character, the feel of a Nebbiolo, they have that kind of astringency, kind of have that young Nebbiolo flare. 

What is it about old vines that make them special?

The old vines are amazing. They give the intensity to the wine and it really kind of... It doesn't matter what weather its facing during the harvest season, during the maturation season, because the roots are deep inside the ground. As you know, the older vines, the deeper the roots get. So that really helps during the bad weather. It doesn't really destroy the whole crop. It's still able to hold the vines. It's still able to produce a much better quality grape. Let me put it this way, they are much more balanced in a way.  We did a separate fermentation most of the time and the old vines under the analysis in the laboratory, they always show a much better balance in terms of the pH, the acidity and all that. So for me as a winemaker, I much prefer if I could find all the places where old vines are. It makes my job as a winemaker a lot easier. 

And let's talk a little bit about the Grenache that you make here at 1,200 meters, which is kind of unusual, right? It's really high altitude Grenache made on Mount Etna. How did it get here? What does it taste like?

Okay. Well, it beats me. Somebody smart enough to plant this Grenache here a hundred years ago. So God knows who they are. I'm pretty sure there are the local people here. It's no different than people here today. And I think like four or five generations ago, I think people were very smart and they really articulated what variety to plant on what kind of land. They kind of have developed that knowledge over the years. And somehow, maybe something do with the church, it's the monastery or something, they figure out where is the best place to grow certain varietals. I have no idea how they end up here, to be honest with you. 

And maybe just describe the characteristics of a super high altitude Grenache in old vines. How does it taste?

For me it gives the wine, being in such a high altitude, it gives the wine that freshness that no other wine has. It gives the wine, especially the Grenache, a different face of Grenache. It's so interesting. Before I got here, I never tasted a Grenache like that. I have to say it was kind of awkward, because the Grenache that I made from this piece of land is like, "Well, I wouldn't have even guessed is a Grenache."

It is so interesting. It's so transparent, but it has that fruit. It has that weight of fruits in there. The fruitiness is there. It has the weight, but it has that in the same time, it gives you that freshness, that good acidity, but without being over the top. And it's the minerality, I think part of it, something to do with the soil here. It gives that aspect of minerality into the wine. In the same time, it's light, but it's fruity. So it is very interesting. It doesn't taste like a Grenache that most the people could relate to. You know what I mean? So that's how I play all these blind tasting games with my wine buddies all the time. A lot of people couldn't guess what it is.

So talk a little bit about the evolution of Etna as a wine region. We had Salvo Foti, Cornelissen, these sort of pioneers that came in. And then there was a second wave, winemakers like yourself, like Eduardo Torres, who came from other places who all added their own kind of perception or style to Etna. And now, you're getting these big corporations coming in. And I talked to some other winemakers and I think there was a concern that the things are going too fast here, that it's going to lose some of its personality with some of these big guys coming in. 

I am not concerned about that because like I said, everybody has their own approach. It doesn't matter whether it's the big or small wineries, they come in here, they have their own approach. It's a different audience. And whether, like you said, we're going to tarnish the name of Etna, there's not really a fixed image of Etna anyway. So to me personally, I think it's wonderful to have all these people come here to be able to do their thing to give Etna a different aspect. I'm a very open-minded person and I think a lot of people should be too. And a different aspect means a different approach and different way of looking at Etna. So this is how we grow. This is part of the journey. So I think it's a good thing.

What's special about making wine on Etna and making high altitude wines with old vines.

First of all, the reason why I came here, I decided, within a heartbeat, to invest here because of the volcano and the altitude and the old vines. Everybody knows as a winemaker, that is, like I said, the wet dream for making a good wine for winemakers. The volcano, it kind of contributes to the soil, the really ever-evolving volcanic soil every two, 300 years, because Etna erupted last year like 72 times. And what it means is it constantly contributes new soil, new top soil, the ashes, the rocks and all that, and it kind of spills out everywhere.

And if you look at it, let me show you some here. That is new volcanic rock, even the small pieces. And these kind of small pieces of rocks, they're going to degrade, with the help of the rain, of course, after 60, 80, 100, 120 years, the mineralities, they're going to break down and decompose and be part of the soil, which is great for the vines. So that is the reason we don't do a whole lot of treatment here. We don't have to add a whole lot of nitrogen, we don't have to add a whole lot of potassium, we don't have add the zinc, all these minerals that other regions add constantly to put back in the soil, which is a great thing here. And especially, that's natural. We consider the other regions, as you know, that they have to buy a lot of minerals to put back into their land as part of the treatment.

Those kinds of minerals are not really that natural, not a hundred percent natural, you know what I mean? They, most of the time, they're made in the laboratory. Nothing is better than having these kinds of minerals from the magma coming to your soil. And with the help of the rain and the wind, you don't have to do anything. And constantly every 200 years, you get new minerals that are good for the vines for almost indefinitely. So that is why I found it to be like it's a God-given place.

And talk a little bit about your winemaking. You have an amphora planted in the ground in this this vineyard at 1,200 meters.

This amphora is something that I've been thinking about since four years ago as an experimental way for aging the wine in the amphora, but not only that, but the amphora gets buried into a place where the grapes are originally from. I think it's like a reincarnation. You know what I mean? It's almost like a reincarnation where you pick the grapes.

The grapes, the essence of grapes from here without the land, without the flora, the microorganisms, all these things from this piece of land, you produce this kind of fruit. So you have the DNA of the land, the DNA is in the fruits. So what I'm saying is the grapes have the DNA from where it's from. So I think it would be a good idea, a good experiment to put the grapes that originated from here back into the place where they came from originally. That's the whole idea. Like a reincarnation. We harvest the fruit from here, the DNA is from here, and then we age the wine. We bring it into a different form. I don't know whether it's going to work or not, but it's only our first year.

Reincarnation, it doesn't have to be the same form. We are human beings, but maybe in the next life, you could be a dolphin. So it's the reincarnation, it's the transformation and it's the mystery of nature. So what I'm thinking is, even though after fermentation is a natural process, we didn't put anything. It's not like whiskey. We deliberately make distillation and get the alcohol from there, but the alcohol from wine naturally happened. We didn't put any yeast in there, the yeast is from here. So that is an important point.

There's something I want to point out to you that is important, which is whether it is a natural fermentation, or not natural fermentation. For example, back to your very first question, you asked me about what's my take on natural wine. So my take on natural wine is that it's very important because I think in order to showcase, in order to make wine speak for itself, it's got to be a natural wine. Any intervention will detour the result, so to speak. The product, what turns into something not quite natural. So back to what I was saying about the amphora is if you're making a natural wine and the grapes are fermented with nothing outside of this land, you see what I mean? Elementary. Nothing being like you don't put anything that doesn't belong there. So when you do that, if you do the transformation, the idea is to let it be raised in the environment where it is originally from. I think you don't get any better than that. That's my take on that. And that is the reason why I put the amphora here.

Can you expand on your overall philosophy of winemaking and the vessels that you're using apart from the amphora.

Apart from the amphora, I also use terracotta amphora, which this is not a hundred percent terracotta amphora that, like I said, I specially made this. I have some artisanal artigianali who made this amphora for me with my specification. I want it to be made with the volcanic rocks from here. So just like the rocks, what I just picked up and showed you just now. Apart from that, I like a lot also in the French wood barrel. I think if you use it carefully, I think it's a good aspect to the wine. I think it definitely gives the wine a different element, different character. So I use that too. And I also use something very simple, such as fiberglass. I use that too and I use ceramic and I use concrete. So I use those sorts of stuff.

I consider myself more like a... maybe more like a perfumer. You have all these different elements there, different aromas, different herbs, you can smell how you put it together. I think being a good winemaker, you have to be a very good perfumer as well, because first of all, you have got to have a very good nose. So all these different containers help the wine develop a different nose, different texture, different add-ons, different layers. So when I have all these in my hands, only then, I could have my own blueprint in my brain to think about, "Oh, how many percent from here, how many percent from there?" And then put together to finalize the cuvee. You see what I mean? So since I was a little kid, I was always fascinated by the people making perfume.

When I was a little kid, when I was in the duty free shop in the airport, my mom was like, "Are you crazy?" I was always spraying these, because they're free, right? And I sprayed them on the strip and then you smell it. And I smelled the Calvin Klein one, I smelled Burberry, I smelled all these and Versace and all these things. And I'm fascinated by it. And I went to a museum in Paris, the Museum of Perfume. We're talking about 10, 12 years ago. And it opened my eyes and I could relate that to winemaking.

 So to me, having all these containers was my idea. I don't want to just make one-dimensional wine. I want to make something where it will develop. It will provide a good evolution along the way and something that I love to experiment with. I still haven't fully experimented all these combinations, but down the road, I think it is fascinating to me. I just love doing that. It's just like, "Oh, if you have that container to ferment with this altitude, and this altitude with different fermentor..." So it kind of gives endless possibility.

Editors note: A special thank you to the Vinitaly International Academy, as some of the content in the embedded video was taken during an October 2021 Vinitaly International Academy trip to Mount Etna.