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From Soccer Fields to Vineyards: Elia Pellegrini’s Success Story

The story of Elia Pellegrini, an ex-Italian professional soccer player who found success in the wine industry

Elia Pellegrini tasting a wine in Aia Vecchia, Italy (Photo: Daniela Marchi)

After a knee injury that terminated his career as a soccer professional too soon, Elia Pellegrini had to reinvent himself. Today, he works for his family's Tuscan winery, Aia Vecchia, and travels the world bonding with people over wine.

When Tragedy Becomes an Opportunity for a Better Life

Elia Pellegrini became a professional soccer player, or as they call it outside the US, “football”, at the tender age of 17 years old. It was a surreal experience to start making so much money at such a young age, along with all the glory and fame that comes with it – outside the US, soccer players are treated like gods. But that ended only five years later with a knee injury that would terminate his career as a superstar soccer professional. This one incident led Elia down another path.

Aia Vecchia

Elia’s family owns Aia Vecchia, founded in 1996, yet the Pellegrini family had been involved in wine for four generations, growing and buying grapes for bulk wine. They have vineyards in Tuscany’s prestigious delineated areas of Bolgheri and Maremma. Elia’s uncle learned quality winemaking from legendary wine consultant Tibor Gál to ultimately produce more premium wines while still keeping their price modest compared to other “Super Tuscans”. The Pellegrini family still credits Tibor Gál, who tragically lost his life in a car accident in 2005, for helping them achieve significant improvement in their wines. However, because of Elia’s talents involving soccer, it seemed natural that he would go down that path instead going into the family’s wine business.

The Vineyards of Aia Vecchia in Italy (Photo: Daniela Marchi)

Love Over Fame

There were many harsh realities that Elia had to face when his professional athletic career was over: losing friends, the abrupt end of the adoration of fans and the loss of a high paying salary. Overnight, he went from being somebody that everyone wanted to get to know, to a nobody that people didn’t care about… so he retreated to those who truly cared about him, his family.

When I met Elia for lunch, he was a relaxed 27 year old who seemed grounded and thoughtful. He mainly focused on the relationships he has been gifted with since joining the wine world, as well as paying homage to those great people who he knew as a child. His long-time importer Brian Larky, Dalla Terra Winery Direct®, introduced Elia to his girlfriend. He was making a market visit with Brian to introduce his wines to potential buyers in Oregon, and at one restaurant they visited, there was a woman at the bar who kept looking at him. Brian took a shy Elia to the bar with a bottle of his Lagone to meet this beautiful lady, and within 15 minutes, Brian left Elia to pursue this possible romance. After six months of traveling back and forth, she moved to Italy and now four years later, lives at his family’s winery – Elia’s English has become greatly improved as an added benefit.

Elia Pellegrini and Cathrine Todd, during a lunch in New York

The Important Things in Life

 As the end of lunch neared, Elia said that he could have opted for surgeries that would get him back to playing pro soccer again, but once he saw friends immediately abandon him after his injury, he knew that type of life was an empty one and he actively chose to build his life on something more substantial. Perhaps it was the experience of having someone important in his life being taken too young, such as Tibor Gál, or maybe he was taught a good sense of values by his family, or maybe he is just already an evolved young man – whatever it is, it was wonderful to spend time with someone wise beyond their years appreciating all the important things that this world has to offer.


Cathrine’s Recommendations

Everyday Drinking Wine (less than $15)

2016 Aia Vecchia, Vermentino, Toscana Bianco IGT, Tuscany, Italy ($11): 95% Vermentino and 5% Viognier. This Vermentino has a little bit more weight and peach fruit since it has 5% of Viognier added, yet still has that classic saline mineral note.

Special Occasion Wine (from $15 to $50)

2015 Aia Vecchia, Lagone, Toscana IGT, Tuscany, Italy ($16): 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. I still cannot believe the insane value this wine offers. A fleshy body that delivers delicious strawberry flavors with an underlying gravelly minerality and a cherry blossom finish.

2014 Aia Vecchia, Sor Ugo, Bolgheri  Superiore DOC, Tuscany, Italy ($38): 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. This wine pays tribute to Elia’s great-grandfather (Sor meaning Sr. and Ugo being the name that his family knew him by). I was immediately a huge fan of the smoky character on this wine, reminding me of espresso with dark chocolate and plum pie flavors on the palate. It is still fresh and structure giving elegance while delivering lots of generosity.

Fantasy Wine (over $50)

1999 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, Ornellaia, Bolgheri Superiore DOC, Tuscany, Italy ($200): 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. Aia Vecchia’s legendary previous consultant, Tibor Gál, was most known for being a consultant for Ornellaia as well. This vintage took place during Tibor’s tenure at Ornellaia, and it currently goes for a similar price as the 2010 Ornellaia on, and so, if you want to drink an Ornellaia at its peak right now, this may be worth your consideration. An exceptionally elegant wine that expands in the mouth with beautiful sweet black fruit in the background while giving lots of complexity up front with graphite, exotic spice and tarragon. The supple tannins make this wine velvety on the palate and the perfumed finish gives finesse to this powerful Ornellaia.

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