How months in lockdown fuelled sommelier’s fight for inclusion.
Wheelchair sommelier Mirko Pastorelli arrived in Australia just before the pandemic, and thanks lockdown for helping him decide which direction his life will take.
Written by Max Allen, published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 December 2020.
My vote for inspirational wine person of the year goes to a young Italian sommelier you have probably never heard of – but are likely to hear more about in the future.
Mirko Pastorelli was born with spastic paraplegia. Since the age of 14 he has been in a wheelchair. But this hasnʼt deterred the 27-year-old from pursuing his chosen profession working in wine – despite the fact that most of the restaurants in Emilia Romagna, where he lives, are wheelchair unfriendly.
Determined to change the attitude towards disability in hospitality, Pastorelli has made contacts across the world, from high-profile New York wheelchair sommelier Yannick Benjamin to influential London wine writer Jancis Robinson.
At the beginning of 2020, Pastorelli was offered a stint at leading Melbourne restaurant Vue de Monde. He arrived here on a working visa at the beginning of March – and then the country went into lockdown.
For months on end, Pastorelli was confined to his tiny room in a sunless apartment in Melbourneʼs CBD, surviving on his Italian disability pension, cooking soups and pork bone ragu.
“Many other visa holders returned to their countries,” he says. “I decided to resist and stay.”
When Robinson (whose website I contribute to) told me about Pastorelliʼs plight, I contacted him, and in June, when the first restrictions eased, I met up with him to share good Australian wine and food, and see how I could help.
Things looked hopeful. Pastorelli connected with Sommeliers Australia, left the apartment to attend tastings, was asked to write an article for the Young Gun of Wine web site, and planned trips to vineyards in the Yarra Valley.
Then came the second, much tougher lockdown in July. No work, no travel, no visitors. For week after week.
But Pastorelli continued to “resist”. In his cramped room he studied, tasted wines I delivered to him, entered writing competitions, got published.
Even decided, at the height of the restrictions, to try to line up work on a vineyard or farm so that he could be eligible to extend his visa.
“There have been people before us who have faced two world wars without the comforts we have today,” he told me. “I think people all over the world are too spoiled.”
Then, in late September, after co-hosting an online masterclass for Sommeliers Australia, Pastorelli decided it was time to go back to Italy.
“Thanks to the lockdown I understood which direction I want to take,” he said. “I thought that working on the [restaurant] floor would be the only opportunity for me, but now I have broadened my horizons.”
Pastorelli arrived home with renewed energy. Heʼs writing a book, has work lined up in a new bar next summer, and has been asked to help the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale address issues of diversity and inclusion in the profession.
“For years I have been fighting to change the perception of our industry towards disability,” he said. “If the ASI has decided to take this step, I believe that all my work and suffering will finally bear fruit – and this I am very happy with.”
On his flight back to Italy in October, Pastorelli looked out of the window and saw the full moon shining over the deserts of Qatar.
“It was an incredible emotion,” he said. “After all those months in that dark room, I didn’t remember the last time that I saw the moon. Here [now] at home I have a lot of light, I wake up very early in the morning and try to make every day productive!”