Stanlake Park Wine Estate is currently managed by Nico Centonze and Natalia Pezzone, a passionate professional couple that have travelled the world working in the wine industry. But their journeys weren't always easy and their story is full of surprises.
They first met in 2009 in Piedmont, when Nico had just finished viticulture and oenology university, and Natalia was working in a project with a team of researchers in Veterinary school in Turin.
Coincidentally, Nico's first job as a winemaker was in the Rioja region of Argentina, and so they travelled together for some time before Nico's harvest season started. Later on, Natalia was awarded a scholarship for Veterinary university in Madrid, where she spent some time while Nico was in Italy working in his family's vineyard. This was until she decided she wouldn't go back to Argentina.
Never coming back
"I simply missed the return flight. Not even my family knew my plans.", Natalia remembers."By that time, I was doing my PhD in Veterinary Science, had two great jobs as a researcher and teacher but I knew something was missing. I was great at what I was doing, but I wasn't convinced that was the path".
She moved to Puglia with Nico by the end of 2010, a period where securing a job in South Italy wasn't easy. Despite Natalia's impressive CV, there weren't any positions for Vets, so she started doing another thing she was good at: writing. Helped by her Italian surname, she began creating web content for several companies in Italy. "They would only hire Italian native speakers, but my writing skills were that good that they thought I was Italian", she laughs.
In the meantime, Nico was working for a local winery, where he was promised a position as an assistant winemaker, but in reality he was a simple worker and didn't even get to talk with the head winemaker. "I knew I would never grow my skills there, and that I would spend years just putting bottles into boxes", he remembers.
Time for a change
It was the right time for a change. By then, Nico didn't speak a word of English, so they both took their backpacks and moved to the UK. Initially they spent some time in Scotland and England, volunteering with families so Nico could learn English. Months went by, the 2013 harvest in England was coming and Nico managed to secure a position at the famous Nyetimber in West Sussex.
Unfortunately, because Natalia didn't have an EU passport by that time, they had to leave the UK after harvest and move to France, where they also spent some time volunteering and working. While in Bordeaux, a well-known winemaker offered Nico a Head Winemaker position in a boutique winery in Romania. The couple had no idea of how life in Romania would be, but the adventure (and the position!) seemed more than worthwhile, so they packed everything and moved again.
Carpathian Mountains, Romania
"Only in Romania did I have the chance to be in charge of everything, as all the processes, the staff, and the entire building were my responsibility", Nico says, further recognising that he had always preferred less mainstream wine producing countries, as only through challenging oneself can you grow as a winemaker. "If you work for a super fancy, modern and rich winery in France or Italy, everything has a protocol and you find yourself just following steps, like a machine. Unless you are the owner of the winery, there's little room for experimenting, changing and learning".
Starting their own project
After Romania, the couple decided it was time to work for themselves. There was a possibility of taking over Nico's family vineyard, as his Dad was tired and wanted to retire. Filled with new energy, experience and knowledge acquired by many years of working for other people, Nico and Natalia moved back to Italy and started to work on their own project.
"Nico would take care of the vineyards and make the wine in a friend's winery to start, while I would create the brand, the logo, the e-commerce and everything that is needed to run a business. We were making two reds initially, and already they had names and labels", Natalia remembers.
However, starting a business in Italy would turned out to be a nightmare. Bureaucracy, taxes and very complicated legislation made things impossible for the couple. "We were trying to obtain government agricultural funding for young people that was supposed to be launched that year. However, the program only started 3 years later", Nico says.
They couldn't wait as they didn't have enough savings, so Nico secured a job as an assistant winemaker, while Natalia started working as a tour manager for a local winery. Time went by and the dream of making their own wine started to fade.
Nico and Natalia's own vineyards in Puglia, Italy
By 2018, they decided it was time for a change again. Italy wasn't able to offer them the opportunity they were after, so they turned their eyes to the country they loved the most during their travels: England.
Back to England
Fate gave them a big helping hand this time, as Stanlake Park in Berkshire was also looking for a change. By that time, the owner of the estate felt that the current management team was neglecting the operations, as Stanlake Park wines were not on the radar of consumers.
Initially, they were only looking for a new winemaker, but after meeting both, it was clear that Nico and Natalia would work much better as a team. All those years together, facing so many different challenges and making hard decisions, made the couple very resilient and deeply connected.
Stanlake Park had enormous, unused potential. It was not only one of the largest vineyards and wineries in the area, but the heritage protected buildings and stunning grounds made the estate ideal for wine tourism. "I couldn't believe my own eyes when I came for the first time: there weren't any unattractive, big stainless-steel tanks around, just charming barns and walls older than my own country!", Natalia remembers. "Staring at the 17th Century winery barn's clock tower, I could just imagine people sitting by the ancient wisteria enjoying a glass of wine".
The winery needed some changes and the wines needed improvement, but Nico and Natalia accepted the challenge with joy. "At the end, it was like having our own winery, only I wouldn't be making Primitivo, but, Pinot Noir", laughs Nico.
First day at Stanlake Park - January 2019
Hard work always pays off
From the very start, they worked as hard as they could. No weekends, no bank holidays, and no counting hours. There was so much to be done, and they simply could not wait. It was an explosion of energy, as they were finally making everything for their own project: all their ideas would soon come to reality.
Of course it paid off. In only one year, everything looked different. The wines were of a much greater quality, Stanlake Park brand awareness had grown massively on a local and national level, the sales target for the first year was tripled, and the cellar shop and wine bar were packed with people every weekend.
All it took was some passionate people, and the magic began. "You know what they say, when you find a job that you love, you don't have to work anymore…well, nobody likes to work, right?”, they laugh.