WWC23 – Mirko Pastorelli, by Lisa Cardelli

Mirko Pastorelli at Cafe' degli Artisti

This inspiring submission to our 2023 wine writing competition, by wine writer and educator Lisa Cardelli, focuses on sommelier Mirko Pastorelli. See our competition guide for more great wine writing.

Lisa Cardelli writes Lisa Cardelli is an Italian-born wine professional based in Melbourne, Australia. In her 13 years in the Australian wine and hospitality industries she has worked as a sommelier in some of Melbourne’s best fine dining restaurants and, more recently, as a state wine sales manager for an Australian-based producer/importer. Lisa is a certified WSET educator and teaches at two leading independent Melbourne wine retailers: the Prince Wine Store and Wine House. Since joining the Wine Communicators of Australia mentor programme in 2021, she has become a wine writer, her work appearing in one of Australia’s leading wine publications, Halliday Wine Companion magazine.

Mirko Pastorelli was born in June 1993, in Milan. He was premature at six months and that was the cause of his spastic diplegia. 

His condition allowed him to walk until he was a young teenager, when at that point, he had to permanently rely on a wheelchair.

His father, Giorgio, was a wheelchair-bound too, due to rheumatoid arthritis.

Giorgio may not have been the example or inspiration that Mirko needed in order to learn how to live with the disability (Mirko told me his father never accepted his own disability), but he still represented a point of reference for Mirko. 

While observing his father at home and at work, Mirko was able to learn a great deal not only about his disability and how to live with it, but, importantly, how to turn it into a major strength.

Indeed, Mirko would go on to become the first European wheelchair sommelier.

When I first met Mirko in Melbourne where I live, I saw a genuine, positive, enthusiastic, and lively young man eager to learn from others, discover the world and meet new people. 

Little did I know that Mirko was also a person that needed to isolate himself from the rest of the world for lengthy periods of time.

When he lived in Melbourne Mirko was forced, like everyone else, to stay at home in lockdown for months due to Covid-19. It was not a new experience for him. When he was a teenager, he quit school and locked himself at home for 10 months because he could not relate to his peers and, overall, felt deeply misunderstood by everyone. 

In that period Mirko spent a lot of time on his computer and PlayStation, to the point that his passion turned into his first job as an IT specialist.

His father was a painter and would take Mirko to his exhibitions every summer in Cesenatico, Emilia Romagna, exposing Mirko to international travellers and art, helping him to open up to the world. Mirko’s father passed away in 2018, but I sense that he was fundamental to Mirko’s development more than he would ever admit.

Those summers spent with his father pushed Mirko to become more socially at ease. In his early 20’s, Mirko would often stop for a beer at the internationally renowned Café degli Artisti in Cesenatico, opened by Italian-born photographer and so-called ‘King of Paparazzi’, Arnaldo Magnani in 1975 upon suggestion of his friend and leader of the pop art movement, Andy Warhol.

In the time spent at Café degli Artisti, Mirko often ended up staying until the early hours of the morning casually talking with other patrons and deepening his friendship with the Magnanis.

It was there that he started to develop an appreciation for hospitality, often having conversations at the Magnani’s dinner table about the pub, staff recruiting and all the things that allow a good hospitality venue to stand the test of the time. Wine, beer, and spirits would always be a presence in those conversations and coupled with the time spent at the pub counter, Mirko convinced himself that undertaking a professional wine course was the right thing to do. 

He went on to graduate as a sommelier with ASPI- Professional Italian Sommelier Association- in 2019, and became the mentee of ASPI president, Giuseppe Vaccarini.

Fresh from graduation, Mirko began looking for a sommelier’s job in Italy, but due to the lack of opportunities for wine professionals with disabilities, he started to look overseas until he casually came across the name of Yannick Benjamin. Yannick is a New York-based wheelchair sommelier and co-founder of Contento restaurant and Beaupierre Wines & Spirits. 

“When one day I wrote on Google “wheelchair sommelier” and saw the photo of Yannick with his service tray, something happened in my mind,” Mirko remembered.

“’If he did it, I will do it, too’ I told myself!”


Next thing, Mirko jumped on a flight to New York and met with Yannick and Peter Kuhnz, another wheelchair sommelier based in Chicago. While in the U.S., Mirko received the “Donald and Karen Larocca Award”, from the “Wheeling Forward” association, for his hard work and dedication around Italian wine professionals with disabilities.


Back in his motherland, Mirko tried once again, unsuccessfully again, to find work as a sommelier.  

In desperation he decided to play the international card one more time.


And so, he arrived in Melbourne in March 2020, to work as sommelier for the prestigious fine dining restaurant, Vue de Monde. A COVID-19 lockdown was declared by the state government only a week later, and Mirko was confined to a tiny bedroom with no windows in Melbourne CBD. 

At that time, I was working as a sales representative for a small Italian wine distributor and had an official approval to travel for work without restrictions. Victoria’s lockdown was one of the harshest in the world, but still people were allowed to spend an hour a day outside to exercise or meet with a friend while keeping safe distances. 

That is how I met Mirko. 

We had a friend in common in Italy who put us in touch. I arranged to stop by and see him once a week. We used to meet outside his apartment where there was a little coffee stand serving take away. 

I would take him bottles of Australian wine, some food – he was unemployed and as a temporary Visa holder not entitled to government assistance – and cigars, one of his most favourite things.

Our conversations were not only about wine, but also life, our native Italy, travels, our plans and hopes that lockdown would finish so we could visit some of the most important Victorian wine regions together. 

Up until that time, I had rarely, if ever, had a friend with a disability.

I admit I was cautious in what I said or did at first, but the more we talked and got to know each other, the more we felt completely at ease in each other’s company. 

I quickly came to realise that Mirko was like no other wine person I’ve ever met.

He embodied the real figure of the sommelier: knowledgeable, hospitable, humble, curious, genuine, and down to earth. 

Once, I asked him a rhetorical question: what was his favourite wine moment? 

To my surprise he didn’t reply about tasting famous Burgundies or being lucky enough to sup on the great wines of the world.

No. It was something much more personal and meaningful. “The visit to the Emidio Pepe winery, in Abruzzo,” he started. “It was June 22nd. During lunch I mentioned that that day was my birthday, and everyone celebrated me. It was a memorable birthday.”

And when I asked him about the lowest moment in his career, his answer cut right through me.

 “When I was working on the floor some colleagues told me that my appearance was not adequate for my profession,” he replied. 

“In the world of the mixologist, criticism about personal appearance no longer exists, while for sommeliers a certain type of aesthetic is still viewed with diffidence. I hope these preconceptions will be overcome in the coming years.” 

Mirko’s rock ‘n roll appearance was inherited from years spent at Café degli Artisti, a favourite stop over for bikers and rock stars among others.

Mirko is a generous professional and great human. When I told him of my nervousness in entering a wine writing competition, he strongly encouraged me to do it, sharing the lessons he had learnt from Australian wine journalist and author Max Allen, who would frequently chat about wine writing with Mirko during his stay in Melbourne.

Mirko put in practice lessons learnt during his time in Australia when he returned to Italy in October 2020.

He co-wrote his first book about cigars and how to match them with wines and spirits (Bacco e Tabacco- L’Arte di Abbinare i Sigari, Bacchus and Tobacco - The Art of Cigar Pairing).

He attended the ASI- Association de la Sommellerie Internationale- bootcamp in Poland, joined the ASI Diversity committee, was interviewed by many prominent Italian newspapers, and finally found a job in the wine industry as a sales representative of wine, beer, and spirits.

He has enjoyed a lot of national and international media attention in the past few years. 

But never was he vainglorious, giving his ego free run-on social media.  Rather, he would share his achievements in order to encourage other wine professionals with disabilities to come forward and join forces with him to make the wine industry a more accessible place. 

Mirko often would say to me that there is still a long way to go to raise awareness of disability in the wine industry. He admitted that “I’ve being fighting for that for years. I guess that speaking of diversity and inclusiveness in this industry is one of the last things that people worry about.” Mirko thinks that this is the case because there aren't enough disabled people in our industry, and they can't make their voice count

“Although several associations in the world of wine and Sommellerie such as ASI are starting to deal with it, I will continue over time to disseminate a clear message: disability in our industry is an opportunity, not a limit.” 

Mirko reckons that there are many areas for improvement, starting with the accessibility in restaurants, especially in Europe, and promoting the figure of the Sommelier with a disability. 

One thing I’m sure of, Mirko will continue to achieve greatness and be the centre of an on-going conversation. 

As he always likes to say, “I don’t mind if people talk about me in a positive or negative way."

“As long as they talk about me, I’m happy. They are helping me to keep the conversation around a more accessible wine industry going.”

The photograph, of Mirko Pastorelli at Cafe' degli Artisti, is the author's own.