Sue and I spent 12 days in the Italian Northeast last month and this is the first of an series that reports our experiences in this colorful piece of the Italian wine mosaic.
We came to Italy in response to an invitation to speak at the Scoula Enologica di Conegliano, the famous wine school in Conegliano — which I like to think of as Italy’s equivalent of UC Davis in the U.S. Students come here from across Italy to train in viticulture, enology and also to study the business of wine.
Because of its location and history, there is a special focus on the wines of the Veneto and perhaps especially Prosecco, the famous sparkling wine. Indeed, the statue you encounter as you approach the school is of the founder, Antonio Carpenè, who is also the originator of the “Italian method” of making sparkling wines (secondary fermentation in autoclave, not bottle), which is used today to make most Prosecco wines and many other sparkling wines around the world.
Interest in the U.S. market is very high these days in Italy (as it is in most winegrowing regions around the world), so I had an attentive audience for my seminars on “Anatomy of the U.S. Wine Market” and “Wines of the Veneto: A SWOT Analysis of the U.S. Market.” Anna Paola Giacobazzi, export manager at Cantina Della Volta, came all the way from Modena for the first seminar, bringing with her a bottle of Cantina Della Volta’s award-winning and distinctive Rimosso,” a Lambrusco made using the classical method and bottled sur lie. Stunning color and distinctive flavor! I’ve never tasted anything like it!
The opportunity to meet with researchers from the wine school and to visit wineries in the Italian Northeast was too good to miss, so we spent several days touring the region visiting a small group of distinctive wineries. Each winery told a different story and I am still working to put them together into a coherent story for a future book project.
Giro [Northeast] d’Italia
The Giro D’Italia is Italy’s elite professional bicycle race (the Italian competitor to the Tour de France). The race, which was won this year by Alberto Contador, passed through the Italian Northeast a few days before we did but sometimes it seemed like we were climbing higher and higher like the racers themselves — not just in terms of altitude but also quality and sophistication. It was an elevated experience to be sure.
We visited four wineries in Conegliano and they presented us with a classic “compare and contrast” exercise. What did they have in common? Prosecco, of course, and the traditional still wines of this region. They all displayed an emphasis on quality and an obvious rising ambition. With Prosecco’s recent success and the continuing popularity of Pinot Grigio, everyone sensed that this might be the Veneto wine industry’s moment to take the next step in export markets and especially in the United States.
The contrasts were striking, too. These wineries differ so much in their size, scope and history and because of this their strategies are very different, too. Herewith four brief profiles to illustrate my point.
Paladin: Prosecco and More (including a surprising Malbech!)
Our wine school hosts first guided us to Paladin, an innovative family firm that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. Prosecco is the name of the game here, of course, and it came in all of that wine’s many delicious forms. A great beginning.
The Bosco de Merlo line featured many fine still wines, both red and white, in addition to bubbles, with an emphasis on regional grape varieties. At my request we tasted a Malbech (my first Italian Malbec!), a wine with a longer history in this region than I would have guessed and a celebrated part of the Paladin portfolio. Can it be true that Italian immigrants introduced Malbec to Argentina? If so, we owe them a debt of gratitude.
Paladin’s strategy is multi-region: they also owns an award-winning winery in Franciacorta (Castello Bonomi), which was recently named Italy’s best sparking wine, and a winery and beautiful agritourism facility in Rada in Chianti, Borgo Castelvecchi. The same team directs winemaking at all three locations, maintaining a consistent emphasis on quality.
We learned that tradition is important at Paladin, but that innovation and imagination are honored and embraced. The whole operation is very analytical and data-driven — but rigor and respect for tradition are not mutually incompatible. Soon we found ourselves out in the middle of a Paladin vineyard in the company of viticultural scientists from the wine school. Together Paladin and the school are doing research to discover how winegrowing itself might mitigate wine’s big carbon footprint.
The vines apparently take carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. How? And how much? These are the questions that this rather sophisticated project seeks to answer and the researchers are optimistic that their studies will yield results that will be good news to environmentally-concerned winegrowers and wine drinkers everywhere.
Ponte: A Progressive Cooperative
On the way to Paladin we drove by La Marca, a big Prosecco operation and maker of one of the best selling Proseccos in the U.S. We learned that is a second-level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives — with the resulting size and economies of scale. Our next stop after Paladin was different cooperative, Ponte, which is also quite large (14 million bottle annual production) if perhaps less well-known here in the U.S.
Cooperatives are born in times of crisis — when growers have no choice but to make wine with their own grapes because no one will buy them and so growers band together to share risk, cost, and expertise. Ponte was born in the postwar wine crisis year of 1948. It started with just a handful of growers and now has grown in scale and scope, with 1200 members farming 2000 hectares of vines.
American wine growers please read those numbers again. 2000 hectares (about 5000 acres) and 1200 members. The average vineyard holding is 1.7 hectares or about 4.1 acres per member and, since this is an average, you know there are lots of vineyard plots of one hectare or less in the mix. Making such tiny holdings profitable is a huge challenge and puts a lot of pressure on the cooperative to be efficient in its operatives and successful in marketing the wines.
Ponte makes dozens of different wines at many price points but, unlike some of the old style cooperatives you have heard about, the goal here is not simply to dump plonk into the bulk market. Despite the scale and fragmented ownership, we learned, there is a focus on quality that displays itself most prominently in a line of sparkling and still wines that honor Teatro la Fenice, the famous Venetian theater.
Like the successful cooperatives we discovered in Alto Adige a few years ago, Ponte is very demanding of its cooperative members, who must supply grapes of high quality to get the best prices. Then it is up to the winemakers in the vintage winery (distinctive state-of-the-art architecture when it was built in the 1950s, state of the art production technology today). Interestingly, Ponte’s portfolio also includes wines from outside the Veneto: Champagne de Castelnau from Reims, France, MonteStregone from the Piedmont, and Nuraghe Crabioni from Sardinia.
In Tune with the Times at Borgoluce
One of my themes in speaking about marketing wine is the importance of seeing wine as consumers do, as part of a life experience that often includes food, travel and culture. The fact that Americans think about Italian wine in this way gives the Italians a big advantage over wines from other regions. Borgoluce understands this holistic message and has embraced it to a degree that frankly caught us off guard.
Borgoluce is all about wine — Prosecco of course and also red and white still wines — but wine sometimes faded into the background just a bit (except at lunch) when considered alongside the bigger enterprise: a large family estate with vines but also pigs, beef and buffalo (raised for both their milk and their meat). Sustainability and accountability are watchwords here and key to the experience whether in the shop, where wines and other products of the estate are sold, the osteria up in the hills where farm-to-fork is the name of the game or in the farmhouse holiday venues.
Ludovico Giustiniani showed us around, taking obvious pride in the environmental accomplishments and “triple bottom line” approach and the opportunity that Borgoluce presents to those who want to reconnect with the land, nature and ultimately I suppose themselves. But, having said earlier that wine sometimes seemed in the background, it is actually the foundation of it all since from an economic standpoint wine makes possible the tremendous investment in agriculture, hospitality and tourism. The Borgoluce wines we tasted were great, but Sue and I will always remember the values they stand for, which seemed to us to be entirely in tune with the times.
Past, Present and Future at Carpenè
Our final winery visit in Conegliano completed the circle — from the wine school that Antonio Carpenè founded to the winery he built: Carpenè Malvolti, the original Prosecco producer. Brand manager Roberta Granziera was in the audience for my lectures and arranged for us to meet with global sales and marketing manager Domenico Scimone at the historic downtown winery.
Once upon a time Carpenè was synonymous with Prosecco (you asked for a Carpenè not a Prosecco much as someone might ask for a Kleenex not a tissue) and this is still true in some places. Carpenè is number one in its category in China, we were told. But Prosecco’s rapid growth has weakened both this brand identity and the identity of the wine itself. To many consumers who have just discovered this product it is not clear that Prosecco is a product of place rather than the name of a grape variety.
Carpenè’s intent is to reestablish Prosecco’s identity, connecting the history and the territory. They are confident that once consumers really understand Prosecco’s history and appreciate it is a product of a particular region (not a generic grape designation), then they will reach for wines that represent these ideas, including especially Carpenè Malvolti. One project that got our attention was a very limited production luxury wine called PVXINUM after the first reference to Prosecco (as a still wine) found in Pliny the Elder’s works.
Carpenè aims to lead from the front and we were impressed with the wines, the people and the strategies we discovered here. Very different from our other Conegliano visits, but that makes sense since each of these wineries is so distinct in history and personality. A good foundation for the next stop on our tour.
Thanks to everyone who met with us during this quick trip and extra special thanks to our hosts at the Conegliano wine school: Professors Vasco Boatto and Luigi Galletto, Luigino Barisan, Gianni Teo, Tanja Barattan and Michela Ostan.