At this point, the "sale," "partnership" or whatever you want to call it, of Vietti Winery in Piedmont, Italy has been discussed ad nauseum.
After reading a lot of comments from wine professionals, journalists, friends, customers and more, there have been some points made that should be debated further so that all of us can wrap our heads around the real issues at hand.
Like many wine professionals and consumers, I've had the immense pleasure of knowing Luca and Elena Currado for over 18 years. We're friends. If you know anything about the Currado family you know they have many friends, all over the world, all with a common passion for great wine.
So I was particularly disappointed and taken aback at some of the discourse and arguments that have come to light in the sale of the winery. I wanted to address some of those comments in my own words because I don't think they are grounded in fact, rather emotions and personal mōrēs.
Life is in constant motion and things constantly change. In a year of elections, there is no better time to discuss this concept. Every Presidential campaign, people get emotional because of the possibility of a change that in their view will positively or negatively affect their lives. What's important to note about this surge of emotions during a Presidential campaign is that in the four years between the election cycle, changes are constantly occurring, most of which go unnoticed.
I'm not here to invalidate those emotional feelings, but rather to point out that things do change, whether we notice them or not. Sometimes it is bulletin board material but most times change doesn't get any press whatsoever.
Any person that has traveled to Piedmont for numerous years has seen a change in the business landscape. The cause of the change, is the same cause being felt in other wine regions around the world.
Wine is popular!
It's not just something you slug down with a meal, it has risen to become a luxury good. This hasn't happened overnight, rather this change has occurred over more than three decades. With the consumer willing and excited to spend $40-$200 retail per bottle on a Barolo, it was inevitable that changes in the way the region does business would occur.
In the "Housewives of Orange County"-like chatter that has surrounded the sale of Vietti, many people have argued that this sale alone not only signifies the change, it has opened the door to much more foreign investment, and gasp, more wineries being sold to "outsiders." There are two issues with this that need to be discussed.
First, what is an "outsider?" According to the
social mōrēs of some people, an outsider is someone that wasn't born and raised in the region. How local is local enough? Can you be born in Turin and be an insider, or do you have to be born and raised in Castiglione Falletto to be an insider? When Oscar Farinetti and Luca Baffigo purchased the historic Fontanafredda estate in 2008, were they insiders or outsiders? I can tell you they were both wealthy individuals and not poor farmers, and I can also tell you that they purchased it from a bank. The whole concept of outsiders and insiders is a small minded, old-school mentality that in the business world is quickly declining. You certainly can like it or hate it, everyone is entitled to their opinion and feelings.
The second issue that needs to be addressed is did the Vietti sale really start this change? Antonio Galloni of Vinous in his dramatically titled article "The End of the Innocence" argues:
"Anyone who tells you nothing has changed is delusional. Everything has changed. Forever. This sale opens the door for further acquisitions, which will in turn drive up land prices further and ultimately make wines more expensive, all while widening the gap between truly artisan, family-owned wineries and more corporate estates with deep pockets. Of course, some of the region's newfound prosperity could be a positive, if handled properly."
There was no light switch flipped as Antonio Galloni has suggested, and if he thinks there was, he is delusional. 8 years ago Farinetti bough Fontanafredda and not to mention, Giacomo Borgogno. Maybe that was the light switch? In February of this year, Ratti, one of Piedmonts most important wineries signed an exclusive agreement to import the wines in the United States to Gallo. I said E.&J. Gallo, a company that made their name on bulk wine, and couldn't be more corporate if they tried.
The changes in Piedmont are simply not new, they have been building for well over two decades. The proverbial door that Galloni mentions has without a doubt been open for many years. Land prices have escalated, and Vietti only has played a minor role in that. In fact much of this fatalistic quote and implication that Vietti is the trigger, can not be substantiated with facts, simply with emotions.
When I want to wrap my head around why someone did something, I always try to put myself in their shoes. When I first heard about the sale of Vietti that is exactly what I did. I know Luca, and I know he is so passionate about making great wine from his region. As a business person, you are constantly driven to do better, to expand on what you are doing. Doing better doesn't necessarily have anything to do with becoming wealthier, it has everything to do with being happy with what you create, and making sure your business is sustainable in the long term.
So I put myself in Luca's shoes. I'm now the winemaker/owner at Vietti and I want to make sure Perbacco and "Tre Vigne" Barbera remain great wines at their given price points. The first thing I need to do is secure the fruit. My contracts could be coming up, and I know that in order to buy or resign a contract, the price of the fruit is going to be way more expensive.
The best option for me is to buy the vineyard. I have some money, but I also need that money to keep reinvesting in the winery. I also know good people are hard to keep, and I need to pay a good wage to retain good employees.
Ok, now what do I do? I want to buy some vineyards to keep this source intact. I could go to a bank, and I know loans are harder to come by these days. I could find an investor in the vineyard, but I know that problems always occur with investors, and I don't want to wind up in a court battle, I'd prefer to be in the vineyard.
Do you see where this is going?
When his contract in the famed Cru of La Morra, "Brunate" ended, Luca ultimately purchased the vineyard. There was a bidding war and while I don't know the exact cost it sold for, it was enough to make sure that the return on investment wouldn't come for quite some time. One generation, two generations, I'm not sure. This is just one vineyard, just one example.
Brunate is a rare wine, a "Grand Cru" wine of Barolo that people will pay lots of money for, but what about Perbacco and "Tre Vigne?" If I buy vineyards for those wines and still want to keep the same price structure, I may never see a return on investment.
The reality in Piedmont today is that if you don't own ALL of your vineyards, or don't have really long contracts, you will be faced with finding investment that you may not be able to pay off for generations.
In his article on Vinous, Galloni suggests that Vietti should have taken the path of some in Burgundy that have brought in outside investment solely for purchasing of vineyards. I find this suggestion to be hypocritical and as small-minded as the outsider/insider debate. Galloni broke away from Robert Parker to start his own business. He had a vision for his future, he is a business person, just like Luca, and no one suggested how he should have financed his deal. There was no teenager-like chatter about who his investors were and how this spelled doom for wine writing in the future. People embraced his move, supported him in his vision, and helped make his transition a success.
So when the Vietti sale was announced, I knew that Luca and his family, being the perfectionists they are, people that truly love their land and their region, did what needed to be done to fulfill their goals of continuing to be one of Piedmont's best wineries.
In the end, change is something that makes us emotional. Inspires us into debate.
Wine people should always remember that we are living in a great era for our profession. We owe so much to our customers that have essentially created the opportunities that exist for us. If things didn't change, and our market for wine was the same as it was 30 years ago, many of us would be doing something else for our profession. We must not forget that.
We also really need to think through our words and debate with an open mind when it comes to change. Luca, Elena, Mario, Luciana, and all the members of the Vietti family are some of the nicest and most generous people I have ever met. They are real people. Great people. While some people may think everything has changed, and that tradition should always be chosen over practicality, one thing I know is that the next time I drink a bottle of Vietti, the thumbprints of these great people are still on it, just like they have been for many years.
We must support good people, those that put quality over quantity. This is the foundation of our business in the world of "fine" wine. Ownership has nothing to do with this core value: quality and people are all that matters.
I think I need a glass of Barolo. Vietti of course.