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Zonin Patriarch Upbeat About India's 'Interesting Market'

In an exclusive interview to the Indian Wine Academy's President, Subhash Arora , at Vinitaly 2006, Gianni Zonin talks about the ascent of his wines to the top of the quality table and explains why the company has moved from low-end but reasonably wines to quality products that have notched up several awards

Gianni Zonin, banker and boss of the Italian wine company that bears his family name, is comforted by the fact that wine sales in India are growing, even as they fall irretrievably in countries closer home. "It can be a very interesting market," he said in an exclusive interview to Subhash Arora, President, Indian Wine Academy, at Vinitaly 2006.

"It [the Indian wine market] depends on your economic conditions. Inching up little by little, it will be more interesting for us in future. It is interesting to see that in countries where the consumption was high earlier, it is dropping, and vice versa. France , Spain and Italy are suffering from low sales. The changes in lifestyle are responsible for this. Wine used to be an important part of long lunches, but no more," he said ruefully. Brindco is the Indian distributor of Zonin wines.

Indians who love fine Italian wines would welcome Zonin's statement and as President of the Banca Populare di Vicenza, which recently opened an India offfice in New Delhi, he will have many opportunities to come on visits here. Will these likely exposures to India encourage him to invest in this country, as he has done in Thomas Jefferson's Virginia? At a lunch in the Zonin HQ, located in Gambellara, on the highway from Verona, he said the company doesn't have any plans of further expansion for a while ("a day has only 24 hours"), but we hope he'll do a Virginia here and redefine the Indian wine industry.

Of course, Zonin wines haven't always been famous for quality. When I told the patriarch that his may be a popular brand but that it was linked with the low end, he did not flinch. "When I entered the family business 49 years ago, customers wanted cheap wines," he reasoned. "We followed the market. We started by selling to the supermarkets and people think it is a low-quality product. Others were selling to the restaurants where the image is essentially different. But in the last 10-15 years there has been a change in the taste of our customers and our quality has accordingly been improving significantly. It will take some time to change our image."

The story of Zonin, Italy's largest private vine-growing and wine-making company, dates back to 1821. A hundred years later, Domenico Zonin, Gianni's uncle, flagged off a new winery to make wine, grappa and brandy. Within two years, he won four gold medals for his Gambellara wine made from 100% Garganega grapes. Gambellara is located in the province of Vicenza , in tje Veneto region, and is almost midway between Verona and Venice . It has been the Zonin HQ since its inception. DOC Gambellara is one of the four appellations of Vicenza .

I was interviewing Gianni Zonin at the behest of my friend and professional co-juror at Vinitaly's international wine competition, Franco Giacosa, who's the 80-million-euro company's technical director. Franco became a good friend during the five days of the competition. We got to know each other well at a dinner organised by Frank Schoonhoven, another juror from the Netherlands, at the fantastic wine cellar in the basement of Enoteca Vini, Verona's mecca of wine lovers, where we practised the notion of 'going Dutch'.

Franco was one of a dozen of us, who could barely squeeze in around the dining table in the cellar lined with exquisite wines. He had not only arranged the dinner using his influence with the owner, but organised some excellent Zonin wines as well. During the conversation, as we were enjoying the local cuisine (that included shredded horse meat)matched with delicious wines, I took the liberty of broaching the subject of quality and brand perception of Zonin, which is considered to be a producer of ordinary wines at decent prices.  Franco suggested that I should meet his boss who would love to share his vision and discuss my perceptions about the company's wines.

The defining moment in the Zonin story was 1970. They were already a big company producing 23 million bottles and grossing an annual revenue of 7-8 million euros. The company now earns more than ten times as much as it did in 1970, even though the prices of the wines of the similar quality have increased only marginally over the years.

The reasons for this jump in revenues are not difficult to trace. Not only did the company embrace new technology in the form of fermentation tanks and automatic bottling, but it started the acquisition spree in other regions. "We realised that our customers wanted wines from several regions of Italy," Gianni Zonin said in the interview arranged by Franco . "It is not enough to produce the best wine in Veneto . We need to offer from our stable wines from Piemonte, Tuscany, Sicily and the other popular regions so the buyer does not have to look elsewhere for his requirements. So we started producing better quality and more expensive wines. "

Ca' Bolani in Friuli was the first addition in 1970. It was followed by many others, including Castello d'Albola in Tuscany amd Monte Oliveto in 1982 for Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Zonin purchased Tenuta il Bosco in the Franciacorta region to meet the demand of sparkling wines made using the traditional method. The property Gianni is most proud of, though, is Rocca di Montemassi in Meremma, 25 miles south of Bolgheri, and  known for the legendry Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Gaja. "I think our estate is better located than even these sites because it is situated in the mining area and the land has a lot of minerals that are great for vine cultivation," he said with a smile.

Zonin is also excited about his Sicilian property, Feudo Principi di Butera. It is yet another historic estate where, he says, he proposes to promote "the island's indigenous varieties, like Nero d'Avola and Insolia, along with international varieties that grow well because of the Mediterranean influence."

Gianni works very closely with his brothers, sons and nephews. At age 29, he started working with his uncle, who had this strange habit of toting a pipe but not smoking it. Good wine and a life spent steadfastly not smoking had ensured that Domenico Zonin enjoyed the rare distinction of living through an entire century (1899-2000).

With diploma in enology and a degree in law, Gianni Zonin shares the vision of Angelo Gaja and Piero Antinori, who have re-written the story of Italian wine-making, chanting the mantra of better quality with lower yields. He also believes in owning his own vineyards and vinifying his own grapes so that he can maintain better control over quality.

The other thing Gianni believes in is the importance of people. When I was invited over to the Zonin HQ for lunch, I was impressed to find the patriarch having lunch with 12 senior functionaries of the company, including his two sons and the heads of exports, finance and HRD, besides Franco, of course. At the three-course executive lunch, Gambellara white and red were the staples and they were followed by a fabulous Moscato with the dessert. Gianni and his Twelve Apostles discussed day-to-day happenings and problems they were facing, in the relaxed atmosphere that a wholesome lunch and hearty wines tend to induce.

Earlier, when I had asked him about Franco's contribution in getting many awards since he joined the company nine years ago, Gianni had replied, "I think viticulture, people and technical expertise, in that order, are the most important factors for quality wines. Franco has been a tremendous help in the last area."

Since this Piemontese joined the company after 20 years spent with the well-known Sicilian producer, Duca di Salaparuta, Zonin has been getting a spate of awards and recognition from Gambero Rosso , Duemilavini , I Vini Di Veronelli , and the other Italian wine bibles. Acciaiolo 2001, the Super Tuscan from Castello d'Albola, and the Sicilian Deliella 2002 from Principi have received three glasses from the prestigious Gambero Rosso . Acciaiolo 2001 has won three stars, the highest honour from I Vini di Veronelli, this year. Deliella 2002 and 2000 has earned top honours, along with San Rocco 2000 from Zonin's Sicilian stable.

Conte Bolani 2001 of Tenuta Ca'Bolani from Friuli and Deliella 2000 have got the highest five grappoli honour from Duemilavini. For his efforts to improve quality, Gianni has even been awarded the coveted Leonardo Qualita Italiana by the Italian President.

Zonin has 1800 hectares of its own vineyards spread across 11 estates in seven regions -- Veneto, Friuli, Piemonte, Lombardia , Sicily and Puglia . It does buy grapes from outside:100,000 quintals are purchased in Veneto alone from contract farmers. To keep the competition at bay from other countries, it is Gianni's philosophy to continue to develop the indigenous grapes for Zonin's wines. From their current impressive share of 60%, indigenous varieties in the Zonin repertoire are likely to go up to 75% in a couple of years.

Gianni Zonin is a wine patriot with an abiding passion for quality, but he doesn't wear either attribute on his sleeve. He labours on, as if he's still a newcomer in the industry. I only hope that his bank will help us get to see more of him in our own backyard with better quality wines at affordable prices.

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