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Bibi Graetz: It’s a Game for the Crazy Head Artist

Posted: Wednesday, 13 March 2013 14:10

Bibi Graetz: It’s a Game for the Crazy Head Artist

Mar 13: Casamatta may be his most selling wine but Bibi Graetz is a Florentine young artiste by training, who is most proud of his top label Testamatta, meaning Crazy Head. He treats the wine business as a game and is actually releasing a new label he calls ‘It’s a Game’ this year, writes Subhash Arora who visited his winery located in Fiesole, the enchanting hilly suburb overlooking Florence and tasted the range as they chatted

Click For Large ViewCastello di Vincigliata is an old castle in Fiesole, a hilly suburb barely 5 kms from Florence, yet it has so many vantage points from where one gets a panoramic view of Florence. The castle was bought by the grandfather of Bibi Graetz who belongs to a family of artists. His Swiss-Israeli father is a sculptor while he took training as a painter in the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence for 4-5 years.

Although his family has been making wines for self use for some time even as the 5 hA bought by his father in 1971 was leased out, he decided to set up a winery commercially only in 2000 with a single label called Testamatta , made from this land. Casamatta (crazy house in Italian) was born 3 years later and with an annual production of 800,000 forms a major chunk of the 900,000 bottle sales business. Made in another winery from bought out grapes within Tuscany, it is a great value-for-money everyday drinking fresh wine. The juicy, fresh and vibrant wine full of cherry and plum  flavours could be marketed for 2-3 times the current price, he says, but he sticks to his low prices to keep a strong base.

‘I wanted to make a fun wine and offer it at a reasonable price. I made it into a game by deciding to cut costs at every possible stage for the quality I wanted to create and then simply add one Euro a bottle for profit and it just took off,’ he says, implying a profit of € 800,000 on this label alone. To make it more fun, he is planning to create a Solera system from the next vintage. He will keep half of the wine in the tanks and mix with half of the wine from the next vintage and so on-like Sherry except that the wines will remain in stainless steel tanks to keep freshness. ‘This will make the wine with the same body but more complexity,’ he claims.

The growth of 45% of sales last year despite the recessionary trends in Italy and the rest of the world indicate the niche he created for his wines by taking the reverse approach and starting with a high quality wine and gradually introducing lower priced wines. He has found a very strong growth in Japan and USA. For his grapes, he has contracted 50 hAs of vineyards and is on the verge of buying 40 hAs of land, making a total of around 95 hA for grapes.

Click For Large ViewTestamatta, the 'crazy head', caused a sensation when it was introduced by Bibi after he decided to get into the wine business in 2000, with their own grapes. Made from 100% Sangiovese grown on 75 year old vines, it was so powerful, spice, seductive and long that it was an instant success when a group of visiting journalists from Japan tasted it and described it as the future Petrus-status wine and told their readers to keep a watch on the young winemaker. ‘I was inundated by requests for distributorship by the topmost importers in Japan, including those dealing with Gaja and Antinori,’ says Bibi; with that start an Italian garagista was born, with 80% of his production exported to Japan alone and making it a successful venture.

‘The wine has nice balance. It is made from hand cultivated grapes using natural yeast and has controlled sulphites. If there is Sangiovese with potential this is the one,’ he says. It wasn’t a surprise when I saw the bottle taking respectable shelf space at the Florence airport next to Antinori Tignanello and Frescobaldi’s Mormoreto; though at € 99 (Rs.7000) it seemed to be overpriced for a duty-free shop, even though it is on allocation. An interesting aspect of Bibi’s style of winemaking is that he does not like too much wood in his wines. Therefore, most of the oak barriques he uses, are old.

This could be one reason why Bibi did not have to struggle for sales from the very first vintage and is quite happy with the wine business that is quite profitable on a stand-alone basis. Meanwhile, he and his family have refurbished the castle, a part of which is their home, and rentss it out for parties - like our Indian weddings - for around € 7000-10,000 a day (Catering costs extra at € 90-€150 pp).  Being close to the city of Florence, it is on huge demand over the week-ends and on special occasions, says Bibi.

Soffocone di Vincigliata - If a wine label had an interesting story to tell and thus propel the sale of wine, the mid-level Soffocone IGT Toscana with 90% Sangiovese, 7% Canaiolo and 3% Colorino-all Chianti grapes- Click For Large Viewcan stake claim for the Tuscan crown. The controversial label that depicts a nude woman is a replica of one of his earlier paintings when he was studying at the ‘Accademia’ at 23. The label literally means choking with suffocation but has a Tuscan connotation that half the Italians understand as oral sex, explains Bibi.

The label has other interesting tales to tell. ‘We exported the wine for a couple of years to the USA before the government banned it as someone had complained that it symbolized fellatio and that any sexual imagery was not allowed on the label in the USA. We tried our best to try to convince them that the word meant only choking and Click For Large Viewsuffocating, while walking up the mountain on a hot summer day. Eventually we had to cover certain parts in every picture to remove that illusion before they allowed it.'

This painting is quite respectable though erotic and is still hanging in his kitchen. On my request Bibi even brought it out to show me. ‘It has been a huge success wherever we launched this wine,’ he says with a meaningful smile. The name on the label and the painting converted into the label may have something to do with the popularity of Soffocone which is a delicious wine that retails for around € 30 in Italy.

Soffocone 2009 scoring 93 points and an earlier Testamatta awarded 98 points by Robert Parker have put Fiesole firmly on the map of Italian wines and made Bibi a cult figure and a young rising star of the Italian wine industry. Interestingly, though he had engaged the services of a winemaker for the first 4 years, he makes his own wines now despite having no formal winemaking background.  

Terroir and Appellation

Click For Large ViewA strong believer of terroir, Bibi is like a rebellious artist who scoffs at the Italian appellation system. He believes DOC and DOCG are part of a politically manipulated commercial system. ‘Terroir does not depend upon the area necessarily. You may have a great, fantastic quality of grapes in Chianti Classico or Rufina but you will also find some terrible quality in these areas. Chianti Classico is known to make a lot of bulk wine with no personality as well. It’s the power of communication which is more important for marketing. Montalcino is thus more successful than Chianti Classico,’ says the winemaker who loves to drive around in his car and wherever he likes the grapes, he is open to contracting with the growers.

It’s a Game

He has transformed his winemaking philosophy into a new label this year. It’s a Game is an IGT Toscana red made from 100% Sangiovese. It’s matured in oak and should have aging potential of 10-15 years. It’s being launched at a price point slightly lower than Soffocone to  give him a complete range at different price points. With the latest launch, Bibi has kept to his philosophy of using only the autochthonous (indigenous) grapes, with Sangiovese being his signature grape.

Internet Marriage with Wine Park

Click For Large ViewThe exclusive partnering of Castello di Vincigliata with the Wine Park for India may be considered truly an ‘internet marriage’. Says Bibi Graetz, ’although we started the business as early as 2010 with Casamatta, I met Vishal only last year. When I was looking for a distributor in India, I wrote to Vishal also and did a background check with his other distributors who seemed quite happy with him. The type of wines he imports and the profile of his clients made him a very compatible partner for us.’

‘I got fascinated by wines from Bibi because of the labels and the look of the wine bottle. I then tasted the wines and found them to be superb,’ Vishal told our Mumbai Correspondent Rishi Vohra CSW when Bibi came to Mumbai last year. Vishal had met him at Vinitaly after starting the imports in a small way and coaxed him into coming to India, which he did in October.

Although he makes a wider range of wines including only 2000 bottles of white wine with Ansonico  grapes (known and grown as Inzolia in Sicily) from Giglio, a small Tuscan island (‘it takes me 5 hours to transport grapes from there,’ he says), he currently exports 4 labels to India, including the flagship Testamatta and a white and red daily drinking Casamatta, and of course Soffocone.

Bibi Graetz in India

Click For Large ViewEncouraged by his trip to India last year and sensing the scope for his wines, he is in talks with Vishal Kadakia to hire a brand manager for his products and increase the range and sale of his wines.

And for Soffocone, he has had to face a similar, yet different type of music for registration of the labels. Nude women are not permitted on the labels in India as well so he was asked to cover the nude before he could get the registration. No problems for the artiste who sat down with his big black marker and dressed up each young woman, on labels for all the bottles that were exported to India.

Bibi also wants to make wine in India one day. ‘I have already told Vishal,’ he says. So don’t be surprised if this crazy head artist, living in a crazy house castle that may suffocate you while climbing the hills of Fiesole from Florence in the summer heat, is seen harvesting Sangiovese or Canaiolo in Maharashtra one day. For him it’s a game and he loves being the global player.

For the article on his previous visit, please click Bibi Graetz of Castello di Vincigliata

Subhash Arora

Tags: Gaja, Antinori, sulphites, Chianti Classico, Montalcino, Wine Park, Vinitaly, Ansonico

       

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