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Delhi Wine Club
Star Interview: Return of Frescobaldi

Posted: Tuesday, 09 October 2012 14:13

Star Interview: Return of Frescobaldi

October 09: Leonardo Frescobaldi, the President of Frescobaldi group of Tuscany was in India last month to meet the customers and conduct for the first time ever a vertical tasting of their iconic wines Luce and Mormoreto at Le Cirque followed by a dinner, writes Subhash Arora who had an exclusive chat with him at the tasting followed by dinner in the Chef’s Table Room

Click For Large ViewI met Leonardo in February 2009 when I had lunch with him at San Gimignano in Hotel Imperial. We had hit it off so well at the tasting of wines from Castiglioni Estate including the iconic Merlot-dominated Giramonte Super Tuscan, that we realised we were nearing dinner time as we left the restaurant reluctantly at 5.30 pm. After that warm meeting we have been in touch indirectly only through emails or his senior managers or family members on different occasions.

Last year, I had gone to a special dinner in Verona, organised by the Grandi Cru d’Italia, the association of quality producers that had nominated me as the Best Foreign Wine Journalist for the second year. The line-up of stalwarts would rule me out as a winner but I was pleasantly shaken up at the dinner when  was suddenly announced as the ‘Best Wine Website’ in the world. In a state of stupor, I went to the podium to collect my award, where one of the presenters was Frescobaldi. Remembering our first encounter, I gave him a very warm greeting and was almost going to hug him as a mark of affection when I noticed a definite coolness in his stance. Taken aback, I thought perhaps the occasion called for a certain amount of formality and aloofness.

Brother Frescobaldi

It was a few minutes later when I walked up to the gentleman again when I realised that the Frescobaldi I had shaken hands with was Vittorio - the look-alike brother of Leonardo, who was present as the Vice President of Grandi Cru! Vittorio is the elder brother of Leonardo and has retired with his son Lamberto, the 30th generation Frescobaldi, now the Vice President of the Marchesi di Frescobaldi group.

Leonardo and I had a hearty laugh when I met him for a brief chat on September 14, during the pre-dinner tasting and chat at the Private Dining Room of Le Cirque, rechristened as the Chef’s Table Room where the dinner later would witness an Exclusive Vertical Tasting of Luce and Mormoreto Super-Tuscan wines, including 4 vintages of Luce (’97,’01,’04,’09) and 5 vintages of Mormoreto (’09,’08,’06,’00 and ‘95), duly paired with a 4-course meal.

The recession and now

My first question was how the business had been since we met last in 2009. Quite candid about the situation, he said, '2009 had started the difficult times. But it also offered new opportunities for good producers to grab a share of the market. If one has a strong brand such times can help and one can also survive. But weaker brands can be on dangerous ground. We were able to gain ground.’

But how does one make a brand strong? ‘Communication and not only the quality are important. We always talk of the difference between each of our estates.  Soil is very important. We should not talk of the grapes but about soil and terroir. We have to analyse and relevant study is important. We do this as our business is to communicate,’ he emphasizes.

So is the difficult period of 2009 behind you? ‘Difficulties continued in 2010 and exist even now, although there are signs of recovery. Canada, Switzerland and Russia have improved as our markets. UK is a typical and, historically, a very difficult market. In USA, the market was hit in New York. But Texas, California and Florida are doing much better.  In Russia, we have been able to grow, as also in China, South America and Brazil.'

Indian market

Click For Large ViewHow about the Indian market where Frescobaldi has been present through Brindco for a decade? ‘For us a market like India is important - high taxation is a problem, though. But people here enjoy wines,  even if they have to bring them from overseas. But they are drinking in the house. If they buy top quality wines, it is good in the long term.’

Generally, whenever I am in Florence, I find Leonardo is travelling. How much does the septuagenarian travel? ‘Ours is a family business; so we have to travel.  I still enjoy traveling. I am out about 110-115 days in a year. We want to build up on what we have. What is important in export markets is to visit more often. We also must have local people to be ambassadors of Frescobaldi. For example, US is a very strategic market so my nephew is opening a restaurant with local partnership in Florida.’

A common site in Rome airport is Frescobaldi bars. Leonardo says, 'We already have three of them at the Rome airport and we are going to open more such bars. We already have restaurants in Harrods - Florence and London. We are opening one in South Beach in Florida. We are looking to expand in this sector. We are going to open restaurants in many countries - it may be in India too.' 

China and Hong Kong

Coming back to the market share, I want to know his experience with China and Hong Kong and how it compares with India? ‘Hong Kong has been a solid and strong market for wines for us for many years. Restaurants are difficult to open of course as there is saturation already. Castel Giocondo and Luce Tenuta di Castiglioni are well known wines there. 

China is another story and quite different. Speaking the local language is very important - in fact an absolute must - unlike in India or even Hong Kong. If we want to communicate in China we must be fluent in Chinese. But we have to be present in the market in China,’ he asserts.  How is their growth in China?  He replies, ‘last year was good though still it is predominantly a French wine market with good advantages for Medoc.’

The Tuscan producer

Click For Large ViewYou are basically a 29th generation Tuscan wine producer. Any ambitions to go out of Tuscany, I ask?  ‘No, we want to be identified with Tuscany though several years ago we bought 70% share in Conti Attems in Friuli, since the late owner who wanted to retire was a good friend of my brother Vittorio. Last year, the daughter sold the balance 30% share to us also. The company went through reorganization. We replanted and built new cellars and continue to expand. When we bought it, the brand had been forgotten.  Now it is getting to be known again. By marketing it through our organisation and using the Frescobaldi name, we give Attems synergy.'

Company size and revenues

What is the size of the Frescobaldi organisation? is the question I had never popped before.  Leonardo answers without any hesitation, ‘in 2011 our revenues were € 80 million but this year we are still off. We will reach our budget, though some markets are still difficult. Exports are offering good opportunity and there is growth in these markets as the domestic market is stagnating. Today you have to snatch the share from your competitors. Exports are important not only for growth but also profits. Organisation in Italy is very expensive, offering no chance to grow or add to the profitability.’

But he is very clear and stresses that ‘we are basically an agricultural company and breed pigs and cows as well on our estates, and extra virgin olive oil, though 88-90% of our revenues are from wine only.’ This is yet another point in favour of wine as an agricultural product that the bureaucrats, politicians and consumers alike must learn to appreciate in India.

How many properties do they have? ‘We own 9 properties in Tuscany. We have Castello di Nipozzano, where Mormoreto is the single vineyard, Castello de Pomino, Tenuta di Castiglioni, Castel Giocondo in Montalcino and Ammiraglia in Maremma. In addition, we have Luce della Vite - attached to Castel Giocondo. It has 62 hA with a total production of only 22,000 bottles of Luce Brunello. Only 10 hA are registered as Brunello di Montalcino.'

But I don’t see your wines at Benvenuto Brunello that I visit every year in Montalcino, I ask. ‘Luce is very much a member of the Consorzio as is Giocondo’ says Leonardo, adding ‘unfortunately, we need more space to showcase our wines. We feel too squeezed with 150 producers in a big room. We like people to visit our property. This event is like Vinexpo, where big Chateaux are not present. So I decided 3 years ago not to be a part of such programmes with too many people,’ he says with a note of finality.

Click For Large ViewOur chat would have gone on and on, well into the dinner if I didn’t have to go to the Italian Ambassador’s residence close-by where I had already accepted an invitation to attend the reception  that H.E. Giacomo Sanfelice had organised for the incoming deputy chief of mission, Gianluca Grandi, with a promise to return.

The dinner at the Chef’s Table Room (a fancy name for the Private Dining Room at Le cirque) later in the evening, was an elegant affair befitting the stature of Luce and Mormoreto, the top Super Tuscan wines of the two different estates where 4 vintages of Luce and 5 of Mormoreto formed a part of the dinner that has become a hallmark for a gastronomical experience in Delhi, after establishing its credentials in New York and Las Vegas.

We parted with a renewed invitation from Leonardo to visit him at Castello di Nipozzano estate next time I am in Florence.

Subhash Arora


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