“We made this monster”: reflections and notes on the Vietti sale

From the department of “Gramsci’s ashes”…

vietti baroloAbove: a large format bottle of Vietti Barolo, proudly displayed in the lobby of the hotel where Tracie P and I were staying in Alba down the road from Barolo village last week.

“We made this monster.”

Those were the words of a legacy Barolo producer last week when the subject of the Vietti sale came up in conversation at dinner.

The winemaker wasn’t deriding Vietti or its new American owner. Nor was this a Jeremiad on the high prices of land and vineyards in the appellation.

It was a simple statement of fact. The immense popularity of Barolo among collectors today, said the grape grower, has caused land prices to increase so drastically that even legacy families can no longer afford to expand their holdings.

“I can sell my vineyards,” said the vigniaolo, “but I can no longer afford to buy new vineyards.”

How not to make an analogy with the גולם (goylem) of Jewish mythology? Created to protect the Jews of Prague, the goylem was a monster who could no longer be controlled by them once the threat had been overcome.

While we were in Barolo last week for the Collisioni festival, it was only natural that everyone was talking about the sale of Vietti to an American buyer Kyle Krause (owner of Kum and Go) and its implications.

I haven’t been surprised by the reactions of my Italian counterparts and peers — writers and trade observers who lean toward traditional-style Barolo and champion its cultural signficance. As I noted in a post last week, many (and most, really) see the acquisition as a “dark day for Barolo.”

But in speaking to top growers and bottlers in situ like the one above, I was impressed by their embrace of the sale as the natural outgrowth of their appellation.

I also learned that for the most part (although not universally), they have have great respect and affection for Mr. Krause.

He and his wife have been coming to Barolo for years, they told me. And for years, he has dutifully paid visits and homage to the Barolo greats. Although some are disdainful of the sale, none had a bad word for him — not one.

Since I posted my note on the sale last week, I’ve also been struck by the reaction of many leading American wine professionals.

As one industry veteran put it, my voice is part of “a chorus of American histrionics regarding foreign investment in Vietti.”

While in Barolo, one of the most prominent Italian wine buyers in the U.S. (and a good friend) gently chastised me. What’s wrong, he asked me, with the Vietti winery using American investment to expand their vineyards and grow their business?

He’s wholly right: the families behind the Vietti brand have every right and prerogative to engage in one of the tenets of the American brand of capitalism. He is 100 percent right in this. I cannot underline that enough.

But then I think of the sale of legacy Chianti producer Ricasoli to the Seagram group in the 1970s. We all know how that ended…

Just today, my friend and client Stefano Cinelli Colombini published a post about the day that Banfi came knocking at Fattoria dei Barbi in 1969. The Mariani brothers weren’t coming to buy but to license. And ultimately they came to buy.

“Love it or hate it… was it better for Brunello [this way]?” asks Stefano. “Who can say?” (The post is really worth checking out; Italian wine trade observers will be surprised by Stefano’s anecdote, I’m sure.)

Without a doubt, I see the logic and wisdom of capitalist spirit here, although I don’t share it.

I also see a Marxist parable in play whereby the boom becomes unsustainable by those who created “the monster.”

The Kum and Go family’s purchase in Barolo isn’t the first example of foreign investment there nor will it be the last.

One of the best expressions of Nebbiolo I tasted last week was made by a Barolo native who works for a Czech-owned winery: a historic estate that has been reinvigorated by foreign investment.

And I was told that Asian investment in Barolo is also growing.

The power and strength of the capitalist march are unstoppable. It was inevitable that Barolo, like Burgundy and Bordeaux and Brunello before it, would succumb to the capitalist model.

But there’s no question that a little piece of Barolo died last week for the sake of progress. And there’s no question — at least in my mind — that Baldo Cappellano was right when he told us: the battles you know you won’t win are the ones you need to fight the hardest for…

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6 thoughts on ““We made this monster”: reflections and notes on the Vietti sale

  1. Are you at all making an argument that Barolo estates should stay in Italian hands? I am curious why there aren’t Italian capitalists stepping up to buy vineyards in Piemonte, so as to keep them Italian (if that is indeed what is important).

  2. To me, it is rather short sighted and limiting for adults to fear a “Monster” or “The End of Innocence” in their next glass of Barolo. I would not exclude that Vietti’s best days are still to come (and I’m absolutely sure Luca Currado is correct and entirely honest in believing this to be the case); or at the least, that there will likely be many positives from new ownership and new capital. Currado understands the reality of production and the limits he worked under. It’s a new page in the estate’s history (and the production of a great wine is foremost about a special vineyard and an estate – not an individual). Why be so fearful? Didn’t the arrival of the tractor also help the Langhe?

    In fact, the sale of Vietti was not at all surprising – at least not from the production side. Nor is it a sign of doom and gloom – unless you are idealizing the Langhe, viticulture, and life on wine estates.

    The fact that almost nobody is asking about the reality of production shows how wedded consumers and wine enthusiasts have become to an idyllic, Romantic picture of the Langhe. So much so, that it is clouding a reality that is immensely complex and beautiful. Along with the growth of Barolo in the last couple of decades, a cliche world of the Langhe has been created, perhaps creating a fetish of personalities and making producers into something they are not.

    Furthermore, has anyone taken into consideration that it was Luca Currado and his family’s free decision to sell their estate and business? Maybe running the business was a lot less idyllic and far more demanding than consumers would like to imagine. Which consumers of Vietti wines would never sell their home or business in order to embark upon other ventures in life? Why should the Currado family be bound to their family business, just because those who have enjoyed their wines have a Romantic vision of the labor of vineyard work and wine production? Should the Currado family hang on your wall like some Romantic still life? I’ve always been content enough to enjoy the outstanding wines of Vietti. I do not feel at risk of not doing so in the future because there are new owners and improvements afoot.

    Running a wine estate is a contact sport, not an armchair science that exists and advances by gazing. Krause and the Currado family have shown that there exists in the Langhe a spirit of pioneering and progress – and a keen sense of what it means to produce. While there might be some apathy on the part of a few overly romanced consumers, the shift to new ownership and additional capital will surely be a tonic against apathy at Vietti. If anything, there will be more talent and opportunity at Vietti, not less. I’ve seen that wonderful change over the last year at Cerbaiona, in Montalcino – for which I thank Gary Rieschel and a group of American and Chinese partners.

    My personal (and professional) love of Barolo over two and a half decades surely meant a heavy loss of innocence – and battles with few monsters, too. But I am ever a man still in love. What I’ve learned is that Barolo – and moreso, wine throughout this varied and beautiful country of Italy – is about the infinite. It is not the closed world a taster and a wine glass. It is open and endless – as is the variety of its wine producing estates. Judge less. Listen and explore more.

    I would prefer to commend the courage of Krause and others who invest in wine estates in Italy. People like Krause are seeing beyond the surface. These investors are way beyond a visit with a producer and listening to quaint stories. They are beyond simply judging or criticizing a wine. They are enabling important wine estates to progress and move forward.

    Matthew Fioretti

  3. Questions I was left wondering about when I heard about this and listened to Luca Currado’s podcast explanation:

    For how long does his control over wine making last? Until his retirement? His death? What happens if his children don’t want to continue in the wine producing tradition? What then?
    Details about the transaction are sparse, but articles discussing it in wine related publications suggest the Krause family is to be consulted about “strategy and major decisions”. What constitutes a “major decision”? Does the Krause family essentially have a veto power when major decisions need be made?
    Wine production is a high risk business, and Vietti like all Piemontesi vignaioli is never more than one hail storm away from disaster; is there protection for his control over wine production if there are a couple disastrous vintages?
    What pressures will this portend for other negociants who rely on fruit from various grape growers in the region? Will wine production in Piemonte eventually require infusions of capital from outside interests in order to be workable?

  4. Pingback: The Vietti Sale and What It Means for Piemonte | Sassi Italy Tours

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