Gianni Zonin

Gianni Zonin

The driving force behind the successful Zonin company, this powerful figure in italian wine has mastered the art of the grape.

GIANNI ZONIN keeps his favorite bottle of wine near his office desk and picks it up to read from the label: “Robust and austere but balanced and generous, this wine was born in 1938 and was left to rest 20 years in its birthplace Gambellara before being refined in oak in the best cellars of Tuscany, Piedmont and Friuli. With noble and aristocratic characteristics, it is a perfect companion for elegant meals. Bottled young, it never ages.”

A wide smile spreads across Zonin’s face: “The wine? It’s a ‘Gianni Zonin’,” he says with a satisfied chuckle. The label was written by his son, Michele, as a novelty keepsake bottle for Christmas.

Gianni Zonin is a name that looms large in Italy. President of Zonin Family Wines & Estates, the country’s largest private wine enterprise, Gianni Zonin produces 25 million bottles each year, of which 40 percent is exported, mostly to the United States. Zonin, the company, employs 550 people and owns 11 estates in seven regions—for a total of 4,440 acres under vine spanning from the tip to the toe of Italy. Its history mirrors the country’s own enological evolution so closely that understanding which follows which is a chicken-and-egg proposition.

And not unlike the larger Italian wine industry, the cross Zonin bears today is its awkward identity as both a producer of quality and quantity. Gianni Zonin is determined to prove he can be both. To that end, he is making shrewd land purchases, hiring a team of super enologists, investing heavily in his vineyards and wineries, and forming more marketing strategies in local and foreign markets.

“The consumer must understand there are two separate entities both owed by the Zonin family: The Zonin brand and Zonin Estates,” says Michael Magnello, head of Zonin USA, which imports most of the Zonin products.

Wines bearing the Zonin name account for a staggering 18 million bottles per year available at restaurants and in supermarkets for everyday consumption and usually priced under $10. Zonin’s lines include Terre Palladiane (Pinot Grigio, Soave and Valpolicella) and the Terre Mediterranee, a collection of wines made from indigenous varietals from the south of Italy. Also included is Zonin’s Prosecco, or Italian sparkling wines. Thanks to these products, Zonin is Italy’s volumetric leader accounting for 2.4 percent of the market, which is more than twice as much as the next brand.

The Estates, on the other hand, consist of prime vineyard property in the Veneto, Friuli, Lombardy, Piedmont, Tuscany, Puglia and Sicily (as well as one estate in the U.S.) from which the Zonin family produces estate grown and bottles wines made under the supervision of one of Italy’s leading enologists, Franco Giacosa. The consumer does not always know these are Zonin-owned since the family name does not appear on all products.

Zonin has been in family hands since 1821—the date listed on a deed of sale for a small plot of vineyard land in the lush basin that lies behind Gambellara, a small agricultural town in the Veneto. Over the ensuing century, the business began to take shape. Starting in the 1920s it was under the leadership of Gianni Zonin’s uncle, Domenico (who died at age 101 in 2000). Domenico bought fruit from local growers to increase production; he also opened a grappa distillery. “By the 1960s we decided to dedicate ourselves to wine,” says Zonin who eventually took over with the help of his brothers Giuseppe, Gaetano and Silvano.

In 1969, a far more important decision was made: The Zonin family purchased its first property outside the Veneto, marking the beginning of a buying frenzy that would last three decades. The company staunchly argues that bigger is better. Their philosophy goes against the grain in the Veneto, where small mom-and-pop operations are the backbone of the local economy. “Italian viticulture suffers from small dimensions,” he says. “If there is a globalization of markets, Italy needs bigger dimensions to compete worldwide.”

The aspect of Zonin’s personality that leaves the deepest impression on those who meet him is his compulsion for collecting things. His Gambellara offices are crammed with display cases featuring an array of corkscrews and hand-blown Murano stemware. He boasts albums totaling 5,000 stamps, all picturing grapes or winemaking themes, and has personally amassed Italy’s largest collection of legal proclamations linked to wine. These posters, the oldest of which is dated 1557, were affixed to municipal buildings or read aloud to illiterate farmers. He and his wife, Silvana, have scoured flea markets and antique stores to produce a museum-like exhibition of ancient wine books, maps, ceramic jars (including a glass container preserving 2,000-year-old, shriveled grapes recovered from a Roman amphora), wine prints and a complete collection of the old farming tools used in viticulture.

If those obsessions are any measure, one might conclude Gianni Zonin is collecting vineyards as well. “I have a few criteria when I look for properties,” Zonin explains. “I look in famous wine zones with important DOC or DOCG denominations. Then, I look for properties with at least 100 hectares [250 acres] of vineyard, otherwise the purchase price and operation costs aren’t justified.”

The first, and the largest, property to be added to the Zonin portfolio was Tenuta Cà Bolani in Friuli’s Aquileia district (the nearby Tenuta Cà Vescovo was purchased afterward). Ten years later, in 1979, Zonin bought Castello d’Albola, property with rolling hills framed by cypress trees in the heart of Chianti Classico, where the Zonin family spends its summer holidays. The Tuscan castle is so iconic that is seems unreal.

“I went to Chianti and looked for properties morning to night until I found the one I liked,” explains Zonin. ” I was like a painter waiting for the right inspiration.”

More properties followed in Tuscany, such as Fattoria Abbazia Monte Oliveto, with 75 acres planted to Vernaccia di San Gimignano and Fattoria il Palagio, in the province of Siena. By 1985, Zonin had established itself in the Asti area of Piedmont with the purchase of the 430-acre Castello del Poggio.

“We then became interested in Pinot Noir and sparkling wine made in the méthode champenoise and bought Tenuta il Bosco in Lombardy’s Oltrepó Pavese zone,” he explains.

Since 1995, Zonin has purchased three more properties in what are now Italy’s most exciting new regions: Tenuta Rocca di Montemassi in Tuscany’s Maremma, Feudo Principi di Butera in Sicily, and Masseria Altemura in Puglia’s Salento, which will celebrate its first harvest in 2004.

Of these, Sicily’s Feudo Principi di Butera holds a special place in the hearts of the Zonin clan. Applauded by critics for its quality wines and unique terroir, it has blossomed as a successful example of a stand-alone estate under the Zonin umbrella.

In addition to 11 estates in Italy, the Zonin family owns Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia (see sidebar). Zonin has no plans to buy more property over the next few years, but he does not exclude venturing into Umbria, Le Marche, Campania or Basilicata further down the road. “We always have our eyes open but finding large parcels is increasingly difficult,” states Zonin. Abroad he has eyeballed parcels in Spain, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and even China, but for now he says, “we will concentrate on developing Maremma and Puglia.”

One thing is certain: Zonin’s investments reflect a business intuition that is unparalleled among Italy’s vintners. In 1975, one hectare of land (2.5 acres) in Chianti Classico was worth between $1,600 to 3,200. Today, that same hectare sells for $250,000 to 300,000. In other regions, one hectare priced between $1,230 to $3,700 thirty years ago has ballooned to anywhere from $123,000 to $615,000, with the highest prices commanded in premium wine areas like Barolo and Montepulciano. That means Gianni Zonin has seen remarkable returns on his land investments—that range from between 300 and 1,000 percent.

Although Zonin is one of few companies that could attract stock market investors thanks to its $100 million in annual sales, it has no plans to go public. “Wine is a long-term business and the stock market short-term mentality,” he says.

“Who is Gianni Zonin? I can answer that question with just a few words: He is the person who brought entrepreneurship to the world of wine,” says enologist Riccardo Cotarella, a consultant for many of Zonin’s fiercest competitors. “That’s a very important thing.”

Sometimes likened to California’s Gallos or Mondavis, Gianni Zonin is in fact a curious a winemaker-businessman hybrid. As a winemaker, he holds an enology diploma from Conegliano Veneto. As a businessman, he introduced concepts like consolidation and brand-name recognition that have his competitors scrambling to copy the “Zonin model.” He is also founder of Sicily’s Banca Nuova and president of Banca Popolare di Vicenza. One of his side projects is bank-issued wine bonds for investors and he is often called upon as a leading expert on the business of wine.

“It’s incredible to see my father complete millions in bank transactions one minute and move onto the plumber who missed an appointment in Sicily the next,” says son Francesco.

“I work for the consumer,” Gianni Zonin, the man who also earned a law degree before continuing in Uncle Domenico’s footsteps, says flatly. “Thanks to the many vineyards we own, I can offer a complete range of products from seven regions. Instead of going to three or five different producers, the customer saves money and gets good value by coming to me.”

Wines from the various properties are vinified and estate bottled and shipped to Gambellara, where the centralized storage facility, billing, sales and marketing office is located. Although the estates carry their own brand names, like Castello d’Albola and Fuedo Principi di Butera, Zonin has recently started adding the words “Gianni Zonin Vineyards” to the back labels of his premier cru single-vineyard products “so the consumer can put a face to the wine.”

He also developed a corporate culture that is reflected in the architecture of the Gambellara headquarters. On the flanks of a central corridor, glass panels instead of walls delineate office space. Zonin’s office is at the end and to the right and is the only one covered in wood paneling. Near Michele’s Christmas gift are a series of plaques with business maxims: “Success is a consequence, not an objective,” “Either you are part of the solution or part of the problem,” and “There is no such thing as a good wind, if you don’t know where port is.”

Zonin family members and staff often buzz about the central corridor and brainstorm ideas. The latest: “Zonin wine tours,” during which foreign enotourists explore Italy and visit Zonin tasting rooms.

But Gianni Zonin’s portfolio of properties was not the only thing to grow in 30 years. A new Zonin generation did, too. He and Silvana have three sons: Domenico, 31, is the pensive winemaker who plays tennis; Francesco, 30, is the handsome marketer who enjoys extreme sports; and Michele, 28, is the son who opted to pursue a law career instead of joining the family business.

Domenico studied law in Milan and enology at California’s UC Davis and now manages the various vineyards. Franceseo, who has a degree in economics from Milan’s Bocconi University, and who worked in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York focuses on sales. “Domenico gives me the bottle and I sell it,” Francesco explains.

Dr. Domenico and Dr. Francesco, as the two are affectionately called in order to avoid surname overlap, are being carefully groomed to carry forth Dr. Gianni’s legacy.

On a sunny day in June, Gianni and Domenico arrange to have dad’s 1962 Jaguar spruced up for a drive into the Colle San Marco vineyards beyond Gambellara. The antique automobile’s leather upholstery is cracked with age and its engine emits woeful laments at the steepest ascents.

Gianni Zonin grinds the Jaguar into gear and nudges it forward by deftly measuring its acceleration against the road’s rising gradation. But the Jaguar decides it has depleted its waning reserve of horsepower and stalls. The driver attempts to get it started, but nothing more than mechanical coughs and hiccups are returned.

“Hey Dad, maybe you should let me drive for a while,” says Domenico. Without a second thought, Gianni Zonin moves over to the passenger seat and lets his son take the wheel.

For more on Zonin, see the October issue of Wine Enthusiast.

Published on October 1, 2004

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