What makes a good winemaker? Ambition, luck, passion? Italian entrepreneur Lionello Marchesi would say it is all three.
Marchesi made his first fortunes selling seat belts to carmakers in Australia and Europe, and then non-leaky sunroofs to US car maker General Motors. It wasn’t until he approached his 50s that he realized his dream of buying several bankrupt wineries in Tuscany.
He became the first vintner with interests in all three of Tuscany’s prestigious DOCGs, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, appellations. It is a labeling system that assures the wines are subject to stringent production and quality standards.
“My dream was always to have a piece of land,” he said in an interview during a visit to New York.
“Everyone told me I was crazy, including my wife and my lawyer. But I had my dream and I started to compete with myself to prove to them that I could be successful in the wine business,” Marchesi explained.
But Marchesi, who was born in 1937 in Cremona, a town famous for violin makers Nicolo Amati and Antonio Stradivari, soon discovered making wine was very different from making seat belts and sunroofs.
“In the auto parts business, you get a piece of metal, you stamp it, you know how much it costs, and you know immediately how much business you can have. In this business, not so much.”
His first harvest was a disaster and produced no wine.
So Marchesi bought a second vineyard, the Val di Suga Brunello di Montalcino, which had a special asset hidden deep in its cellars – a cache of 7000 hectoliters (185,000 US gallons) of Brunello de Montalcino – one of Italy’s best-known and most expensive wines.
There were wines dating back to ’77, which meant that by the mid-80s, they were about ready to be consumed.
Other winemakers taught Marchesi what he didn’t know and slowly he learned to be decisive about his wines.
“I know what I like to have in each bottle,” he said.
His first real success came with the 1985 vintage. “God blessed me in Montalcino with beautiful wine. I got recognition from all over,” Marchesi said.
What is his secret for making good wine? “You have to have the courage to invest and, of course, you have to have the patience to wait for the results. The wine business is built on long-term results. But it is important to get the results.”
He sold his wineries in 1994 for about US$30 million and almost immediately bought three other Tuscan estates – Castello di Monastero, Coldisole and Poggio alle Sughere.
He has worked on improving the vineyards and making the best Chianti, Brunello and super Tuscan wines he could.
In 2000 and 2001 his wines won 90-plus ratings from the critics. But then came 2002, a year Brunello makers called a “restaurant vintage.”
That year “I made no wine,” Marchesi said. “I’m 73 years old. My philosophy is very simple: no quality, no wine. You will not find any 2002 labels. I do not want to produce not very good wine.”