You had left the family business for years—why did you come back?
I was asked to. There was a need for a family member to be in the US market and the sales, in the relationship with the distributor—someone to see what's going on.
Why a family member?
Sassicaia is a global company that's owned by a very small family—it's not a corporation. As for any family business, there's no one better than family who understands complexities and subtleties. No one understands the historical landscape and no one from outside of the family has such a deep understanding of the terroir. After 40 years (Incisa della Rocchetta's age), chances are you'll have a pretty good understanding of the product.
What's the external perception of Sassicaia?
It was the first cult wine (as a Super-Tuscan), mainly because it was drunk at home for years before it was released. It's quintessentially Italian.
How many years in a row has your production sold out?
We have been sold out every year since the very first release in 1968. We do not implement a system of sales "en primeur" (selling wine before it is produced) as they do in Bordeaux.
If you're sold out, why is it so important to keep pushing ahead with the branding?
It's not because your product is sold out that you should not work. The large part of my work is to get together with collectors on a global scale and to taste the old and new vintages of Sassicaia, so that people can understand how the wine ages and evolves throughout the years.
Sassicaia has a very rare characteristic, it ages better than its peers, and when you drink an old bottle of Sassicaia it becomes a religious experience. It is important to share this with our collectors and consumers, and in doing so, it is important to do it right. My job is also to make sure that the old vintages of Sassicaia are served in the right order and coupled with the right dishes, drank in the right stemware. These things that might seem like irrelevant and annoying details to most, but they are pivotal to preserve the integrity of the brand.
Who do you market to most—end clients or wine sellers?
Our emphasis is always geared a bit more toward restaurants, as we believe that a wine should be drank, and drank with its best companion, food.
You mentioned that you repositioned the brand a few years ago. Why? What did you do? How successful was the transformation?
It seemed to me that Sassicaia was a victim of its own success, as it is one of the very few wines that sells itself. In other words, you do not have to offer Sassicaia—people ask for it. This phenomenon had some negative repercussions, as the right placement or perfect fit was diluted. In other words, as the wine sold itself, the sales force was not focusing on the right placement, but simply on the sale itself, which for Sassicaia was never a problem.
On the surface, looking at balance sheet and sales reports, it all seemed to be fine. However, there are a lot of things that sales and depletion reports do not show, but if you dig deep they become bluntly obvious. So the job was simple, get back in the marketplace, talk to the collectors, customers, consumers, sommeliers and chefs and get a feeling for what were the perfect homes (restaurants and wine stores) for Sassicaia.
The transformation was very successful—our sales accelerated dramatically, exposure was further enhanced and our distribution partners asked for more products… which we did not have. (He grins.)
I don't know what created this need. I had a gut feeling at first, then I tried to measure it by collecting facts. When the facts coincided with my gut feeling, we created and implemented a very effective strategy with our distribution partners that paid off.
How will high-end wine branding change in the next ten years?
It's difficult to speculate—we are witnessing new phenomena in which very wealthy individuals are getting into the wine industry simply because they sit at the very top and need social acceptance, which makes them spend a great deal of money in the effort of selling their wines.
I never think about branding. For me it is more about the integrity of the wine and the message, if you get this right, branding becomes a byproduct. We are also veering away from the old model, in which most wineries were family owned; today it seems that the big corporations are dominating the market, so I'd guess that we will see an enhancement of branding efforts.
You mentioned that you spend a lot of time with the collectors who buy your wine, which doesn't seem like it happens in many other industries (or even the wine world). Why is this so important?
I believe that it's important to be close to your customers, but maybe not in the conventional way. I do not care about their demographics or spending habits, what I care about is their passion, and that is an element that is common to all of our consumers.
Wine seems to have a very different effect on people than most other products. Being with our collectors gives me the ability to share with them what we do, why we do it and how we do it. It also gives me the opportunity to constantly try older vintages, which I have the privilege to drink with them, and most of the time they are the ones bringing the older bottles, as at the estate we have practically no inventory left.
Are there parts of the branding process that take care of themselves? Which parts do you have to work on most?
There are elements and events that come to play an unexpected role, which in turn seem to have an exponentially positive effect on the brand. I believe that we have one of the most beautiful estates in the wine industry. Our place in Bolgheri is far larger than any other wine estate that I know of, and its sheer beauty is so pure and pristine that it seems to be constantly impressing our clients, collectors and business environment. Quite frankly, I get very impressed every time I get back home… as we have a 3,500 hectare (8650 acre) estate, on the coast, and we never had the temptation to do a real estate development or any other monetary speculation, this I believe, transcended in to the brand.
Outside of the wining and dining, what are the parts of your job that have to do with branding that we don’t see?
Very simple: maintaining the integrity. This is not a job, it's a way of life, integrity towards the land, respect for your community, those are the things that people do not see. And passion, passion, passion, because without a consuming passion, it is very difficult to love what you do and to be successful at it.
Is your brand bulletproof?
Nothing is bulletproof; however, it is hard to kill the goose with the golden eggs.
How is what you do for your Italian operations different from your branding work with Bodega Chacra?
I have had the privilege and the luxury to be born into a very special family with deep roots in the Italian historical landscape. Witnessing what the two previous generations have done was the best school one could ever dream of having. My uncle Nicolo Incisa (who runs the estate), in particular, had a very strong impact in my life. Our Italian operations have an historical landscape which is difficult to change, which is fine because I think that we are headed in the right direction. Bodega Chacra (in Argentina) is still in its birth, but I have been lucky to witness the birth of Sassicaia and integrity is once again what will help on the road ahead. Being a family-owned business, we do not have to post double-digit returns which give us the ability and luxury to make the right decisions at the right time for the right reasons, so there is really no difference between the two.
Ever met wine critic Robert Parker?
Of course—I like him. We need 100 more of him!