When people imagine visiting one of the most picturesque wine-growing regions of the world, the Tuscan countryside in Italy, with its lush hills of cypress and olive trees, almost immediately comes to mind. There is indeed a hint of escapism in the attraction about winemaking and picture-perfect vineyards. It can create the best of wishful thinking. Yet, for American corporate honcho Richard Parsons, owning a winery is pretty close to a dream job come true.
In 2000, Richard Parsons, chairman of Citigroup Inc., a senior adviser at Providence Equity Partners L.L.C. and the former CEO of Time Warner Inc., purchased Il Palazzone, a 20-acre Tuscan winery that has been producing wine since 1990. And he seems to be making the most of his soul-satisfying project ever since.
Parsons says that purchasing the winery was a combination of business venture, personal investment and fulfilling a dream. “Il Palazzone, while a business, is also a hobby and a matter of personal passion,” he said in a recent e-mail exchange.
Parsons, 62, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, New York, said, “My mother and father would always have a glass of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and when I turned twelve they let me have a sip. My passion for wine grew from there.”
For all its allure, the production and marketing of wine is a complex and — like the banking and entertainment industries — competitive business. Italy has some 1,000 grape varieties and it is one of the major wine-producing (France, the United States, Spain, Argentina and South Africa round out the top six) and wine-consuming (along with France, the United States, Germany, Spain and Argentina) countries in the world. Tuscany produces some of the most noteworthy, inventive and flavorful wines in the marketplace.
Parsons said he looked at several properties before considering Il Palazzone, which is located in the town of Montalcino, in the heart of Tuscany. “Il Palazzone was the most beautiful,” he said. “Plus, I love Brunello.” Along with Chianti Classico, one of the most popular of Italian wines, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino can be absolute knockouts. In fact, in Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion, the wine expert writes of Brunello di Montalcino: “At its magisterial best, it is one of the great red wines of Europe.”
The wine guide Italian Wine, published by Gambero Rosso, states in the 2009 edition: “The quality of these [Il Palazzone] wines has improved over the years, and specifically since Richard Parsons bought the estate … The winery’s principal, and by no means trifling, attribute is the ability to get the best out of every growing year ….”
Parsons said that running a winery is quite different from running a public company. “Still, there are basic business principles that apply to the management of the business,” he said. “Even though one can focus exclusively on the end user (or, in this case, consumer), you still have to manage the business so that revenues exceed (or at least equal) expenses. Otherwise, you’re out of business.
“As the CEO for a public company, one must always think about and act in the best interest of his shareholders. With running a winery, all I am focused on is my customers — the people for whom I am making my wine.”
Il Palazzone, Big Palace, produces between 8,000 and 12,000 bottles annually, that’s roughly 650 to 1000 cases of its wines. “We produce three wines,” said Parsons, “a classic Brunello di Montalcino, a Rosso di Palazzone, the baby brother of the Brunello, both of which are one hundred percent Sangiovese grapes, and an elegant super-Tuscan called Lorenzo & Isabelle (which is named after his parents) that is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese and Petit Verdot.”
Conservation of the environment has been of foremost concern to many viticultural businesses long before “going Green” became a part of current business planning. Some winemakers began organic farming nearly 30 years ago; and based on theories that were brought forth in the 1920s, several wineries are now moving toward biodynamic practices, putting emphasis on the vigor of the soil and its surrounding flora.
Il Palazzone, too, takes the environment into account in its wine production. According to its Web site, “the winery is committed to monitoring and reducing our carbon footprint.” And the new cellar “will have solar panels and be self-sufficient in terms of energy production. There will be both photovoltaic modules to convert sunlight into electricity and solar thermal collectors to heat water. The whole structure has been planned and insulated to be as energy efficient as possible.”
Some wine lovers may envision running a winery as a glamorous occupation. Parsons, who is known for having a relaxed business manner, said that might be one of the most challenging aspects or misconceptions about owning a winery. “Having a down-to-earth management style is exactly what one needs in the wine business. However, growing grapes is farming. And farming is hard work,” he said.
Laura Gray, who, with her husband, Marco Sassetti, manages the Il Palazzone estate, said Parsons is present at the winery during the most significant moments of the wine year. “He’s here when it’s time to decide about the wine aging and bottling (i.e. will we make a Riserva or not?) and in the fall, when we harvest. He allows us to make the best decisions for the wine using quality criteria alone, which is a wonderful position to be in,” she said.
Parsons, who is also chairman of the executive board of the Jazz Foundation of America and was a member of Barack Obama’s Transition Economic Advisory Board, may not seem ready to trade in his dark suits for casual attire. Though, while he’s patrolling the vineyards, away from boardroom demands, he’s bound to have moments of good-humored introspection. His philosophy about wine, he said, is best expressed in the vineyard motto: “We drink all we can and we sell the rest.” And his thoughts during these economically unstable times: “As long as there are people, there will be a robust wine business.”