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Harvesting grapes and making wine in the family-run businesses might satisfy most people’s passion for the vine. But Lorenzo Zonin, eighth-generation winemaker at Casa Vinicola Zonin, one of Italy’s biggest private winemakers, wanted more.
“I craved an international dimension. The Italian wine industry was essentially focused on production and lacked an overall vision of the international market,” says 39-year-old Mr Zonin, who is now the company’s wine ambassador at its headquarters in the Veneto area in northeast Italy.
Aware of his nephew’s desire to broaden his horizons in the business, Gianni Zonin, company president, spotted an MSc course in wine management offered by the OIV, the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, based in Paris. Mr Zonin junior who was working in the US at a winery at the Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia, the only one of the group’s nine estates outside Italy, returned to Europe to enrol in 2002.
Although he already had an MSc in economic engineering and a three-year sommelier course under his belt, Mr Zonin found the 18-month wine management programme more challenging than expected.
“The course requires fluent English and French and is very time-consuming as it is itinerant – studying in more than 20 countries – so you have to quit your job to follow it. It is intense covering many disciplines from chemistry to finance,” he recalls.
However, although stretching, the course did provide the broader, international dimension which Mr Zonin wanted. Meeting other professionals at their wineries in Argentina, Chile, Germany and Greece and visiting universities around the world that collaborate in the OIV wine management programme provided Mr Zonin with a good mix of theoretical and practical learning.
Gaining access to a network of international OIV wine master alumni and making good friends was also a plus.
One of the most useful parts of the programme was learning about the strategies of different wine companies – from small biodynamic wineries and family-run businesses to large wine and spirits groups. Mr Zonin points out that the way management works inside a family business is very different from management operating in a multinational company. “Family values are sometimes at odds with the values that drive big wine groups,” he says. “For example long-term choices are often preferred to short-term decisions [at family-owned companies].”
Many of the companies in the wine industry are often small, family-run businesses. Zonin, which began producing wine in 1821, has 550 employees, a 2013 turnover of €154m and both a domestic and international market. It is large compared with many Italian family-run businesses, but small in comparison to international groups.
Finding a role in such an established company is a challenge in itself and radical change was never the aim. In 2005, Mr Zonin, the first in the family to become a master in wine management, carved out a niche as wine ambassador for the business, a newly created job in which the international marketing part of the course has stood him in good stead.
Promoting Zonin wines from the family estates across Italy and Virginia in the US, sounds like a dream job but it does have its difficulties. One of the most delicate tasks is to persuade people, including opinion leaders in the industry, to taste wines they have not tried before. Tactics such as bringing sommeliers and buyers together to taste the regional Italian wine and local food from the individual estates is one way Mr Zonin is getting the message across.
The biggest lesson from the course has been to give Mr Zonin a clearer vision of how to fulfil his ambition of setting up his own small wine business. “The OIV broadened my horizons and I was able to conceive more clearly the quintessence of the wine I wanted to make.”
Eight years ago he took over ownership of a small estate in the Maremma, Tuscany. Mr Zonin has built up Podere San Cristoforo from a piece of abandoned land with an old, two-hectare vineyard, a decayed mansion and outbuildings, into a 45-hectare estate with a winery where he is producing his own biodynamic wines. “San Cristoforo is my dream come true. I’m proud of being the wine ambassador for Zonin and at the same time producing the wine that represents me. Wine is my passion and my life,” he says.
Mr Zonin’s thirst for more wine knowledge is still not fully quenched. At the beginning of the year he started the rigorous Institute of Masters of Wine course, described by one successful wine master and writer as “masochistic”. However, Mr Zonin came unstuck in the exams this summer, recognising he had not been able to put in enough time for such a demanding course. He now plans to try the course again in a few years’ time.