We recently enjoyed a fine, sunny morning in the company of Michele Tessari, the figurehead of the historic, family-owned Ca' Rugate wine cellar in the heart of Val d'Alpone - a valley in the province of Verona close to the border with Vicenza.
Michele - as a person and especially as an entrepreneur - stands out not only for his far-sightedness but also for the value he places on the decisions made by his company. Generally speaking, when faced with decisions, we tend to focus on the negative aspects that such decisions may entail. And, more often than not, this approach is detrimental. Michele takes a different slant on things: he focuses on experimentation that targets growth precisely thanks to making decisions. So, if we had to describe Michele Tessari with a single word, we might say guardian or perhaps even defender, an even stronger synonym.
The story of the treasure-trove he looks after goes back a very long time, tracing deep roots to his great-grandfather, Amedeo, who planted the first vines in Ca' Rugate, the family home and farm on the Rugate hills, overlooking the Monteforte d'Alpone valley. Amedeo sold his wine in bulk until the First World War suddenly took his life far too early. Then came Fulvio, Michele's grandfather, who became the head of the family while still very young. Once he earned his elementary school certificate, he immediately made a pact with his mother to become a farmer and pursue a farming life. In the late 1970's, the reins of the farm were taken over by Amedeo, Michele's father. Tessari is a very common surname in this area and using it as a company name would have caused a great deal of confusion. So the decision to use the name of the locality was extremely far-sighted - especially at a time when the concept of brand communication was still a very long way off. Inasmuch, "Ca' Rugate" was founded to commemorate the first vines planted by great-grandfather Amedeo in the early 1900s. The cellar made its début on international markets in 1986 and the first bottles with Ca' Rugate's own label followed in 1988. This brings us to Michele and our chat about the all-round sustainable philosophy whereby the Tessari family and its collaborators manage the company and all future projects. An authentic lineage of wine-growers dedicated to the cause of searching for absolute quality.
The distinctive features of Cà Rugate: a unique wine cellar in a unique terroir
We talked about choices. The 2000s were characterised by important choices for the new company based in Montecchia - an important communications artery between Verona and Vicenza, as well as a vocational and strategic wine-growing territory. This was when the project to upgrade the wine-making process first began - from drying to pressing and bottling - through constant, strong growth of the company based on an innovative approach to work.
I believe immensely in the value of professional expertise and consultancy. Entrepreneurs must delegate and encourage talent, experience and interplay. In the same way, people who work with us must not only take home their pay but also the satisfaction of being part of a good company. Thanks to this approach to our people and the decision to convert 90 hectares of land to organic farming, we are one of the wine-growers with the most structured vineyards in the province of Verona. Our wine-growing is not based on volume but on value. This is the distinctive feature we aim to convey.
We have the immense good luck of living in an area that differs from one vineyard to another. How can a wine-growing farm differentiate itself significantly from others in the same area?
Identity is strength. If we want to reach the top, we have to valorise uncompromising excellence. We have also decided to continue making limited edition wines, such as Corte Durlo Vin Santo di Brognoligo. We do so because it bears witness to wine-making history in one of the areas of Italy with the highest density of vineyards - covering up to 90% of the territory. It is here that the Veneto Region became such a force in wine-growing. Inasmuch, niche and tailor-made wines with strong identity can be a fast track helping us to stand out on markets. We also make sparkling wines. Our vineyards are located at an altitude of 600 metres, in a plot of land near Brenton, where wine-growing is truly heroic. Even mountain wine-growing is part of the identity of Ca' Rugate because, over the years, we also decided to tackle unconventional risk factors, such as wines grown on the hills high above Montecchia, Roncà and Monteforte. Climate change actually means our vines perform better, since such an unconventional altitude stimulates great performance.
Are we lucky? Maybe. But experiments ensure added value when a company does not stand on its laurels, that knows how to dare, that has a vision for change. This is the distinctive corporate identity factor for Ca' Rugate.
Can you outline some of your experimentation?
Bucciato Soave Classico Superiore is a timeless wine. Today we could even call it an orange wine given the maceration of Garganega grapes on the skins. This was far from trendy at the time. We halted production when we noticed that ageing in wood did not do it justice. So, we stopped making this wine for a few years before experimenting with techniques involving ceramic containers, which helped us achieve balance and excellent drinkability. It was a journey of trial and error to find out what improvements we could introduce to a traditional wine-making practice. In the meantime, we realised that maceration on the skins, when softened by refinement in wood, becomes monotonous. We then investigated a number of recipients and found all the special features of a wine that came perfectly to the fore when finally savoured.
We also carried out other experiments with one of our iconic wines - Studio - an IGT white, initially with 20% and later up to 100% of Trebbiano di Soave grapes. We once blended Garganega and Trebbiano grapes for many years - but now we only use Trebbiano, because we realised that this grape variety in purity can yield impressive results.
The most important thing we learn from such experiments is that there is never only one correct recipe in our work. There are many and endless paths towards growth, study and exploration. This is our motto.
Talking of ways forward: when did you start growing organic wines and what distinguishes them from conventional produce?
We began the process of converting to organic farming in 2017. We came in somewhat later than average but we wanted to be certain that our territory could express quality in organic terms. We wanted to be entirely sure that our vineyards in these locations would be capable of interacting with organic wine-growing without drawbacks, without running the risk of spoiling our vineyards. Not every area is capable of expressing itself to the full through a given approach to farming and in such cases it is preferable to retain conventional methods. For example, certain diseases cannot be controlled by organic farming methods. We carried out endless tests for many years between 2010 and 2017. We then talked with our collaborators and came to a well-informed conclusion: at the outset, our operating system was perfect: we were a totally green company working 90 hectares of land. International markets were ripe, as they were so beforehand and are still all the even more so today. Organic farming is a prerequisite in certain areas such as Northern Europe and North America. We are ready and able to keep faith with our identity because our long-standing vineyards are an assurance of absolute quality. The Italian market is also responding, although simply being organic still does not convince a market that views organic produce favourably but not necessarily as being better. All the more, we also have to explain our production costs better, since Italian consumers still do not yet ask themselves "Am I willing to spend more to buy an organic wine?". Most people have no idea that the costs involved in managing hillside vineyards are significantly higher than for traditional wine-growing areas, and even more so if they organic sites.
Which generation is the most responsive to organic wine?
The millennials because they are a more inquisitive generation. We live in a world where everything is within easy reach, where everything is fluid and where we can quickly get to know about everything. Inquisitiveness is a feature of people who look at things with a more open mind. Fifteen thousand people visit our wine cellar every year and this is an excellent test-bench for consumers who enjoy our hospitality. We have noticed that millennials are keen to learn about innovations and enjoy chatting with our staff about topics such as sustainability and organic produce. I think they are the target most willing to learn about organic wine because they are more open-minded.
What is the future of hospitality within Ca' Rugate's strategic vision?
First of all, our approach: we are always determined to ensure a great service. Hospitality is very important in a wine cellar: we must ensure a warm welcome to everyone who visits us. This means being open when other people can enjoy leisure time, i.e. on Saturdays and Sundays and not just during the week when most people are working. So, the future means hospitality, alongside green and digital approaches. Our website encourages interaction with visitors by proposing experiences that also involve our local area to creates synergies and highlight special and unique features. The strategy is to team up with the fabric of the local economy. In this regard, we decided not to offer catering in our wine cellar. We prefer to develop synergies and strong partnerships with clients who already provide this kind of service. Another important aspect is the perception of wine within the scope of wine lists. We absolutely must ensure that consumers perceive wine to a greater extent as an interpretation of local areas, since it is only in this way that we can promote awareness of true value. Production volumes are merely a factor for speculation. I am convinced that we can grow together with restaurateurs, without any form of competition: our philosophy is to work together, not compete. This also means being a dynamic and welcoming company.
Are there any innovations you would like to tell Vinitaly Plus readers about?
Yes, we have a lot of new things in the pipeline. I'd particularly like to preview the creation of a social farm. Ca' Rugate is an agricultural company that seeks to highlight the value of people and history. Our wine cellar also hosts a museum of regional calibre and we also organise regular educational activities with local schools; the social farm project seeks to tell the story of a well-managed company. We want to share joy with people over and above agricultural-productive aspects. We already work actively in social fields through our collaboration with the Monteverde Social Cooperative.
From a wine-making point of view, two particular innovations can be mentioned among many others: Amarone Riserva, made with grapes grown on the hills high above Monte di Sant'Ambrogio della Valpolicella, and Lessini Durello Riserva, with dégorgement after 130 months.
What - according to Ca' Rugate - is the most effective way to communicate and promote Italian wine excellence abroad?
Let's go back to the concept of identity. A strategy of widespread international distribution helps generate brand identity because you become a brand precisely once you are available on international markets. Brand is by now synonymous with value. We simply have to activate all the possible tools available to us: B2B events, attendance at trade fairs and sector events are fundamental tools for communicating Made in Italy at its finest. We firmly believe in training ambassadors to accompany us beyond our borders and help other people understand the importance of our local area. In this regard, we have created 3D maps of the Valpolicella and Soave wine-making districts that are also used by our ambassadors. Geography is an important lever that helps convey better knowledge of local areas and consequently of local wines. Yet communication must be easy-going if it is to promote brand awareness. Awareness implies both mental and economic effort and, inasmuch, investing in communication, promotion and awareness is vital.
Cà Rugate: a splendid story with origins in a relatively recent past enjoying constant evolution.
Meet Cà Rugate at Vinitaly 2-5 April, HALL 5 STAND D1, find out more about this wine-making company on Vinitaly Plus!