Whine of the Times
The transfer of an italian winemaking icon into us ownership has stirred controversy in italy, but the sale is a symptom of the challenges facing the industry, writes James Suckling
taly has been abuzz with criticism of the Currado family’s sale in July of the famous Barolo winery Vietti, founded in 1873, to US convenience store magnate Kyle Krause for more than 50 million euros. It was scandalous that an Italian family had given up part of the national patrimony, critics declared. “After hundreds of years in the hands of an Italian family, the history was forever changed in one minute with the signature of the deal,” one wrote.
What’s so bad about an American family buying a top Piedmont winery, especially if the Italian family no longer wants to own it? The Currados are going to stay and manage Vietti, keeping its 34 hectares of some of the best vineyards in Barolo and Barbaresco in capable hands. The wines would still be the same stellar quality, winemaker Luca Currado assured me, and “we should be able to improve quality even more with this investment.”
I have not met Kyle Krause but I have met two of his sons, Ryan and Tanner, and they spoke candidly about their father’s enthusiasm for Italy, in particular Langhe and Barolo. “My father loves the region and his dream is to one day retire there. He’s a huge fan of Barolo,” Tanner told me a few months ago in San Francisco. The Iowa-based Krauses own Kum & Go, a 430-strong chain of convenience stores, as well as banks and other interests.
Kyle Krause’s passion for Barolo led him to buy his first Italian winery in 2015, Enrico Serafino, which had made great wines in the 1950s and ’60s but had become a commodity winery best known for sparkling wine. Krause then managed to buy about seven hectares of key vineyards with the help of Vietti’s Luca Currado. He planned to return Serafino to its glory days with Currado and was clearly on his way.
Interestingly, Krause had tried to buy Cantina Gigi Rosso before Serafino, but the deal fell through when Giacomo Conterno bought the best Rosso vineyards during the negotiations. An Italian law gives first right of purchase to neighbours, and Conterno owned vineyards next to Rosso’s best vines.
The Vietti purchase, coming the year after the Serafino deal, led Italian media and commentators to rail against the “Americanisation” of the region. No one mentioned how labour laws, taxes and interminable red tape make it difficult for independent producers to operate in Italy. I think the Currados just got fed up. Italian winemakers are always complaining to me about how difficult it is to do business in Italy. Sometimes it’s just too much.
I saw the same situation emerge in France in the 1980s with the election of socialist governments and deepen with the advent of the European Union in the early 1990s. The business environment and tax structure make it difficult for independent family operations to survive, and it’s only getting worse.
In the meantime, foreigners continue to buy châteaux, wineries and vineyards. The Chinese are the most active buyers in France and it’s only a matter of time before they start investing in Italy. Vietti is the first major sale in the Piedmont region, and it certainly won’t be the last. Italy’s best vineyards are clearly now on the market.