So what is behind the consistency and quality for which Il Palazzone has come to be known? To answer that question I've taken the opportunity, over the last few months, to get better acquainted with the wines and people behind the label.
I'm happy to say that I developed my first impression of this winery well before I learned that it was owned by a major American businessman, Richard "Dick" Parsons. Therefore, I didn't have the opportunity to develop any presuppositions about it possibly being a casual hobby for one of the rich and famous (although I like to think that I still would not have done so). Still, there is some concern at Il Palazzone that some might dismiss the winery off-hand based on the owner's storied career. That would be a mistake.
The story of Il Palazzone is one of rebuilding, team work, family, and, most importantly, a passion for well made Brunello.
The winery is located just southwest of the village of Montalcino, in Tuscany, high on the slopes that fall away from this historic hilltop. Its elevation, more than 500 meters above sea level, places it among the highest of Brunello producers. The grapes are sourced from their three vineyards, one located at the winery, and two others near Castelnuovo dell'Abate, at approximately 200 meters elevation.
For this article, I interviewed three members of the Il Palazzone team, Richard "Dick" Parsons (owner), Laura Gray (she and her husband Marco run the winery), and Mandy Presser (Head of U.S. sales, distribution and marketing). Speaking with each of them, certain consistent impressions kept coming through; they approach wine making, and the wine business, as a team process and everyone on that team views traditional quality as a top priority. The team is close and loves the work that they do. There seems to be a sort of balance in the way they run the enterprise, a balance between practicality and passion.
Apparently, when they first took over the estate, Dick and his team had some work to do in order to bring things up to the standard of quality found today in a bottle of Il Palazzone. It seems the vineyards had been overworked and needed a lot of attention to bring them into harmony with the philosophies of the new owner. It's clear, from conversations with the team, that the vineyards are today handled with tender loving care and are cultivated using practices that favor quality over quantity.
Overseeing the day-to-day operations, are Marco Sassetti and Laura Gray.
Laura jokes, "Marco and I have nothing in common, that’s why we make such a good couple. He doesn’t have e mail, and I don’t know where the keys to the tractor are." "He does the vineyard and cellar management, and I do people and paper."
Listening to Laura describe Marco, her husband and General Manager of the property, I get the impression that he is a denizen of the vineyard, constantly checking the status of things, verifying the tasks of the workers, and basically getting as complete an awareness of the vines as he can.
She says, “He’s a kind of wild man, forager, hunter/gatherer. Very much a man of his context” “It’s difficult to get him out of Montalcino for very long. That's what makes him such a key element here...this is his life."
Marco is a native of the Montalcino zone, born in San Angelo in Colle.
Mandy Presser said of him, "Marco is such a part of the fabric of Montalcino, whether he's trying to get the butterfly population to come back, or to get our new bottling machine up and running, he knows where to go and what to do to make it happen. It was his idea to use willow ties, instead of plastic, to be even more traditional, and more natural. He just wants to make the best wine that he can."
Laura is Scottish, a graduate of Oxford University, and a trained Sommelier. She has lived in Montalcino for 18 years. At Il Palazzone, she cares for the finances, world sales (outside the U.S.), marketing, and general administration.
|Marco and Laura|
Together, Laura and Marco are the day-to-day anchor of the winery, living there with their three children.
I asked Laura about the potential of people who might be turned-off when they hear that the winery is owned by an American business man, assuming that some non-traditional impact is being made by his influence. She did note that they sometimes play down the owner's history so as to side-step such prejudices. Of Richard she said, "There's no micromanaging from him. He has a galvanizing...great effect...makes you want to do this properly." Of Il Palazzone she says, "It's a real farm, with real people, making good decisions. People [who work there] come from many walks of life. It's a lovely world to be in."
Another key member to the team is veteran oenologist, Paolo Vagaggini. Sometimes called "Mister Sangiovese", he has 30 years of experience making Brunello, and other wines from Sangiovese, and consults for approximately one third of the producers in Montalcino. I asked Laura about his impact on the wine making there and the style. She said, "Here he gets a chance to flex his muscles a different way... he comes to us quite often" "But the reality of the consultant wine maker is, there has to be someone at the estate with a clear philosophy at the helm, and that is the case here. He takes into consideration the style and preferences of the winery."
In my conversation with Dick Parsons, he told me an interesting story that illustrated how Dick had the same stylistic bent as this renowned winemaker.
"My winemaker is a guy named Paolo Vagaggini, who is probably right now, the best known of the Brunello oenologists, and one of the best in Tuscany. He is as much a part of the team as anybody. He and I, essentially, make the wine each year.
Paolo always says to me, '"You have a good palate.'" This year we went to blend the wine from our three different vineyards...
We had 11 bottles to blend from... and we're trying to make the best blend. He's using all his scientific data, and all I had was my taste buds and nose. My best friend was with me, and I said, watch this. I took the first, the third, and the seventh bottle, and a mixed them up and said, "taste that". "Steve (Dick's friend) said, this is really good!"
So then Vagaggini came back from the computer room, with his blend, and I was joking with him, and I said, "I got it for you already", and he tasted it and said, "'that is this!"'
He picked the same three bottles, and he was pretty close on the percentages. "'How did you know?"', he asked. And he showed me his paper, and except for the exact percentages, we had the same blend.
He and I are getting really close in that. And he's a really good man."
Laura says of Dick, "He's been quietly learning for 13 years off stage, he has clear ideas about what he wants from the estate." "He chooses the wine that he likes best, what works for him".
Winery Owner, Richard "Dick" Parsons
Richard Parsons purchased Il Palazzone in 2000. He is best known for his prominent role in American business having been Chairman and CEO of Time Warner, and Chairman of Citigroup. You may have seen his face on the cover of Newsweek, Black Enterprise, or another magazine. I asked him how he came to be a Brunello producer.
|Dick Parsons at his office in Manhattan. Photo: Bob Fyke|
Dick: I was not committed to Brunello at first. For my 50th birthday, I took my wife, myself, and some friends, on a tented safari in Africa...and you get up in the morning and watch the world come alive out there on the savannah. It is a fabulous thing. And one day I was sort of contemplating, this is cool, I'm really liking this. At that point in time I was fairly well off, because Time-Warner had done really well before the AOL merger. So I said to my wife, maybe I'll retire. She said, "You're 50 years old, you can't retire, I don't want to have this conversation with you for at least another ten years.
And secondly, when we do have the conversation, don't give me any nonsense about how maybe you'll teach or write...because what would you do the next week? You work. You need to find something that will absorb your time and attention and pull you away from work and that you can establish an interest in. So that when you stop working you can move into it."
I thought it was good advice. It would be fun to own a vineyard. I had brought all these wines with us on the safari from my collection, we drank very well.
So, the next year, we went to Florence...and we set-up base camp there, the same group of people that were on the safari. The women all went shopping, all day, every day....I had this guy, Silvio, who would pick them up every morning and drop them off at night."Incredible" was all he ever said.
|Dick, Mandy, and Central Park. Photo: Bob Fyke|
Me: And Il Palazzone happened to be available?
Dick:Yes.There's a big dollop of luck in everything. That was good luck.
You can read much more about Dick, and how he came to be a wine maker, in my full interview with him.
Distribution and Sales
Mandy Presser, director of sales in The United States, was kind enough to shed some insight on the business end of things. I asked her about production levels.
Mandy: The 2006 normale Brunello is only 8300 bottles, and the Riserva was just 100 cases. So, we're not trying to take over the world." "The Rosso production for the 2013 blend is around 13,000 bottles."
Me: Do you do "cellar releases" of later vintages.
Mandy: Sort of. We don't specifically hold back vintages for later sales, but if inventory remains, when the next vintage comes out, then we focus on selling the new vintages and the remainder stays in the cellar for a while.
Me: What might I, as a consumer, be able to find?
Mandy: The oldest that is out there right now is the 2001 Riserva, there are a handful of the 1995's.
Me: Here's a corny question, what would you say is the "heart" of Il Palazzone.
Mandy: Well, I'm going to give you a corny answer. The personalities...Dick, Laura, and Marco are great.
Really the heart of it is the great passion that they have for the work ...it's not just a job...it's like every bottle is a child going out to the world. We love to hear stories of people enjoying the wine as part of a special evening.
Laura says, "When people ask, "Are you organic?", I joke about the proximity of our children to the vineyard, playing on their swing set, a few meters away." Il Palazzone is not certified, organic, which is a rigorous process that may be more trouble than it's worth for some producers.
|The kids at play amongst the Sangiovese|
Wine Making Modernization
Marco oversaw the construction of their new cellar, a beautiful structure that fits perfectly with its old world surroundings, but has modern wine making capabilities, and environmental considerations. It was designed to be as "green" as possible, and to support Il Palazzone's policy of sustainable agriculture. You can read much more about this in Mandy Presser's post on their blog.
In addition to building a new cellar, the winery has added eight new wood fermenting vats. These too represent a traditional approach to wine making while utilizing the modern tools that are available. Fermentation in wood is a significant refinement over the former stainless steel.
|One of Eight New Fermenting Vats|
Another big improvement is the new bottling machine, which has quickened and improved that process. Its first assignment, was the bottling of the latest Rosso Del Palazzone, in June of this year. Next, the 2009 Brunello bottling, all 9,304 bottles, was completed in one single (long) day. This resulted in more time for other important tasks.
Clearly, there is no skimping here when it comes to creating a facility that enables them to make the best wine that they can. This bodes well for future releases, which should logically improve the, already excellent, level of quality.
The Rosso Del Palazzone
Most Brunello producers make a Rosso Di Montalcino, DOC, as a second wine to their Brunello. Il Palazzone does not produce a Rosso Di Montalcino, rather, they produce their "Rosso Del Palazzone", which is composed of 100% Sangiovese Grosso, but does not officially conform to the DOC protocol for a Rosso Di Montalcino.
Because their Brunello is made from a blend of three different vineyards, and the selection is critical, at the blending of each vintage a certain amount of wine from a particular vintage / vineyard may not be included. The "left over" wine is blended (multiple vintages) to make the Rosso Del Palazzone. The result is an excellent wine that outshines a fair number of Brunellos, and this at a great price.
Laura says, "I'm very proud of the Rosso [It was her idea]. I thought if we make a wine that was unique, and had its own story, it would be easier to market.
It's always terrifically popular and we always run out quickly. Stories sell wine...the Rosso is a great story since it is the remaining "Brunello" that we chose not to use in the final blend. The most recent (2013 release) is a blend of 2011 and 2012, both top vintages."
In my conversation with Mandy Presser, she explained that the Rosso is a great candidate for "by-the-glass" pours in restaurants and is frequently used as such.
I asked her if people are turned off by the "NV" (non-vintage) designation. She said, "Actually, I think it sometimes helps sell the wine. It starts a conversation about why it's non-vintage, and then they hear the story of how it's made."
About 13,000 bottles of the NV Rosso were produced this year. Until recently they were only distributed in New York, where they sold out quickly. Now the Rosso can be found in Florida, Las Vegas, and California.
|Il Palazzone's Due Porte Vineyard|
Il Palazzone grows grapes in three vineyards, two are located in the vicinity of Castelnuovo delle'Abate, about 15 minutes from the winery, at approximately 200 meters elevation. These are noted for producing juice with mineral and saline character, due to the presence of marine fossils, magnesium, and manganese in the soils. The vines in these vineyards are over 30 years old. The remaining vineyard, "Due Porte", is located close to the winery at 530 meters elevation, and is known for producing highly aromatic wines due to the altitude, the temperature swing between night and day, and the influence of the nearby woodlands. These contrasting vineyard characteristics work well to add complexity in the final Brunello blend.
There is much good taking place at this lovely winery that is rich with Montalcinese tradition, and international team passion. While the current and recent releases are very nice, the wines can only get better thanks to the constant improvement and development taking place. Does ownership by a big-time American business man serve as a negative influence? Absolutely not! On the contrary, Dick Parsons has given Il Palazzone new vitality by pulling together a wonderful team, supporting them with the resources needed, and by inputting his own preferences, to make great wines.
My Tasting Notes on Il Palazzone Wines
2004 Il Palazzone Brunello Di Montalcino
2005 Lorenzo & Isabelle IGT
2005 Il Palazzone Brunello Di Montalcino
2007 Il Palazzone Brunello Di Montalcino
Rosso del Palazzone NV (the 2012 release)
Il Palazzone has an excellent and informative website that not only gives insight to their winery and vineyards, but also to Brunello Di Montalcino in general. Don't miss Laura's blog that provides current news about the vineyard, harvest, winery, and more. Along with Laura's posts, Mandy Presser, the VP of North American Sales, frequently contributes as well.
*At press time, Mandy Presser has moved on to a new position in Australia; Laura says, "We all miss her very much, but her replacement (Jenny Cuddihy) is great!"