Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Brunello Producer Richard "Dick" Parsons

A Conversation with Dick Parsons, Owner of Il Palazzone Winery

I had the special privilege of sitting down with Richard "Dick" Parsons, renowned businessman and owner of Il Palazzone winery, in Montalcino, Tuscany. We spoke about wine making, Nelson Rockefeller, and much more.
Dick Parsons at His Office in Manhattan Photo:Bob Fyke
I met up with Dick, and Mandy Presser, V.P. of U.S. Sales for the winery, at his office overlooking Central Park, in Midtown Manhattan. When he first walked into the room where we would spend half an hour chatting, he looked down at the loose tie draped around his neck and commented, "I should probably get rid of this tie, it was given to me by Silvio Berlusconi". That statement, for me, captures much of the impression I've developed after twice meeting Dick; a very successful man with a celebrated past, but one who does not stand on ceremony. He comes across as a people person, easy to talk with, and down to Earth, despite the occasional comment that only someone of his background can make. The first time I met him, we spoke about the profitability of wine making. He said, "There's no real money in it at this level. It's kind of like when we owned the Atlanta Braves..."
Very few people can make such a comment, and yet he doesn't make a big deal about it.

Formerly CEO and Chairman of Time-Warner, and Chairman of Citigroup, Dick is currently a Senior Adviser at Providence Equity, a private equity firm focused on media, communications, education, and information investments.  In addition, he is on the Board of Directors for Lazard Frères, Estée Lauder Companies and The Madison Square Garden Company. He is also Chairman of The Apollo Theater Foundation, and serves on the boards of The MOMA and The American Museum of Natural History. Add to that his role as Chairman of Governor Andrew Cuomo's Education Reform Commission, and you've got a pretty busy guy. Still, that doesn't keep him from perusing his passion for wine and wine making, which is what led me to him in the first place.

Dick actually asked me the first question.

Dick: First I have to ask you Bob, are you a jazz fan?
BB: I wouldn't call myself a jazz "fan", but I do enjoy it from time to time.

Dick: "Well, you're going to become one. Minton's was a very famous jazz club uptown in the 40's and 50's. It burned and they never really brought it back.
We're in the process of renovating it ...lot's of buzz around it...we're almost done. Live music every night.118th and St Nicolas. Avenue"  [It is now open.]

BB: Cool! What else do you do when you're not making wine?

Dick: I'm lending my experience here [Providence Equity] and I'm also chairing a commission for Governor Cuomo, reforming public education in New York [Education Reform Commission]; this takes a lot of time.
And I have've got to hang with your grandchildren. It's the highest estate that you can aspire to.
It's great being a grandparent, 'cause you get all the fun, but now I don't have to change diapers, like I did with my kids.
BB: What parts of the winery process do you participate in, here and also in Montalcino?
Dick: In theory, this is a business, although it's tough to make money at this level, and we'll talk about that in a minute, and why one would stay at that level if you don't make much money.
But there are decisions that need to be made and Mandy and I meet once a week to discuss where we are against the budget, where our sales are, etc. We're planning a [promotional] trip to Vancouver soon, and we were just in Vegas, and San Francisco.

Dick and Mandy Presser, V.P. of U.S. Sales Photo: Bob Fyke
In Italy, I'm there at least twice a year; in the fall for the vendemmia, 'cause that's when you see what you have, and can evaluate the quality of the harvest.
And then I'm there in the springtime, because that's when you blend the various barrels to make the vintage you're going to put out. I was just there in May for the '09, which is going to be terrific.
...I'm not as big a fan of our '06 as other people are...'09 is going to be like the '05. I love the '05, and I'm going to love the '09.

BB: So you know what you like, and that's why you are where you are?
Dick: That's true.
BB: So, tell me how you started with your interest in wine.
Dick: I was not a wine drinker as a younger person. The only wine I was exposed to was Manischewittz, which my mother liked, and we had on Thanksgiving.
I was a scotch and beer drinker. When I graduated law school, I went to work for a man named Nelson Rockefeller and he and I became relatively close.
He introduced me to many of the finer things in life, including wine. He was mostly a French red drinker, and I became a real fan of high-end French red wines. Over time I began to gravitate toward the Italians, they have more body.

On Deciding to Become a Wine Maker
BB: And then Brunello...?
Dick: I was not committed to Brunello at first; this is a somewhat long story. For my 50th birthday my wife and I we went 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' and 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, something you can establish an interest in."'
 I thought it was good advice. It would be fun to own a vineyard. I brought all these wines with us on the safari; we drank well.
So, the next year, we went to Florence and we set-up base camp there, the same group of people. 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" is all he ever said.
We started up north of Lucca, and we drove down through Chianti, looking for vineyards and fields, and we ended up in Montalcino, and we had a great Brunello. I looked around and said this is the place. Then I spent the next year looking for a vineyard.
BB: And Il Palazzone happened to be available?
Dick: There's a big dollop of luck in everything. That was good luck.

BB: So, tell me about your team.
Dick: Ok, so there's the Italian team and the U.S. team.
The Italian team consists principally of three people; there's Marco Sassetti, the administrator of the winery. I call him the outside guy, overseeing the vineyards, machinery, and so on.
He oversaw the building of the new cantina. He's a local boy, from Sant’Angelo in Colle, in the Montalcino zone. He had a restaurant called La Fortezza, and that's how I met him. His wife is Laura Grey, she's Scottish and has lived in Montalcino for at least 15 years. She's fluent in Italian and has a marvelous facility with the English language. She's also a trained sommelier. So she is in charge of sales everywhere outside the U.S.
Marco and Laura are a team, living there on the estate [with their three children].

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's as much a part of the team as anybody.
He and I, essentially, make the wine each year.
He always tells me, "You have a good palate". This year we went to blend the wine from our three different vineyards [for the 2009]
We had 11 bottles to blend from, and we're trying to make the best final blend. So, he's using all his scientific data, and all I had was my taste buds. 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 said, '"this is really good!"'
So then Vaggagini came back from the computer room, and I was joking with him, and I said, "I got it for you already", and he tasted my blend and said, '"That is this!"'
He picked the same three bottles, and we were pretty close on the percentages too. He asked me, '"How did you know?"' 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.

So that's the team there...along with guys in the field, etc.

Team Chemistry
BB: I have an impression about your team, and the way you work together, and the chemistry. It's a good impression I've gotten from speaking with Laura, and Mandy, and you. Can you talk a little about that?
Dick: For me it's nothing special, it's no different than anything I've ever done. Nobody I've ever worked with would ever say, "Dick's the best business man, or anything like that (although I was a pretty good lawyer).
But, everybody likes working with me, because I like working with people. It's a team effort.
Dick: Where'd you grow up?
BB: In the Hudson valley.
Dick: Did you play team sports?
Me: No
Dick: I did. I found out that it's more fun to win as a team than to win individually. If your guys are with you it's just more fun, it's more rewarding to be part of a winning team, than to be the best this, or the best that, at least for me. So I'm just team oriented. And if you believe in Karma...[he trails off] well, I tend to.
BB: Is there anything we haven't already covered about what you brought to the wine business from your previous experience?
Dick: No, I haven't really approached it like a real business. In most professional endeavors, you're playing with other people's money. And so you have a responsibility around that. I used to tell my guys, '"The first thing is to get the return for the people whose money we are working with."'
In this case, it's my own money, and I can do things the way I want. And, as I said, you can't make any real money at the level that I'm at. It's a scale business, and you'd have to be at a much bigger scale to make real money. But there is a trade-off in that.
We lost a whole year from the Due Porte vineyard, we had hail, and it happened when the grapes were perfect, the first year where we had perfect grapes.
And the hail shut down photosynthesis, so they were done. They were sour. They didn't ripen. It's farming. Farming is a bitch, so you don't know until you have it in the cantina, what you've got.
So how much do you want to put at risk? I know what I have at risk and if all hell breaks loose, it's not going to sink my boat. So I'm happy where I'm at.
Whereas if I try to become Banfi, it would require a lot more than I personally want to put in, and the financial dimensions are totally different.
BB: I wanted to ask you about your parents and the wine you made that bears their name, Lorenzo & Isabelle.
Dick: My parents have both passed. My father passed before I bought the place and my mother four or five years after. I had thought originally about renaming the winery to honor them, but that didn't make sense since it already had its own history.

So I decided to make a wine to honor them instead; it was the 2005 vintage. The blend was our sangiovese, with cabernet franc from my initial partner, Mario Bollag of Terralsole (he sold me Il Palazzone), and then the petit verdot came from Paolo Vagaggini. So the three musketeers put it all together, and we released it in 2007, and it was still too tight, but it has just gotten better in the bottle. Right now it's drinking very well.
We all come from somewhere, and we all owe something to more than one or two people, and definitely to our parents. So that was just my homage.
BB: You've been making a lot of improvements at the cantina...bottling where do you see the place in ten years?
Dick: Well, I'm hoping that we now have set ourselves on the right track. When I bought the place it was small, and cramped, not state of the art.
We ran out of there for a couple of years and then Mario Bollag built his new winery and essentially rented us space in his new cantina, which was all computerized and temperature controlled. That worked for a while, but you don't have complete control over your own production, and we wanted to estate bottle our wines, so we built a new cantina. It's pretty much state of the art. I wanted to do all wood fermentation (no stainless steel), and so on. Now we're good to go. Self contained.

BB: Do you have a home in Italy?
Dick: Yeah, it's there at Il Palazzone. It's a farmhouse dude!

BB: Do you produce olive oil and grappa as well?
Dick: Yes, the olive oil is basically direct to the consumer. It's very nice. Our grappa doesn't really get out of the country. We make grappa, we just don't sell it, in part because I don't drink it, and I don’t think most Americans have much taste for it.

BB: I see that Il Palazzone's qpr is very good. Was there a conscious decision about not pushing the price to the most the market would bear?

Dick: First of all, two things...#1 the wine is as good as it is because it's at the level that the grapes that we grow give you...I think we get about as fine an expression [in the bottle] of what we grow as we can. It's not gonna be changing much. Improving yes, but we are non-interventionist,'s a very elegant and distinctive wine.
And in terms of price points, my view is, "an empty cantina is a good cantina." I’m not one of those guys who believe that my wine is better than your wine, so my wine should cost more than your wine. We try to find out what's the clearing price for a really good, high-end, Brunello, and be there or just under there, because I'm not in the business of cellaring or hoarding wine; I'm in the business of selling wines. 
BB: Are there any other Brunellos that you personally enjoy?
Dick: I do enjoy Terralsole, the Terralsole '06 Riserva is about as good a wine as I think you're going to get. I think that was Mario Bollag’s highest rated wine yet. I like Poggio di Sotto, and I think Biondi Santi older vintages are excellent.
BB: Rosso di Montalcino...
Dick: Our "Rosso" is good, but that's where this guy Palmucci [founder of Poggio Di Sotto] excels, his Rosso is great.
BB: Have you thought about another winery?
Dick: I have...maybe in Argentina, I like Malbecs, but my wife would kill me (laughs). And again, you're not going to make money in this business unless you go up scale-wise. You have fixed costs, like this cantina, and you're constantly having to buy barrels, and it's labor intensive and capital intensive. Unless you have the volume, then you don't have the pricing flexibility.
And it is farming. I'm supposed to be a smart guy, and yet the simplest things turn out to be a surprise for me. My wife is from Oklahoma, so she knows about farming. I said to her, "This farming is rough stuff; you can't control it" and she says, "Duhhh!"
Who knew? I'm from the city. All kinds of stuff goes wrong. But once you get your mind around it, and you’re scaled so that, whatever it is you can deal with it, then you don't stress. So, to answer the question, I've thought about it, but it would be too much.
For me, what makes it work is that I really like Brunello, I like Italy, I like the product that we produce, and I drink it.

You can read more about Il Palazzone winery and the team in my post of 12-29-13 .

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)

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