“Wine is the intellectual part of our meal…you can't have great food without great wine,” smiles Marilisa Allegrini. One should trust her on that. The sixth generation scion of Italy's Allegrini family, they've been producing wine in Valpolicella (land of many cellars), an important wine-producing area in Italy, from the 16th century.
Marilisa was recently in Bangalore to launch four wines at the Olive Beach, including the famed Amarone. Talking of the Italian perception of wine, Marilisa says even children are allowed to taste wine. “The approach to wine is not prohibitive. You never drink wine to get drunk. You drink to taste. I was a teenager when I first tasted wine.”
It's these different approaches to wine that has fuelled the intense marketing strategy that Marilisa has designed to market her family's products, ever since her father invited her to join the business. While Asia is perceived as a large growing market for Italian wines, the way India perceives wine is far different from the rest of Asia. In China, for example, says Marilisa, it's about showing off by ordering the most expensive of wines on the menu at a restaurant. “They don't have the knowledge and, moreover, it's different from Indians and Thais who enjoy food and tastes.” She points out how in a society, once a certain status is achieved, people indulge in eating and drinking well. The next stage is when they look deep into good health — the search for organic products and sustainable agricultural products begins, opening up new markets.
“The wines we produce are suitable for Indian tastes and cuisine. While travelling in the UK, I found that Amarone was one of the top-selling wines with Indian food. It has the aroma of raisins and is suitable for the palate of sweetness though the wine itself is not sweet.” Amarone was for long considered an after-dinner or dessert wine, and made a comeback only recently. So food pairing isn't all just a big fuss? “Knowledge is essential to enjoying wine,” Marilisa carefully frames her statement. “Or you ruin both your food and your wine.” But before she got so deeply entangled in the world of vines, and marketing the coveted red bottles, Marilisa was a busy physiotherapist. Because the business of growing grapes and tending vineyards was largely male domain. “It was a man thing. Both of my brothers were already working in the business and I thought they didn't want me. But my dad called me back and said that a feminine touch of sensitivity was needed in marketing. I felt it was important to carry on the legacy of what I had inherited.” And so it was that she joined the family business at 24. Today, at 56, she has come a long way in succeeding to market a wine that was often frowned down upon as a “pizza wine” or “pasta wine”.
“When I started out, the Super Tuscans were the best wines. There was a whole lot of prejudice against the Valpolicella, which was seen as an average wine — not important or interesting — and so to be had with pizza and pasta. The Amarone was considered too high in alcohol content.” She laboured from 1983 onward, changing processes, changing tastes, till they came to be accepted as top class products in the late 1990s.
The markets for red wines, which Alllegrini predominantly produces, changed with the world waking up to the health benefits of a glass of red wine, around the mid-90s. “When it was discovered that antioxidants in wine were good for the heart, prevented cancer, strokes, and heart attacks, the market almost reversed, with the white wine-red wine ratio becoming 40-60,” she points out.
Marilisa's entrepreneurial streak made sure she didn't stop at banking on her family's lands. In 2001, she started another winery Poggio al Tesoro in Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast. “I decided I wanted to make something from the beginning. I started with nothing and used all my knowledge acquired at Allegrini to build this. In Bolgheri I can make great wine every year, while I can't in Valpolicella. At Allegrini we deal only with native varieties of vines but in Bolgheri we grow international varieties.” Her father Giovanni Allegrini had acquired the nickname of being the “wine barrel spider” because he would jump from one wine barrel, about four metres tall, to another, while checking them because he didn't want to waste time climbing down one and climbing up the next. Marilisa says she's only inherited the title as far as the passion for wine goes. “I think it's just dangerous to jump,” she laughs.
She's also tapped in on the wine tourism industry, and runs a wine education and cooking school at Villa Giona (that's completed 12 years), at a restored Renaissance villa close to Verona, offering travelling packages to visit an olive oil factory, the city of Verona, Lake Garda and surrounding areas, culminating in a dinner at the villa.