NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Coffee, tea, chocolate or wine? Italy's illycaffe has branched out from coffee beans, tea leaves and cocoa to produce some of the country's most iconic wines.
Riccardo Illy, 55-year-old chairman of Gruppo illy S.p.A., is a former ski instructor, politician and author. Two years ago, just as the economic turmoil began, he decided to become a vintner.
"Looking back and knowing what we know now, maybe it wasn't the best time, but I don't regret it," Illy said, pouring a glass of Rosso di Montalcino from the Mastrojanni estate that they bought in 2008.
"We had been discussing buying the estate for several years," he explained.
Coming from a family of wine lovers and married to a sommelier, Illy thought it only natural when his brother Francesco, long a fan of Mastrojanni's wines, wanted to buy their 36-acre of vineyards dedicated to growing Brunello-worthy Sangiovese grapes.
"Why Brunello? First of all because it is one of two or perhaps three iconic wines in Italy. It is sold globally and it can last for 10-20 years," he said. "Winemaking is a long-term commitment. It is an investment not for a quarter, or year or five. It is for generations."
Each generation of Illy has introduced a beverage to the company. Riccardo's grandfather, a Hungarian who settled in Italy after World War One, produced coffee and chocolate. His father, Ernesto, introduced tea and now the brothers are focusing on wine.
"If we succeed in developing our wine business, the next generation will be able to put a concentration on wine as well. It is a long-term investment for the family compared to coffee, chocolate or tea. It is much more capital intensive."
Illy has kept on the Mastrojanni's vineyard manager, Andrea Machetti and oenologist Maurizo Castelli. He shares Warren Buffett's philosophy when it comes to buying businesses.
"We always try to keep the founder, family or manager of a company we work with intact."
The brothers have expanded the cellar using nature as a guide. Designed with stone and wood and built into a hillside, the cellar naturally regulates the temperature and humidity where the barrels of wine are kept.
And Illy is determined to maintain production of their Brunellos at no more than 80,000 bottles annually.
"Quality over quantity is the way we do everything, whether it is wine or coffee," he explained.
Editing by Patricia Reaney