Allegrini 2018

The receptive structures of the Italian wine brands towards the restart, between doubts and hopes

Restrictions on restaurants make many people turn up their noses, but confidence in vaccines gives hope for a recovery

A wet start, a lucky start. Or at least this is the implicit wish of the entire world of catering and hospitality in Italy. Which, in these first days of reopening, has had to deal with the limits of a Decree Law born as a meeting point between the needs of a sector that has been at a standstill for months and a health situation that is still dangerous. The possibility to welcome customers only in the outdoor spaces cuts off a good half of the premises, while the curfew at 10 pm “kills” the dinner time. If the first problem is particularly limiting for the restaurants of the cities, where outdoor spaces are a big problem, the second one is an insurmountable obstacle for many country structures, kilometers away from cities, including those hosted by the wineries of Italian wine brands.
These wineries, often and willingly, combine the productive aspect with welcoming, catering and hospitality. And if some of them have already reopened their doors, others are waiting to welcome again customers and wine lovers. For the first times with the handbrake pulled, and with the unknown of bad weather to dictate the fortunes, but it is a first step, a sign of hope, a beginning, especially in view of the summer. Doubts are many, and they are destined to remain unresolved, and time will not be short before seeing Americans and Canadians, the real big spenders of international wine tourism, among vineyards again. Moreover, there is the geographic variable: in the South of Italy, May is already the right month for eating out, whereas in the North it is a less attractive prospect.
Anyway, as wine entrepreneurs and managers tell WineNews, among restaurants and wineries in Italy, there is a cautious optimism. The first bookings are starting to arrive, if not to flow, and there is a desire to go back to breathing normality and joy of being together, obviously respecting the due distances. In the country, yes, but also in the city, where brands often "set" important tables. The word from the world of wine, from Martino De Rosa, at the helm of the hospitality sector of the Terra Moretti group, and therefore of the Relais and Chateaux L'Albereta, to Enrico Viglierchio, managing director of Castello Banfi, which hosts the Hotel Il borgo and the restaurant La Sala dei Grappoli, from Danilo Guerrini, director of Borgo San Felice and president of the Italian delegation of Relais & Châteaux, to Stefano Chiarlo, at the helm of the Barolo brand Michele Chiarlo, which owns Palás Cerequio. And again, Alessio Planeta, who in Sicily, hospitality sector, means La Foresteria in Menfi and Palazzo Planeta in Palermo, Alberto Tasca, with 4 estates on the island, starting with Capofaro, Matteo Bisol, director of Venissa, Wine Resort with starred restaurant on the island of Mazzorbo, in Venice, and Marilisa Allegrini, with the beautiful Villa della Torre in Valpolicella.
Then Pierangelo Tommasi, at the head of the Tommasi Family Estates, with seven estates all over Italy as well as the wine hotel Villa Quaranta and Caffè Dante, in the heart of Verona, Enrico Chiavacci, marketing director of Marchesi Antinori as well as head of the company’s restaurant division, which boasts Rinuccio 1180, Osteria del Tasso, Osteria di Passignano, Trattoria della Fonte, Cantinetta Antinori and Procacci, as well as the country resort Fonte de' Medici, Giovanni Folonari, at the head of Ambrogio e Giovanni Folonari Tenute, with hospitality at Borgo del Cabreo, Tenuta di Nozzole and Tenuta la Fuga, and Andrea Machetti, managing director of Mastrojanni, Riccardo Illy’s Brunello di Montalcino griffe, also realais and restaurant among vineyards. Lastly, Francesco Sorelli, communication manager of Ruffino, which hosts the “Locanda le Tre Rane”, the Agriresort and the Bottega del Vino, and Ornella Venica, who in Collio has made of hospitality a flagship of Venica & Venica.

“We hope that what we are putting behind us is really the last stop, because there is a need, as well as a desire, to start again. Certainly, the current law decree does not help us in the short term, but if we widen the horizon to the near future, the sentiment is positive, hoping that from here on out we will not go backwards. The difficulties of this reopening are latent: it is difficult to work with many fewer tables than usual, and only where it is possible. Not all venues have the benefit of adequate space to be outside. On an operational level, it is also very difficult to manage customer bookings according to the vagaries of the weather. It’s all objectively very complicated, sometimes bad weather arrives during the course of the work, and so we risk displeasing customers who, instead, we are used to pampering. We always try to give and offer solutions, but the experience we offer risks being debased. As the season improves, and as we loosen the restrictions on openings, both in terms of space and hours, we are convinced that peace will return”. These are the words of Enrico Chiavacci, marketing director of Marchesi Antinori and responsible for the company’s restaurant division, to WineNews.
Marchesi Antinori’s restaurants are various, mainly in Italy but also abroad, from Procacci,
“which has never closed, has a nice outdoor area and manages to work well, obviously with the limits imposed by the weather, which is absolutely aleatory, and by the hours”, to Cantinetta Antinori, at Rinuccio 1180, in Chianti Classico, “which reopens from Friday May 7th, as well as visits to the winery, even if with some difficulties: it is a world apart, because tastings cannot, at the moment, be done inside, but only outside, with the difficulties there are. We had to create new locations in order to be ready”, continues Enrico Chiavacci.
And again, Fonte de’ Medici, “which reopens today, and Trattoria della Fonte will also be open, with a beautiful outdoor space. Osteria di Passignano will probably reopen in mid-May, but only from Friday to Sunday, as will Osteria del Tasso in Bolgheri”. Procacci in Forte dei Marmi is also open, “and this week we welcomed the opening of Tormaresca Vino e Cucina in Milan, which we will inaugurate in mid-May, a beautiful place”, Enrico Chiavacci pointed out. Finally, it is important to remember the Cantinetta Antinori’s foreign branches, from the one in Zurich, which is open again, to the one in Vienna, which will reopen, as decided by the Austrian government, on May 19th, from the one in Moscow, which has practically never closed, to the one in Montecarlo, which has always remained open, up to the Cantinetta Antinori in Astana, Kazakhstan, which is also always open.
“L’Albereta - says Martino De Rosa, who, with Carmen Moretti, coordinates the hotellerie sector of the Terra Moretti Group, which includes the Relais and Chateaux L’Albereta and the Tenuta l'Andana, in Maremma - has always remained open, except for the first lockdown. From June 2020, we only closed in January, for 20 days. Since then we have been open continuously, but keeping a very high level of vigilance. We’re facilitated by the fact that the spa part is a medical center, so we’re structured for continuous checks, the employees, being medical staff, are all vaccinated. If we have worked, it’s because L’Albereta enjoys a certain prestige, it’s a pity that now that we can eat outside, in the open air, the rain has arrived”.
Moving to Maremma, “at Andana, instead, we have postponed the opening, from Easter to May 6, and we'll see what happens”, De Rosa resumes. “Let’s say, however, that in addition to having to think about control and security, there is also the uncertainty and disregard for the complications that all this entails: supply, personnel, unemployment benefits. Not working over the long haul is more deteriorating than anything else, more so than the emergency itself. Uncertainty kills us, but we are structured and we have the way and the desire to give continuity to our work. Which is made up of planning, but it’s all more difficult this way. We’re hoping for a run on vaccines, it seems to be going well now, but we have to keep our guard up, allowing people to work. Space has always been our key point, and this has facilitated us, as well as proximity to Milan.
On foreign countries it will still be a long way, but let’s try not to double the damage: Spain and Greece are open, we risk losing Italian tourism too. From the European countries, especially the neighbouring ones, such as France and Germany, tourists will soon come back, but Americans will not, also because the communication campaign that is passing in the USA is that of an Italy still struggling with Covid and riots. It will not be a summer for foreigners, however. Flights are complex and there are still a few, the rules are confusing, including buffers and vaccines, but it is so all over the world. Finally, a tirade to the Government, because “there is a lack of competence among those who decide: if one does not know the sector, one cannot manage with common sense, and this crisis, at sector level, has not been managed as a person of our world would have managed it, however difficult and complex the situation may be”, concludes De Rosa.
From Valpolicella, Marilisa Allegrini tells how in this very difficult year she “laid the foundations to start again, aware that one day things would change. We are strengthening our service, both related to hospitality - so tastings and accommodation, with ten rooms - and to food, in a more organized way. We are collaborating with Fabio Groppi, a chef who in the past also had a Michelin star, and with him we would like to make a wider proposal than the previous one. Besides the Villa we opened a Taverna, and then having very beautiful spaces, both outdoors and indoors, we think it could be a good solution. In the many vineyards we also organize picnics, in order to spend beautiful moments in the vineyard, maybe with a barbecue”.
“Obviously - Marilisa Allegrini continues - our proposals are based on quality, and this is how it will always be. In San Polo (Montalcino), we are transforming the receptive structure into an agritourism, and in Bolgheri (Poggio al Tesoro) we have a beautiful guesthouse in the home stretch. The concept, transversal to many entrepreneurs in the world of wine, is to link hospitality to production: it is a more complete and beautiful way of communicating wine, of seeing each other again after so much time. There are many Americans who are thinking about coming back to Italy, the vaccinated ones could already come, but it takes patience for everything to come back. More than optimism, we need realism and caution, but people have a great desire for rebirth”, says the producer, between Valpolicella and Tuscany.
“The Covid brought so many changes, the only positive side was being able to stop and think”, Alberto Tasca tells WineNews. “We are reopening with the uncertainties of last year, but with more experience and even more confidence for guests. The unknowns concern what we cannot control, namely all aspects related to logistics and transportation.
The watchword is flexibility, there are few certainties to plan, but there is a great desire both on our part and that of customers. Even Americans, who are already booking, at least the vaccinated: there is some international flight, but these are things that we can not control, it takes coordination between governments and between Government and Region. The island is equipped, Capofaro is ideal, is a super popular destination because it has open spaces, private entrances to housing and huge common areas. We are ready and loaded, as well as operators and customers, but we must be flexible, as are the rules on reservations. There is a great desire for Sicily - concludes Alberto Tasca - and this means that in the past years we have worked very well.
Alessio Planeta, on the other hand, is happy first and foremost “for our employees, who need to get back to work and get back into the game, even with all the difficulties involved, also because all our places - the Foresteria but also the wineries - are trips that require programming, which is difficult, not to say impossible. There is optimism, because Sicily in summertime a year ago went very well, I hope people who have accumulated a need for wellness and relaxation will deseasonalize their habits and maybe in October and November someone will feel like extending their time. It's a minefield, for those who do tourism of a certain level, with the need for personnel and without improvising, organizing work from one day to the next, but from now on things can only improve”. There is room, finally, also for a criticism, not even too veiled, to a regulation too rigid, so much, as Alessio Planeta points out, to result in “the absurdity that a restaurateur, who obviously can only put the tables outside, in case of rain can not repair their customers inside. I understand that we need strict rules, but the rain is a fact, we need formulas for which in case of rain we can move inside, otherwise the life of restaurateurs becomes impossible. Every rainy day they risk losing more money by staying open than by staying closed...”.
In the heart of the Brunello di Montalcino territory, at Castello Banfi’s La Sala dei Grappoli Restaurant, “there is not yet a precise date for the restart, because we are waiting to understand what evolution the management of the spaces takes, between the indoor and the outdoor ones”, managing director Enrico Viglierchio tells WineNews. “As for Il Borgo, I think we will reopen between late May and early June, but we will only see American tourism again at the end of the summer. In my opinion, some signs will come as early as July, but only at the end of August will we return to talk about important numbers. The vaccination pass in Europe will play a very important role, as well as the evolution of the vaccination campaign in May. In any case, even if the situation should change in a positive way, the American tourist who has not yet booked is unlikely to come before September”.
At Borgo San Felice, among the hills of Chianti Classico, as the director Danilo Guerrini, president of the Italian delegation of Relais & Châteaux, explains, “we are coming from a prolonged hibernation, the arrival of spring has brought a tornado of emotions, in this period people have undergone a profound change, from the staff to the external guests, you can breathe the air of a new Humanism. We will reopen on June 15, and the choice is also in consideration of what is happening. We had decided on May 1, but the way things were going in February, we realized it wouldn’t make sense. So, we’re opening in greater safety, and we’re avoiding further economic trouble by opening in the midst of too much uncertainty”.
There is no shortage of reasons to believe in a real restart, “because it is easier today to find those who have had at least one dose of vaccine, and this restores confidence. In the meantime, agencies are coming back to visit us, and we are counting on extending the season, also in view of the post-harvest period: requests are concentrated between August and October. Europe and the U.S. are the markets that support us, but here 60% of our guests come from the European Union, and yesterday for the first time in a long time I saw cars with foreign license plates, a sign of a return to normality. Wine is an attraction for everyone, but in general, between the countryside and the coast, working in synergy with the other luxury structures, the trend is to restart between the end of May and June, and return to full capacity from August. In reality, to restore confidence needs relatively little, just a statement from a world leader to see the surge in bookings. Meanwhile, in the last four weeks, bookings at Tuscan properties in the Relais & Châteaux circuit have come in at 60% of 2019, which, however, was an extraordinary year. Even the restaurants - the Michelin-starred Poggio Rosso, with the kitchen of young chef Juan Camilo Quintero led by Enrico Bartolini, and Osteria del Grigio - restart from mid-June”.
Danilo Guerrini continues: “If the wave arrives, fine, but with caution, in the meantime we will open with 30 rooms and we will see, we have to guarantee the comfort of our guests. Regardless of the protocols, they must feel safe, because it is precisely this aspect, which we can guarantee without major problems, that strengthened the relationship with our customers last summer. I’m sure that everything will return to its place, even if in the geography, especially economic, of the world, something is changing. For Italy, I would like those in charge to take into consideration the fact that the whole world of tourism is worth well over 13% of GDP, people come to experience Italian style. There is a company that without investing a single euro is still the most famous in the world, Ferrari. We have extraordinary excellences, but we must remember that companies are made of people, and they create jobs, not politics. The wine producer, in our case, who hires, or the hotel that reopens. I would like there to be flexibility and modernity, we have the base to become a Formula 1 car”, concludes Danilo Guerrini.
In the Langhe, Palás Cerequio, the residence of the Michele Chiarlo brand, “we reopened on Friday, and the first weekend our 9 suites were already full”, says Stefano Chiarlo. “The sensations are positive, we also have a new chef, Damiano Nigro. There is a lot of desire to get back out there, especially in locations like ours, in the countryside and in the middle of the vineyards, which bring tranquility to people, who here are surrounded by nature and not by buildings. The climate is one of uncertainty, because Cuneo only turned yellow on Thursday anyway, so we didn't really know what to expect. There is a fundamental component of tranquility, which also marked the success of last summer, but it will be difficult to have tourists from outside Europe. In any case, we have the Northwest basin, that is Milan and Turin, which is not insignificant, from which we can start again. Many have discovered the Langhe and its level of services only in recent months, but it is good to remember - underlines Stefano Chiarlo - that there is not only food & wine, but many other initiatives, in a myriad of small structures throughout the Langa, which is what people are looking for at this stage. It would be nice if the real restart, even with non-European tourists, came with the Alba Truffle Fair...”.
On the island of Mazzorbo, in Venice, Venissa too, as director Matteo Bisol tells us, “has reopened its doors, as of Friday, with the restaurant. Obviously the service is only at lunchtime and outside, with the portico that protects us from the rain, there is plenty of room, at Venissa we always eat outside actually”. As for the hospitality side, “bookings in May will depend a lot on the weather, and in the evening obviously as a restaurant we will be operating also for outside guests, but those who stay here can eat inside. We have 18 rooms, and this ensures a certain continuity of work. The situation is difficult, we understand the reasons for certain decisions, just see what happened in Sardinia, we try to do our best within the boundaries of the law. The response is good, the rooms are filling up, as well as the restaurant in the evening. People are very keen to go out and eat out. We just hope we don’t have to go back on our steps, it takes attention, but it’s obvious that working like this is a pain”, concludes Matteo Bisol.
Remaining in Veneto, at least symbolically, given the many ramifications of the family business, for Pierangelo Tommasi that of restarts is “a difficult and complex subject. There are two souls, one that thinks about safety and health, that wonders if it is the right time to reopen, and I do not know this (but I have some fears, after a year lived like this), as a citizen before than as an entrepreneur. I hope for vaccination, and then the reopening should give me serenity. The other is that of the entrepreneur, and on that side I’m happy, because at Villa Quaranta, which we have also reopened to the outside, we have open spaces around the villa that we can exploit very well, let's just hope that the weather holds. And this is also true for Caffè Dante, in one of the most beautiful squares in Verona, Piazza dei Signori. I know that the Bottega del Vino is also reopening, with 25 outdoor seats: it’s a place that can influence people’s perceptions: the Veronese who see the Bottega open experience it as an incentive to return to live in the city. My entrepreneurial soul says, welcome to the restart, without complaining too much, welcome to the outside, hoping to be able to return soon to accommodate customers inside. If people feel free and safe, everything changes, we can breathe confidence again, also thanks to the beauty and charm of certain places. Tours are also starting again, between wine and bike and local tourism, combining wine tasting in the winery with green tourism. In Valpolicella, Paternoster and Casisano we will start again with tastings, obviously outdoors, hoping summer will come soon”, concludes Pierangelo Tommasi.
Returning to Tuscany, Giovanni Folonari in this last period has invested “a lot, hoping for a restart. We have gone ahead with the development of wines, we will be coming out with new products, and we have challenged ourselves by looking for alternative channels in Italy, without ever ceasing to support restaurateurs. We have not been able to regain what we have lost up until now, but we are holding on, the moment, even if we are starting again, is not easy, and the weather has certainly not been friendly, not even in the vineyard, thinking of the frosts that hit the newborn buds”. Investments that also concern “hospitality, because we want our clients to come and visit us at Borgo del Cabreo, but we have just finished the renovation of another farmhouse in Greve, which we will inaugurate on May 14th: the resort “La Pietra”, in a stupendous location and in a beautiful position. It’s a format that works, that of luxury, made up of spaces and comforts of a five-star hotel but in the middle of the countryside. There are potential customers, even among young Italians, so we wanted to enhance this old farmhouse. A lot of meat on the fire, but also a lot of cancellations”, Giovanni Folonari points out.
“Last year, even though we worked 3 months less, and reduced prices, we still worked a lot. I see that the restaurants, where they can work, are packed, so we expect a lot from the season that has just begun. The concern is for young people, who are impatient and less attentive: we need to be careful, or we risk going back to square one. If that doesn’t happen, and if heat and vaccines do their part, then yes, we can start again with confidence. At the moment, we don't have many reservations, but we are on the right track, and I am convinced that in a couple of weeks we will start to move something important”, concludes Giovanni Folonari.
Andrea Machetti, director of Mastrojanni, which in Montalcino is also a relais and restaurant, sees “some signs of recovery, with bookings that have begun to arrive in an interesting way as early as this weekend. The moment, a bit like we saw a year ago, is the one in which many feel like going out, going back out and eating out. Certainly here spaces are not lacking, and anyway those who stay with us have always had the possibility to eat. However, even if we could put some tables outside during the day, at the moment it’s still cold, so it’s a risk we prefer not to take for now. On the arrival countries front, there are reservations from the United States, but from September, waiting for the water to calm down. The situation is still complex and full of uncertainties”, concludes Andrea Machetti.
Francesco Sorelli, Ruffino’s communication manager, is more sceptical about the reopening procedures. “This is a sectarian reopening, because many people are not allowed to restart: in Florence, the majority of restaurants do not have outdoor spaces, and many have been living a very difficult situation since last summer. As Ruffino we are privileged, we have guaranteed small conviviality for thousands of years, we have natural distances and enormous outdoor spaces. Le Tre Rane is our inn, with a pergola and a loggia, so we will open it, but only for lunch, because the curfew at 10 pm does not allow us to host those who come from outside in the right time and manner for dinner. We have a nice store to make aperitifs, or rather dinner snacks, sitting in the loggia, in the park or in the grove, with the best glasses of Ruffino and accompanying dishes, from burger to schiacciapizza”. In view, there is also the restoration “of tours and wine tasting, but in reduced mode. From May 7, the hotel will also reopen, hoping for the first tourists, who I imagine will only be Italian. To see the Americans again, we will probably have to wait until September, but November could turn out to be a sort of April/May. So we hope for continuity from June to Christmas, working even in the months usually of low affluence. The turning point, however, will come only in 2022, and in the meantime a lot of European tourism that we saw last summer and that we will see again, is not very healthy”, concludes Francesco Sorelli.
Moving to the North East, in Collio, Ornella Venica is “regaining enthusiasm for the idea that sentiment is returning positive for others, even if the reopening so, with these hours and only outdoors, is more than halved. After the difficulties of the last year many will not reopen, and vaccinations are still behind in many regions. We are still closed with our Wine Resort: we offer only breakfast, at lunch and dinner our guests have to go out, but where, if it is cold outside at 22 they have to go back? We are an agritourism, we haven’t been offering food for a long time, and our choice was born in harmony with the territory: everyone has to do what he does best, without getting carried away, otherwise we would destroy the social and economic balance of Collio, which instead needs to be experienced by everyone. In this way, however, I can’t offer a service, so I’ll be closed at least until June”. With visits, however, Ornella Venica has already started again, “but staying outside and with all the protocols of last year”.

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