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Trentino With a Twist

Stefano Girelli’s mission is to put the wines of Trentino on the map. He tells Charlotte Hey that if you want to succeed, it is not enough just to be the best – you have to be different

Stefano Girelli is a man on a mission. Not necessarily a mission impossible, but one that some, in the current market, may see as a rather difficult one. Girelli wants to put Trentino on the global vinous map in a meaningful and commercial way. He admits that this objective is in some way a result of the acquisition of his family company Casa Girelli by the local cooperative La Vis, but he is also quite sure that key markets are becoming ready for what Trentino has to offer.

La Vis, a medium-sized cooperative based on the outskirts of Trento, purchased Girelli’s family company, Casa Girelli, in early 2005. However the Girelli family still retains a small shareholding in its Chianti property Villa Carfaggio and total control of Santa Teresa in Sicily. According to Girelli there were a lot of similarities between the two companies who had already worked together on various projects for a number of years. On top of that, as he openly admits, the cooperative made him an offer he could not refuse. “We have a saying, ‘Il treno pasa una volta sola’ (which loosely translated means ‘the train passes by only once’),” he smiles, but admits, “It was an opportunity strategically, but it was not an easy decision, ours being a family company. But if you want to be entrepreneurial then you have to think in terms of the interests of the company and how it will develop in the future.” Within Italy this is a unique situation. To have a family-owned company focused totally on marketing coming together with a cooperative that has spent a lot of time and investment on its production facilities and quality of product is rare.

The whole idea is to retain their individual strong identities. “The last thing we want is for all the brands to be merged into one,” says Girelli. “We do have brands that work across the portfolio like Canaletto, but that is a different sales proposition. The separate companies will retain their own strategy. Casa Girelli will always be the commercial side, very market-oriented and focused on developing the brands. La Vis, however, will always be about Trentino and its wines – no compromise.”

The new association with La Vis meant that the two companies had to readdress their key strategies. The region’s raw materials, it seemed to Girelli, provided them with what seemed like a natural starting point. “Trentino is known, but not much past the buyers’ level,” he explains. “We have so much to offer and discover in terms of Trentino as a new region within Italy it would be commercially quite absurd not to exploit what we have on our doorstep.”

Girelli is not deluding himself that this is going to be an easy task and he is quite aware of the fashion for reds and southern Italian producing regions. But he feels that there is a market change afoot. “The south is perfect for some of the wines, but I think this red fashion has plateaued. The market is now looking for interesting white wines. There’s a lot of interesting red wines out there, but when it comes to white it’s a different story.
“Pinot Grigio has undoubtedly been one of our success stories in Italy, he continues, “precisely because the consumer was starting to look for something different to Chardonnay. Fashion changes, one varietal loses out to another. Look at the steady rise of Sauvignon Blanc. In the same way I see that the styles of wine are beginning to change. Consumers are already looking for more complexity, more restraint in their wines and Trentino certainly produces those kinds of whites naturally – it is beginning to start to do it with the reds too.”

New opportunities
Girelli continues, becoming more animated, “And who is driving this? The buyer, of course. The buyer is constantly saying ‘Give me something new to sell, I don’t want another Chardonnay.’ We have to give them a reason to sell.”

In Girelli’s experience the most difficult market is the US, the most competitive market in the world, where it is not unusual for distributors to have 37 different Pinot Grigios on the list. “So when you turn up and say ‘I’d like you to sell my Pinot’ they say, ‘Why?’ The challenge is to give them the reason, to be different. You can’t just be the best; best price, best location. You have to give them a selling proposition that makes sense on the market, that is appealing to the consumer.”

Girelli feels that he has the commercial advantage over his major competitors. “We have the luxury of being able to come to the market without having to take any short cuts. Since the merger of our two companies both of which have been successful in their own right, we now have the structure to succeed.”

He also has the advantage of being the first to go to market with the idea. Putting Trentino “on the map” will hopefully reap the commercial benefits for his company under the almost altruistic guise of being semi-generic. Not that Girelli would put it quite like that because he is more than aware of his company’s responsibility to its growers. “Of course we have other commercial objectives, and while our plan for Trentino is not a necessity, it is one that we are committed to for the long term. Having part of the business as a cooperative means that we have to look at the needs of the 1,300 members. That’s a large number of people in our area. We have to make sure we promote the region because that will have a direct social effect.”

Taste, taste, taste
Listening to Girelli, charming, softly-spoken with a slight American lilt to his English,
you could be quite easily convinced that Trentino, Müller Thurgau, top-end Pinot Grigio and its own special Chardonnay are going to explode onto our shelves soon. But the reality is that his products, however well made, are going to have to perform in a crowded market.

Girelli, like any man with a personal and commercial crusade, is not daunted. “First of all we have to explain why we are different and introduce the concept of the region.” He’s really getting into his stride now. “What is Australia trying to do? They are looking to get away from Australia as a wine-selling country and get the consumer to concentrate on the regions. We have to sell Trentino, the region, which incidentally is in Italy. It’s not easy. But if we get a retailer, a multiple specialist, to get behind the concept then we will have a start.”

His enthusiasm is quite infectious. “We want to get the consumer tasting, tasting, tasting. If we get the wine in front of people I am certain that there is no way that they are not going to like what they are drinking. If I could invest the money with a retailer – a Sainsbury’s, a Majestic – on Friday afternoon in-store tastings then that’s what I’d do. That’s what I feel would work.”

As one of those buyers reading this statement you may get the feeling he’s selling to you. Right now. Well, he is. He wants to make his mission work. Marketing, selling, promoting is constant. He knows that this method of promotion is not the cheapest way to increase sales but he believes that tasting is the only way to show the difference and in his opinion you can only do that by opening bottles.

Girelli has a quiet determination. You may not notice it at first but it won’t take long and, therefore it would be logical to conclude that it’s not going to be too long before his mission is accomplished.

But Girelli’s gameplan is not about volume, he and his newly formed company are not looking to sell hectolitres upon hectolitres of juice. “Really we have to do a good positioning job. Growth has to be solid, so we start to get good distribution, but we have to be in the right places that allow us to position our wines at the right price levels, because the last thing we want to do is give the wine away.” Pragmatically, he concludes, “We will protect our prices with a range that is focused, easy to understand and restricted in SKUs at a limited number of price bands.”

Generically minded
You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking at this point that La Vis, Casa Girelli, Trentino and the regions’ growers are quite lucky to have a man like Girelli around. His determination and passion do not just stop at his company and his region. He has some pretty strong views on the state of the Italian category too. And while Italian wines have managed to maintain share in key markets he believes that there are challenging times ahead.

Italy is facing a difficult time, he states. “Our number-one product, Pinot Grigio, exploded onto the market but it will soon be a victim of its own success. The Australians and the Californians have jumped on that bandwagon. The amount of Pinot Grigio being planted in California is scary and in three or four years it is calculated that those plantings will be enough to satisfy the total US demand for the varietal.” Which, of course, will have serious implications for the category in that market. Girelli’s point is, however, that although the Italians have generally been fast to respond to fortunes of fickle fashion in the past, in the light of strong global competition the DOC system is forcing Italian exporters into a commercially disadvantageous position.

“We have to be able to deliver value in our wines, we have to rationalise our production and cut down on costs,” he opines. “We are also challenged constantly by the restrictions of the DOC system. Legislation is sometimes frustrating. One big issue is bottling. On one hand the world is becoming global and you have to be able to react and, while there are always ways round it, we seem to be fighting with one arm tied behind our back.

“Current legislation limits bottling to the area of distribution only, under the premise of protecting the quality, but this is not always true. What it does is limit the potential of that region. Frascati is going down that route and all it will do is restrict its ability to deliver in the market. The New World producers must be having a big laugh at our expense. We need to be flexible – think about Stelvin. Chianti has to be bottled with cork; if you want to go with Stelvin, because the market is asking for it, you have to apply to the DOC. Which equates to a lot of bureaucracy, which means we are losing opportunities because the bureaucracy is so complicated.

“Bag-in-box is another one – you can’t put DOC wine in bag-in-box in Italy. You have to ship the liquid to the UK and do it there. That has a direct cost implication. How limiting is that in markets like Scandinavia? The market is changing and we have to be able to respond.”

However limits and restrictions do not register on Girelli’s radar. Possibilities and opportunities are what make him tick. “I feel very fortunate to work in the world of wine. It’s always presenting challenges, no one vintage is the same and you always have to be constantly adapting in order to deliver a return on your investment.”

So is his mission to push Trentino just another opportunity? “Perhaps,” he muses. “Opportunity or mission, I’m going to do my best to make it work.”  db February 2006

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