FRANCIACORTA, Italy--Maurizio Zanella is the owner of one of Franciacorta's biggest wineries (Ca' del Bosco). More importantly, he is the public face of the entire region in his role as president of the 106-member Consorzio per la tutela del Franciacorta, the technical and marketing umbrella organization which hosted our group of American wine writers and sommeliers for the past week.
In his designer suit and handmade loafers, Zanella embodies the casual stylishness of high-fashion Italy (and Franciacorta, with roots that go back eight centuries, is the official wine of Milan Fashion Week). He's also an articulate student of history and a persuasive leader.
We sat down with Zanella this past week and realized that the Franciacorta story essentially tells itself, but only if it's a message that comes with the single voice. We're not mind readers, but we can imagine hearing him address all 106 growers in the Consorzio:
"My brothers and sisters, we are gathered here in these ancient spaces to fulfill the destiny of our generation: to grow the wine of this special place between the Alps and the plain.
"As you can see, I am speaking to you today from the 12th century monastery, so you know that I understand the importance of tradition. Tomorrow I will be in Milano, where Franciacorta is the official wine of the high fashion runways. We are at the leading edge of the modern but we know where we came from.
"In the cellars of our cantinas, tens of millions of bottles of Franciacorta await their disgorging. Yet we are vastly outnumbered by Prosecco at home and Champagne abroad. My brothers and sisters, we must be strong, and the purity of our wines will give us the strength we need.
"The French make so much Champagne they have to sell four out of five bottles in supermarkets and warehouse stores. Not Franciacorta!
"On the other hand Franciacorta sells three out of four bottles close to home, in Lombardia, Veneto, Emilia Romagna and Piemonte. With our production increasing and our own economy slowing down, we must find new markets.
"It will not happen overnight, but unless we continue the pioneering efforts we have undertaken over the past few years to increase our exports, it will not happen at all.
"My brothers and sisters, we cannot be successful if merely match the competition. We must be better. Our story is the story of quality, and so I am going to ask you today to dig into your pockets once more in the name of quality.
"Over the past several years, the Discipinario [the official protocol that governs the production of Franciacorta wines--RH] has allowed us to press 65 liters of wine per quintal [100 kg, or 220 lbs]. In the name of quality, in the name of Franciacorta, we will now reduce this to 60 liters. To some, this is counter-intuitive. You want us to produce less when you are also telling us we must sell more? Yes, I say. Because we will not sell more unless we are always getting better. We can never be the best sparkling wine region in the world unless, at every step, we insist on only the best.
"My brothers and sisters, we must also be vigilant at home.
"Our territory, this Fanciacorta, covers 20,000 hectares. It is not much. We lie in a favored position with the wind of the Alps coming down the Val Camonica and across Lago Iseo keep our vineyards and grapes cool and their juice fresh. It is precisely this magnificent climate that draws visitors from abroad and vacationers from all of Italy. They build hotels and vacation houses. The most famous chefs come here to open restaurants serving fresh fish from our mountain lakes. Tourism provides jobs, as does our traditional base of light industry. Many of you came to wine from the prosperity of those family-run business ventures. But success brings its own challenges: there is not enough space in Franciacorta for everyone to grow.
"Our vineyards cover almost 3,000 hectares today, and if we are to follow our plan of growth, we will need almost 4,000. We can reclaim the ancient vineyards on the hillside terraces, but we will need even more land. We will not play the trick of the Champenois and simply expand the boundaries of our Franciacorta. That would betray eight centuries of tradition
"So we must remain vigilant. We do not want to plant vineyards on fields that our currently planted in corn, for it is bottomland without interest. We must remind our municipal councils who would take land for parks that it could become a vineyard instead. We must argue our case from an economic standpoint, and your Consorzio has prepared statistics to show how important the wine business has become in Franciacorta. It was not always like this, because our wines have not always been as good or as famous. This is simply another reason we cannot afford to be anything less than the best.
"Indeed today out of 106 members of the Consorzio, fewer than 20 of us are present in markets outside of Italy. We understand that it takes money to build an export market. But you can also expand your markets by promoting yourselves in new ways to Franciacorta's many outside visitors. The Consorzio will soon be expanding its program of rotating the popular Cantina Aperta open house weekends that guarantees tourists the opportunity of a visit to our cellars, even when your turn falls on a weekend when you might rather go to the beach.
"Names are important, I don't have to tell you. We are wine, yes, even sparkling wine. But we are more than that: we are Franciacorta. And we have never taken the easy way. We do this not because we are crazy but because we want to be better. Franciacorta is not a soft drink, and we can never compete with regions like Prosecco or Champagne on price. For us, the cetral point of Franciacorta must be focused on one thing only: quality in the glass.
"And so, in honor of those who strove so hard to achieve excellence, and with the resolve to continue their work, let us raise our glasses to the great sparkling wines of Franciacorta. Salute!"