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Profile: Marilisa Allegrini and Leonardo LoCascio

International PR Director
Allegrini Azienda Agricola
President & CEO
Winebow Imports, New Jersey

Pair a remarkably successful importer
with an expert from a distinguished
6th-generation Verona wine family and you find this dynamic couple.  Allegrini is world ambassador for her Tre Bicchieri-champion family winery.  LoCascio was awarded Importer of the Year for 2OO9 by wine enthusiast.  At the recent Boston Wine Expo, both conducted elucidating seminars.  Allegrini gave a thorough, clear explication of modern methods in making Veneto’s unique Valpolicella and Amarone through a humidity-controlled drying process.  LoCascio celebrated a panorama of Italian wines of grace and power (eg: Il Carbonaione mountain-grown Sangiovese; 2OO4 San Polo Brunello di Montalcino; La Sondraia’s crunchy, spicy Cabernet Franc; Mastroberardino’s Taurasi; Bruno Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili; Allegrini Amarone).  La Sondraia is the flagship wine of the couple’s jointly-owned property in Bolgheri.

EUREKA MOMENTS MARILISA ALLEGRINI When I was a child, I liked sweet wine; my father was committed to making a great Recioto, and that’s the first wine I loved.  LEONARDO LoCASCIO When I was a kid in Sicily, a glass of wine with meals was like a glass of water.  It was a very natural thing, you know, part of the ritual of eating.  When I got into the wine business, my first real revelations were Alsatian whites and red Burgundies – those were the first I could recognize!  Pinot Noir’s easy to identify; Gewürztraminer, Riesling – I got those.  The pleasure you find in a glass of wine increases immeasurably when you feel like you’re getting a handle on it.

NO ROYAL ROAD? LL After I got a degree from NYU and an MBA from University of Chicago, I was on a trajectory into the financial world, in corporate finance for Rockwell International, with consultants McKinsey & Co, and finally for Citibank’s credit card division.  It became clear to me that everything in this country is highly competitive, and if you want to get ahead you really have to work very hard.  That’s when I decided that I wanted to work for myself and to combine financial success with a pleasurable lifestyle.  I came from a family of entrepreneurs – I’d seen my father build his own small business.  So I looked for something that appealed to me both as a business and a product.  It came down to ceramics or wine, and eventually, wine. 

WINE IN THE BLOOD LL My grandfather was involved in the wine business as a barrel-maker, both oak and chestnut.  My cousin still runs his company, which moved from Sicily to Calabria.  It was a different story for Marilisa.  MA Yes, I am sixth generation Allegrini, but my first choice wasn’t to work for the family company.  I had two brothers, and in Italy it’s the sons who were more important in that way, so Walter was in charge of vineyards and Franco with vinification.  But my father really wanted me involved, so he pushed and I went back to the winery, first in administration, then in sales and PR.  I went on the road right away, and not in Italy – I wanted something more challenging and where I could see immediate results.  I made my first short trip to Switzerland and then to New York.  I learned a lot – I had to be precise about facts about the wines and my family.  You have to communicate all that there is behind a bottle of wine.  At the beginning I smiled a lot.  LL She still does. 

UNDERRATED VARIETALS MA Corvina is fantastic – wonderful – when planted in the right chalky soil conditions.  It’s found in Verona and Bardolino.  Its characteristics are aromas of cherry and mild tannin.  You can make it simple like Valpolicella, or you can go through the drying process and make Amarone.  LL We’re still figuring out the best of Italy’s 8OO varietals.  I’ll tell you that I like Verdicchio.  I’ve tasted some exciting ones, especially unoaked and from the Marche, which have a real capacity to age well with interesting tertiary flavors and aromas.  Another exciting varietal is Vermentino; interesting aromatics but can age for several years with a Riesling-like character that develops after 6 to 9 months.  I like Montepulciano – its cherry aromas and flavors have real character.  People are waking up to the beauties of Aglianico and Nero d’Avola.  In Spain, Verdejo shows promise when you crop to low yields.  And we both love Touriga Nacional [the principal red grape in Port.]

HORIZONS & HEMISPHERES LL My reasons were both business-driven and personal for expanding our portfolio into new global wine regions.  Learning about Spanish and Portuguese wines was very challenging – and fun!  Like Italy, they have many indigenous varietals.  The Mediterranean story for America goes way beyond Italy, I think, but until recently, it was hard to find good Spanish restaurants.  Now there are lots of tapas bars and regional restaurants.  This was an area under-served by importers, as opposed to brokers.  Brokers handle the wines, but don’t really resolve the issues for wineries, who need partners in the market, who’ll buy the wines – take actual ownership – and thus have vested interests in promoting them. 

JOINT VENTURE MA We looked for a coastal project in Tuscany, and decided on Bolgheri.  It’s beautiful landscape, close to the sea, with great potential for exciting wines.  We put together a piece of land and then planted at Poggio al Tesoro.  Cabernet Franc proved our best choice.  LL It’s a big project – 17O acres, 12O planted.  Sangiovese does not do well in Bolgheri – the soil’s too rich, the grape too vigorous.  Bunches in test rows weighed, no exaggeration, three kilos!  Cabernet and Merlot are better suited.  MA Our winemaker’s from Vinci, Alberto Antonini, an agronomist from Bolgheri, is selecting clones.  LL The wines so far are W, Dedicated to Walter (1OO% Cabernet Franc), La Sondraia (blend), Mediterra (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah), Cassiopeia (Rosato), Solo Sole (1OO% unoaked Vermentino).

IMPORT & DISTRIBUTE LL We’ve always imported wines from South America and Europe.  Over time, we built good relationships.  It was the wineries who asked us to take them national, to go on the road in America to various US markets.  We opened our seventh market in Chicago in February. 

STRATEGIES FOR UNDERPERFORMERS LL We’ve made a big investment in education.  I have four full-time educators; our sales force and office staff need to become fully versed in wine.  There’s an entrance examination when they’re hired, and two-weeks training on our portfolio before they go out on the street.  They earn credits during the year, whether taking courses, self-study on our web-sites, visiting wineries and sites, or taking tests.  Managers must have formal hours of education every year; we reward them on how well their employees do earning credits.  People have interest and passion – or they don’t.  For example, learning about medicine never stops – just because you earn a degree and practice doesn’t mean you stop learning.  Wine is not medicine, but it’s an ever-evolving field, always new areas, vintages, varietals, to learn about.  As a consumer, I don’t like sales-people trying to sell me something they don’t know much about.  Our system weeds out under-performers and encourages those interested in learning to grow, becoming more professional.  MA We’re looking at other markets – Asia for example, where wine is just a status symbol – they really want to learn, so we must teach them, and we send a representative to instruct their sommeliers about our wines. 
MA Consumers want stories – we’re lucky in Italy because we have a long history with lots of beautiful monuments, art and culture.  So it’s easy.  You ask about La Grola?  It’s named for a bird, a blackbird.  One legend tells that a farmer who owned the vineyard of white grapes found an injured bird and nursed it to health.  To thank the farmer, the bird transformed the white grapes to red, that is, corvina.  [The word translates to ‘little raven’ or ‘crow’.]  When we celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of La Grola last year, we published a book with this story.  At La Poja, a 7-acre tabletop (pojana), we tried to identify the best clone and planted only Corvina Gentile. 

WHAT CONSUMERS WANT: Overachievers! LL Not so much as low price-points, consumers are looking for wines that over-deliver.  If they spend $2O, they want a $4O wine, and so on.  You can get people to buy wines that aren’t exactly cheap, as long as they make a big statement.  Italy in many ways is in a sweet spot, because we have a lot of great wines between $15 and $25, compared with other countries.  Think about California – lots of great wines, but how many any more are below $25?  Italy also has an immense number of varietals to hold consumer interest.  Look, I’m a consumer first and an importer second.  I don’t want to drink the same wines everyday.  I want to range wide, experiment, try new tastes.  I think many consumers are like that – they hear about Vermentino, Passerina, eventually they’re going to try it.  It’s no coincidence that wine consumption is steadily growing in this country; the fact that it’s still only about one-third that of European nations shows remarkable growth potential. 

WHAT’S GOOD IN ’O9?  MA Some markets did well, especially in the second half of the year.  Best markets New York, Hong Kong, Singapore.  The 2OO5 Amarone came out nicely between two big years, despite some late harvest rain.  LL Malbec has shown a shift of historical proportions for this Argentine grape.  The market has exploded and we’re right there representing three superior producers – Catena, Nieto and Punto Final, all on fire.  We’ve sold 15O,OOO cases of those three wines, and that’s a relatively new business for us.
OTHER DOORS LL We’ve entered the Austrian market, wines I’ve always loved as a consumer – Gruner Veltliner, Zweigelt, Rieslings.  When Vin Divino decided to concentrate on its Italian portfolio, Seth Allen left and joined us with their Austrian wines (Loimer among others).  In white wines I always look for flavor, that’s why I love Alsace, and Austria measures up with good length, minerality and great with food. 

LATEST TRAVELS LL We were recently in Lima and tasted a very good Peruvian wine!  We inquired about their export, but they make little as yet . . .

BIZ KIDS MA I have two daughters, one studying medicine in Firenze, the other keen on wine.  LL Even when Caterina was a little girl, she’d finish school and run to the winery.  MA Now she’s 18, and spends her summers in the office; she’s studying philosophy, the classics, and wants to be in communications, saying, ‘I don’t like numbers’.  LL My son Claudio graduated from Dartmouth in economics and Japanese, and speaks the language.  When he found out Winebow was adding sake to the roster, he said to me, ‘Why don’t you make me brand manager?  Then I won’t go to Wall Street!’  So I did.  Claudio has now taken courses in brewing and tasting sake.  He may try to open his own sake brewery.  Thanks to him, we have six sake producers in our portfolio, five of which are new to the US.  My other kids are involved in homeopathic medicine, film-making and Wall Street. 

DEFYING CONVENTION LL Marilisa and I both like challenges, and this is our biggest challenge yet!  We intersect on so many levels.  We have our personal life together, a partnership in wineries, and an importer/supplier relationship, so our pillow talk is very interesting!  [Both laugh.]  There are times when things get testy, but we surprise ourselves – and others – by making it work.  My grandmother said, ‘never mix business and pleasure;’ it’s an old wisdom we’re trying to defy.