Feudo Principi di Butera and the miracle of wine

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“It was soon after the war. Everything started from the china, a roborant bitter liqueur, an after-dinner drink with digestive properties, homemade by Uncle Domenico from the bark of the fine Cinchona calisaya, native to the tropical  Andes  forests of South America.   Uncle Domenico, needing to feed the family, decided to try and sell it. He recycled two used bottles, filled them with the china, and two used corks. Too little money, and he had to survive. So, Uncle Domenico and his china went on a tour of the bars and shops of the region. China had a good taste, everybody liked it but, nobody bought it. Something was wrong. Depressed but not disheartened, he had to find a solution. Uncle Domenico soon understood the problem was the two bottles and the two corks. Used. Too much used. With them, the china had  no sales appeal. Somehow he raised a little money to buy brand new bottles and corks. With his flavoursome china, his clean new bottles and new hope, Uncle Domenico went again on a tour. Buying orders began to pour in.” Andrea Zonin stops talking and sips a glass of Brut sparkling wine.

Sitting down at the table in the guest quarters of the Feudo Principi di Butera estate in Sicily, Andrea Zonin, a big boy with clear eyes, a demure politeness, simple words and great pride, tells the story of Uncle Domenico and how, with this man from the small village of Gambellara, located in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region, begins the long adventure of the Zonins, one of the most important and successful wine families in Italy.

Listening to his simple words, I think Uncle Domenico’s story can be raised to the status of a rudimentary marketing management class. What did uncle Domenico do if not create, communicate, deliver and exchange something that had value for its customers, clients, partners, and society at large[1]? I guess Professor Philip Kotler, the marketing guru, would have been proud of him. And, Domenico, in pursuing his business dream, would have lived up to Professor Kotler’s expectations.

This is an Italian story.
Better to say, this was an Italian story, as it tells us of a different Italy, that postwar country where dreams might still come true. Something which is hard to believe nowadays, the country being stuck for ages, from an economic, social and even cultural point of view.

Uncle Domenico, the farsighted Zonin revolutionary man, considering the mounting success of his china, soon decided to convert the family land to grape growing and wine making. Postwar reconstruction put Italy on its way to well-being and prosperity.  It was in this period, at the beginning of the ‘60s, that Gianni Zonin was placed beside his uncle Domenico for the purpose of  co-managing the family business, soon becoming its president and CEO. With his quality but affordable products and innovative marketing strategies in the wine business, the Zonin wine making took off and nowadays the family business, with the fresh push of Gianni’s sons Francesco, Domenico and Michele, still grows and develops.

A journey through the Zonin’s estates is a journey through the Italian peninsula, from North to South. Friuli, Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont, Tuscany, Apulia, Sicily.  The journey continues overseas, in the United States, where in the ’70s Gianni Zonin bought the historical Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia. The American Dream, Italian style.

From the Gambellara estate in Veneto, the Zonins came to Sicily in 1997. They bought 320 hectares in the province of Caltanissetta, an estate belonging to the ancient Deliella fief, in the very heart of Sicily, definitely one of the most underdeveloped and  unknown areas of the island, even for the Sicilians.

To be honest, as soon as the news fell into the public domain, I had a dull rush of anger, a typical Sicilian parochial rebellion act, as briefly violent as fleeting. I was much younger, at that time. “Well, let’s continue to be dominated, again and again, over the centuries. Are not we able to produce some good wine?”  I thought.

Prejudice and a bit of sincere dislike. This was what the Zonins caused me. Usurpers of  Sicilian land and wine. Yes, I was much younger, at that time.

The 320 hectares of the estate, of which 180 grow with vines, located about 10 km from the coastline, enjoy an exceptional climate and an exclusive terroir[2] .  Dry weather and high temperatures in spring and summer provide optimal conditions for vine growing and the perfect maturation of the grapes.

At Feudo Principi di Butera, vintage usually begins the third week of August and ends the first week of October. The Chardonnay grape is the first to be harvested, then the red Syrah and the Merlot, followed by the Insolia and the Cabernet Sauvignon and eventually the symbol of the Sicilian oenological spring, the Nero d’Avola.

Here tones of ochre dominate the landscape. It is the barren soil of the gentle hills surrounding the winery, with the rows of vines still bare from winter. Men are at work in the vineyards, checking the soil and pruning the vines. Ochre is the colour of the modern cellar, built without disfiguring the typical countryside landscape of the area.

In a corner of the perfectly organized barrel area, a marble plaque looks out from beneath and sounds like a promise. “On the day of the opening ceremony of the new cellars, here are placed for aging and sealed by the notary Mr Salvatore Romano 24 bottles of Calat – Merlot 2000, 24 bottles of SanRocco –Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, 24 bottles of Deliella –Nero d’Avola 2000, obtained from the first vintage in the fief and set aside to be tasted on May 25th, 2025 in memory of this event. Gianni and Silvana Zonin, XXV May MMII.”

A promise for an excellent wine.

At the table, the atmosphere lies still, held back between the discretion and the caution which people from the north (them) and the south (me) of Italy have in common but use differently. The conversation still languishes, despite the excellent welcome flute of Brut Ca’ Bolani sparkling wine. Ca’ Bolani is one of the Zonins’ eight wine estates in Italy.

Four people sit down at the table: Andrea Zonin and Francesco Fologin, the manager of Feudo Principi di Butera, a bearded native of Friuli, his look apparently stern, definitely a man of few words.  The two sit opposite Irene Milazzo, the estate hospitality manager, and myself. The table is laid with typical Sicilian home cooking tidbits and a beautiful hand-made ceramic set decorated with the typical blue and yellow bright colours of  Caltagirone, a town 70 km southwest of Catania, world famous for the production of pottery, particularly maiolica, terracotta wares and sculptures and artistic renditions of ceramics.

Appetizers come with a properly chilled Surya, the Chardonnay wine of the estate. It is Andrea who breaks the ice with his spontaneous account of the family story. The atmosphere is now easier and more relaxed. Is there anything good food and good wines can’t allow people to do?

“Deliella and Symposium are our top range wines” says Francesco, pouring the Deliella into my glass, the award-winning Nero d’Avola washing down our superb homonymous risotto.

I have to drive but the excuse to keep the alcohol level low and arrive safely back home does not hold well among wine makers of north Italian origins. I don’t have the heart to say to my gracious hosts the problem is not driving. I have a bad, long-lasting intolerance to red wine.

The red ruby colour is deep, the smell is fragrant, heady. For the first time in years, I coyly raise my glass to my lips. And, for the first time in years, the smell is not upsetting. Its taste is enticing and the coy moistening of my lips turns into a surprising sip. Long. Full. And delicious. No allergic symptoms. My interlocutors keep talking to me, oblivious to the possible dangers of that gesture of mine.  From their serene expression I deduce no anaphylactic shock is going to beat me black and blue.

The shy act turns into an evident challenge. I persevere in this unexpected personal adventure tasting the Symposium, a blend of international grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot.  Two glasses and still no signs of trouble. I am safe.

Suddenly the skyline disappears and a new world opens up to me. Red wine is no longer an unaware enemy but a brand new and long-lasting friend.  Oh, yes.  That bottle of Symposium contains a premonition, a presentiment, a prophecy, not only an excellent wine. Symposium comes from the ancient Greek symposion, meaning “to drink together.” A good omen for me.
It is with the last sip of Symposium that I decide I have to recover the many lost years of great red wine, somehow. And, the initial prejudice about the Zonin’s world and adventure in Sicily which affected my youth is now gratitude and awe.

The miracle of wine has occurred.

[1] The Definition of Marketing. American Marketing Association “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large. (Approved October 2007)

[2] Terroir comes from the French word terre “land”. The term is used to denote certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment – from a geography, geology and climate point of view – has had on the local production giving it a unique “sense of the place”.