The Hugel Family, Alsace, France
Wine is one of the world’s oldest beverages and many of today’s iconic winemaking families are living archives of centuries of hardship, joy, pain, and success. What do these families with their generations of experience think about today’s pandemic and how do they view the future? I asked the members of Primum Familiae Vini, (“Leading Wine Families”), an international association of 12 legendary winemaking families, to share their thoughts on our global crisis in light of the historic challenges their ancestors faced. The challenges may have been different for each family (from plague to war) but the themes are universal: a willingness to reinvent and pivot to the new normal, and a commitment to endure. For many, their greatest achievements were born in adversity. Their thoughts, edited for brevity, reflect an unflinching assessment of the situation coupled with a remarkable, resolute positivity that focuses on the long view. “Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror, just keep going, no feeling is final.”—Rilke
What challenges did your ancestors face in the past and how did they overcome them?
Albiera Antinori, President of Marchesi Antinori, (Italy): Our family has a long history in Florence andour ancestors lived through the Plague of 1348, in which Florence’s population was reduced by 60% by 1350. Our family was ‘forced’ to abandon its trading activities of silk wool and banking so we focused our energy in managing the country estates we had around Florence. In 1385 Giovanni di Piero Antinori inscribed himself in the Vintners Guild and made wine and vineyard growing our only activity. So, there is a good example of success after some terrible times.
Robert Drouhin, former CEO Maison Joseph Drouhin, President of Control Board (France): Our winery survived two world wars, a terrible fire that destroyed some 200,000 bottles, and an internal financial crisis in 1993. We came out stronger, better organized, and more cohesive as a family. The common lessons of these past challenges are now cited as examples to our children: cohesion of the family, physical and moral help of the women, faithfulness of customers, local support of our colleagues, and moral values.
Jean Frédéric Hugel, Export Director at Famille Hugel (France): Because of our location near Germany’s border our winery has been through wars, changes of nationality, and epidemics. Our ancestors survived; they adapted, but never compromised on quality, never took the easy path, and always kept a long-term vision. When the constant back and forth between France and Germany put the economy of the region on its knees, Jean, and his son,(who is my great grandfather), decided in 1937 to embark on a trip that required five different planes to establish our brand in Australia. Jean, when he passed away, had already paid for the inheritance tax over two generations! Always hope for the best, but be ready for the worst, that could well be our motto. Quite helpful as we speak, I must admit, and looking back gives us strength and motivation to look ahead.
Paul Symington, former CEO Symington Family Estates (Portugal): The twelve wine families that make up the PFV are well used to emergencies and crisis. We all grew up hearing stories from our parents and grandparents of what happened in World War I and World War II, and other great international emergencies such as the Great Depression of 1929-1933. Many wine companies had an incredibly tough time from the start of the Depression in 1929 all the way through to the 1960’s. What is very true is that if you stick to your guns through these tough times, you are much, much, better placed when the recovery eventually happens, which it will of course.
Miguel Torres Maczassek, Managing Director of the Familia Torres (Spain)—This year we are 150 years old as a winery, and all five generations had to work hard and adapt to some very tough situations and events. For example, the bombardment of our winery towards the end of the Civil War in 1939, which destroyed an important part of our winery. At the time my grandfather suddenly had two big problems: he had less capacity to make and store wine and at the same time he needed money to finance the reconstruction of the winery. My grandparents had to leave on a long trip (over a year long) to find new markets for our wines.
Nicolo Incisa della Rocchetta from Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia)
Tenuta San Guido
Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta, President of Tenuta San Guido (Italy): Talking about our own experience, we could say that we have been lucky in the past century. A crisis like this one we are experiencing in these days never really occurred in Bolgheri. Our family estate managed to survive during World War II. In fact, it is precisely around those years that my father Mario Incisa, started with his experiments around Cabernet Sauvignon in the Bolgheri area. This can be seen as a positive and encouraging example of how passion and perseverance, even during tough times, can eventually turn out into something extraordinary. His experiments were the genesis of our wine Sassicaia and the subsequent developments of our family estate, Tenuta San Guido.
How do your ancestor’s challenges influence the way you see today’s crisis?
Pablo Alvarez, President, Tempos Vega Sicilia (Spain): I feel wineries are facing many challenges, especially those whose sales rely on bars and restaurants. But this is a matter of withstanding, and we will all come through. Many are working at a slower pace, but the work in the vineyards cannot stop and it is essential for this to continue. Our strategy is focused on how we will help our customers in Spain and all of our importers so they can recover their markets. We will travel more in the future to give them support. But what is most important at this moment is to help our employees anyway we can. People are suffering terribly, and we must be by their side and preserve their jobs above all. It´s time for sacrifice and we are willing to do so.
The Antinori sisters
Jean Frédéric Hugel: I hope it influences our experience for the best, but I want to make sure I do not regret anything once it is over. Morality pays a huge role in our family, in our way of managing and doing business. We all have our own moral codes of course, but I want to believe my morality will be the same at the end of this crisis as it was at the beginning. It is in everyone’s hands to make a big difference, rarely has that been more true. My ancestors have made the right decisions at the right time without compromising. I wish to say the same when this is done.
Paul Symington: So while this Covid virus crisis is very serious, we in the PFV really do see this through a very long perspective. Is it hurting us? Yes of course it is. We are also reasonably sure that our sales will be seriously impacted over the coming months, but I am personally convinced that family wine companies are extremely well prepared to face this type of crisis. We do not need to justify ourselves to the stock market or to some remote and impatient shareholder. We will sit round the table (with a good bottle of wine) and prepare ourselves for a tough time, provided we and our staff can all stay healthy. In a funny way we are oddly proud that we can now show the previous generation, and those that come after, that we too could cope with giant challenges.
Miguel Torres: After the civil war and the devastating fire my grandparents left on a long trip to Cuba, Mexico, the United States and Canada to look for new markets and clients—they were away from home for one year and half. Later they telegrammed that new markets had been found and to begin rebuilding the winery. So, I hope that soon in time, I will be able to send a note to our entire team, that a solution for Covid-19 has been found, that the world is recovering, our team is recovering, our teams’ families are recovering, and that our bodega is recovering. And in this same note I would thank everyone for all their impressive work, sacrifice, and care during this exceptional period of time.
Albiera Antinori: Our generation has never seen anything as rapid and threatening as this, my father’s generation either, as he was born in 1938. He saw challenges in rebuilding an economy. My grandfather saw and lived two world wars, so he would have some very good advice…for sure ‘resilience’ would be a good word.
Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta: Today’s situation is of course different, but we try to deal with this unprecedented challenge by looking at the possible positive outcomes of this crisis. Wine, like agriculture, has existed for thousands of years as the basis of our life and for this reason we have survived many catastrophes. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 emergency, people will be looking forward to going back to their normal lives and will look for occasions to be together, possibly even more than before. They might discover new opportunities and situations more centered around values that had been lost to the past. We expect that wine and food will be central to people’s lives, creating occasions for conviviality and sharing. We all are looking forward to celebrating with our family and friends for the rebirth from a dark moment in history.
Robert Drouhin: Coronavirus is dramatic from a human point of view but for a company it is a temporary problem we have to solve thanks to strict planning, the contributions of our employees, and their confidence in the company. For sure some wine merchants or distributors will disappear who have been only motivated by short term profit and unreasonable confidence in the glorious economic growth of the world.
Pablo Alvarez of Tempos Vega Sicilia
Tempos Vega Sicilia Source