Over the period of 30 hours, with full immersion (and submersion, as the case may be), I had the opportunity to sit and talk with three Tuscan families about their wine business. And the overriding (if not overtly intended) dilemma they all expressed to me was that of their family legacy in the business of wine.
One is that doing business in Italy is close to broken. Taxation has skyrocketed, while services have not kept pace in terms of efficiency and delivery. In an example one of my three winery owners noted, in his town the municipal police force has grown 18-fold while the population has actually shrunk by almost half. And this from another winery principal; that urban crime is now spreading to the countryside, with an increase in daylight crime (break-ins, robberies, and in some cases armed assault) in once quiet little hamlets and borgos.
There is a cynicism about the role of government in Italy and how it is damaged. And the Italians, while they look to America and ponder the new world order as it emanates (and changes) daily from Washington, are also not so sympathetic to the challenges we are facing as a country. “We Italians have gone through much worse than America, and for many more centuries. And in Tuscany, well, read the history. This has never been an easy place to survive, let alone thrive,” one of my Tuscan friends told me.
One of my three winery owners, who came from a totally different business, told me that even in this time houses in his area of southern Tuscany can be had for very little money. There is a lull. He is concerned with restoring some of the fallen properties, just like in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Here, in Tuscany, they are focusing their energies on resolving their local matters.
With all the challenges, my three Tuscan colleagues are successful. They are building (or rebuilding) their businesses and they are hopeful. So much that they fret over another issue – that of their legacy.
In reality, it is being carried on. If you tasted a Barolo or a Chianti Classico from the 1950’s, the people who worked in the fields, who harvested the grapes, and who put the wine in bottles, many of those people are no longer with us. But their life, their legacy, is in those bottles. They may not be signed, like a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio, but their life’s energy nonetheless went into making something for the ages.
The business side of winemaking in Tuscany is a little older than in some other areas. And there is often a seamless thread with other activities, other efforts. Maybe some family came through the leather business, while another came through the clothing business. Maybe it was jewelry, or maybe it was agriculture. All these crafts had to be turned into a viable business so that people could find a way to get their daily bread.
There is another family, one which I did not meet with this week, but with which they have for over 600 years, toiled. And they are still going strong. So there are pathways into what might seem like an eternity to a human. A lasting legacy, a line of ascendancy, with the chance of improving on the process and the product with every new generation.
But for those facing the wall of their mortality, whether they are 60 or 50 or 40, the time we have to carve one’s notch on their family tree is shorter than we want, always.
I really felt a thread in the conversations but really more in wasn’t said. Like an urgency was presented to these three individuals and they were really struggling with coming to grips with their limitations. It wasn’t wealth. It wasn’t drive. At the end it wasn’t even the government. It was simply time. No matter how much money or energy or cunning, there can never be enough time. And that is why we seek to extend our influence and our life force into the next generation.
“I bought this vineyard for the next 30 years,” one of the gentlemen said. “But in 30 years, you will be old,” I replied. His look, as if to say, “Why do you have to spoil my dream?” “Fly your kite,” I say, “as long as the wind is to your back.” But know when it’s your time to step off of the field.
Yes, the hard part of this legacy business is the letting go part. You never know if you left it solid and reinforced enough, able to withstand any storms that may be coming in the future. But at some point you have to let the kite go.
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