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Lunch with an Italian Wine Impresario

Paolo Marzotto helped make Santa Margherita a best seller in America. Now he aims to do the same for his Sicilian wines.

I’m leaving tomorrow morning, very early, for Sicily,” Count Paolo Marzotto tells me. It’s hard to grasp why anyone would leave this idyllic spot, let alone fly at the crack of dawn to the opposite end of Italy. It’s a balmy Sunday afternoon, and we’re enjoying a family lunch with the Count’s wife, Florence Daniel, and their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren at Villa Nievo, their home in Vicenza, 40 miles west of Venice. Our table is on a flagstone terrace that runs the length of the older wing of the 300-year-old house, where the stucco exterior is painted a deep cranberry.

The newer wing that faces us—still hundreds of years old—is a rich caramel, with jasmine vines weaving up the walls. By the entryway, square box hedges barricade a rose garden of pink, white and brilliant yellow blooms. The house is perched on the edge of a hill; the green countryside beyond is dotted with the occasional cream-colored villa of a faraway neighbor. Everywhere there are dogs (the family has 11 among them): English setters, Jack Russell terriers and one poodle.

The lunch menu, a mix of Italian and French dishes, reflects the family’s heritage: While the Count grew up in northern Italy, the Countess is from France. (Their entire family is trilingual, speaking Italian, French and English.) The wines come from the Count’s Sicilian winery, Baglio di Pianetto—the reason for his Monday-morning flight.

Marzotto bought the vineyards in the late 1990s, while he was still chairman of the megawinery Santa Margherita in northern Italy’s Alto Adige region. In the 1980s, Santa Margherita partnered with the importer Antony Terlato to introduce Pinot Grigio to the United States. The push was so phenomenally successful that they managed to make Pinot Grigio a household name, Italy’s answer to Chardonnay. Now, with Baglio di Pianetto, Marzotto hopes to popularize Sicily as a winemaking region by creating a range of sophisticated but affordable bottlings, some from grapes Sicily has never grown before. Case in point: his crisp 2006 Baglio di Pianetto Ficiligno white, a blend of Insolia and Viognier grapes that sells for $20. Its lemony notes make it a delicious match for our first course, a Venetian dish of sweet small shrimp served over soft white polenta.

Marzotto chose two vineyards to produce Baglio di Pianetto’s grapes: Pianetto, in Sicily’s northwest, and Baroni, in the southeast. He bought Pianetto first, in 1997. In the hills of Santa Cristina Gela, not far from Palermo, its 200 acres are subject to heavy winter rains and stark temperature shifts from night to day, which are ideal for growing cool-climate grapes. These conditions inspired Marzotto to become the first person in Sicily to plant the French varietal Viognier. In 1998, he purchased another 170 acres of vineyards near Siracusa, in a village called Baroni. The area’s more temperate climate and limestone-rich soil led him to plant Syrah and Moscato grapes, plus the Sicilian varietal Nero d’Avola. In 2003, the same year he retired from Santa Margherita after 12 years as chairman, Marzotto finally completed his $50 million state-of-the-art winery.

It might seem like folly for a man to invest so heavily in a retirement project 500 miles from his home, but Marzotto thinks otherwise. “I am convinced that Sicily can become the most fascinating wine area in Italy,” the Count says, as we try a 2006 Baglio di Pianetto Piana del Ginolfo, a tangy, full-bodied white made entirely from Viognier grapes. It’s lovely with our second course, a creamy risotto with sweet, almost minty wild herbs harvested from the hills around the Count’s estate.

Baglio di Pianetto is not the Marzotto family’s only Sicilian venture. The Count first visited the island in 1938, when he was eight. His father, Count Gaetano Marzotto, liked to sail, and the pair traveled to the island by yacht. In those days, Gaetano oversaw Lanificio Marzotto, one of Italy’s largest textile manufacturers, which his family founded in 1836. (Our drinking glasses—originally from the yacht—are decorated with the family crest depicting a lamb, wool and a spool.) After World War II, on a drive through southern Italy, Gaetano discovered that the region was in dire need of good hotels. In 1949, in Palermo, he opened the first of what would grow to become the international chain Jolly Hotels, offering affordable, comfortable rooms for tourists and business travelers.

The young Paolo got to know the island while working for the family’s textile firm. “We love Sicily. It’s a beautiful place. And we raced there, too,” the Count says modestly. Before going to work for his father, Paolo Marzotto won a small portion of fame as a professional race-car driver. Like a titled, European version of Dale Earnhardt, the Count even won one of Italy’s most beloved car races in Sicily. “My brothers and I used to race with Ferrari. In 1952, Marino Marini and I won the Giro di Sicilia, so we were well-received there.”

Marzotto gave up racing when he married (his formidable wife gave him a choice: car racing or her). But he’s hardly slowed down. In addition to his wine business, the Count retains close ties to the Italian fashion world. In 2002, the family’s firm, the Marzotto Group, purchased the fashion house of Valentino and formed the Valentino Group, joining it with their other brands, Hugo Boss and M Missoni. When the private-equity firm Permira bought a majority share in the group last summer, the Marzotto family maintained a stake.

“I adore what Valentino does,” the Countess says; the rose-hued dress she is wearing comes from the designer’s collection. “I love his colors,” she continues as we start the main course, succulent roast squabs wrapped in crisp bacon. Served with sautéed table grapes, the salty-sweet dish is a great partner for the spicy, plummy qualities of the 2004 Baglio di Pianetto Ramione, a blend of Merlot and Nero d’Avola. Smooth purees of chestnut, Vichy carrot and celery root give a nod to the Countess’s Parisian roots: In her youth, she trained as a pianist at the Paris Conservatory. Today she works with the prestigious Accademia Pianistica, near Bologna. Over the next week, while the Count flies from Vicenza to Sicily, then on to Milan and Tuscany, the Countess will be auditioning prospective students at the academy.

The two are enthusiastic collectors of contemporary art; their house is filled with pieces they’ve gathered over the years. They buy less these days (“We ran out of walls,” the Count says), but their granddaughters have inherited their enthusiasm. As we begin dessert—an airy tortino alla mandorle filled with sweetened pears steamed in butter and served with a rich crème anglaise sauce—24-year-old Giorgiana tells me that she spends her free time visiting art exhibitions and would like to open a gallery one day. Her older cousin, Ginevra, has just bought her first painting. “Of course, I asked my grandfather to go and have a look,” Ginevra says. “It’s by a very contemporary artist, so I wasn’t sure. He said I shouldn’t worry about what it might be worth in the future.”

We’re drinking coffee when Marzotto’s grandsons, Guglielmo and Guillaume, appear in the doorway, holding a worn copy of a book about their grandfather’s racing days. A young Paolo stands alongside his brothers and Enzo Ferrari, flush from victory; their noses are blackened by oily fumes. As we admire the images, I remark on the extraordinary energy that Count Marzotto has had throughout his entire life. “I don’t feel tired,” he tells me. “Energy comes from belief. If you believe in something, you have more energy to do it.”

Polly Evans is the author of five travel memoirs, including It’s Not About the Tapas and On a Hoof and a Prayer.

Published October 2008
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