Don Diego Planeta is the President of Settesoli, the biggest co-operative in Sicily and of Assovini, an association of Sicilian wine producers. He is the founder of Planeta winery which within 15 years of its existence helped upgrade the image of Sicilian wines, writes Subhash Arora who spent a considerable time chatting with him recently in Sicily.
But first the clarification! To the Bollywood watchers Don means Don Carleone of Godfather, a role played by our own Big B in the movie of the same title that was to be followed by a spate of such roles . However, to an Italian or a Spaniard, Don is a very respectful word. The closest a word that describes a Don is a ‘priest’ or Esquire. In fact, Diego Planeta is so soft-spoken, unassuming and down-to-earth that he could easily pass of as one in proper attire.
So does he consider himself a businessman, an entrepreneur, a spokesman, a farmer or vintner, I ask him? ‘Landowner,’ comes the swift reply. ‘My family owns 1000 hA of land, 400 hA of which is vines. Of course, wine has always been a part of my life.’
Wine a part of life
Wine is a part of food for a Sicilian. ‘My father used to give me drops of wine in water when I was a kid so that I may not abuse it when I grow up. However, in Sicily consumption is still lower than the rest of Italy due to the Arabic influence during 900-1200 AD.’ ‘You mean they did not drink wine? ‘Of course, they used to drink wine regularly- their poets were always singing about wine. But in summers it is very hot here and we drink less. In the North, where it is cold they drink more because of the climate.’
Is there any pattern to wine drinking in Sicily? ‘There is not pattern-it is always 50-50 between red and white wine. We sometimes hear about people drinking more white wine and sometimes it is more of the red. But as a producer, I know we sell almost equal quantities on an annual basis.’
How much wine to drink
‘You cannot go wrong with wine as the source is fruits unlike for hard liquor,’ he says. Talking about the quantity, ‘I drink 400 bottles a year. Normally it is one bottle a day-with food. Sometimes when I am happy, I drink more-sometimes when I am unhappy, I drink more,’ he says and laughs. I am 70 years old and every time I am unwell, the first reaction of my doctor is that I am drinking too much wine. But when they check my liver, they tell me it is that of an 18 year old. But seriously, wine makes you livelier but it also may change from person to person. For instance, I am practically a vegetarian. The day I eat meat, I don’t feel too well. Does it mean there is something wrong with meat?’
Food and Wine Pairing
I don’t say that food and wine pairing is all hum-bug. I would say it is a matter of personal taste. I like to drink cold and lighter red wine in summer with fish (for Indian readers, eating fish is considered vegetarian in Italy). In India, I like to have a robust red wine with daal
A passionate Indian lover
Diego Planeta has been passionately in love with India for ever. ‘I don’t even know since when- I went for the first time with an English friend working with British Airways and we went to Rajasthan and I fell in love with India, its people and food. The people are so nice, friendly and warm.
I find the Indian food perfect for me. All I tell them is to put less chillies and I love what they make. My only regret is that I find it hard to find a good drinkable wine with food most of the times. For example, I may need to pay only Rs.200 for the food, but I must shell out Rs.1000 for a bottle of wine. This is ridiculous and your government must do something about it-after all it is only a part of food!
Pedrone of Settesoli
To an outsider Diego Planeta represents Planeta wines- but he considers himself the President of , Settesoli, the biggest co-operative in Sicily. My father was born in 1893 and I was born in 1940. So he was 47 years old when I was born and by the time I was 20, he was already 67. So I had to start working hard at an earlier age as he was not very healthy. The co-operative was formed in 1958 with my father as one of the founding members. I was made the President of Settesoli in 1972 when I was only 32- and I have been the president ever since.
This has to be a historic feat of sort- to control the 2300 members- the Sicilian growers. And is it an uphill task to remain an elected president for so many years? ‘Not really. I have been able to give them good results and they know I have their interest at heart. So it has been no problem heading the organisation for 37 years.’
Planeta vs. Planeta
Isn’t there an inherent conflict between being the President of the cooperative and running your own winery as well, I ask? ‘My grapes were always going to Settesoli and some quantities are still going. But as my children were growing up- he has a daughter Francesca and sons Alessio and Santi, I thought I should start my own wine production as well and have the family manage it. I had a lot of good ideas but needed young blood to carry out the plans. So, in 1995 I started the Planeta winery.’
|The Planeta Family-Francesca (daughter) Diego Planeta, Francesco (nephew), Alessio (son)
In a very short time of less than a decade, Planeta became a word synonymous with quality Sicilian wines- both with international and autochthonous (indigenous) grapes. Today Planeta, Donnafugata and Tasca d’Almerita rank as the undisputed Sicilian leaders in Italian wines, the last two being much older entities. Francesca seems to be the defacto CEO, unofficially, managing the sales with cousin Frncesco looking after the Grman market. Alessio is the qualified winemaker.
So how did he do it and how did he inspire the fellow Sicilians? ‘I knew the potential was there. In 1985, I planted 50 hA of experimental vineyards and studied several grape varieties for 10 years and focused on 10-12 varieties, both local and international. I brought in a winemaker, Carlo Corino (who died a couple of years ago in Tuscany). He had been working with well-known producers of Piemonte and later in Australia. Those days we had 150 hA of vines out of which grapes from 100 hA was going to Settesoli- so that we could do the research and experimentation.’
So, the experimentation was the main reason for his success? ‘To be successful you need good land, good varietals and enologist and a good winery; but you must also be able to think about the best resources available and know what is best for the consumer. You make wine for him and not for yourself. It was a good idea to make wine from both the local and international varietals but it was also important for us to showcase ourselves to people. We made Chardonnay of a very high quality. Not only was it accepted by the foreign buyers, they became curious about our other wines as well.’
An International traveller
Don Diego Planeta has been an avid traveller all his life. ‘When you do that, you understand how you can be successful. I must admit, being a President of Settesoli helped me a lot. Of course, my experience has helped them too. I have managed to get about a 100 journalists from the world and do you know how many politicians will come for the gala dinner tonight? Zero!! Why? Because we don’t depend upon them but make our own path! They want to be given undue importance and I just don’t do that!’
And now I should also answer your question about any conflict between Settesoli and Planeta. ‘Settesoli produces 30 million bottles of low- to medium level wines whereas at Planeta they produce 2 million bottles of high quality. So our markets are different and we can in fact help each other. As you can see, I have managed to get the journalists to visit Settesoli as well.’
In fact, a tasting had been organised as the last stop at the enoteca of Menfi- a rather huge building. ‘I gifted the 250-year old building with 52 rooms to the municipality for the purpose. Frankly, we had so much property and we were finding it difficult to manage financially, so I decided to gift away for a purpose,’ he says with modesty so characteristic of him.
Back to India
Does he know that the sales manager Penny would be in India shortly for the Sicilian food and wine promotion in Delhi and Mumbai? I am not involved in selling- Francesca does that. I do know my Chef is going. But when I go to India, I never go for business.’
For the last 10 years most of Diego’s vacations have been in India. ‘People there are natural and do not treat you as such because of your money.
I believe your experience would be very beneficial to the Indian wineries and growers since there are several similarities between your region and India. Would you be able to give time if some such request came along? ‘Sure, it will be a pleasure. We have developed a lot of wine knowledge in the recent past with our experimentation. I can make myself available.’
Who knows, this Don with multi-faceted roles may add one more, sooner than he might have thought.