Tasca d’Almerita is considered one of the Top Five wine Sicilian estates with a aristocratic history going back to 1830. Count Lucio Tasca, a direct descendent of the founder runs it along with his sons. Subhash Arora caught up with him last month at his Estate in Palermo where the grand ol’ man shared his passion and philosophy behind his success.
I had met Count Lucio Tasca last October at Villa d’Este in Italy, at the first World Wine Symposium. Sitting next to him at the dinner table and chatting with him, I discovered that he was a man of colourful personality and made a mental note to meet him again when in Sicily. The opportunity came in February during the Anti Prima Tasting of Sicilian wines where he was there at the tastings for a brief while.
My inquisitiveness took another jump when, while being driven from Gulfi Estate near Catania, the winemaker who was driving me to the Palermo airport, pointed out to the 8-acre estate of the Count in the middle of town- he seemed to be overawed by the aristocratic background of Lucio Tasca. I decided to make efforts to meet him at the estate rather than the winery whenever feasible.
So when I visited Palermo last month to judge at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles last month, I took time out to have lunch with him and have an exclusive chat. Surprisingly t the man has the simplest of habits, far removed from his earlier passions of fast cars and material things that make good life. Address him as Conte (Count) and he does not care for it-, as it ‘meant something a century ago-not anymore,’ he says matter-of-factly.
More than half the estate is still undeveloped and he does not care to develop it. He has removed most of his priceless paintings from the living quarters and stored them away. I saw several quite a few of expensive looking paintings strewn around on floor, laid against the walls. So is he turning gradually more spiritual or religious? ‘I guess so, says Lucio who turned 70 this January, around the same time as his compatriot, Diego Planeta. He has lived life to the rim, he feels-even though a bit rebellious ‘because my father used to be very strict and it was a natural to be rebellious,’ he admits matter-of-factly, adding though he tried his hand a few other things too, but his father let him have a relatively free hand in the 80s.
He seems to have divided the responsibilities between his sons Alberto and Giuseppe four years ago (I made my will 4 years ago, he says). He was in the thick of action when Sicily was going through the era of a cheap, bulk wine producing region in the 60s. 70s and even 80s, He was one of the few producers who struck to quality and in fact, l’Espresso, the well respected Italian wine guide rated Tasca as one of the five two-starred wineries in 2010 (no Sicilian estate has merited the highest, three-star rating. (There is a sixth one-Florio in Marsala, owned by Duca di Salaputra, makers of Cuervo- we spent an evening visiting the winery but it is known for its Marsala fortified wines).
So how did he get to own this priceless estate? He is again quite blasé. ‘ My great- great- great grandfather, also named Lucio Tasca married a rich woman in 1818 and bought this estate from one of the noble families of Sicily at that time and from then it passed on from generation to generations.’
His father earlier used to sell bulk wine but started bottling it in 1964, bottling 80,000 during the first year.. They engaged the services of Ignazio Miceli who was a wizard in marketing and is credited in taking the Sicilian wines to the world, especially the US, says Lucio. In 2002, they decided to go alone globally and never looked back.
In 1979, the family became the first in Sicily to plant international variety in Regaleali, south of Palermo where there fist winery is located. ‘At that time it was considered foolish to grow international varieties like Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the Sauvignon Blanc which we started growing. But Regaleali, where our wine estate is located is at the center of Sicily at an height of 800 m and the varieties became successful and ‘we started using some of these as blends,’ says Tasca.
But Tasca is equally proud of the local Sicilian varieties, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Catarratto and Inzolia. So is he proud about the estate being a working farm and they cultivate all manner of vegetables, herbs, and fruit. Passionate about hunting and fishing as well, Lucio admits wine is not the only passion with him. ‘Of course I am about passionate about it. But wine is only one aspect of food and life. I am equally passionate about other things.’
Consulting him on the winemaking is the well known Tuscan flying winemaker Carlo Ferrini who is known for working with several well-known Tuscan estates like Ricasoli and is also consulting with the other quality Sicilian producer Donnafugata.
Lucio Tasca talks very fondly of his visits to Delhi and Mumbai- he has been to India- he is quite fond of Diva Restaurant run by Ritu Dalmia ‘who is a friend of my sister Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza who runs a cooking school here. Tasca started the export journey of his wines to India through Brindco but soon it was clear to him that ‘it won’t work,’ perhaps because of their earlier tie-up with Planeta. ‘I know Dinesh Changela of Berkmann in the UK quite well and when he showed interest to distribute our wines in India, we switched to Berkmann Cellars India. ‘I love to come to India often and soon should be there,’ though Giuseppe concentrating on marketing and PR and Communications ought to be there while Alberto, who is the CEO focuses more on winemaking.’
Market for Sicilian Wines
So how much is the quality of Sicilian wines improving and where are they selling? ‘During the Sicilian I noticed we are getting better in quality. Sicily exported wines to North Italy , France and Germany. It was hard to sell in North Italy with bottled Sicilian wine earlier but now it is ok,’ he says.
Working within a range of € 3-21 ex-cellar, Tasca offers very good quality wines at affordable prices. A sale of around 3.3 million bottles netting the winery around € 17-18 mil has 60% coming from exports. Though last year was tough with the global meltdown resulting in 4% drop in sales, this year has already seen an increase of 12%, according to Lucio and he is optimistic that the upward trend will continue.
Etna, the volcanic area of Italy has a unique terroir where many passionate wine producers turn to, in order to produce the wines with special character. Tasca is no different. November this year will see the launch of their first red wines from Etna.
The future of the company is already in the hands of the younger generation, says Tasca. ‘This year, I may send Giuseppe instead to the World Wine Symposium in November. ‘It is time now they take the initiative of how much they want to expand.
He is a proponent of introducing the DOC Sicily appellation. The biggest benefit, according to Lucio, would be that they will be able to get promotional funds from EU to promote their wines. They will be allowed to write on the bottle as DOC Sicilia.. The producers here feel this may help improve the quality of wine.
Berkmann Cellars India is importing a decent portion of their labels into India.