Citigroup Former Boss Parsons Eyes Profit in Italian Wine

Wine by Richard Parsons
Bottles of wine sit on the terrace at the Italian winery. Former Citigroup boss Richard Parsons has invested in a wine producer in the Tuscan hills of Sangiovese grapes. Source: Il Palazzone via Bloomberg.

Former Citigroup Inc. Chairman Richard Parsons, whose career in banking and media saw him at the helm of the industries’ biggest companies, is betting he can make money in retirement in the wine-rich Tuscan hills.

Twelve years after buying Il Palazzone, a Montalcino vineyard perched on the ancient trail to Rome, Parsons is getting serious about winemaking, turning a hobby into a business. He’s built a new cellar he inaugurated with this year’s harvest and plans to double production of his finest wine, Brunello, turning Il Palazzone into a profitable activity within five years.

“This is not an undertaking for the faint of heart,” Parsons says in an interview at Il Palazzone. “We’re still in the investing phase. I think I can see the day when we start actually making money with this thing.”

Wine is an acquired taste for Parsons, and he bought a Montalcino vineyard more by accident than by design. Parsons declines to say how much money he’s invested in Il Palazzone as he sips a glass of his award-winning 2004 Brunello Riserva.

“I was really introduced to finer wine by a client of mine, Nelson Rockefeller, 30 years ago when I used to practice law,” Parsons says. “I developed a taste for it, and as I got older, started thinking what am I going to do when I give up going into the salt mines all day every day.”

Natural Beauty

Parsons says he “stumbled” on Il Palazzone through friends of friends. “The natural beauty of the place was what was attractive here and it’s pretty much what you see,” he says, pointing to the hills around him, complete with his stone-built house and pool overlooking the valley.

Parsons meets with friends and Montalcino’s establishment to fete the new cellar, which allows Il Palazzone to make wine on location for the first time. Wearing jeans and an open-neck shirt, Parsons treats guests to jazz, bruschetta, vegetable tempura and ribollita on a terrace overlooking the sunset.

Brunello from 2005 is joined by the 2004 Riserva, which made Wines & Spirits magazine’s top 100 wines ranking.

“My son gave it (Brunello) the best description once, the first time he tasted the wine, he said, ‘Jeez, it tastes like dirt, Dad.’ You can taste the terroir and I like it, well-oaked wine,” recalls Parsons.

Doubling Production

Traditional Brunello takes about five years from harvest to market, and Parsons plans to focus on his best wine as he doubles production from the current 1,000 to 1,200 cases he now makes a year. He’s unlikely to keep making the Super Tuscan Lorenzo & Isabelle, a homage wine dedicated to his parents.

Brunello is where the money is, he says. The 2004 Riserva retails at $130 while Palazzone Lorenzo & Isabelle 2005 sells for half that in the U.S.

Parsons says Italian reds still have a way to go in gaining recognition in Asia, where sales trail the U.S. and Europe.

“China is everybody’s focus if you’re selling to retail but that is going to be a long march I believe,” Parsons says. “We do sell in Hong Kong, and Tokyo, in the high-end restaurants. I think it’s going to be a while before we -- by ‘we,’ I mean everybody outside the French and a few Napa brands -- really penetrate the Chinese market.”

Demand for higher-end wines is growing, albeit slowly, after contracting in the global recession of 2008, when sales fell 40 percent, according to Parsons.

“They’re coming back, it’s coming back slowly, but that’s probably the best way. I’m reasonably optimistic about the outlook because there are new consumers coming in.”

This year may be one of his finest productions.

The vintage “was small in quantity but high in quality. It was very hot and dry in Italy this summer so the grapes were smaller and the yield is smaller, but very sweet and very high quality,” he says.

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