Michele Manelli — game changer in the world of wine

Here’s what happens when a young Italian abandons a flourishing financial career to “go farming”

I first met Michele Manelli two decades ago at Salcheto, the five-hectare vineyard he had recently bought. Nestled into a Tuscan hillside, at the end of a dirt road, it was billed as one of the finest parcels of land in the Montepulciano area, 250 kilometres northeast of Rome’s airport.

The Salcheto story and his vision captivated me then. It drew me back 20 years later to become even more captivated.

Discovering the vineyard on his first trip to Monte­pulciano, Manelli was instantly enthralled.

“I had never seen such a beautiful location,” he tells me. “I was touched by what I like to call the floating of the area over time and space. You can never define it — you cannot say it is today or in the middle of the Renaissance, or we are in the countryside or the middle of the world. It is rich because it has been preserved in an incredible way.”

Montepulciano from Salcheto. photo: Supplied

The old-time landscape and architecture along with the modern opportunities he saw in winemaking and tourism made him think it would be a great place to establish a life. His life. What’s wrong, he reasoned, with retiring in your twenties to follow your passion?

Romans were the first to grow vines here. Then in the 18th century, the term “Nobile” was coined in reference to the nobles who drank the wine these vineyards produced. Today Vino Nobile refers to the wines of this Tuscan district.

Arriving here, he had the opportunity to shape the business in the way he wanted — a business model that addressed all of his concerns. His goal was, and still is, “to make better — much better — wines while maintaining a commitment to environmental sustainability.”

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His instinct for environmental stewardship dates to his childhood. He grew up in the countryside, bordered by an urban area of growing industries. His early memories are of running free, swimming in the river, being in nature. Within a few years, the river became so polluted that children were told not to get close to it, never mind swim in it. “This really bothered me,” he says, “because I had this great fascination with everything related to nature — its power and beauty. It still does. As an adult, I believe every one of us, myself first, needs to find an alternative way to look at nature.”

In 20 years, the charismatic young man with a dream had become one of the most successful producers in Montepulciano and a world visionary in sustainability. He succeeded in changing the paradigm.

The land, he says, was reasonably priced when he bought it. Within five years it had increased tenfold. “I was particularly lucky because the first years were a time in which the area boomed,” he says. “When you are in a booming field, you can make mistakes and pay half of the price.”

I think you can ask the question: how does someone who knew nothing about wine achieve such success?

“I learned about wine by doing it,” he says. “At first it was grapes. I didn’t think I was prepared to make wine because I didn’t really understand what wine was. So, I was farming. I just grew the grapes. But quickly I recognized wine’s magic and I started winemaking, selling it locally. I was lucky to meet the right people who were incredibly helpful — one being a great consultant oenologist who is still a friend and colleague today.” With time, and the knowledge he gained in terms of microbiology and oenology, everything began to work better.

Inspirational is the word that best describes his route to success. And, he says, “a lot of hard work.” In order to expand, he brought in two partners who invested and who participate in strategic financial planning. Operationally, Salcheto bears his signature.

Salco means willow tree in the ancient Tuscan language. Historically, willow was an important plant for vineyards as its branches were used to bind the vines. Today the tree is prominently represented in the company’s logo to symbolize its commitment to environmental sustainability. Salcheto refers to the stream which springs at the foot of the town of Montepulciano and forms the boundary of Manelli’s estate.

The organically farmed vineyard now covers 65 hectares and Salcheto wines, originally available only in Italy, are sold in 19 countries (in Canada, they are available in Ontario and Quebec). His 2015 Vino Nobile recently scored 94 points and sits at number 11 in Wine Enthusiast magazine’s listing of the world’s top 100 wines.

Between 2009 and 2011, Manelli rebuilt and enlarged the cellar, the enoteca (wine shop) and tasting/lunch room, and, seeing value in adding a tourism component, his plans included a small guesthouse. Using the most innovative, sustainable technology, he created a winery that is completely off the grid.

The patio outside the tasting room, for example, is dotted with large glass domes. They cover mirrored shafts, allowing natural light to descend 21 metres through two storeys, first lighting the cavernous fermenting cellar, and down to light the barrel cellar. When he began planning, there were people who couldn’t understand it, saying it wasn’t possible to light a cellar this way. Salcheto is still pretty much alone in this technology.

The barrel cellar at Salcheto. photo: Supplied

Whether the design of the new wine cellar with its self-sustaining energy, the benefit program for his employees or using ultra-light glass bottles (Manelli’s are the lightest anywhere), everything is done with a view to ensure a balanced environmental, social and economic impact. Salcheto was the first winery in the world to certify the carbon footprint of a wine bottle, and the estate continues to replant willow trees that contribute to the winery’s energy independence.

“The company can’t hide from these responsibilities,” he says. “If we don’t change our business approach, we cannot change society. Sustainability has not created more challenges, just different challenges.”

Quality, he believes, is also something you must really want. It, too, must be a challenge. “You have to engage yourself in it fully,” he says. “You have to feel this holy fire inside of you, of wanting to make a difference.”

Wanting to revel in life under the Tuscan sun, my husband and I spent several days at the Salcheto Winehouse. The 13th-century farmhouse was once a watchtower for one of the access valleys to the town of Montepulciano, then for centuries, the life-centre of families who worked this land. Today it accommodates nine guest rooms, adjacent to the enoteca, kitchen and tasting room where guests eat breakfast and lunch.

The Winehouse is set in its own garden, complete with a hot tub made of old wine barrels. The rooms are stylishly simple and modern with creative recycled elements and an obvious respect for the environment. Shelves and tables, for example, are crafted from old wood and you won’t find any disposable water or miniature amenity bottles here. The kitchen serves Tuscan fare from locally produced foods, including Salcheto’s own honey.

Manelli is as gracious a host as he is a superb winemaker. We spent an afternoon sipping a glass of Vino Nobile, on the expansive patio with a million-euro view to the perched town of Montepulciano, wondering if we had died and gone to heaven. The bonus came from seeing firsthand the passion for taking care of nature while enjoying the excitement of harvest season. In the background, workers chattered as, by hand, they de-stemmed and selected grapes arriving from the vineyard. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, but we know happy chatter when we hear it.

Current and future challenges

“Today, market saturation is the challenge all winemakers face,” Manelli says. “We are a very mature field. Quality becomes more important than ever.”

Looking to the future, he has two short-term goals. One is that in order to maximize economies of scale, he must increase Salcheto’s grape production. Given the current prices, buying adjacent properties isn’t realistic, so he has come up with the idea of a joint venture — forming a type of consortium with two neighbours, each with a small vineyard that neither was capitalizing on. Salcheto offers its know-how to optimize their production. “It is starting to work,” Manelli says, “and I like it because there is also a social value.”

He wants to enhance the quality of the organization to be sure that it doesn’t depend only on him, which he says is not yet the case. “I would like to think that Salcheto is Salcheto and not me. This would be a greater legacy to leave behind.”

Collecting the grape harvest. photo: Supplied

As you might expect from a creative entrepreneur, besides keeping Salcheto front and centre, Manelli has a ton of side ideas. The most recent project was trendy eyeglasses, their frames being made from the wood of exhausted wine barrels. He not only wears them, he also introduced them at the 2019 wine fair in Verona.

I asked where the wine industry will be in 20 years.

“2040 is not that far away,” he says. “I believe there will be a big change driving the transparency of wine. Today most people don’t know if there are additives in the wine they are drinking and, if so, what they are. Greater consumer expectation for transparency, in addition to increasingly stricter laws, will require businesses to think before about this in order to remain in the market.”

He foresees a taste-change evolution. “Consider that wine was created in Europe. Then North America became the New World of wine. Given the size of this new market, wine changed to appeal to Americans’ taste. Wines became softer, and particularly for the U.S., they have contained more sugar. This, in turn, has influenced European wines and changed the taste around Europe.”

Besides the latest growing economies, we are on the verge of the awakening of at least three giant markets — China, India and Brazil. Increased consumption from these countries these will transform wine. Think about Asia, and the spicier Asian diet. Will this create a new expectation for wine and drive a new taste evolution? He thinks it is very possible and an interesting opportunity to monitor.

Manelli continues to see a promising future pursuing sustainability as a central part of Salcheto’s business plan, through which he aims to tackle some of the biggest challenges for the future — such as the packaging, and clean fuel for farm machinery. At the same time, he will continue to spread sustainability awareness.

Although his ongoing vision for Salcheto is creating wines that are rated among the top in the world and respecting the environment, you might expect such a mover and shaker to have a Plan B. For Michele Manelli, it would be to work for free. “I am typically curious, and I love work. I love the idea of learning something and driving an action to create something,” he says. “The idea of being able to do exactly the same thing without needing to make a profit — to do it for the pure pleasure, that is true freedom. Why not? Who knows?”

Is it any wonder that the young man who won my admiration 20 years ago, continues to do so today?

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