When Alberto Alessi, head of the world-famous Italian design factory that bears his last name, sits down to decide whether to manufacture a new product, he runs it through a carefully devised set of metrics to see if it’s likely to be a market success. “The Formula,” as he’s come to call it, measures such things as beauty, function, communication language (how well a product conveys something like status or value), and price.
Those same principles, he says, can be applied to the wine he’s now producing on the misty banks of Lake Orta, deep in the heart of Lombardy. Indeed, Alessi says, his experience in running a design firm is not unlike being a gardener.
Just before the harvest began for his pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, Alessi chatted with us about why he launched this new venture, and how the design business prepared him for the life of a vintner.
“I had some free time,” he told us over email. “I’m not able to stay quiet, I start feeling anxious. I love wine so I wanted to see what I could do in that field on my beloved Lake Orta, which is not a traditional place for good wine. The idea was to make an homage to Burgundy, the French region of the wines we prefer: pinot noir and chardonnay. A good challenge, since we wanted to create the best burgundy outside of France.”
In 2001, Alessi bought Cascina Eugenia, a dilapidated farmhouse and the surrounding land on the eastern hillside of Lake Orta that had already appeared on maps of the area in 1723. At the time he bought the farmstead, the property had been neglected for half a century. His first two years were devoted to clearing the scrub that tangled the fields.
Through research, Alessi discovered that vineyards had existed in the area since the ninth century, although most wine produced around the lake was solely for family consumption. No one had ever attempted to create a wine of excellent quality for market distribution. But Alessi was undeterred.
As he recounts on his website, his first impulse was not to start a wine business–he was attracted to the romance of the idea, not its commercial potential. Hence, the label he chose for his wine: La Signora Eugenia e il passero solitario (Madame Eugenia and the lonely sparrow). It’s named after the house, Cascina Eugenia and the local sparrows.
What’s more, Alessi loved the idea of designing all the things that surround a vineyard–of, as he writes on his website, “building a global project around an aesthetic idea that, yes, concerned the quality of the wine, but also all the things that would surround it, such as the architecture, the wine cellar, the bottle, the graphic of the labels, the packaging, the website, in short, all the aspects of its communication and its fruition.”
Once the area was ready for cultivation, he called in biodynamic agriculture specialist Jacques Mell to analyze the soil and determine what varieties of grapes would most likely thrive in the unique climate surrounding the lake.
Through testing, Mell determined that the soil in Alessi’s land was sandy, with an acid pH, and glacial, made of granite and gneiss. The combination of a sandy, acidic soil with the area’s abundant rainfall (three times the amount that falls in Burgundy) made for challenging, but potentially great, conditions for creating a distinctive wine. He divided the land into seven vineyards, matching vines to the particular soil and growing conditions of each. There were two vineyards for chardonnay, three for pinot noir, and a final two for sparkling wine made from overripe grapes.
Then began the painstaking work of planting the vines, staking each for best exposure to the sun. There was heavy labor in digging trenches to encourage water runoff during heavy rains (to limit the chance of fungal attacks). And, during the summer, Alessi’s agricultural team constantly watched for violent thunderstorms and hail that might blow through when the cold air off the mountains collides with hot air off the plains.
For a perfectionist like Alessi, who’s accustomed to controlling every aspect of production, the experience was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. “It’s been frustrating because you depend so much from nature, and that’s something you cannot control (being me at the end an industrialist, I’ll let you to imagine…)!” he said. “But it’s also been fun because it has been the first time for me to actually see, through the plants and vegetation changes, nature’s modifications over the seasons.”
In short, the whole process was not unlike nurturing a stable of sensitive, willful, egocentric designers to get their best work. Alessi reminded us that he said as much in his book, The Dream Factory: Alessi Since 1921.
I asked Alessi how his design experience helped him make decisions in the vineyard. One of the main traits of Italian design factories is the practice of the “good gardener,” he replied. “… sensitive, attentive, and patient, the good gardener can be helpful in understanding the practice of Italian design factories. The good gardener sows, of course, what he thinks is right, but above all he tills the ground carefully to receive the new crops and takes particular care when the first shoots begin to appear, nurturing them carefully to enable them to express the potential they have within them. Moreover, the good gardener knows he can count on unexpected seeds brought to him by the wind. Good products arrive when they want to. It is difficult to produce works of art to order. Despite all efforts, good projects follow their own rhythms, which are often inscrutable and can rarely be planned.”
Once the first grapes were ripe, Alessi’s team began the laborious process of hand-picking the harvest, transporting the grapes in small batches to the cellar where they were pressed and put in vats and barrels for fermentation. The average yield was merely three glasses of wine per plant (typically, a mature plant produces about five bottles of wine).
Then came the fun part, for a designer: creating the bottle itself. While he had left most of the planting and growing to experts, Alessi himself delved into research on ancient bottles that led him to the very dawn of material culture, and onward through history into the world of Leonardo da Vinci. “The Leo bottle is not really a design made by me, neither by Leonardo: it was just the result of a long passionate historic research on small containers to keep and to serve wine,” Alessi said. “Its shape is archetypal, one can find similar containers in old paintings, even much older that Leonardo’s drawings. It’s also similar to the lacrimarium, a container for tears from Roman times.”
The label for the bottle was designed by Spanish designer Marti Guixé, and the relief marks on its bottom, which prevent the hot glass from sticking to the conveyor belt, are inspired by the “knots of da Vinci” one of Leonardo’s favorite decorative motifs.
The cone-shaped bottle itself is designed to address two issues: preservation and sustainability. The shape of the bottle fits within the dimensions described by Leonard’s Vitruvian Man as well as within the “golden pentagram,” a figure familiar to ancient mathematicians and Renaissance alchemists. Alessi intends to analyze whether this special form helps to better preserve his wines.
More immediately, however, he was determined that his bottle address a contemporary problem: what happens to it when you’ve finished the nectar inside? As he relates on the website dedicated to the wine:
As a good consumer of wine, I have always been surprised at the amount of time and energy required to dispose of the empty bottles. The empty bottle is an object not without dignity, and indeed often has a highly aesthetic quality, but is inexorably destined to a sometimes laborious disposal. It is an ethical issue for people like me who work in the world of objects. It makes a gap– logistic, functional, economic and also of meaning in family life–a sort of stupidity of mass consumption that seems destined to repeat itself endlessly millions, even billions of times every year. Alternatively, the Leo bottle… has been designed to be not thrown away once the nectar that it contains and protects is finished. Indeed, upon reaching this point it reveals its true nature as an object: it lends itself well to be re-used as a decanter, a candlestick or a flower vase.
The bottle’s concave bottom is designed to fit with a curved plastic wine cooler, called a glacette, which is filled with refrigerating liquid. Store it in the fridge until needed, then snap it into the bottom of the bottle to keep the wine cool at the table as you drink it.
Sadly, Alessi said, you won’t be finding his pinot or chardonnay at your local wine store anytime soon. “While production is far too much for the needs of even the enlarged Alessi families, it’s still very limited,” he said. “But we do not plan to sell to the United States. First, it seems that customs are too complicated for our initial organization, and second because our wines are made following French tradition and taste and probably would be not that appealing to American palates.”