"Son of ..." or just a man himself
I could sell more copies of this interview if I had started the text with “Son of …...”, but for anyone I know, that has grown up with a father or mother who is more famous than usual, I will not. After spending time with him in the vineyards, sharing a picnic of a few croissants from La California, many bottles of wine, and a drive from Milan to OT Homes (at a speed that made my husband worry), I can tell you one thing – he might be the son of Oliviero Toscani, but oh boy, he’s so Rocco. A person mysterious in so many ways, thirsty to learn, understand, work, and deliver. Eager to climb those hard olive oil and wine mountains, so full of great things as well as surprises. And let’s not forget one last thing - he makes the greatest charcuterie, too. He's not the easiest person to understand or work with, especially in bigger crowds, as he opens up only when there are just the two of you or when he is with “his” people. So, let me introduce you to the man who is famous (and not just because of his father) - Rocco Toscani; the man behind Toscani wines, Toscani olive oil, Casa Toscani, and charcuterie. And that’s not even all.
Did you have a relationship with wine before you took over the Toscani estate?
Look, I grew up on this farm where we sit now and as a family, we always made wine at my father’s house - every single year on September. And it was a little bit like a celebration as everyone you knew would harvest before the school started. Well, and growing up here means that I grew up within the path of the growing estate. As an adult, I helped at the estate for a while, continuing working as a photographer until 2015, when I decided to leave the photography and fully immerse in the winery.
So you have have done photography, modelling and what else?
I was a photographer. In the beginning I worked at my father’s agency, but then my sister and I, we bought his agency and we moved it to Milan. At that time, I was the art direction and photographer of the agency. Modelling was just rarely, for fun. And whenever it was possible, I always came here, where we have our winery, pigeons, and horses. And even though I wasn’t really doing anything with the wine, I was always here.
Why did you decided to come back? Did your dad asked you to?
The decision was sort of combination of several things. I just had my second child and I wanted to leave him something more than just photography. And people would anyway say that my photos were too similar to my fathers’. You know, my father is from another planet. (laughing) And I’m from this planet. In the beginning, I didn’t really care about that, but with time passing… I don’t know. You feel like you want to grow up or... Well, it was pretty clear to me that I would stay in his shadow all my life if I did photography. So I had to change.
I started to look around. You know that feeling when you sort of want to invent something new, you want to do that extra step? I was figuring out that I am going nowhere with the photography. Then, as it happens in life, came the Bordeaux wine exhibition and I went there together with my father to help. It was all good, the wines were presented well, but I believed the things could have been done differently, and better. As with all the things on this farm.
Did your father presented them himself?
Yeah. But it was kind of… Look, my whole life I’ve seen this farm working in a very different way compared of how my father sees it. He has totally different perception of it and the wines, so he presents them in completely different way.
What was he saying?
Let’s just say – he had a different style of communication.
Or maybe people were coming more for him than for the wine?
Exactly! I wasn’t going to go to say that, but yes, it was really oriented on him and his property. But his wine… it was kind of like – when you ask yourself “Why should I buy this wine?” from that person who is a great photographer and who is presenting the wine as if it is ... I don’ t know. It was kind of ...
Yeah! You see it is his hobby in a way, so I saw the reaction of people at the fair and I was like, “I think you know there is sort of a hole in this, in the things that we do.” So I came back and I told him how I saw it, and my father asked me if I wanted to pick things up and do them. He had also thought that the wine industry would have a different reaction to his proposal, but they did not. So my life changed. I picked up there and I tried to change things in the winery, the production and the attitude we have towards the wine, the way we present the wine, and the most basic – the reason we make wine. Although I wasn't from the wine world, I didn’t study it, I tried and still try to understand everything as much as I can, because wine is something that takes a long time to really master it. But the communication and the way I present my products is something that is in my DNA.
So, you think that to make a good wine (or to have a good winery) you actually need more passion and ideas and not that much education?
No no no nooo! You need a lot of education in this. I learned whatever I have learned, as sort of a farmer kid - what you learn when you grow up is just a small part. For me, as a kid, it was normal to harvest the grapes, and I knew how to do that. I grew up with it but since I got in [the business], I am trying to grasp everything I can from that point on.
When you were smaller and picked the grapes and it was the celebration before school, did you have a winery then, too?
It was just family thing, and Massimo, the guy that is helping us and has worked with us here for 45 years – he was the one doing it.
The wine production?
Yes. Some years it was good, very good, and some years were like – oh my God! It was undrinkable. But it was there, every year. I think that this attitude of a happy kid doing the harvest and believing in wine being sort of a celebration, it is something I bring with me even today. I want to show people how I see wine and how I want it to be perceived – for it to be more of a happy thing, like a joyful moment, rather than intensively thoughtful moment.
But still you need to put your expenses and incomes and everything together when you have a farm like this and people work there to get salaries. You need to think about what people like.
Yes, numbers must increase. This is something that we are working on. We run the farm the way it should be run, but you know .. at the same time you have to have a clear idea of which direction this farm is going and why you do certain things. This reality is many things put together, it is not only communication and partying and drinking: it is work.
Actually, people sometimes forget that winemakers are farmers. But that is not only because people think that way but also because the wineries and sommeliers themselves try to make it look like it is an expensive thing. All the great cars, restaurants, wine tastings, sparkly people who like dressing up, never even talking about the farming side.
Well, yeah. I think it is like that in every market – high end and low end, and the middle market. The good thing about wine is that it is considered a luxury good, and this is because some countries don’t have it. Here it has always been a tradition – when you eat, you must have wine. It’s something that is in our education, in a way. So whatever the industry shows, we are farmers and at the same time you have to be an entrepreneur. Also .. different companies choose different ways of communication.
In Italy, your wine is considered to be where? It is not the cheapest wine, it’s not the expensive wine, so it is somewhere in the middle?
Yes, I think it is in a fair position for a new winery that is trying to make an excellence.
Your dear colleague Pinta (Latvian working in the winery) said that you have plans to build an empire. But for me the question is - you have as many vineyards as you have. You cannot have more. So what does it mean to build an empire, because you can’t plant 50 more hectares of wine, or maybe you can?
We can plant, yes. The farm is 160 hectares. The vineyard is only 12, which is around 8%. So, we have space to grow. But you can grow in different ways – you can grow in volume, but you can also grow in price. It depends how you place your wines and the points you get and so on.
But are the wine world points important to you?
I would say yes. When I see the good score, I am happy. If I don’t see a good score, I am not happy. But I don’t do my communication based on points. My “points” are – how many bottles people drink or enjoy of my wine, rather than how many points it gets.
Ok, there are two types of people – buyers looking at points and then the wine and the buyers who buy by taste and don’t care about points. What do you think about the first ones?
I think it is the same as comparing reading a book by a world renown author and reading a book of a local writer that may be a very good writer, but nobody knows him. I mean it is based on curiosity of people. I don’t make the wine to do the points. I do the wine to express something in a way I see it. To express the land, to express this area, to express possibilities and the different things that you can do with same vineyard. So, I produce and make wine and not just publicity. I’d rather talk a bit less and have people enjoy the wine. I mean it’s a really, really, really long process of which I might see the fruits in next ten years. Probably my kids and my grandkids will enjoy what I am doing now much more.
What about your family now? You have two small kids, a wife that works, you travel between Milano and the winery and around the world. Then your wife is in Paris and your kids are somewhere in between. People say today that you have to enjoy life today (they say that for wine, too), but do you enjoy today in this rhythm? You are in the industry of enjoying the moment, but at the same time, a farmer who makes it by working hard. Is it worth it?
It is worth doing what I am doing? Yes. All the way. People who work in a bank and who have to go, travel a lot, and leave the kids at home. But if you have a mission, you dedicate yourself to it. You also dedicate yourself to it, because you are building something for your kids. Now I travel a lot more than before. It is difficult, but it’s ok. I love it.
Since you stepped in, a lot has happened. Are you the only one making decisions or does your dad still step in to decide?
No, I have a team of people and he is not involved. It was the deal for me to start.
But does he still come to the office?
Yes, he is still the owner.
And it doesn’t bother you, since it is a very complicated thing, parents and kids, you know…
Extremely complicated. But since he was on my side in the beginning, it is easier. Sure enough, it is not easy when you have somebody taking over and you see that he is changing things. You sort of want to check it, I guess. But no, I am totally free to make decisions for the future. I am doing the whole thing. Of course, we talk and sometimes we discuss, and he gives his opinion. Sometimes I don’t agree and so on. It is kind of difficult, but it has always been like that, so we always sort of discussed it, in a way. Everybody is alive and it is ok.
Besides wine, you have all these other products – holiday houses to rent, exceptional olive oil, prosciutto, pigeons, horses. Now I heard that you would like to have chickens too? Are you planning to keep of all that or cut something out, since, as I always say, you cannot sit with one butt on two or three chairs.
I do not sit on too many chairs. I sit on the wine, oil, and prosciutto one. Other than that, I don’t really do other things. I don’t take care about the horses. The pigeons are just here, they make babies and make us happy. But on the whole, I think, we can keep doing everything we do on the farm. It is not that one has to quit for the other one, unless it is something on which you totally lose money and time, and effort. Everything is working the way it should. I think to cut something down, you have to cut it down when you are sure it is not working. But if you see something that is growing, I think it is kind of stupid to stop when it’s taking off.
You have changed your Instagram name from OT to Toscani. Why? Are you changing name of the company, too? Do you want to get rid of your dad’s name? (joke)
No, no, no.
Because it is a part of the success too – his name, or it’s not?
In Italy we say nì – between “no” and “sì”. Now, for example in Italy, it does not really help me at all, because my dad is a bit controversial and not everybody likes that. He is a genius in what he does, for sure, but he is not a name that is good for wine. He is not from a generation of winemakers, so that is also not helping. He is something more, but not for wine. So in Italy, it does not help, but outside – yes. For example, in France it helps.
I think in the wine world, especially in the part you are going for, people are already getting too smart to go for a name. They need wine. Or still, is name the thing?
This is something that goes to the side, not as the main thing. The story of how I had to work to get to the point I am at now is, that at the beginning, I had to promote the name, because that was the only thing done before. The only thing that I had in my hands. Today it is different, I have wine to promote.
Previously, wines were made in a way that, for me, probably wasn’t the way I thought it should be. So, I walked that road and eventually we changed. Today, I see much more success in what we are doing now as a whole, rather than just working on the name. We have been going to a lot of fairs and showing up everywhere. People listen more when you talk about something technical or explain the reason you actually did this product, rather than just saying – yes, we have a beautiful farm, and we produce wine with great name. You talk and they listen because you are doing something that works. I am not saying that we invented something, but for sure, we went outside the usual guidelines of this area, and that is what I want to do in the future – get out of the usual, standard area. We have a history of something else, doing something else. We can work on different aspects, so I think my father’s name is a good thing to have, but it is not the main thing. I never want it to change.
How many wines do you produce?
Are you planning to have more?
I’m planning just five. I am doing a new Cabernet Franc 100%, but it is going to come out in a long time. Now I am working on these 4-5 labels. Maybe this year we will do a new experiment, but I won’t tell you. Next year we’ll try.
After all these years, when you've been learning a lot, doing even more, would you do it all again? Everything?
How is the olive oil doing? We have talked about your olive oil a lot. I have participated in the harvest and it is not an easy thing to do. Your oil is not cheap, it is high quality and super tasty. The market is full, but you have launched another oil - Immortale. Are you going to work with it in the future, as the market is so full?
I am planning on doing my own olive oil press (frantoio) oil, so yes, we are going to make it happen. (Now they press in communal press, my note.)
Regarding Immortale , I think it is an amazing product. I mean, for me it was an experiment the first year, because I decided to work only with moraiolo olives. We took it to another mill, to the guys who have a special press, with special temperatures. They do different temperatures for different types of olives, and then they select the part of the oil that is the best. That world of olive oil is very interesting, as it all depends on how much time olives have waited before harvest, the acidity of the olives, the position of the plants. We studied all of that very well and we made a big step forward. And if you do understand it, like the wine, you have to do it by yourself first of all – know how, why and when. This is yet another thing that I am putting together.
So if they select only a part of the oil, what do they do with the other parts – use it for cooking or some other stuff?
Yes, different things. All of it is still superb.
And your prosciutto – these amazing products you produce that are so hard to get that you have to wait in line for 2 years. Are you going to do more of the prosciutto?
Well, this part is something, as you said, that can’t grow any bigger. That is something that probably can grow a little bit, but not in quantities, so it’s going to be something in the measure we have it now. To do it the way we do it, is extremely expensive. And I want it to be something special, so every piece would be like a Christmas present itself!
It will always be special. I have put down some numbers – you have to have at least 1000 pigs to reach the break even. If not, it can’t really work. For me it’s an honor that today everybody is ordering in advance, but for me it is also the way to show how I do the prosciutto. The same way I treat the wine. The same way I treat the oil, the same way I, we, treat our land. So I think that everything just sticks together, this way, you know. So yeah, I want to… it’s already there, so actually it’s fun because it just goes by itself.
But, it takes so much time…
It takes time, but it’s a project that is very fascinating.
Did you or you dad start it?
My father built the fences at the same time of planting the vineyard. When we fenced the vineyard, we also fenced the pigs. It was the project of my father who started with this other guy - Paolo Parisi, which is a huge name in Italy. Paolo had his own pig farm, and he was selling the products – he was like The Guy for cold cuts. And he started this thing with the pigs and then when I got in, it was kind of like – where are we going? I don’t know. I tried, I put my head in to that also. Wine is difficult but prosciutto – it is another world. I mean it is extremely difficult to grasp that world. You are sort of going underground.
But wine is more delicate in a sense of what happens in a nature, no? Because if you have hail, or if you have this or that, then the wine is like…?
For sure, but still! With the prosciutto, for example, if you cure the meat too late and it has been too hot, the stuff gets cooked and it doesn’t work. It gets a bad smell. So, it also has to do with nature a little bit. Ok, now they have new refrigerators and everything is always the same, humidity is the same, which is good thing, but the way I work with the guy that we went to visit last year, he goes with the nature, with these old ancient rooms without air conditioning and the temperature is not controlled. So, when you eat this kind of meat, everything just changes, every salami has its own story, has its own smell, its own mold. I think this is the way to proceed. It’s going to be difficult in the next decades to do these kind of things, because they are disappearing. But I will think about that later. Now we do it this way and I think it is working very well. Unfortunately, I do not have the possibility to enlarge more, but at least I can always work on quality.
What is your relationship with wine on a daily basis?
On a daily basis, it’s more about keeping the company together.
So you don’t drink wine everyday?
Yes, actually, I do.
I have heard the theory that people who drink wine every day, even a glass, are alcoholics. I know that in the evenings, in countries like Italy, Spain, and France, people have had it as a part of their diet for centuries. People who live the longest on earth also consume wine, a glass a day, or two. Others say, since we are not in Italy and it’s not part of our culture, it is something scary, and if you drink, you have a lot of problems. Either you have problems in life or you will have problems in life. I don’t think so…
I agree, I don’t think so. I have a Norwegian mother, so when you go to Norway, you see these guys – they get shit faced pretty badly. But I think it is sort of a… I mean I don’t want to make a mistake here, but, for example, in Russia, they drink vodka all the time. That stuff just burns you out. So I think that it is kind of a bad thing, because you drink strong alcohol. I drink wine. I don’t consider myself to be an alcoholic. Well, if you smoke one cigarette a day, you are a smoker so if you drink one glass of wine a day, you are alcoholic? So we are also all workaholics, because we work every day.
That’s a good point.
No, I think it’s something just in our head – the fact that if you drink, it’s trouble.
But Italians don’t think like that, right?
When I was kid, and I do the same with my kids, they put two or three drops of wine in a glass of water. And we always drink wine. There is a theory that it is better that kids start to drive when they are younger than older, when they want to show off. When they are young kids, they are sort of scared and they learn.
It is as they say, it is better for the kids to drink with the parents than telling them “no”, and afterwards they go to parties and they go in the other direction. I just think we should stop with the quote that we are all workaholics. I like that. It’s a very good thing, because we are. So we can drink wine, the same as we work (laughing).
I think 1-2 glasses is ok.. everything exaggerated is always bad.
Even olive oil?
Yes. I mean prosciutto is even worse. But it’s good for your happiness.
I think if you look at this like that, then everything is bad. At the same time, there is a fantastic book I’m reading in which Tim Spector talks about the idea that we have actually lost our way of eating naturally, real food. The world has gone, again, in the wrong direction. We have lost track of natural, real food – of sitting together, talking, enjoying food. And then the results are that our health is not even getting better. It’s not that everybody is eating green and getting healthier, the results are actually going the other way – they are getting worse and worse, and worse. So, I think it’s a good thing to eat natural things, also like charcuterie, fish, some of this and that, and just think about how much you eat and how often, and then I think its ok. Italy is a good example – I mean it’s not a good example if you see a lot of kids in Italy now, when they eat all this crap in the shops, but for those who live in a...
Badly nurtured kids have always been around. I think we are one of the top countries with obese kids in the world. We eat pasta everyday...
Pasta is one thing, the other thing is when you look into a shopping basket now. Pasta is the smallest part, and there are lots of things that you actually don’t need, which is processed ... I mean all the sweets, chocolate bars…
This is a big problem about marketing and margins of big companies. I think a lot of people have lost a track of what’s really important, but at the same time, you don’t have time to go to the farmer to get your stuff, and it’s much more expensive. I know and you know that eating like that is much healthier, but sometimes you can’t do it. Yeah, I think you should be conscious about what you are eating and doing the best you can, that’s for sure, but I think we are lazy animals. We try to do, we adapt really fast, so we adapted to the fact that we are just going to get the stuff at the supermarket.. I’m not going to go to two places to get my groceries.
It doesn’t make your business easier. People do not want to go and look for good things. You have some places where you can buy things – there was a shop where you can buy your culatello. So people are too lazy to look for it.
Yeah, but there will always be people who will go and look . Whoever wants a special ring, a special pair of shoes, or a special bottle of wine, special meat, fish. If you have to compare the price of what you buy in a shop like this, the prosciutto, for example, it’s a different world …
You can’t really compare...
I don’t really think there is this kind of stuff. I don’t even consider it to be happening. Lack of curiosity in a way, maybe. I just do my stuff and I sell what is of a great value. If I think of supermarkets, you have to think at least of 2 million bottles, 3 thousand pigs per year. From here were we sit now to the sea, all planted with oil trees, then it would make sense.
Yeah, true. Because everything is put in front of us.
Somebody built it for us like that. They showed us that it was really comfortable, and we do it. Why would you like to buy a car without air conditioning now? (laughing) Why? Because it is good for us?
Oh no, no, air conditioning is not good for us.
But it is nice, though.
Yeah! It’s all these little things that, when you get them, you don’t want to give them up, you don’t see your life..
It’s like people, and that really drives me crazy sometimes when I see it, who would say "Oh, no! I just drink biodynamic wines because of pollution and this and that", and then they drive in expensive cars. I would like to ask them - "why don’t you ride a bicycle then"? C’mon, put everything together.
A friend, who once used work for the L’Oreal group, said that it’s a very strange thing – people are using shampoos where it is written – no sulfites, but they drink a wine with a lot of it. And it makes sense.
Anything we do, like why would you want to go and look for organic shampoo and then, I don’t know, you buy yourself a polyester skirt or whatever.
Well, at least people think about it. So, that’s a good thing already. Because if you start to think about one thing, you might think about another thing and appreciate…
Usually, what we do is – we do it for ourselves. There is a saying in Italy: why do you have to stay on a diet all your life? Why do you diet all life to die healthy? So, I guess the way I see it is it’s not the fact that I have to see it myself. Anyway, one day…
We all die.
In good shape or bad, we are all going to go. So, I think it’s more the way of thinking - what we are going to leave behind, rather than what I’m digesting myself. It is what the other people, the next generations to come will find - what are we going to leave to have them digest? Because generations before us sort of went really hard on us. What we leave behind is really the concept of how to live and what we do in the farm. We are extremely respectful. Even if sometimes you have to use products to defend us from the ones that attack. You have to do something, because at the end of the month, workers want to be paid. But we do it in an environment of maximum respect. The truth is that if you leave everything to nature, you are not going to pick much stuff and it’s a normal process for everything. There are certain products that you can use, but you cannot hide from this. You use copper, to try to protect your vineyard but only when really needed, not like a precaution all the time. We do it with maximum respect . We don’t overproduce our land, we don’t do mass production of nothing.