A private dining room and lunches shared with one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential men. The story of Dick Parsons’ journey into the world of fine wines begins there. It was the early 1970s, and he worked as a lawyer for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. “He would serve very fine French wines for lunch. He was the one who taught me about wine and introduced me to the pleasures of good wine,” says Parsons, the owner of Il Palazzone Estate in Tuscany, Italy.
Parsons became a senior White House aide when Rockefeller was elected vice president of the United States in 1974. The Brooklyn-born native went on to many more lunch and dinner meetings as a media mogul, corporate icon and policy advisor. The former CEO of AOL Time Warner continued learning about the world’s best wines while becoming one of America’s most respected business leaders. “That interest in fine wines grew over the next 20 to 25 years to the point when I was thinking of something to do for a hobby, I thought about making wine,” he says.
Pursuing a Passion
That thought evolved into an action plan following a conversation at a dinner party in the late 1990s. Warrie Price, the president and founder of the Battery Conservancy in New York, told Parsons about a grand adventure. Price and her husband had bought and refurbished a property in Tuscany where they spent their summers. “She talked about how much they loved the Italian countryside and the Italian people,” says Parsons. “It was a fascinating story. I could see how it almost reinvigorated her and her sense of joy in life.”
Inspired by that encounter, the future winery owner set out to find the perfect place for his developing hobby. Parsons spent a year traveling to France, South Africa, Argentina and California, looking at vineyards and tasting wines. His interest in good Italian wines took him to Tuscany, and the hunt was over. “I decided Italy was the place for me. The countryside in Tuscany is beautiful. My favorite wine is Brunello, a big Italian red.”
With the purchase of Il Palazzone in 2000, Parsons began learning the art of making his favorite wine in a place that had captured his heart. “It was something almost ancient, and the countryside is just gorgeous. It’s relaxing and serene. The place we got is beautifully situated, so I just fell in love,” he says.
Il Palazzone has three separate vineyards covering about 12 acres under vine. The rest of the property is a mix of woodlands and olive groves near the town of Montalcino. The soil in this area is famous for its geological variety. Having land in three different subzones of Montalcino means being able to combine the different expressions of sangiovese, the grape that must be used 100% for Brunello, considered one of the best red wines made in Italy.
The beauty of Tuscany, along with Italy’s scrumptious food and warm people, have made the ownership of Il Palazzone a delight for Parsons and the many friends he introduced to the estate. His trips to Tuscany at harvest time during September and October became annual celebrations. “It got to be a routine. We’d pick the grapes. We had our favorite restaurants. We’d boost the economy of Montalcino whenever we showed up and just had a lot of fun.”
Winemaking in Tuscany
Some friends invited to experience winemaking at Il Palazzone imagined they would be stomping grapes. Parsons believes an old “I Love Lucy” episode from 1956 is responsible for that imagery. “Nobody has stomped on the grapes in Italy in quite some time, except maybe very local producers who do it in their bathtubs.”
The wine made at Il Palazzone is hand-crafted, meaning the grapes are picked and pressed by hand. A vibrating sorting table is used as well as a small, traditional basket press. Parsons and his friends did not sit on the sidelines during harvest time. “They want to get out in the fields. They want to pick grapes and be in the Italian countryside.”
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The African American vintner’s passion for every aspect of winemaking has grown over two decades of owning Il Palazzone. “Just walking in the fields, seeing them from start to finish grow, develop and be cared for by the people who tend the grapes,” says Parsons. “It’s all a process. I enjoy being involved because you get to taste and improve as it goes along.”
Citigroup’s former chairman and CEO often had a difficult time explaining when his children would ask, “But dad, what do you do?” Winemaking gave him something more tangible to describe. “Here, you can say we grow grapes. We pick them, crush them. We blend them and make wine. Here, have a taste. It’s a real thing.”
Parsons enjoys the winemaking process from the picking to the pressing of the grapes. “You put them in large oak casks and taste a little bit as it goes along, moving barrel to barrel. They age in various sized barrels for four years,” he explains. “Then we blend the different barrels because, until that point, we have kept the yields from our different vineyards separate.”
It took five years of research and study of super Tuscans before Parsons chose his first blend for a special, personal project. He wanted to honor his parents, Lorenzo and Isabelle. The wine had to represent his father’s strength and elegance and his mother’s sweetness and determination. The vintner chose a specific combination of sangiovese, cabernet franc and petit verdot. The first bottling of Lorenzo & Isabelle IGT was a 2005 vintage released in 2007 and considered one of the top 100 wines in Italy. A second vintage (2013) was made with a similar blend of the same three varietals and released in 2018.
Producing Fine Wines
Il Palazzone is one of the few wine estates in Tuscany with a motto. “Our motto is we drink all we can. We sell the rest. And it works for me,” Parsons says. The estate sells about 1,000 cases of Brunello a year and around the same amount of two other wines, a Rosso del Palazzone and Lorenzo & Isabelle. Brunello is distinguished by the strict requirements for making and aging the wine. Italian laws dictate that Brunello can only be made in Montalcino from authorized vineyards. It has to be made from 100% sangiovese, a common Tuscan grape with massive terroir variation. Brunello can age for many years under proper storage. In very special years, a Brunello Riserva is also made in very small quantities. Last year, Il Palazzone released its first single-vineyard Brunello Le Due Porte 2015.
This is what Winemaps.com says about Brunello and Il Palazzone: “Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is one of the most prestigious wines in Italy and Il Palazzone is at the forefront of the Montalcino producers regarding quality and consistency over the years.”
Il Palazzone’s Rosso is made from the same grapes as the Brunello but does not adhere to the many strict requirements. The super Tuscan is a blend of grapes. “My favorite is Brunello, and my favorite year is 2010. Although 2016 is going to be right up there,” Parsons says. “I remember working with my enologist and putting them together. I enjoy the depth of the wine and the character.”
Maurizio Castelli is the winemaker consultant at Il Palazzone. The Tuscany resident began working as an enological consultant in the 1980s. Wine Enthusiast gives the estate’s 2016 Brunello di Montalcino a rating of 95 points out of 100. The magazine says the wine’s “racy, high-toned palate delivers tart cranberry, red raspberry and crushed mint while a graphite note lends depth.” For the best enjoyment, hold onto it and open the Brunello during the years 2023–2031.
“First of all, vintage years are so important in wine. The quality of what comes out of the vineyards depends on four things, sun, rain, soil and wind. Different vintages ultimately taste differently because of those characteristics,” Parsons says.
The vintner points out that the caliber of the wines depends on the work in the vineyards. Consequently, Parsons takes no credit for the weather or the exceptional wines produced by his team.
Il Palazzone is dedicated to “agricoltura responsabile” (responsible agriculture) and sustainability. “It’s important. First of all, from the big picture, who shouldn’t be involved in helping to save the planet and keep it clean and productive?”
The manager of the property’s upkeep and agronomical operations is a local man. Parsons chose Marco Sassetti to lead outdoor operations. He remembers a conversation they had about the return of the butterflies to the estate. “After we decided to improve our methods, he came to me one day and said, ‘This is great. The butterflies are back. That’s how you can tell. Now that the butterflies are back, everything is good.’”
Parsons could not be prouder of what Il Palazzone’s team has accomplished, especially Laura Gray. She is married to Sassetti and became the estate’s general manager in 2003. Gray takes care of indoor operations, is a trained sommelier and has an English Literature degree from the University of Oxford. “She manages a full-time staff year-round, oversees bringing in the labor we need at harvest time and works with the winemaker. We have complete confidence in her,” Parsons says.
Challenges to Conquer
An estate that produces about 25,000 bottles of wine annually will encounter challenges even with the best management team. Il Palazzone’s owner puts weather at the top of the list of potential problems to conquer, followed by distribution and labor. “Italian winemaking starts out with farming. You grow stuff on the land. Sunshine, rain and wind are super important in making wine,” says Parsons.
Late frosts, heat-spikes and drought all affect the vines. The worst can be hail. Il Palazzone lost one year’s harvest to a hailstorm. “When the hailstorm hits, it breaks the skins of the grapes. In a matter of a few days, the grapes are useless for making wine. We basically had to cut the grapes to the ground.”
Fortunately, the vineyards recovered and continue to provide the grapes for Il Palazzone wines. Jenny Cuddihy is in charge of U.S. distribution, marketing and sales for the estate. She has an Advanced Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and more than 15 years of experience in the food and beverage industry.
Il Palazzone wines are available in the United States, Canada, Korea, Australia, Singapore, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Italy. The Brunello’s price point in wine shops is anywhere from $80 to $100 and up. “Anytime you are making a consumer product of any kind, the key to success is distribution. If you can’t get your wonderful product into the hands of people, you just end up with a wonderful product sitting in a warehouse,” Parsons says.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Il Palazzone saw many visitors arriving for private tours, tastings and special events. Some have become customers who buy directly from the estate. Italy’s travel restrictions impacted some aspects of the operations but not the year-long work in the vineyards and the 2020 harvest.
“Labor is a big challenge because we pick by hand. The population has gotten old. It’s hard to find local help nowadays.” Gone are the days when neighbors and their kids picked the grapes during communitywide harvesting events. The need to bring in laborers from other countries became more challenging once COVID-19 spread worldwide. It is only at harvest time that Il Palazzone relies on a local company that employs third-party laborers, primarily from Kurdistan and Morocco.
The barrels in the estate’s cellar must be cleaned and prepared for the grape juice. Each fermentation has to be monitored and sustained for the weeks following the harvest. Cellarwoman Paola B. Martino has worked in Montalcino since 2005. She earned a degree in Viticulture and Enology at the University of Pisa.
One challenge Parsons has not encountered in Italy is resistance or resentment because he is an African American who owns land and makes wine there. He recalls how generous and compassionate the Italian people were after another difficult period in time. “After 9/11, I remember going over, and the mood and the sense of the country were so empathetic to the United States,” Parsons says. “People would come up and touch you. They’d bow their heads as if to say, ‘We sympathize with you. We are with you, brother.’ It has been warm and wonderful.”
Peace over More Profits
Building relationships with the best and the brightest people became a trademark of Parsons on his way to becoming a guiding light in business and government. He served as an economic adviser to President-elect Barack Obama in 2008. He also became the first holder of Howard University’s Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy.
With all Parsons has accomplished, including rebuilding Citigroup after it lost billions in the subprime mortgage crisis, he cherishes the times spent at Il Palazzo making wine. “I started it really as a hobby, involved a lot of my friends and created wonderful relationships both here and in Italy.”
Would he advise others passionate about fine wines to go into the business? “There’s an old joke,” Parsons replies. “How do you make a small fortune? You start with a large fortune and you buy a vineyard.” The multi-millionaire can laugh at that quip because he did not become a winemaker in Tuscany to make a lot of money.
“People say you ought to get some more property. You have the infrastructure in place. You can make more money,” he says. “I’m not interested in that. I didn’t go into this to have a second or, in my case, a fifth career. I went into it to have fun, to produce good wine and to introduce myself into a new way of thinking and being productive.”
Parsons has achieved all of that and more. Il Palazzone’s wines are now rated in the mid-90s. Although there were few opportunities to meet other Black vintners in Italy, he did make friends with some African-American wine enthusiasts and experts in the U.S. “My favorite guy is Patroski Lawson. He’s a consultant who works with a group of people introducing the best wines and bringing our wine to the attention of his clientele.” Lawson is the founder of Wine Immersion, LLC in Washington, D.C.
Parsons featured wines from other Black vintners through his connection with Minton’s Playhouse, a jazz club in Harlem. His favorite is Passages, a South African wine label started by acclaimed journalist Charlene Hunter-Gault and her businessman husband, Ronald. “It is a lot of fun, and you get the satisfaction of producing something where there is a start, middle and a finish. The finish involves a tangible product that you can taste, feel and share with friends.”
The retired corporate mastermind spends his winters in Miami and his summers on Rhode Island’s Block Island, where his wife Laura owns a bookstore. At age 72, Parsons does not see himself making the annual harvest trips to Tuscany anymore. He is focusing on seeing his sons, Gregory and Tristan, his daughter Leslie and his grandkids live happy and healthy lives pursuing their own interests.
Il Palazzone’s owner would also like to see the members of his team at the estate receive the recognition that their talents and dedication deserve. “One of the great things you can look back on when you get older is whether you have helped, mentored or provided a shoulder for somebody else to stand on and shine.”
Parsons does have something else to keep his fondest memories of Tuscany, the vineyards and the people vibrant. He has a bottle of every wine produced at Il Palazzone since 1995. For him, it was always about “making a good wine, having a lot of fun with a group of good friends and being at complete peace.”