Family business: Grappa made with love
In Bassano del Grappa, a charming small town at the foot of the Mount Grappa that dates back to the 2nd century BC, there is a small museum of grappa, traditional Italian grape-based alcoholic beverage. Founded by the Poli family that is involved in distillation of grappa since 1898, the museum is the result of long and passionate research of the family that started from old documents witnessing the story of distillation of this beverage, some dating back to the XVI century.
The very word grappa (graspa in the antique dialect of the Veneto region) originates from Veneto. The drink itself was also distilled in Piedmont, but in the Piedmont dialect they used the word branda, meanwhile in Friuli it was called braga. Now the word grappa has then spread throughout Italy, and today it means a geographical indication applied exclusively to Italy, which means that the marc of Italian origin has been used in the distillation process.
In the museum, apart from the old distillation facilities, some video-material and the area dedicated to the evolution of the bottle used for marketing this drink, there is a room with the so-called olfactometers, devices that allow visitors of the museum to smell twenty different kinds of distillates. If this olfactory experience is not enough, one can taste and purchase different kinds of grappa in the last room of the museum, the showroom.
While wandering through the rooms of the museum, my eye catches a quote of Jacopo Poli, the fourth-generation manager of the family business: “Distilling good Grappa is easy: one only needs fresh marc and a hundred years experience.” Only later on, when I head to the second museum and the production facilities of the company, based in Schiavon, the province of Vicenza, to meet Jacopo Poli, I discover that it also takes a lot of love for what you do and who you work with.
Schiavon town, the second seat of the Poli Grappa museum, is located less than 20 km from Bassano del Grappa, and is also surrounded by the Dolomites. It is much bigger, and offers a lot of information on the origins of distillation, distillation facilities, the grape mark, and, of course, the story of the Poli family, starting from their first steps in this business made by GioBatta Poli, the great-grandfather of Jacopo Poli, who now manages the company, supported by his siblings Giampaolo, Barbara and Andrea.
ebruary is a quiet period for distillers of grappa, as the beverage already rests quietly in long lines of barrels. What makes the production of Poli Grappa different from the beverage made by many other producers is that they still use traditional distillation facilities in copper, instead of stainless steel ones that have recently become widespread, being a less expensive material.
The wide variety of grappa distilled by the Poli family contains, among other types, grappa aged in wooden barrels from 1 to as much as 13 years. Barrels of Cherry, Porto and rum are used to enrich the available range of flavours. Aging in these particular barrels takes from 6 months to 3 years.
While wandering throughout the premises, I set my eyes on a red motorcycle of the cult Italian brand Guzzi and ask my guide, what does it have to do with grappa? It turns out that this is the motorcycle of Toni, the father of Jacopo Poli, who once had a dream of travelling on his Guzzi Airone Sport 250 cc to the North Cape (Nordkapp) in Norway. After the trip of about 10.000 km, full of adventures, he was warmly welcomed back by the entire village. For his return, the family invented a special grappa-based aperitivo Airone Rosso, which, translated from Italian, means the red heron.
After a guided tour to the factory facilities, I head to the office to meat Jacopo Poli and ask him several things I have been thinking about since the day of my first visit to the museum.
Jacopo, how does it feel being in charge of a family company that has a history of almost 120 years?
First of all, it is the history, the life of a person: my ancestors, brothers, and my wife. When one decides to continue a family business, he may do it as a duty, with pleasure, responsibility or because of convenience. For me, it has been a clear choice, when I decided to go and do something else. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be a part of this company or if I preferred doing something else, as if I was not born in this family. I got a job in the textile business, at United Colours of Benetton, to gain some experience and, while working there, at certain point, I felt that what I really wanted to do was to take care of the family business. I was a part of the family, therefore this choice could have come naturally, and yet it was my choice. Even if I have consciously decided to be part of the Poli Company, I anyway felt a very strong bond with my ancestors. We are a fruit of a series of projections and expectations previous generations have in our regard. Sometimes people act or do things, aiming to meet the expectations of their parents. The question “What would you like to be?” is a choice every person has to make. The thing is: to what extent it is a free choice or a choice conditioned by what others expect of you. Year after year, I have tried to make my work coincide with my life and the life of my family. What does it mean to me? To me, it is an act of love. Indeed, to sum up, it is an act of love. A act of recognition, respect, care, continuity, and responsibility. Eventually, the word love contains all of those things.
Working with family members is easier or more difficult that working with others?
It is certainly more difficult, because you have to find the balance between professional and personal issues. It takes certain level of maturity and more receptiveness, compared to that necessary when working with others. When you have professional and personal relations with a person, you have to consider that you are also a brother, an uncle, a father, a nephew… You have to consider all of that when you are relating to family members. In certain aspects, it simplifies things. Meanwhile in some other aspects it is more complicated. Being able to take care of the family and interests of the company, make them live together, is a great force, an opportunity. If you cannot handle these different dynamics, things might get really complicated. It takes a lot of emotive intelligence to handle this type of relations. At the time being, we are doing well, and I wish that things would continue being that way. The fact that it is so difficult makes it both, more rigorous and more beautiful.
Would you like your children to join the company in the future?
I would be happy, if my son and nieces decided to continue the family business, having made their conscious choice, doing it with pleasure, and not because it is a family duty. Yes, I would like that. It would be reasonable for them to travel, make other experiences, find their own ways and get their professional education. Yet I would love them to then join the company. They might not be interested in this business, it can happen, you cannot force them to. This passage of generations is one of the most crucial things in the life of many companies, first of all here in Italy, in the Northern Italy in particular. The continuity cannot be taken for granted. It takes willingness and competences; technical, linguistic, relational, and leadership competences. A person that assumes responsibility might find himself crushed down by the weight of it all. I would like them to grow, gaining the capacity to be able to manage this responsibility and choose to carry on.
What gives you most satisfaction at work?
Seeing a satisfied customer gives me an absolute satisfaction. Seeing that customer appreciates your work, buys your products with pleasure, and believes in them. Because they are done well, give value for money. Seeing satisfied customers, creating a good product is satisfying.
You pay much attention to the quality of the raw materials. Where do you buy them?
We purchase the grape marc from local wine producers. We choose different kinds, depending on the type of grappa we want to distil. Freshness is the most important thing for distillation of good grappa. We purchase the marc from wineries of Vicenza, Treviso, and Padua.
What is the greatest challenge you face at work?
Challenges change from moment to moment, from person to person, and from company to company. They were different in the past. Today, the challenge is finding the equilibrium between the individuals who work for the company, whether or not they are family members, so that everyone would be able to live their lives, doing the job they like, having as their target the satisfaction of the customer and earning the salary that enables them to live in a dignified manner. I believe that being able to be yourself in the professional environment, actually living the company, not treating your job as something separate from your personal life, living your professional life as an integral part of your life in general, would be a huge and important step. At this moment of my life, I would like to arrive to the situation, in which people feel good. It is not simple. Creating jobs, in which individuals are respected, working conditions are good, where people are appreciated not only for their professional qualities but also for who they are, where one feels a good team spirit, is a wonderful objective for an entrepreneur. It is not easy in big companies, as envy, jealousy become a part of the game. I would like to stay away from these negative dynamics. I would like to see faces of people who work willingly, clients who buy willingly, to feel positive energy. This is what I wish for myself. My life is very, maybe too much permeated with my activities. I am immersed in my work. I cannot see where my work ends and my hobby begins. I like what I am doing. Speaking of family, it often ends up being in the waiting list, as one has to handle his work, less important daily issues that must be handled. One must always strive for the equilibrium.