The Italian Winemakers Targeting Teens and Muslims
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these brothers are adding some hiccups to the old way of doing wine.
Paolo and Giorgio Polegato are brothers as different as night and day, yin and yang. So it makes sense that they’re adding balance to the world of wine. These vino kings are expanding the Italian wine universe to include conservative Islamic markets, Asian drinkers … and even teenagers.
The brothers, 51 and 58, are the brains behind an alcohol-free sparkling “wine” for Muslims called 9.5 Zero Tondo, the first product of its kind in Italy. Zero Tondo has the same sweet taste, fizz and golden color of Prosecco but is made by adding CO2 to a sweet must. (Most teetotalling wine is made by removing the alcohol from the substance, but the Polegatos’ method is unique — it augments instead of subtracting.) The Polegatos’ Astoria Wines, located in Refrontolo, in the wine-rich Veneto region, continues to sell normal Prosecco and red and whites, with sparkling as their core business. The brothers’ outfit is one of the largest in the region, selling roughly 10 million bottles a year and averaging a €40 million profit every year. And over 100,000 bottles of Zero Tondo are exported to Morocco, Dubai and Egypt each year, Giorgio says. Zero Tondo has even earned some favor within Italy, including at luxury beach resorts in paradise island Sardinia, where sheikhs and businessmen from the UAE are frequent guests.
When customers visit, wine tastings in the canteen may begin at 10 in the morning, ending late in the evening — you could say their tolerances are strong. But Prosecco vapors also run in their veins: The Polegatos’ grandfather started the winery after WWII. The eureka moment for Paolo and Giorgio’s iteration of the business only struck while at dinner at a Moroccan friend’s restaurant. The wine, Paolo recalls, “was flowing in abundance only on our side of the table.” That didn’t sit well with him; he sees wine as democratic and multicultural, a natural way to elide social barriers. (As the Italian proverb goes: Even a priest can take a wife after a barrel.) In 2014, they decided to create something that distilled the spirit of wine — pun intended — without the tipsy side effects.
It’s “a fruit juice, but it’s sublime and innovative.”
—Wladimiro Gobbo, sommelier
Their move was provocative. Purist Italians attacked them for “contaminating” King Prosecco. “There are strict rules: You can’t apply the label of Prosecco to a nonalcoholic drink,” explains Veneto sommelier Wladimiro Gobbo, who’s also a member of Italy’s Sommeliers Association. Gobbo wouldn’t call Zero Tondo wine — it’s “a fruit juice, but it’s sublime and innovative.” He lauds the Polegatos for assembling “all the flavors that recall Prosecco — apple, pear, lemon, grapefruit, acacia and meringue.”
Muslim Samir Kebi, a 24-year-old Tunisian university student in Rome, has tried one of the eight-euro bottles of Zero Tondo. He calls it a “great idea.” He figures the Polegatos got it right, value-wise: “Our religion forbids us to drink alcohol, not wine itself, which creates good social ties and makes evenings pleasant.”
The two brothers would make for amicable dinner guests at one of these parties they’ve imagined their wine into; each one complements the other. Paolo self-identifies as worldly: “Get the picture: I’m a globetrotter, a living Atlas. Never been to a place twice in my life.” Definitely not the case for Giorgio, he says, who “always goes to the same beach resort every summer.” Paolo’s the creative one, bursting with new ideas like a volcano, a fashion worshipper, always on the run and as fizzy as Prosecco. Giorgio, by contrast, is a lover of classic garments, calm, serious. He’s the marketing dude who deals with spreadsheets and gets his hands dirty touring their 40-hectare vineyard.
“Opposite poles attract. Astoria would be a one-legged firm if one was missing,” says employee Maria Teresa Dal Pocol, who’s been working with the family since 1972. She watched the kids grow up running through the sun-kissed vineyards and playing hide-and-seek behind canteen barrels. The estate, surrounded by green, gentle, rolling hills, features an old colonial villa dating back to the 1800s that once belonged to an aristocratic family.
Yet the provinciality of the scene belies the brothers’ global ambitions: Next, they’re headed East, with another weird concoction to lure Asian drinkers. “Yu Sushi Sparkling,” launched last year, is sold inside a white bottle covered in red Japanese writing that hints at the colors of the Rising Sun flag. This time, it is alcoholic. Japanese drinkers, who Giorgio says have always been wine lovers but tend to prefer beer or sake, might pair this wine with raw fish — “the dry, light sweetness counterbalances the strong taste of sushi and sashimi.” So far, they’ve sold 300,000 bottles at around 8 to 10 euros a pop. After Asia? They’re coming for your kids — but don’t worry, it’s safe. The Astoria siblings sponsored the launch of Tondo Spritz, a new zero-alcohol cold wine aperitif with elderflower syrup and orange.
The Polegatos are an example of how trends are playing out across Europe and beyond. World wine markets are chasing Muslim or other non–alcohol-consuming customers with creative alternatives to traditional wine. Spain launched Vincero, a zero-alcohol wine that comes in both red and white bottles, while nonalcoholic malt beer for Muslims has been introduced in Malaysia.
But for all their experimentation, the brothers haven’t abandoned their prize Prosecco. They’re happy to serve others with drier appetites, but they’d never go back on Italian wisdom — as the ancient Latin motto goes, “In vino veritas.” Through wine, people see things as they are.