Thanks a bunch: keeping a vineyard in the family
After buying a deserted Italian hamlet from 140 different owners, Cesidio Di Ciacca transformed it into a vineyard and hotel. Today, he looks to exit the hotel business and pass the vineyard to his daughter.
Italian temperatures soared above 40c in the summer of 2023, destroying the grape harvest for many of the country's vineyards. Cesidio Di Ciacca, a Cazenove Capital client who bought and regenerated a historic family vineyard and hamlet, says the issue was twofold. As spring bought several weeks of heavy rain, conditions were not dry enough for treatments to settle. Then sudden heat led to an outbreak of powdery mildew, adding to the damage.
“We probably lost about 80% of our grapes,” says Cesidio. “That’s a big chunk out of future income.” In a bid to prevent this from happening again, he’s been working with universities and other leaders in the field to make use of advances in farming technology.
“I’d love to use drones, but nobody’s managed to develop one precise enough for biological, organic grape farming,” Cesidio says. “You need to get down to the level of the grapes rather than spraying over the top of them, unlike other plants.
From the ground up
Cesidio’s grandparents emigrated to Scotland in the early-1900s from the idyllic Italian hamlet, I Ciacca, situated between Rome and Naples. He became a successful lawyer and business owner while returning to I Ciacca’s nearest town – Picinisco – for holidays. It was only after Cesidio sold his business that he decided to buy land in Lazio, which had long been abandoned.
The project wasn’t simple. I Ciacca was owned by 140 different people that Cesidio had to buy out individually. Over the last ten years, the Di Ciacca family has transformed it into an organic vineyard and events space linked to a nearby boutique hotel which forms part of the historic centre of Picinisco.
Today, the project attracts tourists from across the world, the wine has been critically acclaimed and it has created jobs in the local area. The vineyard ships wine to the UK, US, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania and beyond. They have also been running a social farm over the last two years for school children, disabled groups and scouts, where they can take part in growing and processing fruit and vegetables. “We wanted to demonstrate the historic value and commercial sustainability of the place and to be contributors to the local community,” explains Cesidio. The project has also attracted a lot of attention from the media. It is due to feature on season two of the Channel 4 programme, “Help! We bought a village,” this autumn, after the film crew spent a year gathering footage.
Growing pains: staffing in a small village
Running a business in a small region of Italy has its challenges, beyond harvesting grapes. This includes staffing. The family tries to hire local staff to support the area while giving guests access to local knowledge. However, one of the longest-standing employees who was a farm and winery manager for about 12 years recently left the company with very little notice. “It’s probably good in the long run as it will bring new ideas, fresh faces and enthusiasm. But it would be really nice if this happened in November, not just before harvest,” Cesidio’s daughter Sofia says. “This is an important time to do treatments and prepare the winery,” she adds.
The vineyard and hotel are situated in a small valley. As it is not a commercial wine-growing region, there is not a great level of experience in winery management or organic practices at a high level. “It’s a little tricky to find the right person,” says Sofia. “We’re going to be looking further afield, but it is expensive to find somebody and relocate them in our little area.”
Despite these immediate challenges, Cesidio and his wife Selina are looking to the future as they plan to pass the reins over to their daughter, Sofia, and her husband, Luigi Tana.
“Our succession planning is taking place on three levels,” says Cesidio. “One is ownership, the second is management and the is tax planning.”
The legal succession of the business started some years ago, because the majority of the company shares were put into Sofia’s name. Part of it is in trust for their children, leaving only 15-20% of company shares left in Cesidio and his wife’s names.
In terms of management, Sofia has recently taken time out of her career as she became a mother, which has meant some of the final physical handover is yet to happen. Despite this, Sofia and Luigi are very involved in the business at the moment and are hoping to become much more so in the future.
Cesidio and Selina have made use of the seven-year inheritance tax rule by gifting shares into trusts for the family and will shortly repeat the process. At the end of 2024 – seven years after the first transfer to the children’s trusts – Cesidio will make a second, larger transfer to the trusts. This will leave Cesidio and his wife Selina with a minority share. By reducing their estate in this way, less inheritance tax will be charged when they pass away.
Preparing for business exit
While the family intends to keep the vineyard, Cesidio is considering future opportunities to sell the hotel business to a larger brand that could expand the operation. The hotel, Sotto le Stelle, is spread across several buildings with ten bedrooms. “The next step is to move to 40-50 rooms to put the area more firmly on the international tourist map,” says Cesidio.
His business exit plans for the hotel are almost as ambitious as the project itself. Cesidio has worked on proposals to develop a local derelict castle into a larger 40-50 bedroom hotel, that could then take on Sotto le Stelle as a satellite property. He’s currently in talks with local politicians, architects and developers to make it a reality.
“That takes the burden off my family having to run the hotel. It also guarantees work for 50-60 people, and that really starts to change the equation,” Cesidio says. “It not only creates sustainability for me and my family, but also for the region and the village. At that level, the machine can really start to run smoothly – you don’t just need customers, you need staff. Where you’re promoting a business that is built on tradition and culture, you need local staff who will understand that. We’re getting to a really exciting stage.”
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