PERSPECTIVE3-5 min to read

How I bought an Italian village from 140 owners

Italy has recently been selling dilapidated homes in regeneration schemes to attract new residents to rural communities. We spoke to Cazenove Capital client, Cesidio di Ciacca, about how he ended up buying an entire village and transforming it into a thriving hotel and vineyard.

18/05/2023
Ciacca

Authors

Victoria Beckett
Editor and Copywriter

"Don’t do it!” laughs Cesidio Di Ciacca when asked what advice he’d give to his former self. “I’m being frivolous, but perhaps I’m frightened to face up to the answer. It has been a 10-year development project and we’re still only at the start-up phase really.”

Over the last decade, Cesidio has bought an abandoned village in Lazio, Italy, and turned it into a celebrated organic vineyard and boutique hotel, bringing life to the local community. His grandparents had emigrated from the beautiful Italian hamlet, Borgo I Ciacca, for Scotland in the early 1900s. Cesidio became a successful lawyer and entrepreneur in Edinburgh but the family returned to the nearest town, Picinisco, on regular holidays. After selling some of his businesses and becoming a Cazenove Capital client, he began to consider investing in the area.

A life from which you don’t need a holiday

“We were not aristocrats. We were farmers. My family have lived and worked here, according to church records, for 500 years. It’s got that strange link that sort of pulls you in,” says Cesidio.

Beyond the emotional draw, there were two other reasons why Cesidio and his family decided to invest in the area. Firstly, “I’ve noticed that, when you go abroad, you’re treated differently as an investor or a worker. You’re seen as having something to offer rather than simply being a tourist, so other doors were opened to us. We got to know local people in different ways,” says Cesidio. Secondly, Cesidio wanted to create a life “from which I didn’t need a holiday”.

Historically, Italian property law has generally divided land between an owner’s children when it has been passed on as inheritance, compared to UK law which has often historically passed on to the eldest son. As a result, the hamlet was owned by 140 different people across 11 families.

To reclaim the village and create a land mass large enough to be of value, Cesidio had to buy out each of the owners. Some were related to his own family by various degrees. Others were not. To avoid disputes, he took a blanket approach. The Italian authorities publish the value of different types of land annually, so Cesidio offered everyone the published price. In reality, however, each piece was so small that often it had very little value. Remarkably, this whole process was done in 18 months. “That seemed to do the trick. In one sense I overpaid for it, but without paying market rates it would have been impossible to tie together. Or, some people may have felt resentment because I’d paid more to others and I could have lost friends or relations,” Cesidio explains. By bringing all of the land under one ownership, Cesidio and his family have been able to create a development large enough to attract industry. “It wasn’t intended to be an economic development project. It was meant to be a hobby farm,” he explains.

A vineyard “for obvious reasons”

“It started as a hobby farm with a vineyard, for obvious reasons – because I like wine,” says Cesidio. The family knew that chemicals had never been used on the farm ground. The vineyard previously grew a grape only found locally. Later DNA studies found it was not related to any other grape in the world, so Cesidio decided they needed a winery to make it. His brother-in-law introduced Cesidio to a contact in the wine world – Alberto Antonini. In 2015, the wine publication Decanter named Alberto as one of the top five winemakers in the world. Initially he “turned his nose up a little bit,” says Cesidio. Alberto said that no one had heard of good wine from Lazio or of the grape – maturano. He agreed to come and see the vineyard as a favour and ended up helping us for 10 years. “He insisted on putting on the bottle, ‘made with the help of our friend Alberto Antonini’, which was a great compliment,” says Cesidio.

Cesidio's vineyard v2

The vineyard growing the local grape, maturano.

Supporting the local community

Today, the project has morphed into something far bigger than a hobby farm. The development has brought visitors from across the globe to the area and created jobs that Cesidio and his family reserve for locals. “At any business, you don’t just need customers – you need staff. When you’re promoting a business that is built on tradition and culture, you need local staff who understand that,” says Cesidio.

The family chose not to include a bar or restaurant in their hotel for several reasons. “We didn’t want to compete with locals because as strangers, albeit with a strong historic family connection, it was important to be welcomed rather than to be challenging or excluded by local businesses,” Cesidio says. What’s more, he felt that setting up a brand new business is difficult enough without trying to run two or three remotely. Food and beverage often require more personal attention than a hotel does too, making it harder to manage. The hotel is formed by a series of buildings in the Centro Storico of Picinisco, separate from a range of farm buildings that are now used for tours, tastings and more. This allows guests more autonomy than they might have in one large property. This hotel concept is called “albergo diffuso”, roughly translating into “dispersed hotel”. Cesidio felt that albergo diffusos should encourage guests to experience local life. And while there’s a kitchen and living room in each of the suites, guests are encouraged to go to the local restaurants, many of which now feature in food guides, such as Slow Food. Within a couple of years, Michelin described it as “a little jewel”.

Building an international reputation

The hotel, Sotto Le Stelle, functions to attract people. Meanwhile, the vineyard has been producing since 2017. It won prizes in 2017 and 2019 from Decanter and International Wine Challenge. Wine expert Jancis Robinson has just featured one of the wines on her platform for new Italian wines tested this year. “That’s a big plus,” says Cesidio, “they gave us from 16 to 17++ out of 20, 87-90+%, for our wines, which is great news. In her podcast, Jancis Robinson describes 17 as “fairly outstanding”. So we’re producing quality, we’re getting consistency and slowly getting recognition.”

Looking to the future, Cesidio and his family are about to launch a cookery school for tourists supported by the market garden, which hosts gardening classes for school children, scouts and special needs visitors. Channel 4 are currently filming a documentary series in the I Ciacca called “Help! I bought a village” which will air on UK TV in October. “The next step is moving it from six to ten rooms to 30-40 rooms, to put it on the international tourist map, not in a way that will destroy its culture, but which will perpetuate its life,” says Cesidio.

Di Ciacca family v2

The Di Ciacca family on the steps of their hotel, Sotto Le Stelle.

Issued in the Channel Islands by Cazenove Capital which is part of the Schroders Group and is a trading name of Schroders (C.I.) Limited, licensed and regulated by the Guernsey Financial Services Commission for banking and investment business; and regulated by the Jersey Financial Services Commission. Nothing in this document should be deemed to constitute the provision of financial, investment or other professional advice in any way. Past performance is not a guide to future performance. The value of an investment and the income from it may go down as well as up and investors may not get back the amount originally invested. This document may include forward-looking statements that are based upon our current opinions, expectations and projections. We undertake no obligation to update or revise any forward-looking statements. Actual results could differ materially from those anticipated in the forward-looking statements. All data contained within this document is sourced from Cazenove Capital unless otherwise stated.

 

Authors

Victoria Beckett
Editor and Copywriter

Topics

Lifestyle
Impact Investing
Dialogue

Cazenove Capital is a trading name of Schroders (C.I.) Ltd which is licensed under the Banking Supervision (Bailiwick of Guernsey) Law 2020 and the Protection of Investors (Bailiwick of Guernsey) Law 2020, as amended in the conduct of banking and investment business. Registered address at Regency Court, Glategny Esplanade, St. Peter Port, Guernsey GY1 3UF, (No.24546) . Schroders (C.I.) Limited, Jersey Branch is regulated by the Jersey Financial Services Commission in the conduct of investment business. Registered address at 40 Esplanade, St. Helier, Jersey JE2 3QB, (No.31076).

The value of your investments and the income received from them can fall as well as rise. You may not get back the amount you invested.