The success of Gaja’s winery is built around tradition and innovation
The labels that adorn the bottles from the Gaja winery in northwest Italy are unusually simple, merely displaying the name of the winery, the name of the wine, and the vintage. However, they weren’t always so minimalist. In fact, a look back through the vineyard’s archive of old bottles, dating as far back as the nineteenth century, shows that these labels were once festooned with medals, award crests, and lots of intricate decoration.
My grandfather started the process of taking away the medals and the awards," says Gaia Gaja. "In the end, he gave more importance to another aspect of the label: his name." In this way, she says, the labels are a bit like the wines themselves. "The idea is to arrive at an essence of design or an essence of style," she explains. "Real luxury is taking away what is superficial and unneeded, and getting to the essence of things."
Alongside her siblings, Giovanni and Rossana, Gaia represents the fifth generation of the Gaja family to make wines in this part of Piedmont. Their ancestors settled in the region in the mid-seventeenth century and began producing wines in the Langhe hills in 1859, when a local grape grower by the name of Giovanni Gaja decided to establish a winery in the tiny village of Barbaresco. Over the following two generations, the winery grew in size and reputation until by the middle of the twentieth century it had become a renowned producer within Italy, known predominantly for its Nebbiolo-based reds, Barolo and Barbaresco.
Yet it was not until Angelo Gaja joined in 1961, representing the fourth generation of the family business, that the winery began selling to foreign markets and garnering something of the worldwide reputation it enjoys today. "When I joined the winery," says Angelo, now 80 years old but still as sharp as ever, "Barbaresco was an undiscovered wine, principally drunk in Italy, but with no exports to foreign markets." This was the great challenge of his many decades at the helm – to, as he puts it, "earn the reputation in the market that we believed our wine deserved". It’s fair to say that over the past 60 years, Angelo has succeeded in that ambition. Gaja wines are now not simply acknowledged but also hungrily sought out by the cognoscenti around the globe, and have won countless awards.
The reason is that the family takes a more traditional approach to brand-building. "The communication of Gaja has always been a bit different," says Giovanni, Gaia’s younger brother, who studied economics in Milan before joining the family business full-time in 2018. "We have never had a website and we don’t use social media." To many business owners, this will sound an almost foolhardy strategy, but the logic lies in a contrarian spirit that has been cultivated over generations within the family. "When everyone is focusing on the internet, media and digital, we are still focused on communication in a more personal way," Giovanni adds. "We transmit our philosophy and concept by talking about them in person."
It turns out that this penchant for going against the grain is well developed within the family. "My father taught me that you have to be able to think differently," says Angelo. It’s something that has long been a part of his family and that he has tried to pass on to his children, as they begin to take over the reins of the company. For Gaia, it comes down to a balance between belief and doubt. "In everything we do, there is a strong belief," she explains. "But also a pillar of our philosophy is doubt. My father has never been dogmatic, and even now he always makes sure to keep his mind open. And by being open to other techniques and theories, we can improve."
This willingness to question and scrutinise traditional methods and to innovate is most visible in the way the winery has in recent years embraced new methods in viticulture. "We strongly believe that the best way to take care of our vines is to increase and enhance the biodiversity all around them," says Rossana, the middle child. Gaja has adopted a range of measures in order to do this, from having natural grazing around the vineyard to keeping a dozen beehives and wildflowers on the land to help maintain a healthy bee population.
Yet the most important thing for a vineyard is protecting the purity of the soil – after all, this will have the greatest impact on the health of the vines, the quality of the grapes, and therefore the wines at the end of the process. Many winemakers use cover crops, the other plants that are set between the rows of vines or under them that help support the long-term health of the vines. As Rossana explains, Gaja uses cover crops – "the choice is normally between leguminous and cereal crops" – to aerate and soften the soils around the vines and to encourage the growth of the vital microorganisms necessary for truly healthy vines. Then, in May, they cut all of the cover crops and leave them around the vines. "In this way," she says, "we create a kind of cover, like a thermal blanket that helps us to protect the humidity and freshness of the soil."
These techniques are not simply adopted for their own sake. Because they are organic and natural, they also ensure the whole winemaking operation is more sustainable, in every sense of the word, an important move considering the issues Gaja is likely to face in future. "The biggest challenge is climate change," says Gaia, "and the real way to fight climate change is to grow and defend." Soils that are, as she puts it, "full of rich organic matter" are capable of holding more water, so you don’t experience as much soil erosion and dry spells can be handled more easily; meanwhile, using cover crops also means that the soil is protected even in summers that may well become increasingly hot and dry.
Climate change might be an impending battle, but there are ongoing challenges that family-owned businesses specifically always face. Giovanni shrewdly identifies one of the key risks for the company. "The biggest threats to family businesses are always the relationships between the family members," he says, adding that problems can arise both between and within generations. "Too often we hear about how fights in the family have disrupted a family business." Angelo is also aware of this and understands that the transition from one generation to the next is a lifelong task. "I believe that children need to be cultivated and step by step they have to know about the family business," says Angelo. "Working in an artisanal family, you can’t hope to ask your children to enter and run the company before you’ve cultivated them."
Open lines of communication are also vital if a family is to avoid a troubled fate. "We always talk together," says Giovanni. "All the most important decisions are taken by sitting down at a table all together and discussing all the different aspects." This prevents family members from becoming territorial, something that can be a real challenge when nobody has a defined job description. "In a family business, there are no really fixed roles," says Giovanni. "We don’t have a president or a CEO or COO." Instead, he says, each member of the family "should be knowledgeable about all the different operations, from the winemaking all the way to the commercialisation of the wines."
Nonetheless, the family does divide up their responsibilities, even if this is more an unwritten agreement. Rossana and Angelo’s wife, Lucia, take care of the domestic Italian market, while Gaia and Giovanni travel more to meet international buyers.
The only person who really works across everything is Angelo himself. "He does so many things that cannot really be summed up into only one position," says Giovanni. He is involved in vineyard management, occasionally still travels to foreign markets, and once a week visits the company’s wineries in Tuscany. "Basically, his main role today is to keep everybody on their toes," says the avuncular Angelo’s son, "to keep everybody focused and excited."
Like a lot of things in winemaking, it’s a delicate balance – not something science alone can solve but requiring a form of alchemy that involves passion and tradition, too. "My father, while being involved every day in the operations of the winery, has also taken some steps back to allow my sisters and me the chance to be more involved in the decision-making," Giovanni says. Meanwhile, he and his siblings are "very respectful towards what my dad has done in the past and we constantly ask for his approval for a suggestion".
Giovanni, the youngest of Angelo’s children, believes that this balance – between the younger generation showing respect and the older generation gradually ceding control – has been struck by every generation of the Gaja family. "The secret of our success is that each generation has always respected what the previous generation did, respected their achievements," he says. "And yet, they were also always looking to outperform this achievement." For any family business to grow healthily and sustainably, this unique and elusive attitude has to be nurtured and cultivated.