Antonio Zaccheo: “It Was Like Walking on the Moon!”

Antonio Zaccheo: “It Was Like Walking on the Moon!”

Antonio Zaccheo, President of the Grandi Vini Group and the renowned Tuscan winery Carpineto, is a prominent figure in the Italian wine industry. With over thirty years of experience and a deep understanding of international markets, he is widely regarded as a driving force behind the promotion of Italian wines worldwide. 

The meeting between Zaccheo and Michele Chiarlo marks a significant chapter in the story of Italian wine promotion abroad. The encounter led, in the late 1980s, to the formation of the first interregional consortium for exporting Italian wines, the Grandi Vini d’Italia Group.  

Fate has a curious way of weaving the paths of individuals together, often leading to encounters that leave an indelible mark on their lives. Such was my meeting with Michele Chiarlo: a moment that sparked one of the most profound relationships I’ve ever known. It was a time when I had joined forces with a company, eager to introduce our wines to the Belgian market and extend our reach beyond national borders. Little did I know that among my fellow partners would be a distinguished gentleman from Piedmont, a winemaker whose name would soon become synonymous with excellence: Michele Chiarlo. From that fateful encounter, a new chapter unfolded in both my professional and personal journey – a chapter that would profoundly influence the trajectory of my career and life. 

Michele Chiarlo was a trailblazer in the world of wine, a visionary who dared to defy norms and pioneer new avenues to success. Back in the early ’70s, when few ventured beyond national borders, Michele was among the first to recognize the untapped potential of foreign markets. He charted unexplored territories, knocking on doors yet to be opened by Piedmont’s wine industry. 

His arrival was met with open arms, not just for his expertise, but for his transparent passion and unwavering dedication — qualities somewhat rare in the wine world of that era.  

Our paths crossed during those transformative years, and it became evident early on that we shared common goals and ideals. We weren’t competitors – he in Piedmont, and I in Tuscany – but rather kindred spirits on a collective journey, driven by a resolute commitment to promoting the quality of our wines far and wide. 

We started traveling together, crisscrossing Europe from one end to the other, meeting with importers and industry professionals. Without the luxury of cell phones, we relied on old-fashioned phone booths and post offices to stay connected. Often, meetings fell through, appointments didn’t materialize, and we found ourselves waiting for hours or, at times, returning empty-handed. But we never lost faith. We’d hop in the car and hit the road, driving through Germany, the Netherlands, on endless journeys that were always opportunities for us to talk, laugh – a lot – and, most importantly, to learn from each other. 

During those journeys, it became glaringly apparent just how little awareness there was about Italian wine abroad. This realization sparked a fresh idea: we envisioned presenting ourselves to the market as a collective of wineries, all united by our commitment to quality and family tradition, in order to attract importers. We mulled over ways to establish a framework that would amplify our prospects in the global market — a collaborative strategy that would enable us to participate in early trade shows, splitting expenses while boosting our collective presence. 

So, in 1989, we founded the Grandi Vini Group — the first interregional consortium specializing in export. Through the Group, we were among the early trailblazers in venturing into Asia, even as early as the ’90s. Soon, we established our presence in Singapore, solidifying our position in that rapidly growing market. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were quick to participate in the Leipzig fair — an experience that felt like walking on the moon!  

Michele and I shared a profound friendship, bonded by common values and aspirations. We were each other’s pillars, pushing through every hurdle together. Michele was a man of remarkable human and moral stature, with great diplomatic skills and impeccable expertise gained through years of dedicated service to the industry. His knack for opening doors and seizing opportunities was unparalleled.

In the course of our time together, we often reminisced about our past adventures. One particular story stands out vividly in my memory.  

During a trip to Asia, we met with a local importer in Singapore. Michele, with his unmatched storytelling prowess, began telling the tale of his winery. He had a knack for weaving captivating stories, starting with familiar references (he often joked that Piedmont was close to Monte Carlo!) to draw in his audience before delving into the intricate details of Piedmont, its vineyards, grape varieties, and terroirs. He had a way of captivating everyone with his narrative, and our Chinese counterpart was no exception, nodding along in fascination. However, at the end of the tale, he posed an unexpected question: “I understand your story, but where do you come from?”.  

We often laughed heartily about this story together. It was quintessentially Michele: once he started talking about his land and wines, there was no stopping him – and whenever we encountered setbacks, big or small, he faced them with lightness and humor. 

Getting to know Michele and journeying alongside him for an extended stretch has been one of life’s great blessings for me. Together, we lived through an era of profound change and transformation: in the ’60s, the wine industry posed formidable challenges, with razor-thin margins and exceedingly rare chances at succeeding. Today, Italy stands tall as one of the world’s most revered wine regions – an achievement we couldn’t have fathomed even in our wildest dreams. 

I like to believe that in our own small way, we played a pivotal role in this extraordinary transformation. Though the road was long and arduous, the ultimate outcome has proven more fulfilling than we dared to dream. Michele will forever hold a place in my heart as both a brother and a fellow adventurer, and his legacy will definitely continue to inspire generations of Italian winemakers to come.