Sebastiano Jasci looks like he was planted, fertilized and grown in his own vineyard. The 79-year-old grandfather is sturdy, his hands are big and rough and his skin is bronzed; he is the picture of robust good health. There is nothing he likes more than working his land and drinking the result. "I have one glass at lunch and one at dinner," he says, patting his chest. "It's good for the heart."
When he started making wine some 40 years ago on the rugged slopes near the Adriatic Sea, in central Italy's Abruzzo region near Vasto, the product was sold purely to locals. He didn't even have a bottling plant. Mr. Jasci would load wine casks into a little three-wheeled truck and trundle off to local markets.
The wine was popular and an idea popped into his head. Why not launch a proper vineyard and set it apart from the pack by making all the wines organic? In 1978, Jasci & Marchesani wines – Marchesani is the family name of his wife Lucia – became one of the first certified organic wineries in Italy. The label was a small-scale success until last year, when a bit of magic happened: The Jasci wines cracked the LCBO, one of the three top wine buyers in the world.
Last November, its Nerube red, made from the local Montepulciano D'Abruzzo grape, hit the LCBO's Vintage shelves and sold out quickly, at $16.95 a pop. Mr. Jasci wasn't there, but his son Nicola Jasci, 32, a former bike racer who now manages the business, was. He and Alessandro (Alex) Dialuce, his freelance export manager from Rome, hosted all the tastings in the LCBO stores. The Nerube label just happened to be dominated by a Canadian-style maple leaf, in gold. "That was sheer coincidence," Nicola says. "I signed the labels and met a lot of people from Abruzzo who wanted to shake my hand."
Supplying the LCBO gives the Jasci wines a lot of global street cred, says Mr. Dialuce, which should ease the winery's entry into other international markets. "The LCBO is huge wine buyer, maybe the biggest in the world," he says. "They're very demanding and getting onto their shelves is a real mark of honour."
Nailing LCBO shelf space is no easy task. The competition is ferocious and the screening process intensive. In the premium-wine Vintages section, which is the LCBO's big growth area, some 4,500 wine "submissions" are made a year. Only about 350 make the cut and it's a one-time shot only, unlike the LCBO's "general list," which is dominated by the big, commercial vineyards, like Australia's Yellow Tail, whose products are shelf stalwarts season after season.
The LCBO had $5-billion in overall sales in the last fiscal year (to March 31). Vintages' sales in the latest year rose 3.2 per cent to $449-million. That took Vintages' share of overall LCBO sales to 9.9 per cent, up from 8.6 per cent four years ago. Among imported wines, the Italians have the biggest market share in overall LCBO wine sales, outselling the Americans, the Australians and the French.
Abruzzo is due east of Rome – its capital is L'Aquila, which was nearly levelled by the 2009 earthquake – and has traditionally been one of the top wine producing areas in Italy. But it has little global brand recognition, deservedly so. Any wine drinker knows wines from Tuscany, Umbria and Piedmont, but not Abruzzo, whose high yields made it better suited for bulk production.
The industrial, co-operative wineries are still around, shipping tanker loads of Montepulciano red all over the country to be blended with other varieties. But a new breed of small wine makers is trying to change Abruzzo's image. "A new generation is taking over from their parents and breathing some life into the Abruzzo wineries," says Ian D'Agata, the Rome pediatrician who is author of the book Native Wine Grapes of Italy and the new scientific adviser to Vinitaly International, the world's largest wine exhibition. "Some of the most exciting new wines are coming out of Sicily, Puglia [the heel of Italy], Sardinia and Abruzzo."
Mr. D'Agata pronounces Jasci among the "good" wineries of Abruzzo and raves about others, among them Emidio Pepe, Torre dei Beati, Barba, Tiberio and Nicodemi.
Gaining access to Vintages can take a year, with zero guarantee of success. The process typically starts when Vintages issues a "product needs letter" describing generally what types of wines it is looking for all over the world and in what price range. Aspiring vineyards then deliver a detailed product summary sheet, which is reviewed by the Vintages team to determine if the wine has sales potential. The winery will have an advantage if it has won awards, has international sales (as Jasci does, in Germany, China and elsewhere) and suggests a price that would move bottles off the shelves.
If the wine in question meets the early cuts, an LCBO lab tests sample bottles for contaminants and packaging standards (about 10 per cent are rejected by the lab). LCBO taste tests come next. If all the boxes are ticked, Vintages will issue a purchase order. "Getting into the LCBO is a big deal," Mr. D'Agata says. "Canada is a big market and it's a prestigious market. Its wine customers are becoming very knowledgeable."
Jasci's LCBO opportunity began in 2012, when Mr. Dialuce, the wine exporter, attended a wine show in Rome. He was specifically looking for organic wines and found the Jasci booth, where young Nicola Jasci was filling glasses for curious potential buyers. "I asked Nicola if he wanted to be in the LCBO and he said, 'Everyone wants to be in the LCBO,'" Mr. Dialuce says.
Mr. Dialuce, whose partner is Canadian and knows the Ontario wine market well, found an LCBO agent, who went through the precise paperwork for Jasci. Then came the LCBO taste and lab tests. Somehow, it all worked and 6,000 bottles of Jasci's Nerube Montepulciano D'Abruzzo were accepted in 2013 after the Vintage tasters labelled the wine "very nice" with "notes of crushed berries (think blueberry and blackberry), vanilla, tar and chicory with a touch of warm earth."
The LCBO paid Jasci about €4 (a bit less than $6) for the Nerube, some of which goes as commission to Mr. Dialuce. Another 70 cents a bottle, roughly, goes to the Canadian agent. The rest – about $10 – pays the duty, shipping and LCBO markup. Jasci actually can make more money selling its wine in Italy, but the profit takes a lot of work. Instead of dealing with one buyer – the LCBO – it has to deal with hundreds and the paperwork can be a nightmare. Worse, the Italian clients don't always pay on time and some don't pay at all. "With the LCBO, we never have problems with payments," Nicola Jasci says.
Jasci is going through the LCBO process again, with its organic Pecorino white, which should be on Vintages shelves late this year or early next year. Nicola is looking forward to his next marketing visit in Toronto and it doesn't matter to him if it's in the dead of winter. "I love the cold," he says, wiping the sweat off his brow on a hot Adriatic day.