Inside Illy's Coffee And Wine Empire

Last spring, Riccardo Illy walked into Locanda Verde in New York City, sat down at a table and proceeded to rhapsodize about his Mastrojanni wines. The unfailingly dapper chairman of Gruppo illy could have been in town from Italy to discuss his family company's famed coffee (illy), its well-known teas (Dammann Frères), its chocolate brand (Domori) or its jams (Agrimontana), but on this day, his mind was on wine.

Several bottles arrived at the table, and he glanced at the labels, considering which to start with. Illy may be a name that's synonymous with Italian coffee, but the 56-year-old has a passion for wine that led him to acquire the Tuscan vineyard in 2008. It was, he says, a nod to his family's roots, which include farming, as well as an engagement of his interests in science, art and technology. These fields play a key role in all of the Illy businesses, and as Riccardo told us in an interview just a few weeks back over (more) wine at Soho House, they'll continue to shape the brands under his control. Coffee, chocolate, wine, art, science and technology — a conversation with Riccardo Illy is more complex than the best bottle of Brunello.

What were some of the challenges you encountered after buying Mastrojanni, an established vineyard?

First of all, to sell the wine, because this happened during the so-called Brunello crisis, when there was a small scandal regarding a few wineries that planted the grapes different than Sangiovese Rosso. Then, by the way, the recession arrived in 2007 and 2008, so the times were not the best to sell luxury wines. The second challenge was to improve the quality of wines that were already excellent. We really want to make the best in coffee, chocolate and tea, and we also want to [make the best] wines.

One of the improvements was a new cellar built by what you call "bio-architectural principles." You boast of Mastrojanni wines not being exposed to magnetic fields. Tell us about it.

It was a project made by Ernesto my nephew, the son of my Francesco, my older brother. He is an architect. We wanted to have the most natural environment for aging the wines, so he came up with this [idea of] using only wood, rocks and bricks to build the cellar, and with a natural system to maintain a high level of humidity. And by the way, it's a nice cellar.

So the benefit is environmental it doesn't use much energy?

The benefit is to the quality of the wine, because there isn't any artificial intervention on the wine or on the environment [like] magnetic fields, which are also something produced by the human being that doesn't exist in nature. Especially when you keep it for such a long time in the cellar. If it stays only a few months, it doesn't matter, but if it stays three or four years then you can see it. At least we think so, and we will see in the next three years.

You kept the existing name Mastrojanni, just as you did when you bought Dammann Frères teas. And yet your family has been so adept at branding. We spoke earlier this year about the illy logo. Can you tell me the story again?

The logo was painted [in 1996] by James Rosenquist. My brother Franceso met Rosenquist and asked him to paint the collection of cups in 1992, and James did this. And then later on I said why don't we ask one of our artists painting the illy collection also to paint our logo, and he thought that it was a good idea and that James might be a good fit. So he went to James and asked him, and James said okay I will try, and then he made a wonderful painting. It is so simple, really elementary but wonderful.

And there is an original of it somewhere?

Yes, in what used to be my father's office, and is now my younger brother Andrea's in illy Café. The painting is a little bit more complex, also with some parts of the coffee tree, and with a crown. But the logo is exactly the one we are using.

People look to Italy for good food and wine. Do you feel like the Italian lifestyle has benefits that others don't?

I would say yes. There is a perfect marriage between the territory and what is grown on this territory. Brunello di Montelcino is one example. It's really the match between the variety of the plants, the animals and the environment. You have thousands of examples in Italy, like ham: you have in San Daniele or Parma; with cheeses, not only parmagiano reggiano which is very well known but we have the formaggio di fossa made in the region Emilia-Romagna, and the cheese is put under the earth for a long aging. I could continue with the wines or what you call salami. This is one reason, because we are so different in Italy, but the second one is that we do not have a national kitchen. We have maybe 20 regional kitchens or 8,000 municipal kitchens.

Do you think Americans are doing Italian food wrong?

I see two aspects: one is raw material, and this is a fault of the Italians. We were not able to properly export the Italian raw materials. So often restaurateurs in the United States have to buy, let's say, Italian products that are not made in Italy because they cannot find the real Italian ones because they are not suffiiciently exported to the United States. And the other aspect is the transformation, cooking and respecting the recipe. I've been coming to the United States since 1981 or '82 and at the beginning in I would say I was in agreement with you. The recipes were absolutely let's say freely interpreted, so what should be an Italian dish because something very different. But the more I come to the United States, the more I see properly made Italian dishes made from the real recipes and often the interpreting the regional Italian kitchen.

Are there some chefs in the United States that you think are really worth looking for?

I could cite Sirio Maccioni, Lidia Bastianich or Mario Batali, and we recently did a tasting event with Mastrojanni with Tony May.

Let's wind down with some coffee talk: As a true Italian, tell us, is it true that we should never cappuccino in the afternoon?

I wouldn't say never. Normally cappuccino is for breakfast. A lot of people have a fast cappuccino and a croissant, what we call brioche or croissant for breakfast. This is really a quick breakfast. But nevertheless you can find people drinking a cappuccino in the middle of the morning or in the middle of the day. But rarely would you find someone drinking a cappuccino after dinner or after lunch. In this case we prefer the short espresso. But I think this is also related with the proper diet. Because after eating you hopefully have had the right balance between carbohydrates, proteins and fat. So if you add a certain quantity of milk you are changing the equilibrium and adding proteins when you probably need none. So normally in Italy at the end of the meal we just drink an espresso. Which is, by the way, stimulating the acid production in your stomach which facilitates the digestion. If you drink a cappuccino this will not happen. It will add a problem of digestion because of the milk you drink. So it's the opposite effect.

Have you tried any of the trendy new coffee brands in the United States that have gotten a lot of attention?

Yes, it's a kind of fashion normally. The problem with this kind of coffee is the consistency of quality. You can keep a can of our coffee for a year and compare it with a new can and you will find the same quality and flavor. In the beans where we give a guarantee of three years, you can make a vintage vertical tasting and you will always find the same taste and flavor.