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Meeting Gaia Gaja: A Wine Heiress

Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja

The world of luxury wines is like the world of luxury cars in more ways than one. Besides the fact that both are controlled by rather small, exclusive, clubs if you like — in a single conversation it would be quite possible to name all the brands dominating either —these are also worlds ruled, quite unequivocally, by men, powerful men. Which is why Gaia Gaja (the first and the last names are both pronounced the same way, are infact the same… but more on that later) is such an exception: A 29-year-old heiress, the fifth generation of a Piedmontese winemaking legend, Gaia is hardly the label-dripping, given-to-excesses stereotype most of us would associate with famous last names a la Hilton. Instead, she comes across more as the quintessential working-class girl; sincere and simple, charmingly  juggling schedules, talking with pride about her family and its traditions, about her life in the village — not quite in the fast lane…

On the day I meet her, over a glass of wine (Gaja, what else? The Rossh-Bass, a Chardonnay named after her younger sister, Rossana) Gaia has ostensibly been on her feet with just three hours of sleep. Not quite the ideal Indian vacation for the self-confessed travel enthusiast. But as it happens, this is a working visit. As the global marketing head for the Italian superbrand Gaja, described by the Wine Spectator as the best Italian wine ever, Gaia is crisscrossing India. This is a relatively new market for her company yet and a small one at that at just over 5000 cases a year, but one that is increasingly assuming greater importance. “I would like to eventually sell more here, selling a little less in a market like the US,” she says. The US market is, of course, the biggest for the company that zealously restricts production to up quality (and prices) but India is not doing too badly either considering that the company now exports to us almost half of what it does in China, more established and bigger.

As we talk business, Gaia, quite unselfconsciously puts her glass against her cheek. She’s obvisouly checking the temperature of the wine. The Chardonnay has been served to us very cold indeed and obviously benefits from the body heat because as Gaia points out, if one was to “serve someone a wine that was not so good, (I) would serve it very cold because then you wouldn’t be able to taste anything”. This, however, is a wine that you would want to fully taste so we let it warm a bit and take a refreshing sip before moving on to other things: Gaia’s life in Barbaresco, the Gaja family’s native village now known the world over thanks to its name on a label that’s deemed a classic when it comes to opulent wine.

Of the 30-odd labels that dominate the world of luxury wine, just about half are family-owned. The last decade has seen a number of acquisitions of traditional (European) wine estates by new owners ranging from Japanese conglomerates to banks. “I am really scared of banks,” Gaia confesses, a strange thing for an heiress being groomed to take over a formidable business. “So many banks have moved in to take over estates who had borrowed from them in the past.” Gaja, on the other hand, has stood firm, running its family-owned company closely, controlling quantities stringently (all their wine comes from family-owned vineyards only, the yield has been decreased to better the quality), and even abstaining from production in years of “bad vintage”; which is why you will not find wine from their stables in years such as 2002, 1992, 1984 and so forth. “For me, this is not merely about making more money. It is a matter of family pride,” Gaia says.

That pride is very much in evidence as Gaia tells me about how, as a child, she would spend all her time in the wineries, help during harvesting, and was made to taste wine even as a very young child — even though she like all children “liked sweeter drinks then”. Then she shows me the picture of her great grandmother Clothide Rey, the driver of Gaja’s growth in the late 19th century, a woman  who came down from northern Italy “where they knew nothing about wine” to settle in Barbaresco as a bride.  “She was very stern, this was the best anyone could get from her,” Gaia says pointing to the faint smile evident in the picture, smiling herself. Rey inspires Gaia, she says. But apart from family lore there is probably another reason for that: The two women have their names on a single label – Gaia & Rey from Italy’s first Chardonnay planted in 1979, the year of Gaia’s birth, and the first white wine aged in oak. Angelo Gaja, owner and president of Gaja wineries, one of the legends of the luxury business in Italy, named one of his wines after his daughter and successor, and named his daughter after his own family name! When I ask Gaia about her rather unsual name, she is well prepared for a question that she has undoubtedly answered all her life. Her first name suggests both happiness and mother earth – “appropriate for wine” – and is now one of the popular names in Italy. Gaja also means the same but is spelt differently, showing a Spanish root, a brand name that was retained all through the Mussoulini years despite attempts to purge all “foreign” nomenclature. So why did her father name her on the family brand? I ask. And Gaia laughs, “he must have been drunk,” she jests. “Or”, she suggests, it could be that “like Indian fathers, Italian fathers are also very possessive and he must have thought that if the daughter got married, she would still retain the family name”! With Gaia being groomed to take over the family business, there is no question of her either forsaking the name or the tradition.

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One Response to “Meeting Gaia Gaja: A Wine Heiress”

  1. [...] Gaja wines around the globe, even in far away markets such as Japan (her next stop), and India.  She loves visiting exotic places, learning new languages, and meeting different people.  I [...]