Luigi Calissano

Luigi Calissano, wine magnate (1830-1913)

The following article is taken from the Beppe Fenoglio Literature History Art and Culture Study Centre Association website.

Luigi Calissano used to be a well-known and respected Alba iron merchant in via Macrino, where he was assisted by his three sons: Vincenzo, Pietro and Giovanni. Then in 1872 he began to work limited quantities of grapes with the support of some partner friends. After a few successful years he branched out on his own, leaving the premises in via Macrino for a building known as casa Richiardi.

He heard about a system for processing sparkling wines used in France, known as the “champenoise” method, from Domenico Rossano, the estate manager of the Counts of Neive. Rossano had studied with the French winemaker Louis Oudart, who had been invited to Grinzane by Cavour to supervise the production and ageing of his wines, and Calissano also gleaned information from him about a wine called “Petiot”. He decided to produce this wine, and in 1878 he made no fewer than 100 hectolitres, which he sold in January 1879 – along with 200 hectolitres of wines from the Langhe – to the French company Terrier, who paid for it in gold Napoleons (the French equivalent of the sovereign).

The wine was transported by rail in a single shipment, and on that day Alba witnessed for the first time the unusual sight represented by a procession of 50 casks, containing 6 hectolitres each, winding their way towards the station: a procession which would become customary over time. In 1883 Luigi Calissano decided to expand the winery business, though he continued to deal in iron until 1892. He purchased 2,600 square meters of land just outside the town center on the road for Savona, where he started building a new factory which entered into operation in 1885 and would be completed in 1897.

Three sales branches were opened – in Genoa with Vincenzo, Turin with Giovanni, and Milan with Pietro -, and in 1891 Luigi Calissano e Figli (& Sons) was officially established as a company, with notice being given on August 10th by means of a letter written by the proprietor’s own hand. In 1895 Vincenzo sold his share in the company to his brother Giovanni, who began to divide his time between Alba and Genoa in order to follow the management of both the factory, which employed around 80 workers and 13 office staff, and the branch in Genoa, which was strategic for the new American market.

Giovanni worked alongside his father Luigi, getting new marketing strategies off the ground and strengthening relations with the American markets. A particularly memorable shipment took place in 1901, when in just one day 15 wagons left by rail for Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Rosario, with the opening of a new bottling plant in New York for the North American market.

Meanwhile, in Genoa Giovanni was successful in winning exclusive contracts for the supplying of wines to several shipping companies. The first was signed in 1900 with “La Veloce”, followed by others with “Società di Navigazione Generale” and “Lloyd”, and the volumes became so substantial that a bottling plant had to be brought into operation in Genoa just to supply wines to ships leaving the harbour.

Luigi himself continued to supervise the buying of ever-growing quantities of grapes in the Langhe and the market square in Alba. From the books kept during the period from 1900 to 1913, when Luigi Calissano died, it is calculated that the average monthly turnover came to around 200 thousand lire, at a time when the price of a bottle varied between 25 and 50 cents and an average of around 70 thousand hectolitres of wines were produced each year.

Alongside the production of all the red wines of the Langhe, Luigi Calissano had also continued to make champenoise-method sparkling wines with great success, and in 1919 the company advertised its Duca d’Alba brand with a liberty poster depicting an elegant figure dressed in tails and tricolour ribbons shooting out of a bottle which had just been uncorked.

Luigi Calissano always took an active interest in the town’s affairs too. An exponent of the moderate liberal class whose leading representative – his cousin, Teobaldo Calissano – reached the office of Minister, he entered the Town Council in 1879, and was re-elected with big majorities no fewer than seven times until his death. Subsequently, the firm continued to expand under the helm of Giovanni Calissano until 1930, when the crisis of ’29 and the arrival of prohibition in the United States led to financial difficulties.

Unfortunately, with the onset of the second world war the winery found itself in difficulty once more, and it changed hands several times until finally closing in the 1980s, putting an end to what had for fifty years been the largest factory in Alba. Credit is due though to Luigi Calissano for having been the first to raise awareness of local wines in Europe and the world, and for having created a wine-making concern at a time when the production, and above-all the marketing of wine had limited horizons, meaning that vine-growing was quite unremunerative and only a few had the courage to focus on quality.

Steps are being taken in the town to have a street named after Luigi Calissano.