Gonnelli 1585 is to olive oil what Rolls Royce is to super cars; authentic, luxurious and reassuringly well made. It’s also surely one of the oldest continually operated heritage brands in the world, with some 436 years to its name – and counting.
Today, this storied Tuscan producer is helmed by Giorgio Gonnelli, who’s worked in the business for over 10 years, much of that time alongside his father and grandfather. Here, Giorgio talks us through the story of his family’s business, what it takes to craft Gonnelli’s signature ‘Grand Cru’ olive oil, and what it’s like to be the company’s CEO at the tender age of thirty-four.
I’m the 13th generation family owner of the company. The company as it’s known today was established in 1585, but our true origin is even older. We can trace our roots back to the founding of the Santa Téa estate in 1426. The estate’s original owners purchased the land for its agricultural value, before our family purchased the estate in turn, in 1585. We’ve been making olive oil here ever since.
I inherited the business from my grandfather, whose name was also Giorgio. And then from my father, whose name is Piero. Today I have a son whom I named Piero in honor of his grandfather, and I hope he will be able to keep the tradition active. I never really planned to take on the family business; before this I spent years studying and working in America. I studied economics and my goal was basically to go into finance, but, before I had the chance, my father picked up the phone to me and said, “it’s time.” I knew what he meant.
When I came back to Italy, I started to develop the export business for the company. It helped me to feel more committed to the idea of taking on Gonnelli. After that, I worked on the production side for a time and then in the finance department, which I was more familiar with. I worked my way around the company until my father retired, and felt we had a clear opportunity to grow and be bigger.
The most important thing I learned from my father is perseverance. To never give up. He also taught it to me indirectly, because (frankly speaking) he didn’t teach me a lot. He preferred for me to learn things by experience. He would just turn round to me and say ‘okay, tomorrow you are taking care of this,’ and I’d have to just go off and do it.
At Gonnelli, we control the whole production process. Right now, we have over 48,000 olive trees around the hills of Tuscany and Chianti Classico, and those trees are our responsibility, as is our mill and every single step we take from harvesting to bottling.
Producing high quality olive oil is like producing wine. There is no one thing that makes a high-quality olive oil, you have to concentrate yourself in different areas that bring you quality. That’s from the way you care for your trees, to when you harvest, to if you harvest when the olives are ready, or the olives are mature. If you harvest when they’re mature you get more oil, but the quality is poorer. Then there’s whether you crush the olives straight from the tree, or if you leave them lying around for a couple of days to ferment. Beyond that, there’s how often you clean the mill line. We clean our whole production line every 12 hours, stop the machines and wipe down everything to ensure each batch of oil is pure. We lose two hours to clean every 12 hours this way, so we forfeit huge amounts of earning potential, but we do it to keep our quality up.
We’re proud of our tradition, but we have a history of innovation too. In 1962, my grandfather installed the first centrifugal plant for the oil production. It was an amazing moment for the business because prior to that we used traditional stone presses. The centrifugal plant was the first ever used in the world. Today, over 60 per cent of the machines that we use in the mill were invented, installed and created by us. My father designed most of them – he wasn’t a trained engineer, but it was his passion project.
Traceability is also important to us. In 2007 we were the first olive oil producer to obtain an ISO certification. Essentially, that means that from the barcode on the bottle you pick up we can trace the oil inside right back to where on the estate it came from. Today, that’s quite common, but back in 2007 it was unique.
Climate change is becoming a big problem. When my father started working here some 50 years ago, the olive harvest would start around December 8th. Today, we start in mid-October. When I started 10 years ago, we’d start in mid-November. Having the weather and the time to produce olives of the quality we need in a shorter timeframe is a huge challenge. This year, we introduced new technology to control the temperature of the olives when they enter the mill –keeping them cool enough to process is paramount.
I’m most proud of honouring my father’s work of the past 50 years. It’s a privilege to keep the image of the company and our focus on quality at the very highest level. It’s challenging, for sure, but it’s very rewarding too.