Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni is the owner and chairman of one of the most esteemed and forward-thinking wineries in Europe, Querciabella, located in the heart of Chianti Classico in Tuscany, Italy. Sebastiano has developed his winery to become not only organic and biodynamic but also 100% vegan from the soil to the glass.
A vegetarian since the age of 15 and later a vegan, Sebastiano serves on the Board of Advisors of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and consults for, invests in and partners with a variety of vegan businesses worldwide.
On behalf of Vegan Wines, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Sebastiano some questions about his background, his famous winery, and his philosophy on vegan winemaking. He challenges anyone who thinks we need to use animal products to produce natural and organic wine. He proves this in his world-renowned, top-rated, award-winning wines.
To me, Sebastiano really embodies the spirit and hope vegans have for the world; that it’s possible to be ambitious, successful and compassionate at the same time. Read his inspiring interview below.
Tell us a little about yourself. When did you become interested in, and how did you get into the wine business?
My father was a passionate and knowledgeable wine collector, so I grew up surrounded by fine wines and wine culture. By the time I was 12, I had already visited the top domains of Bordeaux and Burgundy. I have developed a passion for wine that I pursued both by learning to taste and appreciate wine in great depth (I’m a member of the Grand Jury Européen), and by studying winemaking techniques.
In 1974, my father bought the first vineyard in Tuscany, and thus Querciabella was born. Over the years, many hectares were acquired and planted, and a state of the art winery built. After collaborating with him for a few years, I took over in the 1990s and contributed to establish Querciabella as one of Tuscany’s leading wineries. I transformed the winery into a fully biodynamic operation in 2000. Apparently, it is now the largest extension of biodynamic vineyards in Europe.
Having been vegetarian since I was a teenager, I became completely vegan a few years ago, a decision that impacted on the winery – which officially became vegan in 2012.
Many of our followers, even those who have been vegan for a long time, were not aware that not all wines were vegan.
It’s a thorny matter that should make us reflect on how ubiquitous animal products are in our everyday life. Most people wouldn’t worry about wine (nor about sugar or glue for that matter), but the truth is, veganism has to be the moral baseline of business if we truly want to see change. It’s imperative that consumers demand transparency and clear labelling to companies because the market’s demand is the most efficient way to achieve change, especially in the food sector.
Something that most consumers are still not aware of, though, is that even some wines that are labelled “vegan” are produced with grapes coming from vineyards where animal-based fertilizers are used. At Querciabella we rigorously avoid animal products both in the vineyard and in the cellar.
How did you decide to produce vegan wines? What inspired you and what made this important to you?
When I was 15, I was given a flyer in Milan’s underground by a group of anti-vivisection activists. I became vegetarian overnight and started to read about animal suffering. Over the years, I have supported innumerable animal rights organizations, with a clear preference for those involved in direct action (or undercover investigations), such as Sea Shepherd, Farm Sanctuary, the Hunt Saboteurs in the UK and the phenomenal International Anti-Poaching Foundation led by Damien Mander.
Over the years, I realized that we could not keep ignoring the devastating impact of conventional agriculture on the environment, and advocated the decision to turn Querciabella into an organic winery first (1988), and a biodynamic one later (2000). As an inevitable step forward, came the decision to take this approach even further and adopt a cruelty-free approach, with the use of several techniques to bring balance to the ecosystem of the winery. For me, this was a way to reiterate my stance against animal cruelty and factory farming – this time as an entrepreneur rather than an activist. Becoming a vegan investor made me realize that one of the quickest ways to impact the world is to initiate or back businesses that support the change we want to see for the animals.
What is Querciabella’s general winemaking philosophy?
Our goal is to exalt the purity of the fruit that becomes our wine through plant-based biodynamics. However, we don’t want to simply ‘respect nature.’ Instead, we aim to give something back. This is why we follow very complex techniques in the vineyards and cellars, aimed at bringing back as much natural balance and vitality to the soil and the environment as possible.
As an example, we strictly object to using cultured yeasts or any other additives in vinification (even those permitted in organic winemaking), but we meticulously follow fermentations and regulate temperatures to allow our indigenous yeasts (the ones that naturally live on the plants and grapes, and inside the cellars) to work at their best.
We have also established a very complex protocol for cover crops, where over thirty different kinds of plants are grown between rows, in different combinations depending on the goal, to interact with the soil, the plants and the ecosystem.
We place great emphasis on the preservation of biodiversity on our land – for instance through our awareness campaign to save bees.
As a note, I’d like to add that our wines do contain sulfites, and that is not a negative fact, as many would have you believe. Firstly, sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, so – technically speaking – a sulfite-free wine does not even exist. Furthermore, several plants naturally produce and contain sulfur, for instance, garlic, onion and mustard. What is important is what kind of sulfur one adds to wine, and in what quantity. We obviously avoid sulfites produced by the petrochemical industry, and instead use minimal amounts of sulfur of volcanic origin. The quantities of sulfites in our wines are well below the organic and biodynamic standards, also because our cellars, and the grapes being harvested, are clean and healthy.
Querciabella is both organic and biodynamic. How can wines be both vegan and biodynamic?
Many winemakers claim that a big and important part of biodynamic winemaking includes using animals as a “natural” part of the process.
Rudolf Steiner clearly said that biodynamic practitioners must adapt to the needs of their land and the surrounding environment, rather than rely on a strict and rigid set of rules. We have always challenged the fanatic, “Taliban” system advocated by some – mostly, but not solely, because of the use of animal products. In my view, biodynamics is a validation of the interconnectedness of everything, but it is also deeply rooted in my ethical principles. There is nothing natural about a farming system that includes animals – especially when we are aware about the immense environmental footprint of livestock and the devastating effects of animal agriculture.
We certainly don’t need cow horns or animal fertilizers to practice biodynamics at Querciabella: plants give us all we need. Nor do we need egg whites, fish bladders, whey or gelatin (among other scary products) to use as fining agents.
What do you use for fining the wines and fertilizing the soil at Querciabella? Is there a difference in the taste of the wines as a result? What do you find works best?
We prefer to pay close attention to the evolution of the grapes in the vineyards, and we harvest at the peak of phenolic maturity. Then, by following gentle fermentation management, along with meticulous selection of the best barrels for maturation, we don’t need to use any products to manipulate or fine-tune the mouthfeel of the wines. It’s all about paying attention to details, being patient and allowing the wine to express itself. Also, there are perfectly natural, plant-based or anyway non-animal-based fining agents, that we have used since even before we became organic, back in the early 1980s. Some are based on peas, but the most innocuous are based on clay and seaweeds.
As for fertilizers, we produce green manure (derived from composted plants), instead of all the ‘traditional’ preparations based on cow manure. We also grow our own medicinal and aromatic herbs for the compounds we spray, and we grow our own seeds for cover-crops mixes encompassing over 30 plant species at a time. This obviously results in healthier and more flavorful grapes which make exquisite, harmonious and refined wines.
Besides the obvious benefit, not hurting animals, what are some advantages to using vegan ingredients instead of animal-based ingredients, in winemaking?
The use of animals and animal products in agriculture is not only avoidable, but also extremely damaging to the planet. To leave out animal-derived products from winemaking and farming in general, is beneficial in terms of safeguarding the environment, enriching the soil, reducing erosion and pollution, and promoting CO2 entrapment.
What’s Querciabella’s biggest challenge being vegan winemakers, would you say?
There is virtually no challenge. We are proof that making delicious wines that give a sense of place without any harm to the natural environment and animals is entirely possible. Vegan wines are truly inclusive by nature and Querciabella stands out for being an award-winning producer with a vegan and environmental ethos behind every aspect of production and this is widely appreciated by vegans and omnivores alike.
From a winemaking point of view, we obviously have to make sure that every aspect of production is followed with the highest attention to detail, from grape to bottle, so that the wines remain of exceptional quality.
Possibly, the only challenge is effectively communicating the implications of a vegan choice, which are far more vast than the exclusion of a few ingredients.
In your view, what makes Querciabella’s wines extra special?
This is a question I’d rather ask you, after we taste together! Jokes apart, what makes us special is that we are able to combine an ethical, cruelty-free approach with top quality, rigorous and uncompromising viticulture and winemaking. In addition, the fact that we own some of the best plots of land in three of the best subzones of Chianti Classico, ensures that our wines possess outstanding quality and character.
What’s exciting you at the moment about the wine industry?
In Chianti Classico, it looks like the Consorzio has started to recognize that communal labelling is necessary to do justice to the unique features of wines emerging from the various subzones. This is a measure we have been backing for years.
I am also pleased to finally see that some restaurants, wine retailers and monopolies have woken up to the fact that wines that are sustainably produced deserve a special recognition and I am also thrilled to see an increasing curiosity and attention towards vegan wines.
What’s next for Querciabella?
We are finalizing our single-commune Sangiovese project, which will culminate in the launch of three extraordinary crus from three different subzones of Chianti Classico.
We are also working to strengthen our position on emerging markets and plan to organize more events in synergy with other vegan and ethical businesses, such as the ones we held in the past with Beyond Meat, Nemanti, Stella McCartney and Tesla.
Finally, can you give us one of your favorite plant-based food and wine pairing suggestions?
I’ll give you three.
Croquettes of cicerchia, a rare but delicious legume known in the US as Chickling Vetch (Lathyrus sativus), with fresh fava bean sauce, paired with Batàr.
Durum wheat tagliatelle (eggless, of course) with brunoised eggplants, zucchini, onions, leaks and bell peppers, paired with Mongrana.
Sautéed seitan with San Marzano tomatoes, Tropea red onions and fresh peas, accompanied by roast potatoes, paired with Camartina.
About Sebastiano: He divides his time between Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the US. He is also the chairman and CEO of NKGB Strategic Advisory, specializing in private equity, M&A, technology, plant-based economy and impact investing. He is the founder and chairman of Opteres, the most exclusive network of fine art collectors in the world, where he advises private clients as well as banks and public institutions about fine art, and conducts private sales of rare masterpieces.
About Vegan Wines: Vegan Wines was founded by Frances Gonzalez, and is the first vegan online wine club in the United States. The club focuses on small production, family-run vineyards who practices winemaking that respects, and is in tune with nature. Along with in-house sommelier and chef Sunny Gandara, Frances travels around the world personally visiting wineries, ensuring that the wines are vegan from the soil to the glass.
Image Credit: Photo by Walter Prina | Copyright © Agricola Querciabella SpA | All rights reserved.