We never know exactly where we will find the agriculture stories that can inspire new ways of looking at food chain challenges and common problems. Food value chains are both intensely local and also deeply entwined with global trends, meaning that insights from one country are very likely relevant to many others. We’ve seen fishery cooperatives in Tanzania struggling with the same data management problems we have seen in Japan’s green tea industry and exporters everywhere carefully watching global exchange rates.

This time the insights came from the green vineyards of Italy. Meros’ Ayako Kuroki recently visited Italy’s vibrant Valpolicella wine-producing region and found some interesting trends, and possibly lessons, for issues we see here in Japan.

Italy’s Valpolicella wines are produced mainly with Corvina, Rondinella and Morinara grapes.

Italy, with a population of 60 million, has half the population of Japan but faces similar demographics, with increasing urbanization and one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. In Japan’s case there is constant discussion about the aging population of farmers, the difficulty in attracting younger people into agriculture and the difficulty of developing value-added, export-oriented agricultural industries. And yet, Valpolicella has developed a wine industry that is 80% exports and boasts of no lack of younger farmers willing to succeed the regions’ numerous wineries.

Italy was the second largest wine exporter (by volume) after Spain in 2016. Veneto province, far in the north of the country, produces the largest volume of wine grapes and is the second largest wine-producing province in the country. Veneto is anchored by its capital Venice and also known for the historic city Verona, home of Romeo and Juliet.  The Valpolicella region, north of Verona, is among the 24 DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) wine-producing areas in Veneto; other DOC areas include Bardolino and Soave. The region is famous for its Amarone wine (DOCG), as well as Valpolicella and Valpolicella Ripasso wines (DOC).

While viticulture in the region dates back several thousand years, some of  Valpolicella’s approximately 300, mostly family-owned, wineries are relatively new. This is because many grape farmers who used to sell grapes to wineries have gradually ventured into wine production, seeing that it is a more lucrative business. Wine making or agriculture/food processing in general is an attractive business in the area, with younger people entering the industry. This is partly driven by technological advancements which have made it easier and more attractive for younger people to take up agriculture as a career. As such, families in Valpolicella normally do not face the problem of finding a successor for their wine businesses.

Zanotti, one of the family-run wineries in the region, produces Valpolicella and, Valpolicella Ripasso wines (DOC) and Amarone (DOCG).

About 80% of the wine produced in the region is exported to Europe, Asia, and Latin America and some major brands reach the Japan market as well. However as one winery explained, “We are small wineries who don’t have the capacity for far away markets like Japan; we leave that to the big companies.” The wineries of Valpolicella have the advantage of neighboring the large wine-drinking market of the EU.

Valpolicella was a glimpse of a traditional industry that has been able to build sustainable exports to neighboring markets, integrate new technologies and continue to attract a new generation of winemakers.  It will be interesting to compare this case to traditional growing areas on other developed countries who also aim to build exports and retain young farmers.