Renato Trestini was perhaps more than any other individual responsible for introducing quality Italian wines to the UK market. In 1969 he was working in London as a barman at Dukes Hotel in St. James when he heard the call. “I’m going to be a wine merchant”, he suddenly knew. It was a revelation, not quite perhaps on a par with that of Saul of Tarsus, but with this similarity: that it would shape the rest of his life.
Born Rene Jean Charles Raphael Felix Trestini in 1935 in the French alpine ski resort of Chamonix to Veronese/Piemontese parents (his father was working in the hotel business), Renato’s early life was something of a moveable feast (insofar as anyone was feasting in those hungry years). At the outbreak of WWII the family was obliged to sneak out of France (enemy territory) in the dead of night, leaving all behind. They lived for a while in a family house in Verbania, on Lake Maggiore, then moved to Milan, where Renato’s education was continued at a school run by monks of the Silesian order.
In 1950, following his father, Renato took employment (at the lowest level) at Milan’s Savini restaurant and bar. In 1953 the organisation fixed him up with a job at a hotel in Jersey, the first of several hotel appointments on that island where he would spend a number of years learning the English language as well as the subtle arts of catering. Later he moved temporarily to London, working for a while at the Grosvenor House Hotel. Various travels and hotel-related appointments followed in Jersey and back in Italy, Renato finding himself at one point or another a singer and a barman first class on an Italian luxury ocean-liner.
In 1969, nel mezzo del cammin, Renato returned to London, where he had his ‘revelation’. “R. Trestini: Italian Wines of Distinction”, was born, in Chancel Street, underneath the railway arches. To wake himself up mornings, and perhaps by way of Pauline penance, he joined the Serpentine Club, which involved, every day before 6 a.m., a dip in the artificial lake of that name, be it ever so freezing. This went on for no less than 6 years.
The first producer whose wines he imported was Luigi Ferrando of Carema, a Nebbiolo-based wine from the mountainous slopes of northwestern Piemonte on the border with Valle d’Aosta. This was followed by other wines of northern Piemonte which are currently enjoying a re-awakening (Sizzano and Ghemme), and then by prospects more commercial such as the Friuli wines of Collavini and the Albese wines of Ceretto.
The first Trestini ‘discovery’ which made the big-time, today more than ever, was Masi. There followed, thanks to recommendations by Italian gurus and advisors like Luigi Veronelli, all manner of wines and wineries, in a list which reads like a roll-call of Italian vinous greats of the late 20th century and which includes Serego Alighieri, Anselmi, Badia a Coltibuono, Biondi Santi, Boscaini, Ca del Bosco, Capezzana, Castellare, Cavallotto, Ceretto, Colli di Catone, Tasca d’Almerita, Enofriulia/Puiatti, Ferrari, Gaja, Giacomo Bologna, Lageder, Maculan, Mastroberardino, Pagliaresi, Poliziano, Il Poggione, Rapitala, Tedeschi, Riunite, La Scolca. And this is only a small selection of those with whom Renato’s company at some time or other ‘collaborated directly’. Indirectly, through Silvano Piacentini of the grandly titled Istituto Enologico Italiano (sounds official but is in fact a private firm), Renato’s list of wineries also included, for a time at least, the likes of Allegrini, Marco de Bartoli, Bossi Fedrigotti, Castello di Neive, Pieropan, Giacomo Conterno, Costanti, Renato Ratti, La Monacesca, Bruno Giacosa, Volpe Pasini… the list goes on.
As for customers Renato sold to retailers like Oddbins, Harrods and Dolamore and restaurants like San Lorenzo, Monpeliano and the Connaught. He organised tastings of quality Italian wines, at a level which had never been seen in England where the prevailing opinion about Italian wines was that they tended to be faulty and should be sold cheap. He also arranged – and sometimes led – trips to Italian vineyards on the part of journalists and buyers, as well as those working at the coal-face such as sommeliers and shop managers. He played a major role in establishing a club dedicated to the promotion of quality Italian wines called Forum Vinorum (members including Paul Merritt, Michael Garner, Maureen Ashley MW, David Gleave MW, Richard Hobson MW, Margaret Rand, Gianni Segatta, Luciana Lynch, Philip Contini (representing Scotland) and Nicolas Belfrage MW.
He even went international with a move into the USA in collaboration with Almaden, at the time one of the world’s major wine companies, based in California but distributing in a number of major states. In the early 80s, however, Almaden sold their business and Renato’s agencies were re-distributed in the American market. Despite promises he received no further commission on sales arising from these agencies in America after that.
It was, in fact, the choosing of business partners that was to prove his Achilles heel, time and again. Renato may have been an inspired ambassador and sourcer of producers, and he did have a few felicitous relationships, for example with James Burgis of Harrods in the 70s, later (in the early 80s) with Richard Hobson MW of Italian Wine Agencies, and still later (late 80s) with Paul Merritt and Michael Garner, authors of ‘Barolo: Tar and Roses’. But more often he was unsuccessful, or unlucky, in business. Following the Almaden debacle, in 1982, he joined up with the Italian food-wine importer Alivini, and when that association ended Renato found himself in partnership with the American Lambrusco giant Banfi, under the company banner of Italian Wine Brands. The best customer of this firm was the 330-year-old brewer and distributor Hedges & Butler, and Renato and his agencies seemed set for life. But only 3 years after commencement H&B discontinued their distribution business and Renato was left with an increasingly souring relationship with Banfi.
The details of the disastrous end to that particular saga may emerge one day, but this is not the place. Associations (with Ehrmanns and Belloni) followed in the early 90s, but things did not work out as desired and by the middle of the 1990s Renato was back to the drawing board. The years since the millennium have seen him establish one more disastrous business relationship and several very positive agencies, chief among which are Cantina Valpolicella Negrar and Cantina Bartolomeo da Breganze, both of the Veneto.
Renato Trestini, in his latter years, has been winding down the clock in his beloved leafy Bruton in Somerset, victim of a debilitating dose of Parkinsons disease. “I have made a lot of mistakes especially in choosing people”, he says. “I was too naive, I trusted too much.” But he is proud of what he achieved for Italian quality wine, of his part in bringing serious producers into the all-important English market, even if he managed to reap precious little of the rewards. “Through the years, I have had the good fortune to accompany many young people in various trips round Italy. Now they are the ambassadors, and better at it than I.”
A typically modest Trestinian sentiment on which to end.
Nicolas Belfrage MW