Giorgio Rossi Cairo: “The souls of places speak to those who know how to listen”

The entrepreneur, one of the most eclectic figures on the Italian business scene, describes his biodynamic vision and experience at La Raia, where he promotes art and culture from a landscape perspective.

Thia article was originally published on Domus 1062, November 2021

“During the age of materialism we lost all understanding of what is necessary to keep tending nature carefully.”

So wrote Rudolph Steiner, one of the sharpest visionaries of the 19th century, the founder of anthroposophy and initiation into the higher worlds. Giorgio Rossi Cairo could say the same thing today. He is one of the most eclectic figures in the Italian business community, a leader in its digital initiation with Value Team, a technology spin-off of Value Partners which was born in 2002 and later sold in 2011 to invest (among other things) in sustainable farming.

“I don’t have Steinerian training, but I believe that harmony is a decisive element. And harmony means attention to detail at every level, from the flowerpot to complex systems. If you live in a clean place, it never crosses your mind to dirty it, but if you live in a blighted place, it’s easier to add your bit to the blight. Quite involuntarily.” Steiner called this idea eurythmy, the criminologist Philip Zimbardo, the broken windows theory, and Rossi Cairo realized it at La Raia, a 180-hectare estate where the genetic code “is firmly embedded in the present, but capable of drawing on the past”. 

Nestled in the heart of Gavi, it produces not only white and red DOCG wines in a winery built of raw earth, but also honey, ancient grains and raises Fasson-breed cows. The estate is farmed on the principles of biodynamic griculture. 

“Biodynamics interests me because it rests on the concept of balance between all the relevant factors, from vineyards to meadows, from woods to animals and, of course, the conditions of the people who do the work and the workplaces. If you have a neglected winery worked by people who are not motivated or interested, then the wine is unlikely to be of high quality. The souls of places speak to those who know how to listen to them.” 

An aeronautical engineer by training, Rossi Cairo came here the way he entered McKinsey, by chance, after designing ports for five years. “After countless interviews in which they asked me how I would organise the distribution of a brewery, I was unable to hold myself back any longer. I just blurted out, ‘Have you seen my CV? What do you expect me to know about logistics?’ That was the right answer. I left McKinsey thirteen years later after becoming a senior partner, only because I felt the need to work more for the Italian business community, defending it amid global competition. I have the same approach toward thelandscape, the only strategic asset of our country that no one else possesses. The Germans and the British, who came just to enjoy it, understood this.” 

Giorgio Rossi Cairo, managing director of Value Partners, since 2002 he has invested in biodynamic farming at La Raia in Gavi and at Tenuta Cucco in Serralunga d’Alba. Photo Donatella Di Cicco

Today, three centuries and endless ravages since the Grand Tour, Rossi Cairo believes we should stop talking only about the green revolution and start talking about the landscape management revolution, in an attempt to elaborate an economic model supporting it, “because without an economic model, no revolution is possible. And the landscape one is the hardest, because it means rejecting the financial logic of short-term investment and thinking long term. We need to understand it, protect it as one of the central realities in life as well as the only legacy of value we can leave for our children. This is the message of the landscape designer Gilles Clément, an essential author who inspires many green areas at La Raia. This is something you learn from plants, which I like to think as having an intelligence, resilience and organisation that is higher and happier than our own.” 

In 2014 Rossi Cairo invited the Deamicis architetti studio to convert a roadhouse at La Raia into an inn with just 12 rooms centred on Steiner’s three spheres of body, soul and spirit. A unique hospitality project. Each detail relates to all the others, from the parquet to the lamps and the harmonies of the menu. This may be an uneconomic approach for a Relais and in many ways closer to the atmosphere of a private home. But for this very reason it offers a similar welcome with the same sense of warmth and intimacy. Then, together with his life partner, the gallerist Irene Crocco, Rossi Cairo launched the Fondazione La Raia to promote art and culture in the landscape. To direct it he invited Ilaria Bonacossa, who on the hills around the lake of La Raia – “One of the main reasons for buying the estate,” smiles Rossi Cairo – has placed installations by Remo Salvadori, Koo Jeong A, Francesco Jodice, Adrien Missika and Michael Beutler. Artists who have left traces of their passing here by relating to the genius loci. As you stroll over the hills and amid the installations, you are light years away from marketing, immersed in a powerful and subtle experience.

Fondazione La Raia Oak Barrel Baroque, installation by Michael Beutler. Photo Anna Positano

“Art was a necessary evolution on our path, because we see this as a place of great emotional intensity. It’s the point where our family gathers at symbolic moments and where two of my children have chosen to work. It’s the heart of one of the least anthropised regions in Italy. But above all it is an experience capable of rediscovering archetypes and letting them work in the depths of our lives. My grandchildren who are growing up here can climb trees fearlessly, keep fireflies company, sprawl on the grass and come home when it’s dark. The school here at La Raia wants to offer kids this kind of experience.” 

Everything tends towards art, in short, towards harmony. For this reason, perhaps, the other projects that occupy Rossi Cairo – from Tenuta Cucco, a business acquired in 2015 at Serralunga d’Alba and transformed into an organic one, to investments in NaturaSì, Fontana Arte and Driade – have at their heart the qualitative relationship between sophistication of form and value of substance. A superior view of life opposed to the consumerist materialism of our recent history. “I don’t know whether it will succeed or what will happen tomorrow. But for me the important thing is awareness. Today we’re much more aware than we were ten years ago and we won’t go back. The political machine is slow, it’s not yet able to make decisions beyond the short-term, and at this moment it’s even difficult to make decisions but easier to shout slogans. But the process is not reversible. Getting back to details, with which we began, I noticed that the plants in the flowerbeds in Milan have been chosen so they will still be ornamental when they fade, without needing to be tended, staying beautiful even out of season? For me it seems like a change to admire: it takes little if the difference is made by attention and thought.” 

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