Many of us, tied up to and tired of our daily jobs, dream of changing lives and destinies, of giving it all up to finally do something we enjoy, something we would feel really passionate about. Stephan Marti was one of those people. He just did it.
Few of us ever manage to risk the comfort and security, both financial and psychological, of our wellworn professional tasks and schedules. Change often remains the stuff of daydreaming, because with families, rents to pay, cars to fuel, we’d rather play it safe. In these times of anxiogenic economic hardship, this risk-averse attitude does not only look like the sane thing to do, it often also looks like the only one. Yet, from time to time, we are proven spectacularly wrong by someone who ventures not only off the beaten path, but off the wall as well.
In a previous life, Stephan Marti actually embraced a very Swiss way of life. He pursued a career in the finance industry for some 15 years, “working with offshore companies, putting trusts together,” as he smilingly says, recalling what seems like a distant memory now. Then one day, the fun stopped, and Stephan Marti knew it was time to move on. He had felt for some time the need to produce something “I could feel, touch, taste even”. Not surprising for someone who had actually had a history with food and hospitality – Marti’s grandparents used to run a hotel, a family heritage that saw him attend a hospitality management school and eventually become the director of a restaurant group early in his career. It was in this previous incarnation that Stephan Marti changed lives for the first time, seizing the opportunity that one of his restaurants’ clients had offered him: to join a financial firm. In one of life’s nice touches, the pendulum has now swung back the other way and brought Stephan Marti back to the food and beverage field of action, although “back to” is perhaps not the most appropriate word here, “on top of” would be much more fitting. For when Marti, who wanted to put his “heart and stomach” into a new professional endeavour, came back to his first loves, he did so with style, selecting one of the world’s most sought-after products to launch a new chapter of his career : balsamico.
With its rich, dark colouring, its particular taste that seasons sweet and salty meals alike, balsamico vinegar has become a staple in many restaurants and supermarkets, all the more surprising since this very Italian product was hardly known outside of its native country only a few decades ago. An obscure delicacy made in northern Italy, it was so highly valued there that many families passed along barrels of aged balsamico as part of a dowry. It became mainstream almost overnight in Europe and especially in the US towards the end of the 1970s. Intoxicated by its sweet, caramel flavour, consumers started to drizzle it over anything from salads to deserts.
In fact, there are two kinds of balsamicos made by entirely different processes.
The traditional product, known as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, is made from a reduction of cooked white Trebbiano grape juice and is not a vinegar in the usual sense. The sweet grape must is boiled in open vats until reduced to about half its original volume. This concentrated must is poured into wooden barrels that have cloth-covered openings to allow evaporation and enable the fermentation of the grapes in a slow aging process that takes a minimum of twelve years. The taste intensifies over the years, with the vinegar becoming sweet, viscous and very concentrated. Traditional balsamico has been produced that very same way in Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy – and only there – since the Middle Ages. Along the course of business trips, Stephan Marti, in his financier suit, became acquainted with this traditional version of balsamico and noticed how the very best variants of this delicacy were treated like a secret by Italian families, who pass it on as a gift to their friends and relatives rather than selling it.
Marti grew fascinated by the product and the aura it had gained among food connoisseurs. So much so, in fact, that he made the trip to Parma in Reggio Emilia to deepen his knowledge of the production procedures for traditional balsamico. He came back with his new career all mapped out. He would elbow into the market with a third kind of balsamico, one that would retain the high quality raw material and production process aspects of the traditional balsamico vinegar while giving it a definite edge and a Swiss “made in” stamp. He thus launched his very own brand, instantaneously marketing it as an upscale product by choosing to produce it the very same way as in northern Italy, albeit with apple and pear juices instead of grapes, going for the best raw material available in Switzerland instead of importing grapes from Italy. Baerg Marti, his new company, selects fruits from old apple and pear trees to ensure perfect flavours, cooks them for a week and lets the juice age for a minimum of five years in limousin or cherry oak barrels. This in itself was a bold entrepreneurial move – passionately taking on a revered, elusive, traditional product, produced along very strict guidelines, and embarking on a delicate process of respecting the tradition while riskily going for a “Made in Switzerland” branding rather than a “Made in Italy” one.
But Stephan Marti did not stop there. As he was looking for a place to store his balsamico barrels, he came up with the idea of asking his acquaintances in the Swiss Army if his products could be stored in one of Switzerland’s legendary secret mountains hideaways. Marti had indeed figured that the altitude would allow for a faster oxidation process, thus ensuring the perfect aging conditions for his balsamico. His friends in the Army came up with an even better, James Bond-style proposal: storing the balsamico in one of the Swiss Army glaciers’ caves. Marti seized the amazing opportunity, and the aptly name Baerg (“mountain”) Marti company started to store its balsamico at the very heart of Switzerland, at the rear of the Jungfrau glacier.
It is hard to imagine a better marketing backdrop, an upscale product produced the same way for centuries, and which, in this traditional and luxurious version, is the preserve of a few insiders, completed by the launch of the production process in a completely new environment, with new raw materials, and storage facilities located inside a mountain. The wow effect of the whole endeavour was sure to attract media attention and capture potential clients’ imagination. Marti knew how to capitalise on the unorthodox aspect of his enterprise: Baerg Marti regularly organises events on the glaciers – the company now enjoys two such storage facilities – for its well-heeled clients, many of them wellknown personalities. The one-of-a-kind settings are also available for private events on request, wooing new clients while at the same time providing a good influx of cash.
The blitz strategy, with strong media backing, worked quickly. Baerg Marti’s balsamico, along with the wide variety of vinegars made of herbs and fruits, are sold everywhere from London to Singapore at upscale points of sale. This is where, of course, the double identity of Stephan Marti comes in handy: food and beverage expert, passionate about his product, with a finance background that enables him to see the best ways to convert his ideas and – it has to be acknowledged – fun business idea into a sustainable enterprise. And then there is Marti’s most unexpected entrepreneurial proposal: offering his barrels of balsamico as an investment.
It all started when a Japanese client visiting the glacier storage facility of Baerg asked Marti to purchase a whole barrel rather than bottles of balsamico in order to have it engraved with his initials. Never the one to pass up a good opportunity, Marti instantaneously knew how he could pick up on his client’s idea. Not only did he agree to sell the barrel, but he started to propose and market his whole production as an investment opportunity for investors on the lookout for new ventures. The rules are much the same as for more traditional investment vehicles: you have to wait. A Baerg investor buys a barrel, or more, at the price tag of CHF 11,500 and has to wait up a minimum of five years to sell the barrel and convert it into cash. A barrel contains some 30 litres of balsamico, or 30 bottles, which, argues Marti, can be sold for as much as CHF 3000 per litre when appropriately aged. An excellent return on investment if, as he assures, demand for traditional balsamico far exceeds the offer and thus means that exit is ensured for investors that wish to put their investment on the market after five years, rather than re-investing it straight away for some more aging. What’s more, the investor gets an added bonus in the form of balsamico crystals, small particles that form over the years during the fermentation process as the wooden barrels’ walls release small amounts of water. It sounds like nothing much, but these “crystals” boast an almost ridiculous market value of about CHF 1500 per a tiny 100 grams measure.
All of the sudden, investing in vinegar does not sound so weird and off the wall. Marti’s idea is commanding the attention of clients and media alike, with Forbes magazine dedicating a piece to this unusual investment strategy not so long ago, and this, even if the performance of such investments has yet to be tested, given the newness of the venture. The attention stems from something much more interesting than the fun and craziness of some folkloric business idea. For Stephan Marti is actually at the forefront of an investment trend that is far from ludicrous and that trend watchers and consulting firms in the industry – Deloitte recently published a research paper on the topic – are witnessing and commenting upon : the rise of collectibles as an asset class. A collectible appears as the polar opposite of traditional investment vehicles. It is tangible, transportable, can be stored relatively easily, presents some longevity, and is scarce and non-fungible, two characteristics that differentiate this class of assets from precious metals. This category encompasses everything from antiques to stamps, collectible cars, art, wine, violins even, and now, you guessed it, balsamico.
Investing with the heart With equity returns being eroded by market volatility, bond yields at a record low and monetary and financial crises looming almost everywhere around the globe, a sure inclination is emerging among investors towards collectible assets which are seen as a hedge against inflation and devaluation because of the very low correlation they display with other financial assets and markets in general. They do not obey any of the rules usually displayed by orthodox investments, and what’s more, have the unique feature of enabling investors to mix business with pleasure. This is exactly what Marti has in mind when he explains how he, and his investors alike, wanted “to have a real relationship with an investment product,” which is what experts in turn now designate as “passion” or “emotional investments”.
Collecting precious objects, furniture or art was before seen as the prerogative and hobby of some super-rich idle investors who had run out of traditional investment vehicles to put their cash in. But collectible investment has now turned from a pleasurable diversion into a smart venture, thanks to a timely combination of aesthetic pleasure, lifestyle appeal and very adverse traditional market conditions. Growing demand for such novel investments started to gain grounds in China, thanks to the exponential growth of the country’s millionaires on the lookout for new ways to invest their money while replicating a luxurious occidental way of life, perceived as fascinating. No wonder then that Chinese and, more widely, Asian clients and investors are now regular buyers at auctions for anything from art to precious stones and wine.
Tale of two condiments
The production of the balsamic vinegar is mentioned in a document dated as early as 1046, a time when it was actually used as a disinfectant, hence its name and reputation, “balsam-like,” which means restorative or curative. Its reputation has survived to this day, thought it is now highly valued by chefs and gourmet foodies worldwide for its unique and refined sweet and sour taste. The names Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia are protected by both the Italian Denominazione di origine protetta and the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin.
Most of us have actually only ever sampled the much more generic version, called Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Aceto Balsamico di Modena, an inexpensive modern imitation of the traditional product, which is today widely available. This is the kind commonly used for salad dressing, made of wine vinegar with the addition of colouring, caramel and sometimes thickeners like guar gum or corn flour to artificially simulate the sweetness and thickness of the aged Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Unlike the traditional version, there is no aging involved, and hundreds of thousands of litres can be produced every day. It is also much cheaper, costing less than 10 CHF a bottle in the supermarket, a real bargain and pale imitation of the 3000 CHF-a-litre traditional balsamico extravaganza.
Article by Lauriane Zonco