The Family Trust
Piero Antinori turned a 600-year-old company into an Italian powerhouse. Now he's looking to the next generation for its future
Piero Antinori is 76 years old. For 49 years, he has been the driving force behind one of Italy’s biggest success stories, Marchesi Antinori Wines, and, beyond that, a leader in the renaissance of all Italian wines.
Now he says he is retiring, stepping back and gradually handing control of the family company to his three daughters—Albiera, Allegra and Alessia—and Renzo Cotarella, his CEO, chief winemaker and trusted friend.
“My work now is not as it used to be,” Antinori says, sitting on an antique sofa in the villa at his Tignanello estate. “All the practical day-to-day matters are followed by my daughters and Renzo. Now, I do what I like to do. I leave all the small problems to others.”
His daughters say we shouldn’t believe it. “He says he will retire after next year,” says Allegra, the middle daughter. “He’s been saying it for 10 years. It never happens.”
Cotarella chuckles at the idea. “We talk about wine and the company three or four times a day,” he says. And even though the winemaker-turned-CEO is frequently on the road, visiting any of 15 wineries that Antinori owns in Italy, or their ventures around the world, that doesn’t matter.
“The marchese has a helicopter, you know,” Cotarella says. “He flies it himself. And he’ll call me in the morning and ask, ‘Where are you today? I think I’ll come down.’ ” If Cotarella is in Italy and the weather isn’t bad, he knows he’ll see Antinori’s burgundy-red helicopter heading toward him within a few hours.
Antinori can talk about slowing down all he wants, but retirement seems unlikely. For one thing, he’s still passionate about what he does. “I think he really enjoys it, to come to the office, to taste and meet with people,” says his eldest daughter, Albiera. “He is happy.”
But he also feels a heavy responsibility. The Antinoris have sold wine for more than 600 years. As the 25th generation to head the firm, Piero has transformed it into one of the world’s most influential wine companies. Safeguarding his family’s legacy has been his life’s work. That’s not something to let go of lightly, especially after almost losing it more than once.
In 1966, Antinori was 28 years old and preparing to enter the Italian Air Force when the family company was rocked by natural disaster and a wine scandal.
The Arno River flooded in November. Water rushed through the streets of Florence, endangering some of the Renaissance’s greatest works of art. It also poured into the basement of the Antinori headquarters, ruining hundreds of old bottles.
But that was the least of the company’s problems. Its customers were getting sick, and the illnesses were traced to the wrong chemical accidentally being added as a preservative in a batch of wine before it was bottled.
After months of tracking where the bad batch had gone, recalling bottles and smoothing relations with clients, the longtime general manager accepted responsibility and retired so the company could get a fresh start.
Suddenly, Piero’s plans changed. His father, Niccolò, decided that an Antinori needed to be the public face of the company in order to overcome the scandal. He put Piero, his eldest son, in charge.
Piero began repairing the damage, making sure that all the little details were done right. He traveled, so that clients could meet the new boss. But he also began to make changes, setting in motion a transformation of both his company and Italian wine. His efforts culminated in a vineyard called Tignanello—a place that had marked his past and would symbolize his future.
The vineyard is quintessential Chianti, a high, steep hillside facing southwest, bordered by olive trees. Days are warm and nights are breezy. White stones litter the ground—the limestone alberese that grapegrowers prize here. A farmhouse stands at the top of the hill, Podere Tignanello—probably named for the family that once lived there. On the next hilltop sits a gorgeous old villa where Antinori spent happy days as a child. He recalls playing with friends, rolling a hoop down the road, seeing who could make it travel farthest.
On a crisp winter’s day a few months ago, Antinori is checking on Tignanello. He’s tall and lanky, with perfect posture and focused blue eyes. He’s dressed like the country gentleman he is, with a brown wool sweater and tweed jacket, all earth tones except for the red-framed reading glasses he dons when needed.
“Piero comes from a noble family,” says Angelo Gaja, renowned Italian winemaker and a contemporary. “His background shines through his attitude. He has a sober and elegant style, typical of that kind of person who does not need to show off.”
Gazing over the vineyard, Antinori reflects on that crucial turning point so many years before. It was a turbulent time, full of risk and opportunity, and despite his father’s decision, he was hardly prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. “I was lucky,” Antinori says. “[My father] could have continued and not handed me the responsibility.”
His voice is a strong baritone with a touch of gravel. His manner is polite at all times. Proper but friendly, he’s quick to laugh but is in no way flippant. Although he is a kind and gracious host, he also never fully lets down his noble countenance. Don’t expect emotional displays.
Back in 1966, Antinori’s trademark calm was challenged as he endeavored to step into his new role at the company. And while the firm was financially sound, Italian wine was facing an existential crisis.
Tuscan wine had long been a product of the mezzadria system: Nobles owned land, farmers worked it, and they split the proceeds. It was a system trapped in the past—there was no incentive to improve farming methods. Niccolò had acquired several properties during more than three decades in charge, including a 350-acre estate called Santa Cristina, which included the Tignanello vineyard. But primarily his business was buying wine from landlords and sharecroppers and selling it. The best of his wines was a red Tuscan blend, primarily Sangiovese, called Villa Antinori.
In the two decades after World War II, the government ended mezzadria and redistributed land. With Italian factories booming, farmers migrated to the cities. Some landowners took a more active role in managing their estates, but large portions of Tuscan farmland went up for sale. Buyers were often wealthy businessmen from Florence, Rome and Milan.
For the landowners, old and new, wine was a cash crop, so everything except vines and olive trees was uprooted. Estates divided into small farms of mixed crops were transformed into big farms planted with large vineyards, often planted at low density (so tractors could pass through the rows) in soils better suited for grains than grapes. And with demand for new vines at an all-time high, nurseries strained to keep up. “We ordered Sangiovese from one nursery and received Trebbiano instead,” Antinori remembers.
Perhaps it barely made a difference. The Sangiovese clone that was most popular was hardly noble stock. This centuries-old variety is a notoriously fickle grapevine that produces mediocre wine if yields are not kept low. Almost everyone in the region was planting high-yielding clones in less-than-ideal spots. It was a recipe for large production—and for disaster.
More problems lurked in the cellars, where winemaking had stagnated for decades. Wines were fermented in old, dirty wooden vats with no temperature control. Bacteria and undesirable yeast strains ran wild. After fermentation, wine was transferred to age in old chestnut casks that were almost never cleaned. Low quality was the inevitable result, and it damaged the image of all Italian wines.
Many family businesses have long histories, but to survive six centuries and more, a family needs to know how to innovate, to stay ahead of the competition. The motto on the Antinori family crest is Te duce proficio, roughly, the quest for excellence. Or as Antinori put it in his recent memoir, The Hills of Chianti, “Grow. Learn. Improve.”
“What’s remarkable about Piero is he’s steeped in tradition, the history, but also has an innovation streak, a desire to try new things and constantly improve,” says Ted Baseler, CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle, which has partnered with Antinori on two U.S. wineries.
Antinori knew Tuscan wine needed to change, and he had an important ally in the cellar—Giacomo Tachis, an enologist who had been hired by Niccolò. In 1968, Antinori and Tachis asked the leading enologist of the day, Bordeaux’s Émile Peynaud, to come to Tuscany and do some consulting for them. Peynaud’s counsel? Cut yields in the vineyards, stop including white grapes in Chianti, and start aging the wine in clean new oak barrels.
Tachis began implementing the Bordeaux professor’s suggestions.
In the meantime, Antinori took a different tack, adding a Bordeaux-inspired wine to his Tuscan portfolio. Conveniently, it was made in his uncle’s garage.
Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, a Piedmontese nobleman, was married to the sister of Antinori’s mother. The two sisters inherited from their father a huge estate on the Tuscan coast near the tiny hamlet of Bolgheri. Like many Italian nobles, when della Rocchetta wanted good wine, he bought French. He especially loved Bordeaux and decided Bolgheri’s maritime climate and gravel soils were suited for Cabernet Sauvignon. He planted a few acres of vines and in 1944 started bottling the wine for his own consumption. He dubbed it Sassicaia, for the stones in the vineyards.
In 1968, della Rochetta asked Antinori if he would market Sassicaia. Tachis was dispatched to the estate, Tenuta San Guido, to make the winemaking a little less homemade. The result drew a collective gasp from the wine world. An Italian region no one had heard of had produced a Bordeaux-style wine that was better than many Bordeaux. (Antinori marketed and sold Sassicaia until after Mario’s death 15 years later, when Mario’s son Niccolò took over.)
Back in Chianti Classico, in 1970, Tachis and Piero tasted the young wines for that vintage of Villa Antinori and decided that the innovations they had implemented with Peynaud’s help were starting to produce results. They decided to create a special cuvée from Tignanello, the most consistent Sangiovese vineyard at Santa Cristina. They produced 1,600 cases of this Chianti Classico, adding the smallest allowable percentage of white grapes, and labeled it “Villa Antinori Tignanello Vineyard.”
In 1971, they decided to go even further. They eliminated the white grapes from the blend. During fermentation they used temperature-controlled vats and employed pump-overs to gently extract more tannins. They induced malolactic fermentation, producing a softer and qualitatively more consistent Sangiovese. And they aged the wines in new French oak barriques. After two years, they tasted the results and were even more pleased.
But with the pleasure came a painful legal reality: The wine could no longer be called Chianti Classico. The appellation rules, enacted in 1967, mandated a percentage of white grapes. So while Antinori hoped to elevate the image of the Chianti region, he had to do it by labeling his creation a table wine, the lowest legal denomination.
In 1975, Antinori pushed the boundaries even further, adding 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 percent Cabernet Franc to his blend to add structure and complexity. The Cabernet was grown in another Santa Cristina vineyard, called Solaia, just a few yards from Tignanello.
The new wine confirmed that Sassicaia’s quality had not been a fluke and, what’s more, that Chianti Classico could produce an outstanding wine of the 20th century. Tignanello inspired Antinori’s neighbors, who also began experimenting with grapes, blends and methods beyond the local traditions and produced wines that could not be labeled Chianti. The super Tuscans were born.
“Piero Antinori set an example for all of us,” says Giovanni Manetti, owner of Chianti Classico’s Fontodi winery, which makes its super Tuscan Flaccianello from Sangiovese grown a few valleys away from Tignanello. “Without Tignanello, there would be no Flaccianello.” The same could be said for many iconic Tuscan wines.
Antinori doubled down on Cabernet in 1978. Solaia produced a bumper crop that year, and Antinori bottled a new wine named for the vineyard, a blend of 95 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 percent Cabernet Franc. (In 1982, he began adding 20 percent Sangiovese to the blend.) The 1997 Solaia was Wine Spectator‘s 2000 Wine of the Year—the first Italian wine to earn that honor. It made headlines in both Italy and America.
Today, the super Tuscan concept has come under debate. As producers all over Italy are making better wines with indigenous grapes, some increasingly question the use of non-native varieties. They accuse Antinori of destroying Tuscan character in his attempt to save Tuscan wine.
Half a century ago, when Antinori was crafting Tignanello, it was natural to look to France, the world’s top producer, for inspiration. Italy needed new ideas. What’s more, Cabernet vines offered a head start; the French had been focusing on selecting and cultivating the best Cabernet clones for centuries. Only in recent decades have the Italians done the same for Sangiovese—and Antinori’s company has been a leader in that research.
In the 1970s, Italy needed a wine that would mark it as a great wine nation. With Tignanello, Antinori delivered exactly that.
Radical change comes more easily to those with little to lose. Antinori’s daring is even more notable given the stature and history of the company he was shaking up—characteristics embodied in the company’s headquarters, Palazzo Antinori.
The 15th-century mansion is located a few cobblestoned blocks from the soaring majesty of Florence’s Duomo. It’s an imposing piece of architecture, with simple, solid lines and arched windows. Just inside the front entrance is the Cantinetta, a wine bar and restaurant Niccolò opened in 1957. Across the interior courtyard are administrative offices; upstairs are family apartments where Piero and his wife, Francesca, live today, along with Allegra and her young family.
On the right outer wall, facing a small lane, there’s the Renaissance equivalent of a drive-through window. It’s a porticina, an arched opening just large enough for an old Tuscan fiasco to pass through, sealed with a wooden door marked “VINO.” In the 16th century, customers knocked, passed some money to an Antinori cellar worker, and received wine to go.
Antinori enjoys showing visitors the porticina—it’s evidence that the entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in his bloodline. The first recorded mention of the Antinoris was an 1179 document registering a land deal. When the Antinoris moved to Florence from the countryside in 1202, the family quickly became leading traders in wool and silk. In 1385, when brothers Giovanni da Pietro Antinori and Lodovico Antinori wanted to expand operations, their mother, Albiera, suggested the wine trade.
Antinori is a scholar of his family history. He has written several books, and the library on the third floor holds endless tomes listing centuries of business transactions—when the family bought this or that piece of land and how much wool it produced each year. Antinori can tell you about his ancestor Orazio Antinori, the military adventurist and big-game hunter who explored the upper reaches of the Nile in the 1850s; or Bernardino Antinori, who was strangled in 1576 on Francesco de Medici’s orders for flirting with a woman the Grand Duke of Tuscany was courting.
He also takes pride in how the wine business endured through the centuries. In 1860, author Francesco Redi wrote a friend to say he was sending four flasks “by the illustrious Signor Vincenzo Antinori” and that they must be good because his priest liked them.
The wine business provided only 10 percent of family income that year, but it became the primary focus of Piero’s branch of the family in the 1890s, when Niccolò’s father and two uncles founded Cantine dei Marchesi Lodovico e Piero Antinori, building their own wine cellars in the Chianti town of San Casciano.
Niccolò would grow the business substantially. He began working in sales right after returning from fighting in World War I, then bought out his uncles a decade later. His uncle Lodovico kept the vineyards, so Niccolò began acquiring new property, including Santa Cristina and a sizable estate in Umbria called Castello della Sala.
Most of his attention was focused on marketing; he believed Antinori couldn’t survive the 20th century merely by selling Tuscan wines to Tuscans. As a young salesman, Niccolò traveled around Europe. In Italy, everyone drank Italian wine. But on a trip to London, Niccolò tasted classic French wines and realized they were far better. Italian wine had history, but it had a dreadful reputation.
As he took over the business, Niccolò co-opted some ideas from French vintners he admired. In 1928, he created Villa Antinori, with a picture of a family estate near Florence on the label. They have their châteaus, he reasoned, we’ll have our villas. The bottle was not a fiasco, but a Bordeaux-style bottle. He even planted some Cabernet vines at Santa Cristina in 1934.
Antinori credits his father with being ahead of his time, especially because Niccolò faced challenging years. “He would have been even a better entrepreneur and manager if he could have devoted his life to the company,” Antinori says. “After World War II, we had to start from scratch, practically. My father also took public positions. He was patriotic and wanted to help in the reconstruction of Italy. I was able to devote my whole life to the company.”
Antinori was with his father when war directly scarred the business. In July of 1944, the father and son were at Santa Cristina when word came that the retreating German army had passed through San Casciano and ransacked the Antinori cellars. Niccolò later wrote, “I found a desolate sight: disemboweled barrels, broken machinery, masses of bottles machine-gunned by the retreating Germans, rivulets of wine stagnating here and there. I had taken my son Piero with me, and for him it was his first experience of work. It’s a memory that will be with him for the rest of his life.”
The day’s lesson was clear—just because the company was centuries old did not mean it was safe.
In family businesses, the biggest danger almost always comes from within the family. In 1980, when Piero was celebrating Tignanello’s success and planning new projects, his older sister, Ilaria, and younger brother, Lodovico, told him they wanted to sell their shares of the company.
Each of the siblings owned a third of Antinori. Ilaria had never been interested in the business. Lodovico, five years younger than his brother, was 23 when Piero took over management. Asked why his father didn’t offer Lodovico a position, Antinori replies that his brother wasn’t interested. Lodovico was curious about the spirits industry, and Niccolò helped him establish a wine and spirits import firm. In the 1970s, Lodovico was Antinori Wine’s sales representative for America, before trying out careers in film and journalism.
Lodovico says he was hurt by his father’s decision in 1966, though he now believes it was the right one. Antinori wishes in hindsight that he and his brother had found a way to work together at the family company, but Lodovico’s brash, creative personality and Piero’s thoughtful, reserved style never blended well. (The brothers have more recently partnered on a winery, Tenuta di Biserno, outside Bolgheri.) In 1980, Lodovico was working on his own wine project. He wanted to create a small winery on his share of the family’s Bolgheri estate, modeled after Sassicaia. He would call it Tenuta dell’Ornellaia. But he needed cash to get it started.
Antinori did not have the money to buy them out. In his early years in charge, he had acquired wine companies in Umbria and the Veneto that hadn’t panned out. More importantly, he had invested millions in updating the cellars and replanting vineyards.
But he did have an offer from someone who could help. Whitbread was a U.K.-based corporation that had been founded as an English brewery in 1742. Publicly traded, it had grown to include hotel chains and Julius Wile, Antinori’s U.S. wine importer at that time. The managers were looking to get into wine production.
Antinori knew a deal with Whitbread could buy out his siblings. He also hoped a partnership with the company importing his wines to his most important foreign market would improve business there.
And there was one other reason for a deal—Antinori believed he had no potential successor. He has three daughters and no sons. And though he admits now that his thinking looks antiquated, at the time he did not think his daughters would want to join the business. To safeguard his company’s future, in 1981 he made a deal with Whitbread.
“We kept the majority of the production entity—the vineyards, winery and brand,” explains Antinori. “And we formed a new marketing company where they had the majority.”
He regretted it almost immediately. His new partners, executives of a publicly traded corporation, had different priorities than he did. In 1985, one of Antinori’s longtime sources of Chianti grapes came up for sale—Pèppoli—and he wanted to buy it. Whitbread executives resisted the move because the vineyards needed new investments that would take almost a decade to show results. Antinori bought it anyway. Two years later, another prime Chianti Classico estate, Badia a Passignano, came up for sale. Again Whitbread fought the purchase. They told him that Antinori would do far better to decrease production and raise prices—that would help Whitbread’s stock price.
“For a wine company like ours, going public is not the right thing to do,” Antinori says now. “Once you are public, inevitably you become more concerned with short-term results. The analysts look at the quarterly results. In our business, you plant a vineyard today, you don’t see any cash flow for 10 years.” Frustrated, Antinori even stepped back from day-to-day management for several years.
But he came to realize that he did have heirs, even if they weren’t boys—Albiera had begun working in the company in 1986 and had proven she had a passion for the business. Her sisters would soon follow.
“I came to the conclusion that I wanted to buy back the company,” Antinori told Wine Spectator in 1994. “I realized that my daughters were interested in the wine business, but I also realized that I had to be more emotionally involved in the company.”
In 1991, Antinori reached out to a friend at a large bank about obtaining financing to buy out his partners. The friend, Vincenzo Maranghi, CEO of Mediobanca, told him to forget it. Rumor was that Whitbread had grown tired of the wine business—it was shopping its spirits division to corporate giant Allied Lyons (later Allied Domecq). And that company wanted control of Antinori as part of the deal. Whitbread was already preparing to buy out Antinori. It would take a huge amount of money to stop them.
Antinori was not about to surrender. He sold his share of a successful financial business to raise cash. And he asked Maranghi for a loan, with his personal net worth and Palazzo Antinori as collateral.
When Antinori sat down to negotiate with Whitbread’s executives in March 1991, they knew he had the desire to buy them out—but they didn’t think he had the money. He did—offering approximately $40 million—and they took it. By the end of the year, Marchesi Antinori Wines was 100 percent family-owned again.
At age 53, Antinori had the full weight of the company back on his shoulders and was saddled with huge financial obligations. He didn’t care. “In such circumstances, you have to take your decision and never diverge from it,” he says. “It gave me the chance to start again. It was a gamble.”
The fresh start allowed him to initiate a plan to change the focus of the company. His idea was hatched not at the palazzo but in a 13th-century castle several hours’ drive to the south, in Umbria.
The hills of Chianti Classico are sleepy, but they appear downright cosmopolitan compared with the country surrounding Castello della Sala, an imposing stone edifice in the midst of old trees, vineyards and precipitous cliffs of white volcanic stone called tufo. The lights of Orvieto twinkle in the distance. Niccolò Antinori bought the 1,200-acre property in 1940 because his customers were asking for white wines, something this area was known for.
Cotarella comes here almost every weekend, reconnecting with his own family terroir. He grew up not far away in a small village where his father grew grapes and where Cotarella and his older brother, Riccardo, a highly successful consulting enologist, still share a house.
In 1977, Cotarella was attending winemaking school nearby when some professors recommended him for the part-time job of staff enologist for the local wine consortium. Antinori, as owner of della Sala, was serving as consortium president at that time. Antinori and Cotarella had a natural rapport—they encouraged each other’s curiosity and ambition. In 1979, Antinori poached Cotarella, then 24, to serve as winemaker at della Sala.
By that time, Antinori had grabbed attention with Tignanello and Solaia. He decided it was time to try the Tignanello model at another estate and that Cotarella was the man to help him.
It was an ideal, if daunting, job for a young enologist. Cotarella was suddenly managing a large property, much of which needed replanting, and experimenting in the cellar, with advice from Tachis. “Piero and I were looking for more intensity, flavor and personality,” Cotarella says.
Antinori and his young winemaker bounced ideas off each other as Cotarella tried different grapes, planting densities and winemaking techniques. They fermented in steel tanks and oak barrels; they cold-soaked Chardonnay juice on the skins. In the end, they created several new wines; their flagship was a blend of Chardonnay and local grape Grechetto called Cervaro della Sala.
At the time, the company’s primary business was wines made from purchased grapes, such as Villa Antinori, another Chianti called Santa Cristina, and Galestro, a blend of Tuscan white grapes. When Antinori and Tachis had been creating Tignanello, they had also expanded the San Casciano cellars, increasing production from 75,000 cases a year to more than 500,000. But Cotarella’s results validated what Antinori believed was his company’s future: a collection of individual estates producing elite wines.
The firm already owned three properties—Castello della Sala; Santa Cristina in Chianti Classico; and Tenuta Belvedere, the estate of Antinori’s mother in Bolgheri (once a source of rosé, it’s now called Guado al Tasso and produces fine reds). Beginning in 1985, Antinori spent 15 years acquiring estates all over Tuscany, first Pèppoli and Badia a Passignano in Chianti Classico, then La Braccesca in Montepulciano, Tenuta Monteloro north of Florence, Pian delle Vigne in Montalcino, and Fattoria delle Mortelle in La Maremma.
The company also moved outside Tuscany, buying Prunotto in Piedmont, founding Tormaresca in Puglia and starting a joint venture for sparkling wines in Franciacorta called Montenisa.
In America, it established Antica Napa Valley in Atlas Peak and partnered with Chateau Ste. Michelle on Col Solare in Washington and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa. There have been additional joint ventures in Malta, Hungary and Chile.
“The biggest change at Antinori is that we became producers,” Cotarella says. “We realized that it was impossible to improve quality without having direct control of the vineyard. [And] we decided to invest not just in vineyards and wineries but also in people, in order to have in each estate its own staff—a vineyard manager, an agronomist, a winemaker—who had the possibility to have a strong feeling with the place.”
Estate wines are not yet the company’s sole business, but the day is coming closer. The Santa Cristina brand is made at a large winery outside the Tuscan hill town of Cortona. Total production is 600,000 cases and includes a Tuscan IGT red and an Umbrian IGT white, each selling for about $10 a bottle. More than 80 percent of the grapes are grown by Antinori; the goal is to increase that to 100 percent. As for Villa Antinori, its wines are blends from multiple Antinori estates.
Today, Antinori owns more than 5,000 acres of vines. It sold more than 1.9 million cases of wine last year, with estimated 2014 revenue of $189.5 million and estimated net profits of close to $40 million.
Cotarella believes that the next decade for the company will be about finding the voice of each estate. He admits that doing so has been a process of trial and error and that there is still much to learn. But since Antinori regained complete ownership, he has constantly preached patience and persistence.
When Tachis retired in 1992, becoming a consulting enologist, Antinori knew that Cotarella was the man to oversee winemaking for the entire company. Antinori’s daughters all describe the Umbrian as the son their father never had. The job description has evolved too. “I was chief winemaker, and now I am more of a consultant for each winery,” Cotarella says. In 2005, Antinori promoted him to CEO, showing, he believes, that wine quality has to be the No. 1 mission.
In 2013, Antinori opened a winery unlike anything seen in Chianti before.
From a distance, the new facility looks like a typical Tuscan vineyard, except for two brown horizontal slashes across the hill. Move closer, and you can see that the winery, officially named Antinori of Chianti Classico, is buried underground—the slashes are terraces and windowed offices looking out. Guests drive into an underground garage, then climb a corkscrew staircase to a visitors center.
“This winery is unique, unmatched anywhere in the world,” says Gaja. “It is not by chance that the man behind it comes from Florence, precisely where the Italian Renaissance was born.”
The project took seven years and cost $130 million, well over the original budget. It replaces the old San Casciano cellars, which had grown crowded and outdated. And it provides office space for Antinori’s sales, marketing and administrative teams, who were crammed into every available space at the palazzo in Florence. There have been jokes that the employees must feel like hobbits working underground, but skylights and glass walls create a space that’s bright and airy.
Allegra Antinori is leading guests deep inside the hill, to the cellars, immense vaulted rooms filled with tanks and barrels. The walls are clad in Tuscan terra-cotta. It feels like a cathedral to wine, but it’s a bit too pristine for her. “We have such a great opportunity to make a good impression here,” Allegra says. “It is all rather new, however. We need to put some soul into the winery.”
None of this has been easy. Cotarella teases that the winery construction, which he and Albiera oversaw, was tougher on the marchese than on them. “Piero suffered a lot,” Cotarella says. “Because he paid.”
Antinori chuckles when this comment is relayed to him, but he has faced a lot of challenging financial decisions since buying back the company. “We had a very heavy loan that we had to repay,” he says. “That was a very difficult period when we had to make tough choices. Now the company is in a very healthy situation.”
What has allowed him to do it all is that the company has prospered and the family is completely invested in it. “We were able to plant and build without problems because we were not obliged to pay dividends to our shareholders,” Antinori says. “In my almost 50 years, we have not paid one cent of dividends to our shareholders. All profits have been invested in the company.”
A few years ago, Antinori gave his daughters a reading assignment. He handed them a copy of The House of Mondavi, a book about the rise of Robert Mondavi Winery and its eventual sale to Constellation. The book has its salacious details, but it is a cautionary tale of a family winery that grew, went public and then got into trouble as siblings squabbled and shareholders demanded returns.
“I was a very good friend of Robert Mondavi,” Antinori says. “To see the end of that story was horrible. A company like ours needs to have a soul. You need to keep it, not sell it to Wall Street. A company like ours is fragile, because it’s based on people, on passion.”
“I cried at the end of that book,” Alessia says. Each of the daughters took the lesson to heart. They believe that for Antinori Wines to continue to succeed, it needs to keep the values of their family.
Antinori says you cannot push children to join you in your business. That said, he always made sure to give his daughters every opportunity to find their way in. Allegra says some of her favorite memories are of accompanying her father to vineyards, which she began doing at age 8.
“Every weekend we used to drive to Bolgheri and we would stop at the cellars in San Casciano, and [my father and Tachis] would taste the wines together,” she says. “I would participate, always very suspicious because of all the spitting of the wines. I remember asking my father why would he spit something that he produced, and thinking that this wine must have been rather awful.”
Each of the daughters—Albiera, 48, Allegra, 44, and Alessia, 39—had to find her passion for the business at her own speed.
In 1986, Albiera was done with high school and had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. Because she was a woman, she says, university was not encouraged. But her father had a suggestion: Why not work the harvest at Castello della Sala? Under the watchful eye of Cotarella, she went to work.
“I do not think there was a specific moment when I decided wine would be my career,” she says. “After that harvest, I did a trip with my father where I explained what I had done at Castello della Sala. The following spring, there were new vineyards to be planted, then the next harvest.” Before she knew it, she had a full-time job.
Allegra’s first job was outside the company, assisting in hospitality at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. Alessia, after considering studying art history, chose to major in viticulture and enology in Milan.
Today, all three women play leading roles in the company, overseeing certain estates and handling marketing in various territories. Albiera has been heavily involved in finance, planning and Asian markets. Allegra oversees hospitality, including restaurants in several countries, as well as European markets. Alessia spent several years abroad, living first in Hong Kong and then in New York. She still handles U.S. business, but her husband’s work recently took her to Rome, and she is now rebuilding an estate called Fiorano that her maternal grandfather founded just outside the city and whose ownership she shares with her sisters.
Will one of them step into Piero’s role someday? No one seems to have decided.
“In a way, I have passed responsibility to Renzo and he will pass responsibility to my daughters,” Antinori says. “Fortunately, all three are determined to continue to be active in the company. Maybe they have not yet really decided what they want their roles to be, if they want to be a president or an active CEO. That’s up to them. Certainly they are passionate about the company.”
Regardless of what the next generation chooses, Antinori hopes they will never face the dilemma he confronted. In December 2012, he and his daughters created a family trust and put the company under its ownership. “In the United States it’s quite common, but in Italy it’s very new,” he says. “In a way, we are not owners anymore, but beneficiaries.”
Three trustees, including Ferruccio Ferragamo, president of the fashion house and a family friend, must approve major changes in the company. “In 95 years, the family will have to decide what to do,” Antinori explains. “They could reconstitute the trust. They can say, ‘We don’t want a trust, but we are all interested in continuing to be part of the company,’ or what is most likely is that one part will say, ‘We are interested in being a part of the company’ and another part will say, ‘We are not interested and want some money.’ ” Profits will have been set aside to buy out any family members who wish to exit. “I think I have done what is possible to try and continue this company for another 600 years,” Antinori says.
Antinori is dining at the Cantinetta, enjoying a glass of Negroamaro from Tormaresca. He’s happy this evening. He learned from Alessia earlier that day that she is pregnant with her second child—a sixth grandchild. He’s also looking forward to seeing his eldest grandchild, Albiera’s son Vittorio, who is stopping by to chat with him.
Vittorio climbs the stairs to the Cantinetta balcony and takes off his coat. Tall and handsome, with jet-black hair, he attended university in England. Now a year out of school, the 21-year-old is going to work in marketing for Pernod Ricard; he has just learned he will be helping with Champagne sales from their office in Sydney, Australia. He tells his grandfather about the job and relates how his sister is doing; a viticulture and enology student in Milan, Verdiana, 19, is spending part of her holiday break at Castello della Sala, learning about pruning.
Vittorio shares some other exciting news—he has passed the exam for a hunting license. He’s pleased, because hunting means long walks with his grandfather in Bolgheri.
The Antinori’s Bolgheri estate, Guado al Tasso, is a wild place. There are vineyards, of course, and a comfortable home. But porcupines wander the roads at night, and wild boar frequent the pine woods. Antinori may not be retiring, but he does allow himself one afternoon off each week. Hunting is his favorite pursuit. Usually ducks or woodcocks are the prey, but mostly a hunt is an excuse for a long walk on his land with his beloved dogs. It’s a chance to think.
When he’s not walking, he enjoys tennis or golf—he has an impressive handicap. He’s a voracious reader of history, always looking for lessons for the present in the past. He also has a small boat and likes to fish. He especially enjoys taking the grandchildren with him.
“He’s a fantastic grandfather,” Allegra says. “He loves to be with his grandchildren—all of the children, but especially the boys. He teaches them. My son [15-year-old Niccolò] behaves so differently around him. He has so much respect for him.”
Vittorio gets up from the table, hugs his grandfather and says goodbye for now. With Christmas just around the corner, soon Piero and Francesca will head to Guado al Tasso, where the children and grandchildren will join them. As part of tradition, at Christmas lunch Piero will serve a wine he has selected blind, asking everyone to share their thoughts and try to identify it.
For Antinori, family is not just something in a history book. It’s his rich present. It’s also his company’s future.
- The Italian Wines of Antinori Map (in PDF Format)