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Leisure: Super Man

Jack Smith

It is always interesting to view the pictures that people hang in their homes, and this notion holds true for those who contemplate the walls of Santa Cristina, Piero Antinori’s sprawling 16th-century villa in Tuscany. Photographs form a sepia-toned montage of aristocratic contentment from a bygone age—tintypes of mustachioed men in straw boaters and white suits on high-wheeled bicycles; women, in flowing riding skirts and bonnets, sitting sidesaddle on Thoroughbreds; and couples in goggles riding high in carriages and open cars of the period. The people in the pictures are all smiling, as well they should be; for then, as now, it was good to be an Antinori.

Marchesi since 1861, members of the Florentine winemakers guild since 1385, and owners of some of Italy’s most coveted vineyards for even longer, these family members were heirs to an ancient and profitable practice of winemaking. Indeed, their Chianti Classico—a blend of Sangiovese, Trebbiano, and other local grapes from their estates in Tuscany, aged in huge oaken barrels—was enshrined in law. If you wanted to call your wine Chianti, you had to make it the way the Antinoris did. Thus, the family estates were perhaps the last place one might look for innovation, much less radical thought. One imagines the smiles in these photographs turning to scowls at the thought that one of their tribe might tamper with the status quo.
 
However, pictures can be misleading, for the master of this villa is not a hidebound traditionalist, but rather a revolutionary, the force behind a change so profound that in Italy he is known as “the man who made the earth quake.” And doubtless his ancestors would beam upon seeing the honor he has brought to the family name.

Before Piero Antinori, the family was known throughout Italy for its wines, but due in no small measure to the impact of his Super Tuscan Tignanello, the Antinoris now rank among the most successful winemakers in the world, with 5,400 acres of vineyards on such estates as Santa Cristina (now called Tignanello), La Braccesca, Pian delle Vigne, Guado al Tasso, and Badia a Passignano in Tuscany; Castello della Sala in Umbria; Prunotto in Piedmont; Atlas Peak Vineyards in Napa Valley, Calif.; and Col Solare in Columbia Valley, Wash.; besides joint ventures in New Zealand and Chile.
His admirers like to relate the story of Antinori’s first meeting with America’s Robert Mondavi. “I have always thought of you as the Mondavi of Italy,” quipped Mondavi. “That’s funny,” responded the marchese. “I always thought of you as the Antinori of America.”

Indeed, both can trace their success to their maverick nature, their penchant for flying in the face of conventional wisdoms, and their indefatigable pursuit of excellence. Although in the late 1960s, excellence was not the first thing that came to his neighbors’ minds when gossiping about the young winemaker. “Everyone said I was crazy,” recalls the dapper, silver-haired marchese.
 
So it must have seemed, for Antinori was doing the unthinkable; he was experimenting with a new kind of Chianti. Except, of course, the Denominazione di Origine Controllato (DOC) would not permit him to call it Chianti Classico, or even Chianti. Instead, it was given the humblest appellation of all: vino da tavola. “Since I was not following the rules of the disciplinare,” Antinori explains, “I would have to market the wine as ordinary table wine.” Even his field hands, he says, were upset about the change. After all, it was a step down for them to go from making a highly prestigious wine to ordinary table wine, and one that was more labor intensive at that.

His plan appeared to be a formula for disaster, but the way the marchese saw it, he had no choice. “I had taken over the family business in 1966. This was not an easy time in the wine business, especially in Tuscany. Quality was low, and the country’s economy was bad. I saw longtime friends leaving the wine business, never to return. They felt there was no more future in wine. Anytime somebody tried to improve the quality of Chianti, the disciplinare would say, ‘You can’t do that. It’s not in our regulations.’ ”

No less an outrage to the Italian wine establishment, Antinori had, in his quest for a superior wine, sought the counsel of a Frenchman, the microbiologist Emile Peynaud. A professor at the University of Bordeaux, Peynaud had popularized malolactic fermentation in France. He proposed that Antinori first should begin green harvesting, pruning the vines in the spring to reduce the yield but increase the concentration of sugar in the berries. The Frenchman also advised the marchese to adopt malolactic fermentation to soften the wine. As for the aging process, Peynaud suggested switching from long aging in large barrels to shorter aging in smaller barrels. This would expose the wine to a greater expanse of wood, thereby enabling it to assume more of the vanilla and spice flavors. The shorter duration in the barrel also would enhance the wine’s freshness.

The most radical change concerned the grapes that went into the wine. Since 1880, Tuscany vintners had been making Chianti that was about 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Malvasia and Trebbiano, fast-growing white grapes that abounded in the region and allowed the resultant Chianti to be drunk—and sold—sooner than other wines. Although this approach may have made sense economically, it was at odds with the wine’s quality, and the Frenchman was baffled. He did not understand why the Tuscans used the white grapes; they added nothing and diluted the taste.

The marchese gradually reduced the amount of white grapes in successive vintages until, by the 1971 harvest, he had eliminated them completely. In their place, he blended Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Santa Cristina’s Tignanello vineyard. All the while, his fellow winemakers shook their heads over what they believed was Antinori’s folly. He released the 1971 vintage in 1974 and anxiously awaited the public’s response to his new wine, which he called Tignanello, after the vineyard. “One of the first to taste it was a very famous critic,” he recalls. “He took one sip and instead of saying ‘good nose’ or ‘nice fruit’ or something like that, all he said was, ‘Quercus robur.’ ”

This was not good news. Quercus robur is Latin for oak. The critic had implied that the new wine tasted overwhelmingly of wood. Fortunately, not every critic shared this impression of the wine. Shortly after that initial condemnation, Gino Veranelli, the wine writer for the Corriere della Sera, the country’s most influential newspaper, stopped by the estate for a taste. The Tignanello hit him like a thunderbolt. Thirty years later, Antinori still recalls the critic’s words: “He wrote, ‘This could be the beginning of a Renaissance in Italian wine.’”

For Italian wine drinkers, too, Tignanello was a revelation. Ordinary table wine or not, that first vintage was snatched up by the cognoscenti, who paid as much as $50 a bottle, an astounding price for any Italian wine of that time and heretofore unimaginable for the lowest denomination. Today, the marchese’s vino da tavola has gained renown as the first of the Super Tuscans, wines with a deeper color, fuller body, greater concentrations of fruit, and higher prices than those adhering to the strictures of the DOC.

As for the man who created Tignanello, now in his late 60s and impeccably tailored in a houndstooth jacket, Antinori appears to be as energetic as ever. He recently took up a new hobby, flying ultralights, which enables him to survey his vineyards from aloft. “I love wine because it never comes to an end,” he says. “It is constantly evolving, changing, and there is always the opportunity to improve it.”

To this end, he once again is flouting the rules of the DOC. Although the company will continue to produce Badia a Passignano Riserva, Tenute Marchese Riserva, and Pèppoli as Chianti Classico, Antinori plans to pull his flagship Chianti, Villa Antinori, out of the consortium. “To continue making Villa Antinori as a Chianti Classico, we would have to use grapes from other estates in Tuscany,” says Antinori. “But to improve it, we want to use grapes we have grown on our own estates, whether they are within Tuscany or not. This is the only way to ensure that we are getting the highest quality.”

This strategy also underscores the importance of remaining a family firm. “If we were publicly held and had to answer to stockholders, we could not do this, and we probably never could have made Tignanello,” he says. “Fortunately, nobody’s pushing us for the next quarter’s profits. We can take our time.”

Yet not so long ago, Antinori was resigned to selling the 600-year-old enterprise. In a country where men take over the family businesses while women marry and run the households, he had no sons and three daughters: Albiera, Allegra, and Alessia. Befitting the progeny of an Italian nobleman, they had grown up in grand style, moving between the family castle in Umbria, villas in the country, and the family seat, a 15th-century palace in Florence. Not only was their father a marchese, their mother was a Roman princess, a member of Rome’s royal Boncompagni-Ludovisi clan. The children could count two popes among their ancestors and Ferragamos and Puccis as childhood playmates.

Antinori did not envision his children taking his place in the vineyards, directing field hands, supervising harvests, and monitoring fermentation tanks or bottling lines. In the early 1980s, with an eye toward succession, he sold a majority position in the firm to the British conglomerate Whitbread. But as his daughters grew to adulthood, it became clear that they shared his passion for winemaking. “How could we not?” says Albiera, who, at 38, is the oldest daughter. “We are Antinoris. Wine is in our blood.”

“I think he always wanted us to join him in the business,” says Allegra, 33, the middle daughter. “When we were children we would spend weekends working in the fields, and he always made sure to pay us. One of my fondest memories of my youth was dancing on the Pinot Noir harvest at Castello della Sala, our castle in Umbria.”
 
In the opinion of his youngest daughter, 29-year-old Alessia, it was high time women took a more active role in the industry. “Women have sensitivities in wine that men don’t have, especially in tasting and analyzing wine,” she says.

In 1991, the marchese bought out Whitbread for $40 million, and Antinori was once again a family firm, one that is now managed by four Antinoris. “Most men would consider themselves quite lucky to have one talented daughter,” he says. “I have three.”
 
The daughters consider themselves no less fortunate. “The great luxury of this company is, it is large enough for each of us to find a place that matches our interests and talents,” says Allegra.

“We are all different,” says Alessia. “Albiera is very serious and businesslike, so she looks after the company’s finances, facilities, and marketing. Allegra is a ‘people person,’ very warm and down-to-earth. People just gravitate to her, so she handles our public relations.”

As for the effervescent Alessia, she is one of Europe’s most eligible young women, turning heads as she zips through Florence on her motor scooter. She is also a dedicated winemaker who holds a degree in oenology and viticulture from the Agrarian University of Milan and is deeply involved in the company’s production issues.

The younger Antinoris’ conversation is peppered with talk of emerging markets in Asia, visits to family estates in Italy and abroad, and hosting tastings at restaurants from Switzerland to Singapore. Among Antinori-watchers, however, their roles in the company raise interesting questions: Which of his daughters will take over the firm when their father retires, and how might the company change when that happens? Already the company is diversifying, reflecting the disparate interests and situations of each member of the next generation of Antinoris.

Chief among these interests for the oldest daughter is agritourism, which enables travelers to stay overnight in traditional country homes that have been converted to modern, family-sized apartments not far from the Tignanello estate. “You can see, they’re situated right in the middle of the vineyard,” says Albiera, leading the way through one of the properties. “It’s perfect for people who love wine or just like being outdoors.”

Besides tourism, Albiera also oversees the family’s Prunotto estate in the Piedmont, where she is credited with transforming the local reds, made from the Nebbiolo grape, from weak and boring to fresh and focused. “What I’m trying to do there is create a wine with a strong local identity. We want our wines to reflect their origin,” she says. Even so, the Prunotto wines do not carry the Antinori name. “With the exception of wines from our Castello della Sala estate in Umbria, we never put Antinori on any wine not coming from Tuscany. You see so many winemakers, they may be respected, but they put their name on wines coming from all over the world. It is shortsighted; in the long run it damages the brand,” says Albiera. “We tightly control our identity. For instance, we don’t permit our importers to advertise our wines. If there is any advertising to be done, Antinori will do it.”
 
Farther south, not far from the village of Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast, a rubber-booted Allegra trudges through the mud on the family’s 850-acre farm from which she manages such projects as the family’s stylish Cantinetta restaurants in Florence, Zurich, and Vienna, where Antinori wines are served in an atmosphere of medieval chic. She also runs the farm, where chickens dine on a diet of feed and goats’ milk. “It makes them especially flavorful,” says Allegra. “We don’t raise chickens commercially, but they and our hogs are in great demand from gourmet restaurants.”

To the modern oenophile, Bolgheri is better known as the source of Sassicaia, the lush, seductive Cabernet Sauvignon that Piero’s uncle created here in the late 1960s and which inspired the marchese’s brother Ludovico to produce Ornellaia, another luscious Cabernet. Allegra denies that there was ever any family rivalry, but when, in the early 1980s, the two wines began to eclipse Tignanello in prestige, her father responded by creating Guado al Tasso, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah that debuted in 1990. “Bolgheri was once thought to have an inferior territòrio,” says Allegra. “Now people think every wine from here is a cult wine.”

In Florence, at Procacci, a fashionable little delicatessen that Antinori purchased in 1997 to protect it from being replaced by a chain store, Alessia welcomes her visitor with truffle sandwiches and a glass of Montenisa Brut Saten, a new sparkling wine from her Franciacorta estate that is earning raves from Italy’s critics. “I think it’s important to bring out new wines,” she says, sipping delicately at her spumante. “There’s such a total globalization of wine, with everyone making Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. We feel that each estate should have its own grapes and its own philosophy.”

The youngest Antinori’s interests go beyond wine, however; she recently launched Novizio, a frozen olive oil. “We pick the olives, press them, bottle the oil, and flash freeze it in a patented process,” she says. “When defrosted it tastes totally fresh—lots of perfume and vitamin E.” The world may or may not be ready for frozen olive oil, but Alessia’s experiment clearly demonstrates that the willingness to innovate, to defy convention, and to seek improvement continually is an Antinori family trait. Not surprisingly, as Alessia points out while offering a piece of bread dipped in Novizio, it is delicious. 

Antinori, www.antinori.it

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