The Super Tuscans by Michaela Cordes | 31st August, 2023 | Personalities
We’re sitting outside the fully booked Cantinetta Antinori restaurant at the family’s headquarter in Florence. “Practically in my parents’ garden,” says Albiera Antinori and smiles at the thought that until recently, no one in her family would have even dreamed of opening the historic courtyard of Palazzo Antinori, the family residence since 1506 in which her parents still live today. But the 26th generation of the world-famous winemaking family has to come up with creative ideas and open its doors to the public if it wants to keep thecompany strong and positioned for the future.
GG: With the support of your two sisters, you are responsible today for a traditional winemaking company that was run by men only for over 600 years. What happened?
AA: (laughs) My father had no choice but to pass the business on to us because he had three daughters and no sons. There was very little he could do about it. I’m the oldest and I started taking an interest in the company early, when I was only 18. So it’s not like there was a handover on a certain date, it was more of an organic process and I just went with the flow. Today we’ve even got three generations actively involved, all at the same time. It’s a good thing because it gives my children the chance to learn from their grandfather.
Editor’s note: Albiera Antinori’s father Piero is currently 85 and regarded as something of a living legend by wine experts. The business was founded by Giovanni di Piero Antinori in 1385, but it was Piero Antinori’s entrepreneurial boldness that made the company famous worldwide. Back in the 1970s, he combined grapes in what was considered a highly unusual way to develop legendary wines such as Tignanello or Solaia – the so-called Super Tuscans. By doing so, he revolutionized wine-making in Italy and established the reputation of the Antinori name. Today Marchesi Antinori cultivates wine in many different renowned wine regions and boasts annual sales of €240 million.
GG: By producing the first Super Tuscans, your father helped the company achieve its international breakthrough. How do you reflect on the impact he had on the company?
AA: It was a kind of turning point. When my father returned from his travels in the late 1960s, he more or less shaped the family destiny. He had originally set off to learn about wine-making in other parts of the world and came back with the understanding that it was important to grow foreign varieties and mix these with local ones to produce new and exciting wines. This was both a moment of great innovation and of maintaining tradition, because our Chianti Classico continued to be made from the local variety only. The new wine, aged in smaller barrels and only for 14-16 months rather than two years, became a table wine rather than an appellation. It was given the name of the winery, not that of the family, because it did not abide by the rules of Chianti Classico. The birth of the Super Tuscan! It was suddenly clear that here in Italy, we could produce wines of international quality. This set a new movement in progress and other Super Tuscan wines started being produced around us. My father’s goal was always to make the best wine the land could produce, and the quality of the wines continued to develop over the following 40 to 50 years.
GG: You showed similar entrepreneurial boldness when you commissioned the architecture firm Archea in the early 2000s to build the Antinori nel Chianti Classico winery about 40 minutes outside of Florence. It’s a huge, spectacular, modern wine cellar that looks like it was built right into the ground. The construction represents a marked contrast to the traditional vineyard architecture in Italy. When I saw the impressive building, which also contains a museum, my first thought was: The Antinori family is opening up and inviting the world to come and take a look inside.
AA: At the beginning of the 2000s that sort of thing was already a way of introducing the product to the customer elsewhere, in Napa Valley, for instance, but it was not so common in Italy. The Antinori nel Chianti Classico winery is a unique place where visitors come to find out how to make wine. We were under pressure from our customers back then. They had started showing more and more interest in learning how we made our wine. They didn’t just want to visit us, but to understand and educate themselves about the process.
GG: When we visited the Antinori nel Chianti Classico winery together, you told me that in the beginning, people were quite critical of what you were doing and only a few believed in your vision and supported the project. Today you’re very much admired for your foresight.
AA. We needed a big building, but none of the more traditional, historic buildings around were suitable. None had the space to house our 160 workers every day, either. Or the right space in which to welcome 40,000 visitors a year. And the last thing I wanted was to create a replica of a 14th-century building, so my only option was to build something new and contemporary. I wanted to make sure it was efficient but also create a timeless aesthetic. After all, the building is meant to survive into the coming decades and suitably represent the Antinori brand going forward.
GG. In the museum, there’s an oversized book on prominent display. It’s open to a page containing the will and testament of your ancestors, written in large letters, which says that the Antinori estate may only be inherited by a male descendant.
AA. (smiles) Yes, that’s how it was back then, but luckily, times are slowly, slowly changing. A lot has happened in the last 40 years. Look at the composition of company boards, there are even female executives of stock market corporations. We now have a law in Italy that says companies have to employ a certain percentage of women. I belong to a kind of transitional generation that wasn’t given a university education or required to prepare myself for a job in any other way. My daughter, who is now 29, was trained much more rigorously. She’s tough and career-oriented, just like her brother. But if you ask me, men in Italy should support women more if they want to have children together: Only when they understand that they have to share household chores 50/50 will we have true equality, in my opinion.
GG: Something that’s already evident in the U.S.
AA: But not here, nor in other Latin countries.
GG: Is this development, in which women are catching up, also noticeable among your customers? Do just as many women as men now show an interest in good wine? I’ve never yet met a woman who invited me for dinner and then took me into her wine cellar and pulled out her most expensive bottle of exquisite wine to show me …
AA: (laughs) That’s true! But we’ve certainly noticed an increase in the number of women who are knowledgeable about wine. They’re often the ones who buy wine for the family, primarily whites and rosés.
GG: Can you recall any moments in your life when you felt that being a woman in this business was trickier than you thought? When people were surprised not to be dealing with a man?
AA: Not really. There was only one time when I went to buy grapes for the company from an elderly partner with more traditional views. He was a bit suspicious about signing the contract with me, as I was still quite young at the time. But that’s how it goes: You lose some, you gain some.
GG: These days, at family get-togethers, when all three Antinori generations are gathered at the table, what does that look like? Do traditional ways collide with more radical, new ideas of how to lead the company?
AA: Absolutely! But I love dynamic discussions, I find them very exhilarating. Just recently, my father and my son were discussing the advantages and disadvantages of introducing a four-day work week. I listened to both carefully and realized each one had a point! My father has actually retired from day-to-day activities in the business, but he still comes into the office every day. I think that’s great, and I’m very happy that he does so, because it gives the company a lot of stability.
GG: What motivates you personally – the responsibility of running the company well and handing it over to the next generation in good shape, or realizing your own ideas and visions?
AA: I would say a combination of both.
The older a company is, the greater responsibility you have in leading and taking good care of what previous generations have passed on to you. You also have to be aware that in the wine business, patience and time are crucial. It always amazes me when people invest in wine and then want their money back ten years later – along with the glory. This business doesn’t work that way!
GG: Your company is not only one of the oldest but also one of the main winemakers in Italy. Every year, you sell 22 million bottles worldwide. In which countries are you most successful?
AA. Our biggest market is Italy, followed by the U.S., Germany and then the rest of Europe, like Switzerland, Austria and the U.K. Before the war, we also sold a lot of wine in Russia and Ukraine. For some crazy reason, business with China is still in its infancy and progressing very slowly.
GG: Why is that?
AA. Unlike the Koreans, who feel a deep connection to us Italians, who love our food and also our wine, the Chinese are not so open to things Italian. The best way to enjoy Italian wine is with Italian food, so for us, Italian restaurants are the ideal vehicle for introducing people to our wines. That’s one of the reasons we have opened Cantinetta Antinori restaurants from Florence to Zurich to Monte Carlo, Vienna and Moscow.
GG: This is where your sister Allegra comes in, she’s responsible for the restaurants. Your sister Alessia, on the other hand, manages everything connected with art. What’s it like, working so closely with your sisters? Is it always harmonious?
AA: We obviously don’t always share the same opinions, but our ultimate focus is always the company that we’re running together. Plus, we’re women. That means when it comes to making decisions, nobody’s ego is getting in the way, as can often be the case with men.
GG: What are your biggest challenges right now?
AA: We’re currently observing a growing trend that seems to have started in northern Europe. It makes us think we’re entering a new Prohibition period, one in which people are so health conscious they’ve gone anti-alcohol. We have to try to react to this phenomenon in the same way as to climate change, which is causing less rainfall in our vineyards and more periods of extreme heat. There will always be new challenges, and it’s our job to prepare the next generation to handle them as they come. This means training them well so that they’re happy and prepared to take over when the time is ripe. So we ask every family member who wants to join the company to earn a master’s degree and gain work experience elsewhere before coming to work for us. If we didn’t do this, all my father’s efforts and everything my sisters and I are doing would be in vain.
GG: So Marchesi Antinori will most definitely remain in the family in the years to come?
AA: Yes, that’s how we’ve planned it. In 2012 we established a trust that will remain in place for the next 90 years. That’s how we’ve ensured that the company won’t be broken up or sold during this period.
GG: Is aging regarded as a good thing in this business – as in the case of your wine?
AA: (laughs) Absolutely! It certainly helped me to become more experienced. But our business partners know that my family has been making wine for a very long time, and that our operations are entirely transparent. We don’t put on any airs and graces. Our motto truly is: What you see is what you get.