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Exclusive Interview with Marchese Piero Antinori

Wine Enthusiast Italian Editor Monica Larner sat down with Marchese Piero Antinori on Thursday, October 9, to discuss the secrets of corporate longevity, his interests abroad, his new winery in Chianti Classico and his thoughts on the lessons that can be learned from this year’s Brunello scandal.

WE: Antinori has existed for 26 generations and is now moving on to the 27th, making Antinori one of the world’s oldest businesses. What is the secret of your company’s longevity?

Piero Antinori: We are certainly one of the oldest, I’m not sure if we are the oldest. In the wine industry there are companies in Germany and in Italy that have a history that is just as long and maybe even longer. We have two things that distinguish us in this longevity. One is the fact that we have official documents that prove our winemaking background with documents. From these documents we can trace our roots back 1385. This doesn’t mean that our activity isn’t even older but we don’t have official documents that prove it therefore we have adopted that date as our official beginning. I’m not sure everyone has documents or just oral histories that have been passed down from father to son.

The other thing we have is that other documents we have prove that century after century and generation after generation there has always been in my family at least one member of the family who was in charge of the wine sector. Other members – like it was common at the time – may have been active in the military as generals or other in the church as cardinals or others, but at one was always (in wine). So there is this continuity in our winemaking activities.

WE: What do you think is the secret of this longevity?

PA: The secret was that over time there were high points and low points, better times, worse times. But I think in our sector, that of wine production and viticulture and agriculture in general, is a type of business that facilitates continuity. The earth is something that is real and concrete. It is not a virtual thing that disappears so easily. Today, we are going through a moment in which virtual finance (or almost virtual) show its weakness. The earth is something that is much more solid. It’s more solid because it is tangible (bene reale) but also because we get attached, emotionally, to earth. This helps children become attached to the land that his/her father or grandfather was attached to. Therefore, our activity is something that facilities a continuity of generations. And I also think that slowly slowly over the centuries certain values have been distilled in the DNA (of a family). These are no so much the technical knowledge or the know-how because these are things that evolve and progress over time. In this sense, tradition and heritage are things that under a technical point of view so not count that much. But other values have been distilled that are passion for our work; patience because in our line of work one needs to be patient, there are no short-cuts. We must understand that our work required time and patience because one year can be good and the next one is less good. You plant a vineyard today and the first results that are really positive will come after six, seven ten years, you never know. These are things that happen slowly-slowly over time and the centuries but that show that we too feel it in our DNA (these values). Passion, patience, persistency – I like to call them the four Ps – and product. Product in the sense of care towards a product, the small details, the obsession with quality – these are all things that that stay within (our DNA) and I hope I have been able to transfer them to my daughters and I hope they will pass them onto their children. In our line of work, there is no real secret to our business’ continuity but there are many things that together, either automatically or almost, this continuity is guaranteed. Naturally this doesn’t mean that all wine company have followed the same path. I am sure some others have passes to new hands or finished. But if you look at other sectors of the economy and productive, maybe wine is the one that can guarantee. I am convinced that family management and ownership in quality wine is an added value – it’s something important because (by nature) it allows one to have a kind of vision and strategy that is long term. Companies that are listed on the stock market are condemned to produce results in three or four months and they must always show grow in fatturato, in volume and profits. They are condemned because otherwise the analyst will say that something is wrong and they give bad reviews and then the stock falls apart. That’s why I think that family ownership is an important factor and all these factors together show, in our case but not only our case, that wine companies have such long histories.

WE: The business is more complicated today than ever before because of the global market place and outside pressure. Antinori is also more complicated because it has so many moving pieces from restaurants to properties in California, Washington state, Hungary and around the world. What steps do you need to take to run one of the world’s oldest businesses in today’s increasingly complicated marketplace?

PA: The question is right on because we ask ourselves the same thing. We grew in size also because our sector – that of quality wines – has grown as a whole sector in the world. The consumption of wine in general around the world is stationary but the consumption of quality wine is growing in the United States, in emerging counties, in Asia, it’s growing all around the world. Therefore we have gown also because we are part of a sector that is growing so we have grown also for this reason. Certainly, if there new opportunities we try to take them to reinforce our company and to become more solid also driven by the idea of future continuity. The more solid we are, the more we can guarantee a future continuity. The problem is what you were saying. If you want to have the same attention to details and particulars, as we become bigger it becomes more difficult. To start with, we have divided our production between the top and highest quality products from vineyard – I am referring to Solaia, Tignanello, Gualdo al Tasso, Cervaro della Sala. The are the icon wines, with big limitations in terms of dimension as a product they are very sensitive to vintage variation. A Tignanello might even not be made one year like what happened in 2002. But then, we get the good year in which we can produce 20, 30, 000 cases, therefore a much bigger dimension. But the vineyards are what they are and more than that, they can’t make. With these products it is easy to continue with the same, even more, attention and personal participation. These are the wines that I, personally take of. Like in the past and like today, not a single one of these wines goes to the market or even goes to bottling without my participation in the production and tasting and assembly of the blend. These wines enjoy the same attention that they always did.

For the other sectors, we have other wineries that are connected. For example we have an initiative in Puglia: Tormaresca. I’ll tell the truth, I like the initiative in Puglia, I like it, I go visit as much as possible, but I don’t follow it with the same attention that I dedicate to other products, because there are other people. I must say that we have used something that is at the base of our quality philosophy: Each winery, each vineyard that we have has not only the productive aspect, the agriculture component, but each one also has its own cantina for vinification, aging, bottling and most of all from the human recourses, has its own manager who lives there are who is charged with the viticulture and the winemaking part and who knows every square centimeter of that property and who lives on it day and night, night and day. I think he/she is also attached emotionally to that property and can dedicate the attention that we as owners cannot always give. I’m referring to all the properties that we own that have this situation. There are those that are not complete but that under construction. For example, we have a property in Maremma near Castiglione della Pescaia named Le Mortelle that has not yet made a wine. It is a beautiful property near Castiglione della Pescaia, a very promising zone, with 140 hectares of vineyards, therefore it is pretty big. We did everything from zero. We started 10 years ago, we started planting vines year after year and now it’s ready but we don’t have wine because we don’t have the winery yet. It is under construction. Next year, next vintage it will be completed and the project will be finished with the vineyard, the winery, the manager who is chaged with the cantina and vineyardswith all the attention necessary.

In Montalcino, we have the same thing. We have a person who is dedicated to the project and who is very passionate. Therefore, our role in these peripheral properties, more than manage personally each small detail of these wineries, our (job) is to train people who can then show the same attention to the property and who are guides to the general control and who are very dedicated to these poperties.

WE: Tell me more about this new project, Le Mortelle.

PA: We have already produced excellent wines in 2008 that are surprising, in my opinion. But we didn’t produce them there, we produced them in other wineries that we have. Therefore we will bottle a small part – the best part – under the Vino delle Mortelle – which is the name of the property, but it won’t be vinified there because the cantina is not ready yet. We have Sangiovese and Cabernet. The zone is Montereggio di Massa Martima. I think and I hope we will also make a Montereggio di Massa Martima but we will also make an IGT Toscana, super Tuscan. As for the process, we will see the final results. I think we will have a first wine with a pretty high price and then a second wine with an accessible price. It’s a beautiful project and a beautiful property and we haven’t showed it to many people because it is not completed because there is no winery. But when the winery is finished and it will be a beautiful winery – from the esthetic and technological aspects – because it is all done by gravity. It’s a marvelous estate and I am in love with this estate. We have very rocky soil with loads of rocks and “sceletro” that will not produce big quantities but that will produce quality. And it has an extraordinary microclimate because it is a kind of amphitheater of hills that will protect against cold spells and it looks over the sea therefore has perfect exposure.

WE: Did it already have vineyards?

PA: No, it was all fruit plantations. There were peaches and peach trees. The property belonged to a certain Barabino family from Castiglione della Pescaia. At a certain point the fruit industry went into crisis and peaches weren’t earning and they decided to sell. We eliminated all the fruit trees, expect four or five hectares, and we planted vines because the area is magnificently well suited to that. And, now this is a new project that is entering into a concrete phase.

WE: What are your proudest accomplishments? You have Tignanello, breaking the rules to create IGT super Tuscans or the ability to bring the company forward to the next generation? In your long career, what are your proudest accomplishments?

PA: That’s right in fact what is the name of this award: Lifetime Achievement Award. Therefore it’s a prize to my career. It’s a beautiful honor but it gives you the impression that it’s time to take a step back. It’s a beautiful thing.

I think, first of all, something that I am very satisfied of is: When my father in 1966 decided to charge me with the complete responsibility of the company, it was not a very easy moment for our sector. It was the moment of land reforms and transformation (mezzadrian in conduzione diretta) a whole transformation of agriculture management, many new vineyards had been planted in the 1960s, the quality of wine had fallen very low for many reasons. The reputation of Chianti and Chianti Classico was really at its lowest point. My father didn’t give me this responsibility because it was a hard time, but because he had already decided to take a step back. At the time, 1966, he was almost 70 years old and therefore he wanted to think about other things and he believed that I would be able to take care of (the business). However, given the difficult time, many others in my position decided to abandon (these plans) and do something else. Some went to work in finance in Milan and others did other things. It was a moment in which there were not many motivating factors for pushing forward. I must say, that I had no doubt. I knew that this is what I wanted to do and that I liked to do and one way or another I was determined to go forward and to find ways around this moment of crisis also because I knew that in all sectors – but in particular in agriculture – there are cycles. There are negative cycles but then there are also positive ones if one knows how to react correctly. For me, it was a challenge to take on that responsibility in that moment that I accepted and that also gave me stimulus to look for solutions that could stop the negative trends in wine at that time: Prices were low, company profits were difficult. It was the moment that gave me the stimulus to look for something new that then makes the impetus for Tignanello. Maybe if the times were not so difficult, Tignanello would never have been born. Tignanello was a answer (solution) to arrest such a negative moment, looking for something that was different in terms of quality, in terms of image because it was a moment in which the denominazione d’origine did not give a very important (significant) value added. This was going against the grain (the current) because the denominazione d’origine in Chianti born in 1967, it wasn’t around for a long time. Everyone had big hopes and I remember thinking that if we didn’t do something the denomonazione d’origine wouldn’t be enough and would not be able to resolve all the problems. Everyone though it would be the panacea that is the solution to all the bad times and difficulties. So to release at wine at the time that was not denominazione d’origine meant to go against the grain. But it was a thing that resolved (the problem) and that marked the beginning of a new positive cycle. It was the beginning of a new cycle because it made many people understand that with just a few modifications: not using the denominazione, using new vinification systems, and different aging (cellaring) systems we can achieve a wine that, like Tignanello, attracted the curiosity from both Italian and foreign opinion leaders. They started to say: “Well, even in Tuscany they can produce wines that are different or better.” It may well have been that is this hadn’t happened if the moment was easier and if the moment didn’t offer the same stimuli that are necessary. Therefore I think, the fact that I reacted, and that I found a solution – like Tignanello – is a positive that was done, and that I did in that period.

But, perhaps, the thing that makes me most proud is the fact that 10 years later, at the beginning of the 1980s, I had to – for family reasons – take on the total responsibility of the company. I have a brother and a sister who were also partners in the company and they asked to be liquidated and asked that I buy their shares. This was a very difficult step that I was not able to do on my own. So I had to take on a partner, a financial-industrial partner that was Whitbread, a big British company, which was very interested. They had plans to develop a wine branch (of their company) and they had a distribution in England and in the United States. This was a company that had represented us since 1940, or so, that was named Julius Wine. It was an old company that my father in 1945, immediately after the war, named as our agents. It was a family company and at a certain point it was purchased by Whitbread. So, given the fact that we needed to develop and create a better system of distribution in the United States and in the United Kingdom, I though this could be a good match because naturally we could create a good synergy if they had a piece of Antinori and could help develop our distribution in these two countries.

In this sense, things did not go the way I thought they would. But I must say that the period in which we were associated with them, and it was a brief time of about eight or nine years because it started in 1981 or 1982 and ended in 1988, for the first part, and then in 1991 for the second part – so less than ten years. Yet, summed up, it was a positive because they taught us a much more professional management style and because thanks to this partnership, two very important initiatives were put into action. The first was Prunotto in Piemonte, a small estate that they (Whitbread) had purchased and wanted to expand. We had a minority share in Prunotto at that time. They had 80 percent, I think, and we had 20 percent. But if it wasn’t for them, we would have never taken that step. Yet, afterwards, we discovered that although it is very small, it is very complimentary with our products. Piedmont and Tuscany are the two big Italian (wine) regions. Therefore we are very happy that we (got involved) because when we re-purchased our shares from Whitbread, Prunotto was part of that package and now is an integral part of our group.

The second and even more positive (result of the partnership with Whitbread) was the initiative in Napa Valley. It started in 1985. They wanted at all costs to invest and start a wine company in Napa Valley and they asked me to help because they didn’t have a wine background. They only had the strategy for the project but they didn’t have the in depth knowledge. So I personally got involved with this project from 1985 and on to help develop this estate. I felt responsible for it because I had selected it and recommended that they buy it. It is a beautiful estate that was developed very nicely by them. We only had a 5 percent share, therefore it was really minimal. But when they (Whitbread) decided to sell all their wine shares in 1991, this estate went to Aid Domec?, another big company that no longer exists. But after two years, in 1993, they decided to sell this estate -Atlas Peak Vineyards, but now it has changed name. They decided to sell the assets and keep the management. So at that occasion, we decided to buy it and rent it to them for 15 years. Therefore, for 15 years, we stared a rental agreement and re-paid the loan we had taken out to buy the property. This plan worked beautiful and we had no problem because they estate was managed by them and all the rest.

Now 15 years have gone by. We are in 2008 and the agreement dates back to 1993, therefore the agreement has come to an end and we will now start to manage it totally by ourselves. We gave it a new name because Atlas Peak Vineyard belonged to someone else and because we wanted to start from zero. The new company is “Antica” which means “Antinori” and “California” and because it is a pretty name that everyone can remember easily. In the last two harvests we have already started to produce a first wine because we also have a small vineyard adjacent to the property so we were able to make a our own wine even through the vineyard was managed by someone else. We are very excited because we are about to embark on a new project that we will start from zero. I must say that I must thank Whitbread for this because they were present at the origin of this project.

Getting back to your question about the things that I am most proud of, maybe the thing I am most proud of is that after this period of transition and partnership with Whitbread, I was able to bring all the company shares back into family hands. In 1991, when Whitbread decided to exit the wine sector, there were long and difficult negotiations involved, but in the end we were able to buy their shares and therefore the company is completely in family hands as it was when I first started working. That was my dream, even when I had the partnership with Whitbread, the idea was to one day go back to family hands. Things went the way they did thanks to fortune – in life you always need good fortune. My good luck was that Whitbread itself wanted to get out (of wine) at a certain moment. At that same moment, we wanted to get back in so the timing was perfect. It was perfectly aligned and balanced. It went well from that point of view. It was not as easy from a financial point of view because at the beginning it was very (difficult).

WE: How close did you really get to throwing in the towel and selling off the family business and selling out?

PA: To sell completely? Never. We found ourselves in front of a necessity – not a choice – to have a partner. Selling the company is not something that has ever crossed my mind also because I am in love with this company. Yes, there have been easy moments and difficult moments but that is the nature of the game. But also because I feel a responsibility, that my father passed this company onto me and I feel responsible to pass it onto my children. I would not have peace of mind if, at a certain moment, I got to the point where I was forced to sell the company. It would be something that is against nature even though, under a financial point of view, it could have been a possibility. I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me with offers to buy, people who wanted to bring me to float the company on the stock market, financial institutions and investment funds who came to met to say they would help me expand. But we prefer to have a kind of development style that is compatible with the family and company resources. Thankfully, we are a small family compare to others that are bigger and face bigger issues, that does not live off the dividends of the company. We exist because we work for the company. We are not investors who expect dividends. Since I have been at the helm of this company, all of the profits made by the company have all been invested back into the company. This has allowed for development and for our company to strength its position. My father always said that profit is a proof of efficiency – because if a company does not make profits and sales it means it is not efficient. So it’s a proof of efficiency and is a condition of survival. Without profits a company will die sooner or later. I have always had a very vigilant eye on the fact that our company be efficient and that it produce profits (uliti). By making profits you can invest, you can improve quality, you can afford research and you can create a solid base and guarantee that company survives and guarantee its future continuity.

WE: Going back to California, please tell me more about your partnership with Ste Michelle and your future plans for Stag’s Leap Winery.

PA: Stag’s Leap is a beautiful adventure, and a huge opportunity that has been given to us. I have been friends for many years with Warren Winoski. He is someone I respect a lot and I think there is mutual respect on his part. We always seem to be on the same wave length. When he decided to sell his estate – for his own personal reasons that had to do with a lack of family continuity – he decided to make what I believe must have been a very difficult and painful decision because he created that company from zero. It was very difficult for him, but perhaps it was less difficult for him than it would have been for me if I were in his same boots. If you create a company from scratch, then you have the liberty to do what you’d like with it. But if you inherit a company, then you feel more responsible.

WE: Like a mandate?

PA: Yes, like a mandate. It’s a temporary mandate. This time, it is my turn, but next time it will be someone else’s turn. When he made this decision – this is something I am very grateful to him for – the first person he called, I think, was me. I told him that the offer was too big for us. We already had something else in California. But, I suggested that he consider involving our U.S. partners, who at the time, were looking for a big brand name in Napa Valley. I told him that we would happily act as the guarantors of his company’s philosophy. After long contacts and discussions, Warren accepted this proposal. On one hand, he was satisfied that he decision would guarantee continuity. On the other hand, he got a partner who made a bigger share of the investment. Chateau Ste Michelle had the resources to make that kind of investment. (Our shares are 10 percent with the possibility of going to 20 percent.)

Naturally, we are taking about a huge brand, an icon of Napa Valley. I think the issue is to first guarantee the continuity of the approach and philosophy and all the rest. But also, we need to make a contribution because sometimes a new eye can bring new ideas. We have no intention of changing the style of the wine. But with our experience and the experience of Chateau Ste Michelle, with their very qualified technicians and our own excellent technicians, we are passionately dedicated to finding a way to improve the wine without changing it stylistic fundamentals. We are always looking for ways to improve the wine. There, just like in France and in Bordeaux for important wines, and also in Napa Valley with some very important wines, many wineries had Brettamicous problems. There were some attacks (of Brett) at Stag’s Leap. These are improvements that of course Warren could have made but we are working together to eliminate these small problems and to further improve quality all the while keeping the style and the terroir. Stag’s Leap is a marvelous vineyard that does not in any way need to be touched or changed.

WE: When you left Remy to work with Ste Michelle, did you already know that Stag’s Leap would be put up for sale?

PA: No. This is something that happened more than a year after. We started working with Chateau Ste Michelle more than two years ago.

WE: Can you tell me what stage the new winery in Chianti Classico is at and when will it be ready? Can you also explain what makes it different from all the other wineries you own?

PA: First of all, we have tried to make something that is in harmony with the surroundings. The most difficult thing about this winery is that it is a production winery. By that I mean it must be efficient and be a winery where we can work. It’s not just something you go look at. It must be workable but at the same time beautiful and in harmony with the scenery. It’s not an easy thing. We realized that even without changing the original plans, there are some small problems that we have encountered along the way and that have delayed the project a bit. At first, there was a bureaucratic phase that required at lot of time. Safeguarding the scenery and the environment is a right cause but it requires many passes on the local municipal level, provincial and the regional level from all the various organizations. Finally, everyone declared that this was a very beautiful project and compatible with the environment and in sense the project even adds something (to the community). Therefore, the first phase was very long. But the second phase when we reached the actual realization of the project, small technical things caused delays and caused us to change the project from an engineering point of view, not from the architectural point of view. It is being built on a hillside so obviously there are geological considerations so we made many tests and so forth. I think this is a winery that will require two or three before being completed. It requires more time. But we are not in any particular hurry because we still have our structure in San Casciano that will one day be abandoned but that still works for now. And, we have a new winery in Cortona that will have a function on a logistical level. All our finished products will be stored in Cortona which is in the middle of Italy and is near the highway. There are perfect conditions and temperature controls so the wine will be stored in the best conditions after it is bottled – this is something that we weren’t always able to so because in San Casciano we do have the same possibility of storage and conservation in optimal conditions. We also have a bottling line in Cortona that will help take weight off of San Casciano. All the products from the Santa Cristina line are all made in Cortona in terms of vinification, aging and bottling.

In the new winery, we will have all the wines from Chianti Classico from Badia a Passignano, Pepoli, Tenute Marchesi Antinori and probably also the bottling of Tignanello. The aging is done in Tignanello, the bottling will be done there because it is right next door. These wines represent a few million bottles in all.