Bringing Italian winemaking techniques to Napa Valley
“The first document which we have which proves that an ancestor of mine was involved in the wine production dates back to 1385,”
says family Marchese Piero Antinori.
The story of Italy’s Antinori family history is one filled with tenacity, trials, patience, bumps, triumphs, and has withstood the test of time. In fact, more than two centuries or 26 generations ago in the year 1385. In perspective, they started their wine business in Italy 170 years after England signed Magna Carta, during the century of the Black Plague, the Hundred Years War, the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, the Renaissance and before Christopher Columbus set sail.
Even though political intrigue and the shifting tastes of consumers, the Antinori family members forged ahead and are now known as the ‘First Family of Wine’ in Italy and the renowned title of being one of the world’s five oldest family businesses.
They refer to themselves as farmers, first and foremost. However, it also Marchese Pierro Antinori’s philosophy to focus on the long-term and to continuously look to the ahead, making decisions that will influence future generations. They respect their long tradition yet are open to innovation in the industry.
When it comes to creating Bordeaux-style blends, the Antinori brothers are a formable team. Their uncle, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, with the help of oenologist Giacomo Tachis, created the first blend—the Sassicaia—in 1968. This was followed by Bordeaux-inspired blends Tignanello and Solaia, by Piero Antinori. The legacy of their Tignanello and Solaia wines are the quintessential Super Tuscans, setting a precedent for the whole Super Tuscan movement and a new appellation known today as Chianti Classico, which is the 1st in the world. Tignanello was the first blend in Chianti Classico of the autochthonous varietal- Sangiovese- with international varietal- Cabernet Sauvignon.
“If ever there were two wines that changed the face of Tuscany, they were Tignanello and Solaia,”
says Wine Spectators senior editor Bruce Sanderson.
The next undergoing was Ornellaia and Masseto, both produced by Mr. Antinori at his Tenuta Dell’ Ornellaia estate. ‘It wasn’t long before they were achieving the same prices as their counterparts in Bordeaux. “I’m very proud of Masseto,” says Mr. Antinori, without a hint of regret in his voice. “There was no plan; we saw that the Merlot was so good we decided to separate it out from Ornellaia and make Masseto, which is now one of Italy’s most sought-after wines.” He says the story is a little similar to what they are doing at Tenuta di Biserno with the Lodovico wine. This almost entirely Cabernet Franc blend came about because the quality of Cabernet Franc was so high.
Mr. Antinori’s decision to sell Tenuta Dell’ Ornellaia in 2002 to California’s Robert Mondavi Winery raised eyebrows once again. The Mondavis brought in a local partner, another Florentine dynastic family, the Frescobaldis, who later took over the estate in its entirety, gaining in one fell swoop two of Italy’s most exceptional wines.
For six centuries, command of the Antinori empire was passed from father to son. But with no male heirs, the Marchese, some years ago sold a significant stake in the business to Whitbread, a British beer-making company. “It was a period when I did not know exactly if my daughters would be interested or not to be involved in the business. And so for me, that was a way to guarantee a continuity also to the company,” Piero explains.
But the partnership produced mainly grapes of wrath. It was a vintage clash between the foaming suds of beer for a quick profit and Piero Antinori insisting he would sell no wine before it’s time. This marriage of inconvenience ended when he bought back the shares, keeping Antinori all in the family.
And that is precisely what the family did. Piero and his three daughters, Albiera, Allegra and Alessia, now work side by side to run this empire in every aspect, from tending to the blocks of vines to winemaking techniques to marketing and foremost, to the new world of wine and the next-generation ideas.
One of those ‘next generation’ concepts was an enormous undertaking and has been in the making for the past several years. The idea is to showcase the family’s long wine history and, at the same time, educate the visitors with the innovations and changes made over time. The opening of Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Cellar outside of Florence, Italy, embraces this and so much more. The multi-faceted project includes a winery, a restaurant showcasing Chef Matteo Gambi of Michelin-starred Osteria di Passignano restaurant, auditorium, museum, bookshop, and of course, retail wine store. In the tasting room, the entire portfolio of Antinori’s’ wines can be sampled, while the museum features pieces from their private historical collection. Architect Marco Casamonti, the founder of Archea Associati Studio, designed the project and placed it in the middle of the vineyards and ancient olive groves, concealed within a hillside covered with vines. Most of this beautiful structure is underground, with only the restaurant terrace at ground level, facing their surrounding Chianti vineyards that produce Antinori’s Peppoli, Villa Antinori and Vinsanto Tenute.
The tasting room is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission will be 20 euros ( roughly $27.00 USD) and tickets can be purchased on site or in advance via the website at www.antinorchianticlassico.it.
“Piero Antinori is, without a doubt, one of the most brilliant activators in the art of making wine at once progressively innovative and respectful of tradition, Antinori is intelligent, shrewd and eloquent, with the energy to make things happen in a way that would quickly exhaust more common men.” Italian wine expert Burton Anderson, in his book, Vino
The other ‘next generation’ concept sent Piero Antinori’s on a quest to explore the ‘new wine world areas’, which was encouraged by his father, took him on a journey across the high seas, specifically to Napa, California in the 1960’s.
In 1985, Marchese Piero Antinori helped a British beer conglomerate examine potential vineyard sites throughout Napa Valley. None impressed the Marchese. On the last day of the hunt turned out to be the best. He visited a site above Foss Valley, a wild corner of Napa that many said couldn’t be tamed for grapes.
The terrain was rugged with unyielding volcanic soils and a severe risk of early spring frost. But it was the soil composition, topography and the average of 1,450-foot elevation that reminded the Marchese of his home in Tuscany. It was big enough for a project on a grand scale, one that could unfold over the decades.
“When I saw this property,” he recalls, “I must say I immediately fell in love.”
The original Atlas Peak group paid $11 million in January of 1986 for what was hailed at the time, as the largest dollar vineyard transaction in Napa Valley’s history, This was the beginning of Atlas Peak Vineyards.
The next 22 years were a challenge. All of the Atlas Peak’s original partners – except Antinori – bailed out in the early 1990s. But Antinori never gave up. In 1993, he began to buy up pieces of the parcel that had captivated him. It was a grand experiment in the days before hillside Napa vineyards became fashionable. It was also a chance to see if Mountain Sangiovese and Cabernet could supplant scrub and boulders. The plans were ambitious for this original 550-acre vineyard.
Concerns about frost potential prompted the construction of a massive reservoir. In the end, the chillier climate turned out to be a virtue, delaying vine budding until after the worst frosts.
Then earth-moving equipment and cave-digging equipment were brought in 1985 to construct a 36,000 square foot cave. It’s only 32 years old, but already the walls are covered with a soft black mold, which is harmless to humans but a perfect environment for the aging casks. The caves are decidedly European in design.
The perfect rolling hillside surrounding the amphitheater vineyards were intended to be home to the family’s famous Sangiovese varietal. But the original 80 acres didn’t thrive and eventually shrank down to only 10 acres. The visionary Marchese decided to plant the remaining 540 acres with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, plus a small amount of Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Malbec.
Their 18,000-square-foot winery is state of the art and fosters the Antinori’s firm commitment to seek new ways, both big and small, to further quality in the vineyards and the cellars. These efforts include experimenting with new types of varietal grape clones, different cultivation techniques, experimenting with vineyard altitudes, fermentation practices, and temperatures, various types of oak for the aging stage, the sizes/ age of the casks and barrels, as well as the cellaring times both in the barrel and the bottle. Adjacent to the winery is the tasting room and kitchen. A breathtaking view awaits you while you taste Antica wines that have been complemented with perfectly matched nibbles of cheese, fruit, and nuts.
Piero and his three daughters Albiera, Allegra and Alessia are in charge of Antica’s operation. Their total production is small, just over 5000 cases. They sell most of the fruit, allowing them to concentrate on small lot wines with the highest quality.
The company dubbed Antinori California as Antica (Anti for Antinori and ca for California). It is the first bottle of wine to carry his name and is marked with Napa Valley as it’s appellation.
“Our goal is to first and foremost make quality wines with a strong local identity,” Albiera Antinori says of her family’s wine business. “Rather than a ‘house style,’ we prefer to the let each site speak for the wine. So while Antica remains true to our tradition and culture, its wines are indelibly imprinted with the terroir of Napa Valley.”
Their Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Townsend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon are available in select markets across the US and abroad. The other are designated as Soprattutto wines, which are limited-production estate wines available only from the winery. These include Sangiovese, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and a Fossino, a rosé of Pinot Noir.
When asked if his family will last for another 500 years, Antinori laughs and says, “At least.”
And with that said, we raised our glasses. Cheers to the family!
Antica Napa Valley
3700 Soda Canyon Road, Napa, CA 94558
Words and most photogrpahs by Shelley Pittman
This article first appeared in European Life Magazine
Written by Shelley Pittman