There are family businesses, and then there are family dynasties. Chianti Classico, Italy’s Marchesi Antinori, the 10th-longest-standing family business in the world, is definitely one of the latter, with 600 years of winemaking tradition behind it. Alessia Antinori now heads up the family’s winemaking operation as vice president of Marchesi Antinori. Along with her sisters Albiera Antinori, CEO, and Allegra Antinori, also vice president, they are the first women to lead the brand after 25 generations of family operations that stretch back to the late 1300s.
Alessia Antinori’s earliest memories are of wine: “When I was probably 6 years old, on Christmas Eve my father asked me if I wanted to have a sip of wine,” she says, “but really, it was a ‘sip’ of wine by putting a finger in the glass to taste.” Her own children, now 6 and 10, have already begun the finger-sip tradition.
Wine was a huge part of Antinori’s upbringing. She recalls spending summer holidays at the family’s estate to participate in the harvest; traveling with her father, Piero Antinori, when she was a teenager, visiting other prominent winemaking countries such as Australia and Chile. (Author’s note: I recently met winemaker Phillipe Tosso of Chile’s Ventisquero, who remembers meeting Alessia as a young woman when she traveled with her father to visit.) She says that she and her sisters were not obliged to take on the family business if they didn’t want to. On the other hand, she says, “it really is in our DNA.”
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Tuscany’s Chianti is a region rooted in tradition, but it has not been exempt from the rule-breakers and innovators who have pushed the region, and Italian wine, into the spotlight. Antinori believes that this dual spirit is very much a part of her inheritance.
VinePair spoke with Antinori about the intersections of tradition and innovation; of wine and art; and about the responsibility of representing six centuries of family winemakers.
1. With Marchesi Antinori being the 10th-longest-standing family business in the world, does this feel like a lot of pressure, or is it comforting to have so many centuries of precedent to back you up?
I think that it’s an opportunity and also a challenge to try to always do better, but also to maintain what has been done in the past. Obviously, it’s a big responsibility. I always say that it took more than 600 years of involvement in the business to grow it, but it could only take a few minutes to destroy everything if we’re not careful. In the transition of generations, the most important thing is the transmission of values between generations. And so having kids — my sisters and I all have two kids each — this part is extremely important. It’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a great opportunity.
2. Did you know early on that you would eventually lead the company? Did your family prepare you and your sisters for this transition from a young age?
Absolutely! We were never obliged to work in the business, but we have always been very passionate about it, and have always been very passionate in different aspects of the business: myself in the winemaking, and obviously also marketing and PR, because all of us do that. My middle sister, Allegra, specializes in hospitality. We have a few restaurants in our properties, and also hospitality in our wineries. My eldest sister, Albiera, has worked more toward communication and architecture. So for the new wineries that are being built, she follows all the projects. So that has been very positive. We are all very different, but we all get along very well, and especially because we share the same values.
That being said, I’ve been the only one that has gone to university to do winemaking and vineyard management. My other two sisters didn’t because my father needed assistance early, because the wine world was booming and the company was growing and growing. So we were never obliged to, but we all fell in love with it. Like I said, it is in our DNA.
3. Did you have any female role models or mentors in the wine industry?
I had a woman that I admired for her great, amazing character and for her leadership, the late Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, the leading woman and owner of Château Mouton Rothschild. We worked together in an organization called Primum Familiae Vini, and I spent a lot of time with her because we were, for a time, the only two women really involved from these wine families. (Primum Familiae Vini is a consortium of 12 European winemaking families with longstanding operations.) She had incredible character — very tough, very energetic, but with great leadership and great vision. Obviously, I learned the most from my father because it’s a family business, but her mentorship has been very powerful for me.
4. What is the current climate for female winemakers in Chianti? Are you happy with it, or is there still much change that needs to take place?
Look, I think that a big change has already been made in the sense that, when I went to university, there were two women, surrounded by 20 men. It was different then, more than 25 years ago. In agriculture there weren’t many females involved, and especially in winemaking. Things have changed, luckily, I would say, so now there are a lot of women in the wine world: in sales, in communication, in winemaking, in vineyard management. I think there’s a lot of opportunity, still, for the future, but in the last decade, there [have been] a lot of interesting women involved in the wine business in Tuscany, in Italy, but also all over the world, and I think they will certainly have a role in the future in leadership.
5. How do you balance observing longstanding traditions in Chianti, versus the need to innovate, to take your family’s winery into the next generation?
We believe in a very long view. You have to look ahead and understand what is happening in your country, but also be curious to understand what is happening outside, abroad. The combination of tradition and innovation is essential for us. Antinori is known to be extremely traditional because we have 600 years of involvement, so the tradition and the history really give us the roots, the strength, and the power to be what we are, and to be a solid winery. But innovation, within the last few generations especially, has been a very important, predominant characteristic of our company. We wouldn’t be what we are now without it.
To be innovative, you have to have a lot of curiosity, and my father is a great example of that; and also my grandfather, in times that you would have never thought. Between the First and Second World Wars, even after the Second World War, in the ’60s and ’70s, my family has made great achievements and great innovations in the wine world, and we never stop.
For example, Tignanello, which my father created, is a blend of tradition and innovation. It was the first Super Tuscan wine that went against the rules for the area. He started the concept of blending international varietals with indigenous grape varieties, and in doing so downgrading the classification of the wines, in order to produce a wine of better quality.
When he produced the first vintage of Tignanello it was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. It was a small production, three times more expensive than our DOCG Chianti Classico, but it had to be labelled “table wine,” because it couldn’t be called Chianti Classico because of the 20 percent Cabernet. So he went totally against the rules. In Italy, nobody understood it, and then he came to the U.S., and Americans called it Super Tuscan. In Chianti Classico, it was really a strange and totally different wine. But now it’s a category. It was really high end, and very expensive, but it was called a table wine. And he was willing to do that, to create something special.
6. What is your current focus for Marchesi Antinori in winemaking?
We are focusing a lot on Chianti Classico, which is really where we come from, and really trying to show the different expressions of our grape variety, Sangiovese, and of our terroir, of our land. So I think that’s a big challenge for the future and for our generation, going back, again, to our roots and trying to show how the Sangiovese can be an extremely classical and very challenging variety.
7. From your role with the Primum Familiae Vini, what are some of the issues that these winemakers see as being the biggest challenges in European wine for the next decade?
Obviously, climate change. This is a big issue that is worldwide, it’s not just for Europeans. Also there’s a lot of great, interesting competition from the New World, and being strong together as European wine families is important, while being aware of what is happening outside of Europe [is also important]. Certainly, one of the challenges is also maintaining the businesses in these families. There are many taxes, inheritance taxes, and in the PFV there are families that have had to sell properties for these reasons. So we hope to be able to address this in the future.
8. Can you tell us a little about your work also with the Antinori Art Project, and why this is important to you and the family business?
The Antinori Art Project is a beautiful project that we started with a new winery in Chianti Classico eight years ago. My father asked me at the time, since I had passion about contemporary art, to continue what we did in past generations because the family was always involved in the arts. We are from Florence. We are surrounded by art, incredible art, from back in the Renaissance period, and there is a culture of art here, as important as the culture of wine. So my father wanted to show what we collected throughout the centuries, but also I wanted to give an opportunity for contemporary art, what will be ancient art for future generations. So every year I ask one or two artists to do a site-specific project for our winery on one of several possible themes: nature, wine, history, space, time, tradition, innovation. Many of them have worked on [the theme of] time — how time changes and how we maintain it in the family throughout these generations. It’s about a relationship with artists, some of them are quite known, but we also like to see emerging artists that really can grow, and to give them support.
9. At the end of a long work day, with just yourself, wanting to relax, what wine are you opening?
It depends if it’s summer or winter, but certainly I’m in a phase where I love sparkling wine! We produce a sparkling wine also — we don’t sell it in the U.S. — from an area called Franciacorta. Or, instead, a nice white wine coming from our estate in Umbria called la Castello della Sala; or a new acquisition we have done recently, just an amazing white wine producer, family-owned winery from Friuli. So I’m in a phase of white wines and sparkling wines, and it doesn’t have to be only ours! I love to taste many other wineries to be able to understand what is happening.
10. What is the best part of your job?
I have to say, I’m very lucky because I have two passions in life, apart of course from family and my kids, but one is art and one is wine, and I had the luck and the great opportunity to merge them together with the Antinori Art Project and being VP of the company. So, I couldn’t ask for more.