A Talk with Marchese Piero Antinori
Interview by Oleg Cherne
Antinori is one of the largest winemaking companies in Italy, and is fully deserving of the title of «wine house»: the winemaking traditions of this old aristocratic family from Florence date back to the 14th century, when Giovanni Antinori became Head of the Art of Winemaking city guild.
The Antinoris’ wine history is inseparable from the Tuscany region, and began even before the family moved to Florence. From the ancient chronicles of Tuscany we learn that back in the 12th century near the town of Calenzano there were vineyards that belonged to Rinuccio di Antinoro, the remote ancestor of the current company president Piero Antinori. Over the past centuries, the Antinori wine house has become a symbol of both Italian quality, and of Tuscany and Florence. Anyone who has visited Florence has certainly seen the famous Palazzo Antinori, the beautiful palace in the city center purchased by Giovanni di Piero Antinori at the end of the 15th century.
The Antinori live in perpetual growth and development with the high quality inherent to the aristocracy, and express it in their everyday hard work and efforts to make the best wine. Out of all the generations of Antinori marcheses, a special place now belongs to Piero di Niccolo Antinori, the current president of the company. It is he who inspired significant changes in Italian winemaking, took it to new heights and made Italian wine exceptional, recognizable and sought-after.
They say it is much harder to stay on top than reach it in the first place. Editor-in-chief of Code de Vino Oleg Cherne interviewed Marchese Piero to find out whether this it also true for the traditions of aristocratic families.
— The Antinori family has been producing wine for twenty-six generations. Who do you think among your ancestors made the greatest contribution to the family business?
— Every generation bestows its own unique input upon it. Sometimes several members of the family have been in the process, sometimes it was just one person, while the other brothers devoted their lives to the army or church. In the past, this was typical in other families as well.
At the same time, I believe the last three generations have done a lot to make this business thrive. My grandfather Piero (my namesake) together with his brother Ludovico (named the same as my brother) lit a new fire under the family business and made great strides in the company’s reorganization. They modernized its sales management and wineries, and created new vineyards in specific places.
Then my father focused his energies on the family business, and despite difficult periods in his life — I mean the two world wars here — he was always very active and loved what he was doing with a passion. And finally, our current generation because we are in this business during a very exciting period of time: a time for qualitative changes.
— And you’re right in the heart of all these changes. Tell me though, do you consider yourself a revolutionary? If so, what’s your idea of the revolution?
— I don’t really know if I can call myself a revolutionary. I’m not sure that it’s quite the right word. Here’s what I think: in a certain moment of my life during the late 60s, I was very curious and inquisitive. I really wanted to understand what people did in the countries famous for their wine, and how high-quality wine was produced. So I began to travel to certain regions, for example, Bordeaux, Burgundy and other wine regions in France. I met people there involved in winemaking who shared their experiences with me, and I arrived at the conclusion that in Italy, after many years of focusing on quantity instead of quality, we must take the opportunity to form the right conditions for producing top-quality wines. So I started working towards these goals, and many other producers followed suit. That was the start of this significant shift. Those 30—40 years were an intense and interesting period of my life, during which the Italian wine industry changed dramatically. And note that this all occurred over a relatively short timespan.
The famous English wine writer Hugh Johnson always says there have been more changes in Italy (and not just there) over the last 30—40 years than over the last three or four centuries. Can we call that a revolution? I’d say it’s more like a renaissance of Italian winemaking. This may be just a coincidence, but the Renaissance of the 14th-15th centuries also began in Florence, in Tuscany.
— Tuscany used to be populated by the Etruscans, who were among the first peoples to ever turn wine drinking into a ritual. So you consider your wine part of a ritual? What would be the ritual of drinking Antinori wine?
— Wine has been a part of people’s lives for thousands of years. Indeed, it is one of the main basic components of culture. This fact allows me to claim that wine is a very civilized beverage that can make a person’s life better. It has the power to help people understand each other and be more tolerant, which is extremely important.
Sure enough, drinking quality wine calls for certain rituals. This is very important, as wine isn’t an industrially-produced beverage. It’s a gift of nature. The winemaking process demands a lot of passion, patience and effort. As a drink, it depends on Mother Nature and the unique harvests of every year. So I don’t think wine is a beverage you can just open up and guzzle down. One must pay attention to wine, enjoy it…
— Do you mean that people have a responsibility in terms of wine?
— Exactly! You’re absolutely right. And by rituals I mean what quality depends on, i.e. it should be wine of a certain class, the bottle must be opened carefully, and the wine drank at the right temperature. One should never treat wine carelessly, as it is a serious product and a lot of care and work is put into it. Wine absorbs in everything, which I think is important to remember when drinking it. One must pay attention to all the details accompanying the process of wine drinking. That’s why quality wine, and Antinori wine in particular, demands a special approach.
— In your opinion, what does wine mean to an aristocrat? Wine culture is currently at a stage of active development in Russia, but many people are experiencing some discomfort at their lack of knowledge about what wine is, how it should be consumed… Can a real nobleman be the result of what wine means to him?
— I believe that a nobleman is someone with a special culture and sensibility, supported by traditions passed down from generation to generation. And above all else, it’s someone with a noble soul…
And I think that wine is a product that can add something to culture, such as sensibility, or an understanding of high-quality items. If a person can understand and appreciate works of art, paintings, music and architecture, he also has the emotional and intellectual capacity to appreciate a Great Wine. It is something that helps aristocratic elements come forward and shine bright in a man. I believe that the ability to understand and appreciate wine may not be the key factor, but it is nonetheless quite important.
— Is Antinori wine aristocratic?
— I think that quality wine is an aristocratic product by definition. You can’t just make it anywhere, because it demands special conditions and attention. Experience, technology, and a discerning sense of the process also play an important role. That’s why the mass production of wine is impossible. In this sense, of course we can say that wine is an aristocrat amongst other beverages.
— So we know that you produce different wines. How do you manage to preserve your unique style in each of them?
— Our main principle is that Antinori is a family, a name, not a single company, but rather a unity of different households, vineyards and wineries. We call it «a string of pearls.» In order to guarantee the highest quality of our wine, really preserve the personality and the individuality of each of our products, we have both vineyards with unique terroirs and conditions, and also wineries for fermentation, ageing and bottling wine, where our wine specialist works.
Everything takes place on the local level; we don’t have a centralized winery. Of course, we supervise every winery, but we also work to grant them a certain level of freedom to nurture their individuality.
Doing this is what helps us achieve the highest quality. Quality becomes the responsibility of every household, each member of which knows their vineyards thoroughly. So we’re trying to be not just one corporation, but a sum of many individual components, which is ultimately what determines the quality.
I would also like to say that every wine has its own story, or rather individual evolutionary process, and we follow every aspect of it closely. This means that every wine reflects the properties of the place where the grape grown to produce it was located.
When harvesting, if we notice that the same vineyard produces grapes of different quality over the course of 2 consequent years, we don’t combine them, but rather collect and store them separately. We treat every vineyard individually.
— How would you define your company’s philosophy?
— There is a theory, which I have been trying to follow my entire life. My father gave me the basics of it, and I pass the experience on down to my daughters. I think that in order to be a good winemaker, one must first of all love the process of producing wine. Obviously, the right technology is also important, but you can always hire a good enologist with experience for that.
For a family like us, passion is our main philosophy. And also patience, as one has to be patient if they want to produce good wine. Today, for instance, you might grow a vine and get a good harvest, but later that might mean waiting for years and being very patient. One year the grape isn’t good enough, then the next year too… So you have to wait until it shines and you can get the right product.
I see many inexperienced winemakers who don’t know the traditions of quality winemaking, are in a constant hurry and always yearning for the best result in the shortest possible time. But being persistent is important, as I said, because there will be moments when you feel desperate and almost give up, when maybe two years in a row aren’t that good, or a wine you were very enthusiastic about turns out to be not so great.
I always followed the model of my father and my family. My father lived through two world wars and saw many of his colleagues leave this industry due to various hardships, as once the war was over everything was in ruins and people had to start all over again. But he was stubborn and persistent, he never gave up. I also think that today it’s still important to keep fighting, and never give up in this industry.
— When you see the dramatic changes in winemaking, do you think the culture of wine consumption should also develop parallel to that of producing it?
— This is exactly what happened in Italy, where just 40—50 years ago people focused more on the quantitative values of wine and its price. Now, after this «revolution» or, as I call it, renaissance, and not only in Italy but all over the world, people have started to pay more and more attention to the quality of wine.
And I think that these days wine really is better than it was a century ago. We know more about the process of wine production now, and the technology has advanced. That’s why I’m sure that with access to wine of a higher quality, people have become more cultured and learned to appreciate this quality.
High-quality wine is supposed to grant a direct sensory satisfaction to a person, the joy of taste. But intellectual satisfaction is important as well. That is why wine consumers must educate themselves about wine. Knowledge is an important factor for wine to bring you satisfaction.
And the magazines educating people and telling them not just about the properties of different wine, but also about the vast world behind the bottle of an excellent wine, play an extremely valuable part. Stories about winemakers, wine regions and their traditions help people experience wine to its fullest extent, and turn the process into not just a sensual, but also an intellectual pleasure.
— What does your restaurant in Moscow mean to you? Is it just a business, or something larger?
— Many years ago, we opened our first restaurant in Florence. The idea was to promote wine; we wanted to offer high-quality wine to our guests, explain about aspects of wine consumption, and teach them how to combine wine and cuisine. All in all, we wanted to give the best representation we could of wine as a drink.
In Moscow, we had the exact same goal — to promote wine in the Russian market and educate people about it. We wanted people to try real quality wine, and tell them about how it could be combined with food. We decided that people in Moscow would be eager to acquire this knowledge, and that it could become a part of the industry’s evolution. I would even say that it is a part of a quality life.
— I heard that in your everyday life your needs are very humble. But moderation is known only to those who live in complete harmony. Do you think that the wine you make helps people reach harmony, the harmony of taste and living?
— Quality wine is a harmonious combination of numerous elements: it’s the aroma, structure and body of the wine and its acidity. I believe that balanced wine can impart a portion of its characteristics to the person drinking and enjoying it.
— The following question might seem a bit inappropriate, but I think it’s important to better understand Antinori wines. Do you believe that the falling out between you and your brother was the force behind the appearance of the three great wines — Solaia, Sassicaia and Tignanello? Can a quarrel reflect badly on a relationship, but positively on a wine?
— (Laughs)… Well, if we talk seriously, it’s wrong to say we ever had any conflicts. We see each other all the time and get along just fine. But we did have a split in the business, because Ludovico decided to follow his own path and reached incredible success.
To prove to you that there is no bad blood between us, I can say that not long ago Ludovico started a new project that we’re working together on as partners. Obviously, it’s his «child» above all else, but I do my best to help him.
But at the same time I can also say that there is a bit of truth to your words. When we separated and he chose his own path, we did have a rivalry of some sorts.
In fact, I think that in this area, just like in any other, improving quality and creating something new has a special significance. Sometimes it’s important to be stimulated to grow through competition, and sometimes through losses.
Even now, when my brother and I are partners in his project, he’s trying to produce wine that will best my Antinori wine. And my colleagues and my daughters say: «No, no, we can make an even better wine!» I think that this sort of competition is healthy and beneficial for everyone. It brings about some very positive results.
— You often talk about four rules for choosing good wine, and how they relate to everyone. Thus, you demonstrate the enormous space occupied by wine, creating an analogy to the work of another famous Florentine, Leonardo da Vinci. Do you feel any connection to him?
— Leonardo da Vinci was a genius, we can all agree on that. Even in his drawings he managed to combine two things that to some people may seems like complete opposites. The first one is geometry, accuracy and expertize, while the other one is great poetry, emotions and artistry. And I believe it’s also important to learn to combine these two elements in wine.
Wine must be produced according to a well-tuned scheme. I personally think that in winemaking, it is incredibly important to stick to strict rules, and be very careful and attentive to details. At the same time, one must make wine like poetry… Great wine must inspire great feelings! A great wine to me is when you taste it and fall in love immediately, because it offers you so many amazing feelings. It needs to be artistic and wonderful, this is a must.
On the whole, I might say that wine ought to be a pure product that at the same time inspires you to experience amazing feelings, like when admiring a sublime painting or listening to a majestic concert.