In wine, there’s a constant conversation around Old World versus New World. Napa Valley is a good representation of New World winemaking, while Tuscany, for instance, is Old World. The Antinori family has placed themselves in both camps, and not just because they make wine in both types of regions.
The Antinori’s are about as Old World as it gets. Their wine roots and traditions date all the way back to 1385, and the family is still flourishing 26 generations later. And yet, their dedication to growth and being leaders in innovation keeps them young and new.
This old versus new juxtaposition is best demonstrated at two of the family’s portfolio of estates (they have 14 in Italy alone): Antica, which sits high up in an amphitheatre of vineyards in Napa Valley’s Atlas Peak AVA, and the high-tech, ultra modern Marchesi Antinori Chianti Classico Cellar in Tuscany.
The Antinoris are partners in several wine projects outside of Italy (including Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Col Solare in Washington state), but they own several others, like Haras de Pirque in Chile and Antica in Napa. Antica, the combination of the words Antinori and California, is the perfect representation of the the family’s desire to explore beyond the Old World and its restrictive traditions.
When his father retired and Marchese Piero Antinori took over the family business in 1966, he took it upon himself to visit other wine regions to learn from them.
“My father is a different foreign kind,” said Alessia Antinori, the youngest of Antinori’s three daughters and vice president of the family business. “He was a pioneer at the time to be traveling so much. He started to go to France, where they have cabernet and merlot, and introduced these varieties to the Chianti Classico.
“He went to Napa Valley, and really fell in love with the area, I think also, because he found a lot of similarities to Chianti Classico. He really falls in love with the areas he goes to, loves the experience and the challenge to try to produce a wine in a different wine area of the world.”
The New World, and the freedom that came with it, was especially enticing to him.
“He just really appreciated the New World spirit,” said Antica Wine Estate manager Glenn Salva, who has been alongside Antica and Marchese Piero Antinori since the beginning. “In Tuscany, and Chianti Classico in particular, you had to make wines through very strict guidelines. But in California, you do what you want. You want to plant cabernet, you plant cabernet. He really enjoyed the place of Napa, people of Napa and potential of Napa.”
The opportunity to bring Antinori to Napa Valley came in 1985 via a partnership with Whitbread and Bollinger Champagne. The Antinori family had just a small 5 percent investment in what was then called Whitbread of California, but Marchese Piero Antinori was still tasked to find the land to build the winery.
His intuition led him to the mountains, where few vintners had gone before. He settled on a beautiful 1,200 acres in what is now the Atlas Peak AVA, also now home to the famed Stagecoach Vineyard.
“He felt at that time that in order to make a great wine here in Napa, his preference was to be up in the mountains. He had a strong feeling that if you grow a grapevine in a lot of rock, the vine struggles more, but the ultimate grape of the wine takes on a deeper richness and concentration,” said Salva.
As it turns out, he was right on the money. Salva says that now roughly 15 percent (7,500-8,000 acres) of Napa Valley Vineyards are in the mountains.
“Back in ‘86, the words ‘mountain vineyards’ weren’t what they are today. We were one of the first people to make a big investment in the mountains of Napa Valley, and a lot of people followed. Today, people think of the mountains of Napa Valley as producing some of the great wines of the area,” said Salva.
The land was purchased in 1986, and they employed an aggressive development program, first building the lake and then planting 600 acres of vineyards in just three years.
But by 1990, Whitbread decided they no longer wanted to be involved in wine and spirits and sold their interest to the remaining partners. Then in 1993, those partners (not including Antinori) decided they didn’t want to be land owners in Napa Valley, even though they did want to be in the wine business.
Being an opportunist, and recognizing the potential of the land, Marchese Piero Antinori made his move. The Antinori family purchased the land for a $22 million investment, which back then, was a Stagecoach-sized deal.
“They were obligated to lease the land back for 15 years, but for the Antinori family, 15 years is just a little drop of history,” said Salva. “In the Antinori DNA is a great deal of patience. They were able to buy the land, but have the patience to take control of the land.”
In 2006, the estate was officially named Antica Napa Valley, and in 2007, they released their first wines, starting with the 2004 cabernet sauvignon.
And yet, while Antica exists in the New World, if you have the chance to visit the estate and caves for a tasting (it’s by appointment only), you’ll still get that Old World feel from the modest Tuscan villa that houses the tasting room. Surrounded by vineyards on all sides, it’s reminiscent of Chianti Classico, where wineries, houses and entire towns, are subtly tucked among the rolling hills.
You might not think anything of it, until you visit Marchesi Antinori Chianti Classico Cellar, which has all the bells, whistles and innovation that you would moreso expect to find in Napa.
Marchesi Antinori Chianti Classico Cellar
“My father wanted to build a place that really represented the past 26 generations, but will also last for the next 26 generations This has been the most important project in the last 600 years,” said Alessia Antinori of the family’s impressive estate in Bargino (20 minutes from Florence).
It opened to the public in 2012, after seven years of construction. As soon as you arrive at the gate, it’s clear this isn’t like any other winery you’ve visited in Tuscany. Here, Old World and New World collide.
“It’s part of the DNA of the family, it goes back many generations. [Marchese’s] father was an incredible man that dealt with innovation back in World War I and World War II. Under [Marchese’s] watch, we’ve done many incredible things,” said Salva.
For instance, in the early 1970s, he introduced the Chianti Classico to Tignanello. It was the first sangiovese to be aged in barrels, the first red wine to be blended with non-traditional varietals like cabernet and cabernet franc, and was one of the first Chianti red wines that didn’t use white grapes.
Marchese Piero Antinori is credited with jumpstarting the Super Tuscan movement of replacing the region’s native white varieties with cabernet, and then aging it in barrels. He’s like the Steve Jobs of wine.
“That was considered to be highly innovative and set a new standard,” said Salva. “Traditions are already important, but if you look at a tradition, at one point in time, it was considered innovation. You can’t rely on tradition all the time because you have to be current.”
The futuristic-looking Marchesi Antinori Chianti Classico Cellar was purposely built entirely underground so that it could seamlessly blend into the rolling hills of the Chianti Classico. From the road, you can hardly tell it’s there. The cellar, which even mirrors the color of the soil, is constructed out of all natural materials out of respect for the area’s natural surroundings.
“That was very important because we really wanted the facade of the winery to be the territory, the land of the Chianti Classico,” said Antinori. “It’s the most beautiful thing we have. We wanted to not destroy it and build a big enormous winery, but to really work with it and be totally integrated with the area. It’s the most important aspect of the winery.”
Napa Valley locals often refer to wineries like Robert Mondavi and Raymond Vineyards as “The Disney World of Wine,” but they’ve got nothing on this attraction, which even requires shuttle transport from a nearby parking lot (just like when you’re at Disney World).
The first stop on a tour of this multi-level, underground winery is a large auditorium to watch a high-production film on the Antinori family’s 600-year history in wine. After, visitors walk through a museum and library, full of art and reading materials on the family.
Guests tour the cellar, which is designed for optimal gravity flow and achieves ideal ageing temperatures naturally (no refrigeration systems), and various production areas, including a viewing of the largest bottling operation they’ve likely ever seen.
They’ll also learn about the various contemporary artist collaborations on display throughout. The tour finishes with a tasting in the wine shop, but guests can extend their stay with an above-ground lunch on the restaurant “rooftop” terrace, surrounded by vines.
As for what’s in the Antinori family’s future? As we’ve seen, a lot can be done in another 600 years.
“We are working to really focus on our wineries that we own, to really focus on the high quality of all our wines, and to create wines with personality,” said Antinori. “Who knows if my father falls in love with a new wine area of the world, but I think it’s important at this point to focus on what we have and try to do the best of it.”