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Antinori: Keeping It All In The Family

With the oldest family business on Earth, the Antinoris have been in the wine business for 600 years. Morley Safer profiled the family from their vineyards in Tuscany, Italy
Keeping it in the family 11:55

This story was first broadcast Oct. 12, 2008. It was updated on April 29, 2009.

Families, the poet Philip Larkin wrote, they mess you up. Only he used slightly stronger language. When it comes to family business, he was right on the money.

A recent survey found only 15 percent of family businesses survive past the second generation. If the whims of the market place don't get you, rivalry or old fashioned greed will.

Which makes the Antinori family of Italy all the more remarkable: as 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer first reported last fall, they've been in the same line of work for six centuries now.

The Antinoris make wine and the family story reads like a wine review - complex, stylish, sophisticated with a bouquet both elegant and earthy.

It's harvest time in the great vineyards of Italy, none greater than the 5,000 acres farmed by the Antinori family. Until recently, Italian business - especially the wine business - was pretty much for men only.

"Girls, normally, in families like ours, ended up to be married, possibly happily, and that's it. No need to work," says Albiera Antinori, who with her two sisters Allegra and Alessia are the first women in 26 generations to play a major role in the family enterprise.

"I feel part of the land. You know? I think I'm owned by that land. It's something very, very strong," Allegra Antinori tells Safer.

From the fields to the cellars, you'll find the Antinori women at work. Hoping - as vintners have for centuries - that this year, the balance of sun, soil and rain will produce a vintage for the ages.

"People use these wonderful words to describe the taste. There's personality. What else?" Safer asks.

"The elegance," Alessia Antinori replies. "The wine has to be elegant. And so you say, 'How do you describe elegance?' You can't. It's like an elegant woman. How do you describe her? It's personal."

Their domain stretches from the legendary vineyards of Tuscany and Umbria to their property in California's Napa Valley. Antinori is perhaps the oldest family business on earth.

"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 patriarch Piero Antinori.

He's 70, and bears the noble title of marchese; he works behind an antique desk that dates to the Renaissance.

"When we have to take some decision regarding the family, we have them here. And my father used to do the same thing," he says.

And in his birthplace, Florence, the city that gave birth to the Renaissance - that flowering of art, science and the good life - he leads a visitor to a small window to the past. Hundreds of years ago, an Antinori cellar master sat waiting for customers to knock.

"The cellar master would pass a bottle of Chianti wine, and would receive the money back. This has been in operation until a couple of centuries ago," Piero Antinori explains.

It's recent history by Antinori's standard: for 623 years, various Antinori have kept the business going, despite war, plague, political intrigue and the shifting tastes of consumers. The family tree shows a bumper crop of Antinori who made their mark not just in wine, but in every aspect of Italian life.

"In business. In politics. In church," Piero Antinori explains.

"So the family always made sure back then that all bets were covered, correct?" Safer asks.

"I think it was a bit the concept, yes," he replies.

There were poets and priests, rogues and rascals. In 1576, Francesco de' Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, had one Antinori strangled for his undue attentions to Bianca, the duke's wife. In the 1700s, another Antinori cultivated Pope Clement XII as an important customer. The pontiff - who commissioned the building of Rome's Trevi Fountain - decided to throw a few coins the Antinoris' way.

"We have some correspondence saying that the Pope used to like very much the wines of our family and he wanted to order more," Piero Antinori explains.

But the family history lining the shelves of the marchese's office says precious little about the wives and daughters in the Antinori family tree. It's a fact not lost on Albiera, Allegra and Alessia.

Asked if there are any interesting women in those 26 generations, Albiera Antinori tells Safer, "I'm sure there are some women. But women in history, in the past time, even if unless they were special, they were not."

"Considered," Alessia adds.

"To be mentioned," Albiera says.

"It's true. Because when I went to agricultural university in northern Italy, in Milan, we were two women. And the rest were all men. Very lucky," Alessia says.

For six centuries, command of the Antinori empire was passed from father to son. But with no male heir, the marchese, some years ago sold a major stake in the business to Whitbread, a British company whose fortune was based on beer-making.

"It was the period when I didn't 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 Antinori explains.

But the partnership produced mainly grapes of wrath: it was a vintage clash between the foaming suds of quick profits and Piero Antinori insisting he'd sell no wine before its time. This marriage of inconvenience ended when he bought back the shares, keeping Antinori all in the family.

"I think he saw us interested and said 'Why not? What's wrong with girls?' And so took his chance of expecting his daughters to fall in love with business," Albiera Antinori says.

And that they did. Now all three travel the countryside and the world, helping to grow, promote and market Antinori wines. They sold 17 million bottles last year, $200 million worth, making a healthy profit. And though the business now involves spreadsheets and science, the basics still come, as they have for centuries, from down on the farm.

Albiera Antinori says the family still regards itself as farmers. "This is our origin. Still now in modern times, we are basically, basically farmers."

"We appreciate the nature and the countryside more than the glamorous city life," her sister Alessia adds.

Elegance is the rule at Palazzo Antinori, the family home in Florence. Since the family's wines must be sampled often to ensure quality control, every lunch at the palazzo is a kind of business lunch. The marchese, his wife Francesca, their daughters and sons-in law and the grandchildren partake, and all may have a say.

Asked if there are any family arguments at the table, Piero Antinori tells Safer, "Yes. Sometimes we start with an argument. But after three or four glasses of wine…."

"Everything disappears," his daughter Alessia jokes.

"This palazzo has been in the family since 1506," Piero Antinori says. "Both the headquarters of the business and also the residence of the family."

When an Antinori wishes to seek solace, or a place for quiet contemplation, or even a place to confess his earthly sins, it's hardly difficult. Just leave the Palazzo Antinori and, traffic notwithstanding, cross the Piazza Antinori, and within minutes, arrive at the Capella Antinori, the Antinori family chapel, where they might visit the tomb of Alessandro Antinori, one of the founders of the dynasty. And perhaps a nod to any number of Antinoris buried beneath the chapel floor. If wealth and history can buy you one lasting pleasure, it is convenience.

Marchese Antinori, for instance, commutes by helicopter to his most famous vineyard, Tignanello, in the Tuscan countryside south of Florence. There, the family developed the red wines for which they're famous.

But as the experience with the British partners showed, it's no business for the impatient or for those who have a taste for the quick buck. Ten years can pass from the time a new vine is planted until its wine comes to market. "You have to be patient. And to wait until the wine is good enough, the vines are old enough to produce a good wine," Antinori explains.

Tignanello is but one of the Antinori postcard-perfect estates. Castella della Sala is another, halfway between Rome and Florence. There, Albiera went to work after high school, living at the family's grand 14th century castle, but learning the wine trade from the bottom up, as a field hand in the vineyards.

There she got her hands dirty. "It was the first place where I really started to understand what was going on, I mean, the whole process."

But it's not all dirt and business. There's the other estate, Guado al Tasso on the Tuscan coast.

"I did my own stable," Allegra Antinori tells Safer. "My own training track in the middle of the vineyards. And I go riding every morning. It's beautiful. I love it."

Asked if she's spoiled, she admits, "Yes. I am very spoiled. But I think we appreciate what we have."

And they are constantly reminded that in this line of work, nature always has the last word. The Antinori found the 2002 crop wasn't up to par, and didn't bother bottling most of it.

"You cannot force things. You cannot force nature. If you have a bad vintage, tough luck," Albiera Antinori explains. "We can wake it up for a second before we put it back to sleep."

Every few months, they check on the progress of their wine, fast asleep in the cellars.

Every once in a while someone offers to buy them out. But this farmer and his daughters politely decline, on the theory that if family ownership was good enough in 1385, it's good enough today.

"It is really our intention to remain a family business because we think that this is the best solution for us," Piero Antinori says.

Asked if his family business will last for at least for another 500 years, Antinori laughs and says, "At least."

Produced by David Browning

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