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Machiavellian Adventure

Restoring a jewel of a notorious Tuscan family
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Glynn Cohen (left) on the loggia of Villa Mangiacane with estate manager Graziano Santoro (center) and winemaker Marco Chellini

Posted: Dec 26, 2017 10:00am ET

When Glynn Cohen was shopping for a Tuscan estate, he wanted vineyards, beauty, history and a nearby airport.

In 2001, the globetrotting Zimbabwe-born businessman and philanthropist bought all that in Villa Mangiacane—a deteriorated estate that was the 15th-century country home of the Machiavelli family.

Revitalizing it "has been a personal growth journey," says Cohen, 57, toned, tanned and wearing shorts and polo shirt. It's late summer when we chat, and he sits on the villa's loggia, which is decorated with Renaissance frescoes and offers views to Florence's Duomo about eight miles away.

Cohen fell in love with Tuscany in the 1980s while doing business there with his Africa-based textiles group. He made a fortune with a sub-Saharan African trucking and logistics company that went public in the late 1990s and invested part of his earnings in Mangiacane's villa and vineyards in the town of San Casciano, between Florence and Siena.

"After doing relatively well in business, it was a question of what to do next," says Cohen, who became Mangiacane's fifth owner.

"When I arrived," he says, "the place was a ruin." During World War II, the villa served as a German military command and later as an Allied hospital. The owner prior to Cohen cared little for aesthetics and sold wine from the Chianti Classico vineyards in bulk along with tomatoes from a roadside farmstand.

"He white-washed over the original frescoes." Cohen shakes his head. "He was raising pigeons upstairs!"

Mangiacane's historic allure comes from connections to two historic figures. Renaissance artist Michelangelo may have been the architect for the original villa, according to historian Alfredo Melani's 1884 book Archtettura Italiana Antica e Moderna.

And the most famous of the Machiavellis, the writer Niccolò, spent time on the estate after being exiled from Florence for antagonizing the powerful Medici family. Machiavelli spent years in the family's Albergaccio villa, facing Mangiacane on the other side of a vineyard swale, where he penned his definitive political treatise The Prince. Albergaccio is now a museum and restaurant. Another Machiavelli property down the road is a Hare Krishna retreat called Villa Vrindavana.

Due to the significance of the property, original building plans had been saved in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, and Cohen was able to reference them when restoring the property, creating a boutique winery and a hotel housed in both the villa and an adjacent old olive-oil mill.

The hotel opened in 2007. The wine production moved out of the villa's old cellar to make room for a banquet room and spa, and a new utilitarian winery was hidden in a hillside olive grove. Meanwhile, Cohen bought up more Chianti Classico vineyards to nearly triple his land under vine to more than 100 acres.

Today Villa Mangiacane is a laid-back luxury experience. Manicured gardens are dotted with Zimbabwean Shona stone sculptures, and the buildings house Cohen's eclectic art collection, including life-size erotic black-and-white prints by photographer Petter Hegre, who shot at the estate during harvest for his book "Tuscan Nudes."

For some modern princes, Mangiacane might be a bit too relaxed: No one rushes to carry your bags on arrival, the staff seems relatively sparse for its size, and on hot days the air-conditioning can strain to cool the spaces. (With a total of 38 rooms and suites, rack rates start at about $300 for a double room and about $660 for a suite. The rate for the entire original villa, which sleeps 22, is about $12,600 a night.)

Wine perhaps has been the trickiest part.

"This property has been producing wine for 500 years, and the idea was to make the best wine we could with the terroir," says Cohen.

He originally hired consulting winemaker Alberto Antonini, former head winemaker at Antinori and a partner in Argentina's Altos Las Hormigas.

Wine production grew quickly, hitting about 7,500 cases and resulting in some notable wines like the 2005 Aleah, an all-Merlot super Tuscan that scored 92 points.

Then in 2009, the estate hit headwinds as the global financial crisis hurt many new luxury brands. In that year, Mangiacane lost its national importer for the United States, its largest market.

In 2012, Cohen shook things up with a new team, including Marco Chellini, Castello di Verrazzano's longtime agronomist and enologist.

Chellini says the challenge in San Casciano is to coax complexity out of relatively hot and early-ripening vineyards. "The wines from here can be drier and harder," says Chellini, who relies on strict grape selection. The estate uses about half its crop and sells the rest.

Overall, Mangiacane appears to be on the upswing, with a new national U.S. importer, production back to pre-crisis levels, and an expanded portfolio with wines retailing for between $15 and $50, including three Chianti Classicos, two super-Tuscan bottlings (one Merlot, one Cabernet Sauvignon) and a Sangiovese rosé called Shamiso, which benefits a game animal orphanage in Zimbabwe. From the 2017 vintage, Cohen plans to produce his first kosher blend of Merlot and Sangiovese.

"We want to continue in the direction of quality," says Cohen. "But nothing is immediate. One thing the wine business has taught me is patience."

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