Wine giant Constellation Brands and Marchesi de' Frescobaldi are expected to announce as early as April 1 that the venerable Italian producer has struck a deal to take over Tuscany's famed Tenuta dell' Ornellaia in its entirety. Inside sources report that Frescobaldi, which already owned half the estate, will pay around $45 million for the 50 percent stake that had belonged to Robert Mondavi Corp.
The fate of Ornellaia, which produces two of Italy's greatest wine, Ornellaia and Masseto, has been up in the air since last fall. First the struggling Mondavi company announced plans to sell off its luxury brands, then Fairport, N.Y.-based Constellation made a takeover bid for all of Mondavi.
Constellation was primarily interested in the high-profile, high-volume Mondavi and Woodbridge labels, which filled needs in a wine portfolio that ranges from Almaden box wines to Ravenswood and Simi. After finalizing its acquisition of Mondavi in December, the alcoholic-beverage giant sold off the smaller Arrowood and Byron wineries in California earlier this year. But the company indicated interest in holding onto the luxury gems, Ornellaia and Opus One, if the joint-venture partners were willing.
The partners have first option to buy out Mondavi's half of their ventures, and the Frescobaldis chose to do just that in March with Luce della Vite, which they cofounded in 1995 in Montalcino to make Luce and Lucente, super Tuscan blends of Sangiovese and Merlot. While the Frescobaldis promptly resold the Luce stake to Michael Mondavi's new company to continue their partnership, the Tuscan family is expected to maintain total ownership of Ornellaia and not involve the Mondavis.
Tenuta dell' Ornellaia, a 225-acre estate in the coastal region of Bolgheri, was founded in 1981 by Lodovico Antinori. It rose to prominence with Ornellaia, a Bordeaux-style blend—the 1998 vintage (96 points, $110) was Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2001—and Masseto, a pure Merlot. The Mondavi family bought a stake in 1999, later acquiring the entire estate and thenselling half of it to the Frescobaldis for $17.5 million in 2002.
Wine quality remained high throughout the Mondavis' and Frescobaldis' involvement and even improved, with the 2001 Masseto ($250) scoring a perfect 100 points. Not only is it the best Masseto the estate has yet made, it set a new standard for Tuscan reds and earned the No. 6 spot in Wine Spectator's Top 10 Wines of 2004.
The Frescobaldis plan to keep the same team at Ornellaia, with Leonardo Raspini remaining as general manager, Bordeaux's Michel Rolland as consulting enologist and New Zealand's Danny Schuster as consulting viticulturist.
Frescobaldi, which has been making wine for seven centuries and has extensive vineyard holdings throughout Tuscany, improved its own quality tremendously in the 1990s. Its Brunellos, Lamaione Merlot, Chianti Rufina Montesodi and new Giramonte blend of Sangiovese and Merlot have earned outstanding to classic scores in recent years.