Piero Antinori & Family

Sandro Michahelles
Marchese Piero Antinori and daughters (from left) Alessia, Allegra and Albiera

Tall and dignified, Marchese Piero Antinori looks the part of a Florentine nobleman, a fitting figure to oversee a 600-year-old family wine business. But in 1966, when he took the company reins from his father, Niccolò, Tuscan wine was in trouble.

The social and economic upheaval of post-WWII Italy had left many historic vineyards neglected. Even worse for the region's image, many of the remaining vineyards were being planted with lackluster, high-yielding clones of Sangiovese. Cellar masters were fermenting their wines using their grandfathers' techniques and aging them in their grandfathers' cellars. Poor wines sold at low prices created a vicious circle that kept Chianti from progressing.

Antinori was respectful of tradition, but he leapt fearlessly into the future. For guidance, he and winemaker Giacomo Tachis looked to France, consulting with famed Bordeaux enologist Émile Peynaud. They cut yields in the vineyards, eliminated white grapes from the Chianti Classico blend, planted better clones of Sangiovese, experimented with French varieties and rethought their approach in the winery.

Their work culminated in Tignanello, the first super Tuscan, which debuted in 1970. Italy needed a wine that would mark it as a great wine nation, and Antinori delivered exactly that. Then he pushed the envelope further with Solaia, a Cabernet-based red that rivaled versions from Bordeaux and Napa. Its 1997 vintage was Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2000, the first Italian wine to earn this honor. In 1999, Antinori earned Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award.

Tignanello and Solaia proved to the world that Tuscany was more than a source of cheap, hearty reds. Its vine-covered hills could produce first-class wines, whether from international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot or local grapes like Sangiovese. And Tuscan wineries could demand the prices needed to make quality sustainable. A generation of Italian vintners followed in Antinori's footsteps.

In more recent years, Antinori has continued to evolve his business, shifting the focus from mainly buying fruit to cultivating his own land—more than 5,000 acres up and down the Italian peninsula. The company now produces estate Chiantis, Brunellos di Montalcino, Bolgheris and Umbrian wines.

He has also expanded the company's reach into Napa Valley and established joint ventures in Hungary, Washington state and elsewhere. In 2014, Marchese Antinori Wines sold more than 1.9 million cases and had an estimated revenue of $189.5 million.

Antinori's legacy is in safe hands: The 26th generation is following him into the wine business. His three daughters—Albiera, 49, Allegra, 44, and Alessia, 40—all now work in the company alongside Piero's handpicked CEO and head winemaker, Renzo Cotarella. And Antinori's two oldest grandchildren are showing an interest in the business.

This continuity was not always certain. To bankroll a buyout of his brother and sister in 1981, Antinori sold a sizable stake in the company to a large British drinks corporation. He instantly regretted it; a decade later, he took out a large loan, putting up the 15th-century family palazzo in Florence as collateral, to buy it back.

The gamble has worked. Antinori has paid off his creditors while making sure that Marchese Antinori Wines continues to be a model for the wine world—and a family-run business—for generations to come.

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