Before Marchese Piero Antinori began work on one of the world's most expensive and daring wineries, the 75-year-old vintner approved an estimate of the cost. The final amount was nearly double.
"Piero was in love with the project. We were all in love," Marchesi Antinori's CEO Renzo Cotarella admits with a laugh. "And when you are in love, you find reasons to rationalize the love."
"Of course it was going to be more expensive," Cotarella says with a shrug, "but we wanted to believe otherwise."
After seven years of work, nightmarish construction problems and a budget that ballooned 170 percent to more than $130 million, Marchesi Antinori's flagship property opened last year on a hillside in Chianti Classico. It was immediately praised for its audacious environmental design, folded into the contours of a hillside in the town of Bargino.
Discreetly perched above the highway between Florence and Siena, the winery resembles a pair of rust-colored slashes in newly planted vineyards. The interior and exterior surfaces feature weathered steel, terra cotta, concrete, glass and wood. They create the effect Antinori sought when he decided to move the company headquarters from its Renaissance palazzo in Florence.
"The idea was to bring the heart of the company back to the countryside where the wine is produced," says the trim, energetic Antinori, who represents the family wine business's 25th generation. "We wanted to have a winery which was not a monument, but integrated in the landscape."
Antinori nel Chianti Classico, which has already attracted thousands of visitors, includes a 129,000-square-foot, multilevel winery, with energy-efficiencies such as a gravity-flow system and naturally cool underground barrel rooms that have yet to need air-conditioning. In addition, the new location houses the company headquarters, an auditorium, boutique, restaurant, museum, olive oil mill and a facility for producing sweet Vin Santo. Its most dramatic features are the glass-walled tasting rooms that hover above the cathedral-like barrel cellars and the exterior onion-peel staircase that climbs to a panoramic terrace built on a swooping 70-foot roof overhang.
In the near term, the investment—more than $180 million when furnishings and equipment are included—makes little sense. The winery produces only three Chianti Classico wines—Villa Antinori, Marchese Antinori Riserva and Pèppoli—totaling about 150,000 cases. That is a fraction of Antinori's production, which is scattered across a dozen wineries in Italy, plus Napa Valley and partnerships elsewhere in the world.
But, says Antinori, whose three daughters work in leadership roles in the company owned by a family trust, "We wanted to show we have a long-term view."
To execute his vision with Florence's Archea Architects, Antinori chose his eldest daughter, Albiera, and his right-hand man, Cotarella, 59, who over the past three decades has helped build Antinori into a winegrowing and -producing empire.
Construction began in 2006 with a massive excavation of the hillside that would hold the structure. But the following year, Cotarella noticed that something was wrong: The retaining wall against the hillside appeared to have moved several inches.
"We did more geological tests, and we discovered that there was ground water that was pulling the wall downhill, Cotarella says. "It was a nightmare. I don't think I slept for months."
Engineering teams worked over the following 18 months as the other work stopped. Their solution included driving thousands of piles into the hillside and draining water with a series of massive wells. Overruns piled up. A couple of years later, the parent company of the general contractor went bankrupt, causing more sleepless nights.
Now, with the construction headaches and one harvest behind it, the winery remains pristine—a bit too perfect and lacking the patina of winemaking for Cotarella.
"I told Piero we need to make the winery a little more dirty, but that will take time," Cotarella says. "It's like a new house. You have to live in it for years, and then one day you discover it has a soul."
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