The spirit of Tuscany

The Frescobaldi family has been making wine for more than 700 years, an achievement recognised at the Meininger Award 2017. Felicity Carter reports.

Marchesi Lamberto and Leonardo Frescobaldi receive the Meininger Award
Marchesi Lamberto and Leonardo Frescobaldi receive the Meininger Award

Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi unrolls a scroll. On the outside, a seal of yellow wax. On the inside, what appears to be a newspaper. It’s a removable label, created to be wrapped around the Frescobaldi Gorgona Toscana IGT. 

It’s the day after the Meininger Award ‘Excellence in Wine & Spirit’, at which the Frescobaldis were named 2017 Wine Family of the Year. The Marchese is at his importer’s ProWein stand, surrounded by famous wines, including his own. Many people, once they’ve drunk this type of wine, like to keep the empty bottle as a trophy. 

Marchese Frescobaldi developed the special souvenir label to give them a better option. He thinks “empty bottles become sad. Very sad”.

The wine itself is a blend of organic Vermentino and Ansonica grapes grown by prisoners on the penal island of Gorgona in the Tuscan Archipelago. The Marchese became involved in the prison project after the former director asked for help with the island’s derelict vineyard. Frescobaldi agreed, but chose to rent the land so that nobody could accuse him of exploiting prisoners. Still, he was surprised when the authorities asked for €13,000.00 ($14,131.00). “I said, ‘for one hectare?’” says the Marchese, raising his eyebrows. “You can rent a vineyard in Chianti Classico for €1,500.00!” But he paid and began work in 2012.

He does it, he says, because research shows that the prisoner recidivism rate falls to under 30% if they leave prison with employable skills. The prisoners seem grateful for the opportunity, not least because they get paid for their labour. “People smile, they are very happy and willing to work,” says the Marchese.

 Gorgona’s terroir turned out to be good and the wine is now sought after, commanding a price of about €80.00 a bottle. But at less than 4,000 bottles a year, quantities are tiny; the Marchese says they plan to plant new vineyards.

Frescobaldi has also attempted an olive oil project at Sollicciano prison outside Florence. It has been less successful, however. The inmates of Gorgona are murderers, hit men, and drug traffickers, facing decades in prison. The Marchese says this gives them a long-term view, and they like to be occupied, especially if they can send money to their families. The Florence prison, on the other hand, is full of petty criminals and drug addicts who, the Marchese suggests, don’t have much of a work ethic. 

It’s a project that has given the Marchese unique insights into the human condition. “It is a narrow way between one side and the other,” he says. “I say to my kids, if someone does something – cuts in front of you in traffic – forget it. You’re not a weak person. But you do something stupid, and your life is over.”

He says he never asks the prisoners what crimes they’ve committed. “They have been judged already by some court, and I am Mr Nobody. I don’t need to judge them again,” he says. Sometimes, though, he finds out anyway. Like the time a man came up and said, “Frescobaldi! I love your wines!”

Before he was a prisoner, he was a restaurateur, said the man. And he always stocked Frescobaldi wines.
Why was he in prison?

“He killed the sous chef.”

Deep roots

The history of the Frescobaldis is entwined with that of Tuscany. Like many great Florentine families, the Frescobaldis were bankers – not only did they finance the Crusades, they even lent money to King Henry VIII (which they never got back). In the fourteenth century, a Frescobaldi bought farmland with a vineyard, as successful people often do. The wines became popular, with the Frescobaldis even swapping wine with Michelangelo in exchange for art. Lamberto Frescobaldi says he is a “thirtieth-generation winemaker”.

In the 1960s, Marchese Vittorio – Marchese Lamberto’s father – decided to concentrate on wine, making a series of good decisions. In 1989 he acquired the CastelGiocondo in Montalcino, a Tuscan jewel that produces notable Brunello, and then in 2005, Marchese Vittorio entered into a partnership with Robert Mondavi. The resulting SuperTuscan, a Sangiovese and Merlot blend created by Lamberto and Tim Mondavi, was intended to represent the best of Old and New World winemaking. It was named Luce della Vite (‘light’) after Margrit Biever Mondavi was struck by the sun breaking through clouds over Tuscany; the dramatic sunburst on the label was inspired by a design on the altar of the Basilica di Santo Spirito in Florence. The wine quickly became a classic. In 2002, the Mondavis bought another great Super Tuscan, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, and brought in the Frescobaldis as partners. “Then we woke up one morning and our good partners the Mondavis said to us that Mondavi had been sold, so now we had a new partner,” says Marchese Lamberto. “We had 50% of Luce, 50% of Ornellaia, plus some land in southern Tuscany. Quite a lot of things.”

The new partner was Constellation. As the Frescobaldis only wanted to work with family companies, they bought back Luce. The bank offered to give the Frescobaldis enough to buy Ornellaia outright, but Marchese Vittorio vetoed it. “We will have all this debt on our head,” he said. “If something changes, we are history.”

The Frescobaldis created a new company, Tenute di Toscana, which combined Tenuta dell'Ornellaia (Bolgheri), CastelGiocondo (Montalcino), and Luce della Vite (Montalcino), and formed a partnership with Michael Mondavi and the SPI Group (producer of Stolichnaya). Today, the Frescobaldis have a 75% stake in Ornellaia. Marchese Lamberto says having a partner is good business. “When you have a partner you are more severe with yourself because you have to respect the partner. We are paying good dividends.”

The next generations

The Frescobaldis are also noted patrons of the arts. “We are helping young, unknown artists,” says Marchese Lamberto. “Culture is what makes us a better person, and I think we are forgetting this.”

Restaurants are next. “We have a restaurant that’s doing very well in Mayfair in London,” he says. “We have a restaurant in Florence and are going to open an even higher-scale restaurant there in a few months, and a little restaurant out in the countryside.”

The restaurant business is even tougher than the wine industry, but Marchese Lamberto shrugs. “We like to suffer,” he says. Also, restaurant customers give immediate feedback. “You get feedback from retailers, but sometimes it’s not precise. Seeing your customer in front of your eyes is a totally different thing. You know directly whether they like it or they don’t like it.”

He admits it’s complicated, because the quality of both the food and service must remain high. “We’re also developing 400 ha of olive trees and exploring accommodation in our estates.”

It takes a great deal of good management to keep a family business afloat for three generations, much less for 30. But speaking with the Marchese gives some insight into the entrepreneurial flair that has animated the family for nearly a thousand years. “We are going to work even harder,” he says. “Maybe we will get another prize.” 

 

Frescobaldi properties

 

  • Castello di Nipozzano, Nipozzano
  • Castello di Pomino, Pomino
  • Rèmole, Sieci
  • Tenuta Castiglioni, Montespertoli
  • Tenute CastelGiocondo, Montalcino
  • Tenuta dell’Ammiraglia, Magliano

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