In an age of conglomerates, multinationals and globalisation, it is heartening to realise that some of the most successful businesses in the world are still run by families. They span an enormous range of commercial activity from banking to engineering and hotels, but nowhere in the business world does the family remain stronger than in the wine industry.
The phenomenon was very obvious in my interaction with the wine world over the past six weeks or so when representatives of some very successful and historically important wine dynasties visited Dublin.
Just now these family businesses are secure, but of course there is always the risk that they will morph into corporate land as many of their ilk have done in recent decades. Families are the backbone of wine-making throughout the world, principally because they are primarily farmers and farming remains primarily a family occupation around the globe. Successful wine makers also become brand owners and build up distribution channels. It is these that attract the beady eyes of corporate predators. Beverage groups, leisure brand owners, venture capitalists in search of a quick buck and even banks, have pounced on family wine businesses when they see an opportunity and many of the world’s great wine-producing dynasties have , over the years, sold out. They have rarely done so because of economic necessity. Rather has the sale come when a second, third or fourth generation wants to take out the family wealth and divide it up.
This is not the case however among the wine people who shared their bottles with us in recent weeks. Allegra Antinori is the Ambassador for Antinori Wines and travels the world on behalf of her family. She follows in a proud tradition as her father, Marchesi Piero Antinori, was an avid traveller until a few years ago and liked nothing better than to talk about his Tuscan wines and share them with likeminded friends.
The Antinori Family has been making wine for over 600 years since Giovanni Antinori started the Company in 1385 and it is one of the most revered families in the Italian wine industry with a street called after the family in Florence where Piero still lives and works in the 16th. century Palazzo Antinori when he is not entertaining in his other palazzo in Tuscany. Piero and his wife have been blessed with three daughters, all of whom are engaged in the business. They are the 27th generation of Antinori winemakers and Allegra is justifiably proud of the fact. ‘We have always been a family business and we will remain so’, she says.
Antinori has always been identified with the classic Italian regions of Tuscany and Umbria. The family has estates in Chianti Classico, Bolgheri, Montalcino and Orvieto and unusually for such an expansive wine business, they grow all their own grapes on 1,400 ha of vineyards.
Piero has always been a pioneer and in 1971 he shocked the Italian wine industry by making a wine called ‘Tignanello’ from classic Bordeaux grapes which were not traditional in Italy. As the wine did not meet the DOC or DOCG specifications, it was classified by the Tuscan regulatory authority as ‘Vino de Tavola’. Piero was proud of this lowly classification for such a stunning wine and ‘Tignanello’ sold at premium prices around the world as the first ‘Super Tuscan’. Fourteen years later, to mark its 600th. anniversary, Antinori made the headlines again with ‘Cervaro della Sala’, now an iconic white wine.
The family has recently invested in the Bolgheri region which is internationally renowned as a new reference point in world winemaking.
An Oz Dynasties
You won’t find any 600 year old wine families in Australia, but 1877 is still a long way back in Oz history. It was then that Samuel McWilliam planted his first vines at Corowa on the banks of the Murray River in New South Wales. In the process he founded a wine-making dynasty that continues to thrive to-day as a major supplier to world markets and in this country, to Tesco.
Maurice O’Shea was the most famous of McWillman’s wine-makers. Son of John Augustus O’ Shea, an Irish-born wine and spirit merchant and his French-born wife Leontine, he was educated in France and studied viticulture in Montpellier. Described as ‘extremely French’, he reluctantly agreed to work on the family vineyard in the Hunter Valley, which he named ‘Mount Pleasant’. The 1930s depression almost forced him out of business, but he survived by selling half of his land to McWilliams and joining them as a winemaker.An individualist and an innovator, he broke with tradition by using varietal rather than generic names for his own products, calling fine wines after individual vats, vineyards, friends and relations. He wines won many awards and he continued to work at Mount Pleasant up to his death in 1988.
Phil Ryan, his pupil, admirer and successor hosted a vertical tasting of some Mc Williams wines in Dublin. An Australian, he joined McWilliam’s in 1965 at the age of 19. For more than a decade he was employed in the company’s laboratory and quality control areas, based in Pyrmont, Sydney.
In 1978, Phil was appointed Mount Pleasant Winemaker where he worked under the guidance of O’Shea’s successor Brian Walsh until he assumed his current position in 1985. Since that time Phil has been responsible for McWilliam’s range of Mount Pleasant wines, including the flagship Maurice O’Shea Shiraz and Chardonnay, the single vineyard Rosehill Shiraz, Opoh Shiraz and Lovedale Semillon, as well as Elizabeth Semillon, one of the most consistently awarded white wines in Australia.
A few days after Phil’s visit Wines Australia held its annual tasting in Croke Park. The event was smaller than usual this year, partly because fewer producers were seeking distributors and also because of rationalisation among Irish wine importers. The tasting revealed that family values remain strong Down Under with one exhibit staged by the ‘Australian First Family of Wines’, a marketing group formed in 2009 by family-owned wine producers including Brown Brothers, Tyrells, Tahbik, De Bortoli, Wakefield, Howard Park, Henschjke, Jim Barry and d’Arenberg. A tasting of a selection of their wines was conducted by Mitchell Taylor, managing director of Wakefield Wines, which is itself a fine example of an Australian family-owned wine producer.
From its first vintage of cabernet sauvignon in 1973 in South Australia’s Clare Valley, Wakefield Wines (marketed under the Taylors brand in Australia) has remained family owned and managed by the Taylor family. Now the largest single vineyard owner in the Clare Valley with approx 560 hectares under vine, Taylors are at the forefront of the family wine business renaissance in Australia.
From day one, the Wakefield vision has been to build Australia’s most successful family owned wine estate. Today this heritage continues to be nurtured and expanded under the watchful eye of chairman and founder, Bill Taylor, alongside his sons Mitchell Taylor who is also consulting winemaker, and Justin Taylor and Clinton Taylor who have key roles within the family business.
In the vineyard, Wakefield has recently made a large move to Vertical Shoot Positioning to increase exposure and fruit quality, incorporated mulching and experimented extensively with the most pressing of all vineyard issues in Australia – the careful conservation of water. The recently installed irrigation management systems are at the leading edge in managing Australia’s most precious natural resource
Wakefield is also recognised for being the first major Australian wine company to lead the industry and bottle 100% of its wines under screw cap from the 2004 vintage and beyond as a quality assurance initiative.
...AND AN IRISH FAMILY TOO
Many family-owned Irish wine importing businesses have ceased trading or have been assumed into branches of multinational or public companies over the years- think Findlaters, Woodford Bourne, Fitzgeralds and many more, so it was nice to realise at a recent Portfolio Tasting that Gilbeys is now once again in family ownership. The Gleeson Group, which acquired the iconic brand and its associated agencies last year, is one of the most successful Irish beverage manufacturers, importers and distributors.