Albiera Antinori is head of the centuries-old Italian vintner of the same name. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, she speaks of the flood of cheap wine, new buying habits in China and the populist government in Rome.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Antinori, you were once called “Prince Charles of the Wine World” because you were only 50 when you become president of Antinori and took over the management of the estate from your father.
Antinori: That was an unfortunate comment that a German business magazine came up with and actually not even true. In family businesses like ours, succession is like a relay race, una staffetta: you run together for a while until the baton is handed over. It is a natural switch over. We didn’t have an abrupt transition. There was no, “Now I am the boss here” moment.
DER SPIEGEL: In the 633 years the company has existed, you are the first woman at the top. Is that a special feeling?
Antinori: I never really had to face the issue of being a woman, because I was in the fortunate position of not having brothers. My father only had the choice: Handing it over to a woman or to no one from our family. The bigger issue for me was that I joined the company at a very young age, without a university degree. Girls don’t need such a thing, it was said at the time. I had to learn a lot of things the hard way. Today, that would no longer be possible. The business is far too complex for that.
DER SPIEGEL: Antinori is one of the oldest family businesses in the world and, with an annual turnover of around 200 million euros, one of the largest wine producers in Europe. But the wine business is becoming increasingly global and competitive. Does your 633-year tradition count for anything anymore?
Antinori: The market does not take tradition into consideration, that’s true. Today great wines are produced everywhere and marketed aggressively, especially overseas. Twenty years ago, it was enough to simply produce another Cabernet or Chardonnay. Today, that’s not going to get us anywhere. Producing wines in Italy will always be more expensive than, for example, in Chile or South Africa. Our wines must therefore be unique, they must stand out. And telling the story behind our wine is becoming more and more important.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Antinori: People know a lot about wine today. They look on their smartphone to see how much rain has fallen here on April 3 and on which parcel of land. But this knowledge remains etherical. Wine is a sensual product, and there is a growing number of people who want to feel how we make wine. Therefore, in 2012, after 628 years, we as a family decided to open up to the public. We built this house especially for that purpose.
DER SPIEGEL: Italians themselves are drinking less and less wine. Italy’s per capita consumption has decreased by 30 percent third since 1990. What has happened?
Antinori: Wine has gone from being a source of nourishment to a source of pleasure. In the past, farmers in the fields always had a bottle of wine with them for lunch, that helped keep them going. Fifty years ago, wine was a natural part of Italian food. But who drinks wine for lunch today? We all pay such close attention to our caloric intake.
DER SPIEGEL: The Vatican has the second highest per capita consumption in the world. Does the Pope also buy from Antinori?
Antinori: Yes, we have been supplying the Vatican for a few centuries. They enjoy good food and good wines.
DER SPIEGEL: Antinori sells wines that cost between 7 and 20 euros per bottle in the supermarket, but also has premium wines on offer, like Tignanello or Solaia for 100 to 300 euros per bottle. What is more profitable: mass or class?
Antinori: Individually, the more expensive wines are of course more profitable. But the truth is: In order to produce top wines, you also need wines that can be brought to market faster and for which you can use the grapes that are not suitable for the top wines but still make great wines. If you ask me, of course I would rather produce more great wines. But there is nothing shameful of producing wines like Santa Cristina for 7 euros a bottle.
DER SPIEGEL: In Germany, meanwhile, the average price for a liter of wine is 2.92 euros. Is that something that makes you shudder?
Antinori: Price plays a major role in Germany, and in Great Britain as well. But that’s not shameful. I regularly go to the supermarket and buy what’s on the shelf. And I am often surprised by the quality. That’s what drives us to make an effort.
DER SPIEGEL: But there seems to be a limit below which you don’t want to go. Your wine, for example, isn’t sold at the discounters, even though half of all wines in Germany are sold there — and sometimes even more expensive wines.
Antinori: That’s not the place for a bottle of Antinori. Every producer has to decide where they want to see their wines, and there is enough space for everyone.
DER SPIEGEL: Compared to the top wines from the Bordelais region, even your most expensive wines are still a bargain. Older vintages from that region can cost well over 1,000 euros per bottle. Is that because of quality or marketing?
Antinori: The quality is excellent, but the French have always been very good at marketing. In Italy, the wines get a little more expensive every year, but there are no such price swings. And that’s a good thing: Italian wines are drunk, not collected, which is healthy. Otherwise, the same bottles wander around the world and nobody enjoys them.
DER SPIEGEL: The Chinese upper classes, in particular, have long preferred the extremely expensive Bordeaux wines. What does the growing
Chinese middle-class drink?
Antinori: China is like every culture that approaches a new product. In the beginning, it is a status symbol for which individuals spend a lot of money. Ultimately, though, it becomes interesting to have a choice and the desire to try out new things grows. This was the case in the U.S. and I am optimistic that this will also happen in China.
DER SPIEGEL: It’s not already happening?
Antinori: No. China has a strong food culture of its own. In the U.S., this was not the case, which helped Italian cuisine become popular very quickly, Italian wines along with it. That was easy. In China, it will take longer.
DER SPIEGEL: Two years ago, then-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi invited the founder of the Chinese internet platform Alibaba, Jack Ma, to the Vinitaly wine fair in Verona. Ma tried to convince producers like you to sell their wines to China via Alibaba. The response was rather limited. Why?
Antinori: These platforms are like a major supermarket shelf, only more confusing because you can’t even see the bottles physically. There is no point in being present there as long as you are not known as a brand in China and as long as Italy is not recognized as a quality producer in China. The blame for the latter actually falls on Italy itself. We are incredibly complicated.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you mean?
Antinori: We spend 20 years fervently debating where exactly the boundary of an appellation lies, whether it is a few kilometers further in one direction or the other. And then I go to China to present our wines and say Italy. People still nod there, okay. Then I say Tuscany and it is already starting to get difficult. Then, when I come with the appellation, like Chianti Classico, comprehension stops completely. No one understands that. Our fight about a few kilometers is pointless, but that’s just how we are.
DER SPIEGEL: The year 2017 was a bad one for wine producers. Worldwide production fell for a variety of reasons, including strong heat, extreme frost and torrential rainfall. Will global warming change your business in the long term?
Antinori: Climate is something that people in agriculture have always depended on. They know that there are good years and bad years; that, too, is part of the fun.But the climate is really changing, not so much on average, but in the extremes. If it rains, it pulls down half a hill. If it is hot, it is boiling hot and dry for weeks. That’s still manageable, and as temperatures are rising somewhat overall, we can also grow vines in locations that were not perfect in the past, such as northeast slopes and higher altitudes. Our friends in Austria, Germany and Great Britain are happy about this.
DER SPIEGEL: But how do you adjust to the increasingly extreme weather conditions?
Antinori: Water management is the most important issue. When it rains, you have to collect water. You have to stagger vines to prevent the water from rushing through and sweeping the soil away. We have to build drainages and ensure that we have reservoirs in which to store water for the hot weeks. Water is like gold again. We have all lost sight of that in the past 40 years, because it was kind of taken for granted.
DER SPIEGEL: The Antinori family is not just an institution in the wine world, but it is also one of the oldest dynasties in Italy and is undoubtedly part of the establishment. The new government in Rome, meanwhile, has attracted voters with aggressive anti-establishment rhetoric — with Interior Minister Matteo Salvini leading the way. Do you feel personally attacked?
Antinori: Well, Tuscany is traditionally rather left-wing politically, so we have become used to such an approach.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you think of the current government?
Antinori: That’s a delicate question. Let me put it this way: After not even six months, it is difficult to assess this government because nothing has really been done apart from a lot of noise and screaming. But it goes without saying: This noise is worrisome. And what worries me most is that there seems to be a real witch hunt underway.
DER SPIEGEL: You’re alluding to the accusations that began flying around following the collapse of the highway bridge in Genoa eight weeks ago.
Antinori: When something happens, it is always the fault of others: of the EU, of the Benetton family. That leads us nowhere. Italy finally needs to move on with a government that says where it is going in the future. People are tired of complicated bureaucracy, of money being spent in vain. It is dangerous to keep on pouring oil on this fire. But Italy is not the only place this is happening at the moment.
DER SPIEGEL: The government is at odds with the European Commission because it wants to incur too much debt. It’s promises could add up to a budget deficit of up to 100 billion euros. Italy is still struggling under a huge sovereign debt load amassed since the 1980s.
Antinori: It seems impossible to me for the government to proceed down that road. I hope it won’t because they are going to take the money from companies, by way of taxes. Where else would it come from?
DER SPIEGEL: On the short term, though, you could benefit from a planned 15 or 20 percent flat tax. That would probably be far less than you are currently paying.
Antinori: No, these plans are going to be modified, as they should be. What was announced as a blessing for everyone will only benefit very few. The same applies, on the other hand, to the pledge to cut the “golden” pensions of parliamentarians. This is not so easy to do and will only work for a few of them. But the decisive question is the basic income …
DER SPIEGEL : … comparable to Germany’s Hartz IV benefits for the unemployed.
Antinori: That’s how the Five Star movement got its votes in southern Italy. In a normal country, it makes sense for the state to take care of people who can’t find a job. That’s how it works in places like Switzerland and Germany. But the Italian administration is so desolate that it could hardly be implemented.
DER SPIEGEL: If you think that most of the plans won’t be implemented anyway, that could be kind of reassuring, couldn’t it?
Antinori: What really bothers me is that the political opposition has practically disappeared. Neither the conservatives nor the left have anyone who seriously opposes this government. Where are they? It may be tactics to say, let them shout. But we now need people who stand up and say: Stop, you can’t do this.
DER SPIEGEL: The government blames Italy’s economic problems above all on the EU’s strict budget rules, making necessary investments that could trigger growth impossible.
Antinori: Italy without Europe is lost! Leaving the EU is not an option. The government is thus playing with fire. It is easy to say it’s the EU’s fault, but that’s like us saying: It’s raining, it’s the government’s fault. It’s good for Italy to have the EU as a bigger brother who says: You spend too much money. Of course, some rules are difficult, and you have to talk about necessary investments. But first Italy has to cut spending, which is out of control. There are fewer and fewer public servants, everything goes slowly. I really don’t know where the money is going.
DER SPIEGEL: As a business leader, do you speak up on political issues to make sure that your voice is heard in Rome?
Antinori: As a wine industry, we have our associations to do so.
DER SPIEGEL: And you personally?
Antinori: Not really. As a family, we have always largely stayed away from politics: Do your own thing, take care of your soil, everything else is dangerous.
DER SPIEGEL: Was that your father’s advice?
Antinori: My father’s, grandfather’s, great-grandfather’s. The governments change so quickly in Italy that there is no point in interfering politically.
DER SPIEGEL: How often do you ask your father for advice?
Antinori: It is not a question of asking for advice. We decide a lot together. He’s 80 years old now, and the only difference from before is that he’s in the office less often.
DER SPIEGEL: Will your children also join the company?
Antinori: My daughter studied agriculture in Milan. She is now doing her master’s degree and worked for a year at a winery in California. My son studied economics and marketing, and spent three years with Pernod Ricard in Australia. So at least there’s a chance that both of them will want to work with us.
DER SPIEGEL: What would you have said if the two had preferred to become artists or doctors?
Antinori: If you have a passion, you have to follow it. Wanting to be a doctor is a mission. Whatever you do, you should do it with devotion. Entering a family business is a wonderful option, but it can’t just be seen as a seat to heat. It’s more than just work, it’s a duty to keep something for the next generation and hand it over in better condition.
DER SPIEGEL: When did you get to drink wine for the first time in your life?
Antinori: Oh, that wasn’t an issue for us. When we were five or six years old, we children were given a small schnapps glass with wine and some water in it on Sundays. We were brought up with wine. Later, there was always a bottle on the table and everyone was allowed to drink from it. Again: Wine is for drinking, to give pleasure and joy.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Antinori, thank you very much for this interview.