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Food & Wine

The women of Gaja and Antinori

Elliott Burr/town crier

I had been trying for several years to coax a family member of two of the most famous wineries in Italy to do a wine dinner for me at the club I belong to. All of a sudden, I had both of them volunteering for the same week. Two dinners in the same week just wouldn’t work. We changed the format for the Gaja dinner to food stations. For the Antinori visit, we organized a sit-down dinner and separated the events by 10 days.

Until approximately 10 years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find any women at the forefront of an Italian winery. If you viewed CBS’s “60 Minutes” program in October 2008, you would have seen the Antinori sisters, three women who are involved in every aspect of running the winery.

The Antinoris can trace their family winemaking ties back to 1385. California winemaking history began with the advent of the missions in the late 18th century and reappeared with gold miners like Paul Masson and Charles Le Franc, who didn’t find much gold but used their prior skills to start wineries in the late 19th century. Most of those wineries disappeared during Prohibition, so the California story is not yet 80 years old. The Antinori story has unfolded for more than 600 years, with 26 generations of Antinoris making wine in Florence and the surrounding areas.

Approximately 15 percent of family businesses survive to the second generation, so it’s no small feat that the Antinoris have made it to 26. Theirs may be the oldest surviving family business in the world.

The first 25 generations amazingly all produced a male heir. The 26th produced three girls, quite a dilemma for their father, Piero Antinori. His solution was to sell part of the business to a British beer company. This didn’t work out too well and he bought the business back. Albiera, Allegra and Alessia are now more than ready to take over.

We spent an evening with Alessia, who maintains residences in New York, Rome and Florence. It started with a sparkling wine produced solely by the sisters. A Montenisa Brut comprised Chardonnay plus local red varietals. It was not a Prosecco, as it had much more character and was not sweet. The Chardonnay, Cervaro della Sala, included 20 percent Grechetto, an indigenous varietal that added some local flavor to a very opulent glass of wine.

A Cabernet from Antinori’s Napa property accompanied a venison course. Alessia told the story of hiring a local architect to design the winery who returned after a year with a plan for a Tuscan villa. The Antinoris said they already owned five Tuscan villas in Tuscany. They wanted a California design! Another good wine and another good pairing.

The next wines are their flagship wines. Tignanello was a Chianti in 1970, but in 1977 Piero removed all the white varietals in defiance of Chianti Classico’s rules. It was the forerunner of all the “Super Tuscan” wines to eventually emerge from Tuscany. Since 1982 the blend has always been 80 percent Sangeovese, 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 percent Cab Franc.

We had a 2006 that was young and tightly focused, and it cut right through the fat of a lamb shank. Guado al Tasso, another creation of Piero, hails from the Bolgheri area of Tuscany. Big and full-bodied, this Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah blend needed several hours of decanting. It was a perfect match for a charred prime rib eye.

Alessia was a knowledgeable and elegant presenter, and all her wines had a touch of class and elegance. Just the way she wanted them.

The Gaja family has been making wine in the Piedmont area of Italy since 1859. Angelo Gaja is the father of two daughters who are active in the business. We were blessed with the presence of Gaia Gaja, a 30-year-old sophisticated ambassador for the Gaja family. She speaks four languages and knows her products.

Gaja wines command huge prices, and most people who can afford them love them. Northern California had an allocation of 36 bottles of Gaia and Rey (Angelo’s mother) Chardonnay, the best Italian Chardonnay I have ever tasted. It commanded a price of more than $200. A bright and juicy Barbaresco made from 100 percent Nebbiolo was a big hit, and another $200-plus beauty. Barbaresco, the town where the original winery was built, boasts two churches, one restaurant and 100 wineries, according to Gaia.

Ca’Marcanda is a Super Tuscan blend from Bolgheri. Its name translates to “endless hours of negotiations,” in reference to the extreme difficulty Gaja had in the purchase of the property. Magari and Promis, also Super Tuscans, are produced at the same property in Bolgheri and retail for approximately $75. They are among the low-priced Gaja wines, which can range up to $350.

We experienced two great wine nights with two terrific young women who will soon be running two of Italy’s most famous and successful wineries.


Steve Hicks is a wine adviser and consultant who lives in Los Altos Hills. For more information, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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