The flexible Frescobaldis

By Bennett Voyles

An Italian winemaking family enters its eighth century.

Seven hundred years ago, the Frescobaldis began making wine in Tuscany. Over time, their high-quality wines became known in Italy and throughout Europe. They even counted Henry VIII as a customer.

Marquis Leonardo Frescobaldi, current president of the Marchesi de’Frescobaldi Corporation, the family wine business, credits his family’s continued success to a mix of good fortune, education, commitment and a tradition of innovation.

“We were always very much entrepreneurial in everything,” says Frescobaldi, 68, who began working in sales for the company after graduating from the University of Florence in 1964.

The Frescobaldis were also unafraid to diversify. “We were very active in wool, in silk, in finance, and then also of course in agriculture,” he says. Although much of their business remained focused on Tuscany, the Frescobaldis looked globally for customers. They opened branches in France, in England and as far away as China, and acted on opportunities as they emerged. (One of their more unusual trades: a swap with a local artist named Michelangelo, of wine for art.)

The Frescobaldis no longer finance crusades, or handle tax collection for the Pope, but they remain important vintners, whose wines are sold in 86 countries.

Modern growth

Beginning in 1989, the company bought several estates that fit the Frescobaldis’ focus on “ultrapremium” Tuscan wines. The company has also opened wine bars in a Rome airport and, in 2009, a retail center within Harrods, the posh London department store. Under Leonardo Frescobaldi’s direction, it has forged external alliances. A joint venture with Robert Mondavi that began in 1995 ended in 2005, shortly after the Mondavis sold their business to Constellation Brands.

Frescobaldi says the company learned a lot from the venture— Luce, a wine the two family wine merchants marketed jointly, bottled with grapes from a Montelcino estate they had purchased in common. After the sale to Constellation, Frescobaldi bought out Mondavi’s share of the vineyard.

Although large conglomerates now control much of the world’s wine market, the Frescobaldis seem unlikely to follow the trend. “I think the value of having a family behind a company is still very much important, is still very much appreciated,” Frescobaldi says. “It gives to the wine a certain emotion.”

The family’s role

The Frescobaldis seem to have managed a careful balance between familial harmony and professionalism. 

In the past two decades, as the business has grown, the family has gradually brought in more outside management. In 1997, the company hired a full-time managing director; a 2007 reorganization gave managers control in such areas as marketing and sales.

Family members are entitled to a seat on the board, and have the option either to attend meetings themselves or to give their proxy to someone they trust.

Leonardo Frescobaldi says that in his generation, three of the four Frescobaldi children joined the wine business, while the fourth became a wine writer. In his children’s generation, some have joined, too—his nephew is the director of production—but promotion to an executive role is not automatic. “Every leader will become a leader if he has the skills to become a leader,” he says.

Bennett Voyles is a freelance writer based in Paris, France.

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Issue: 
Spring 2011

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