Uncorked: Strong Stock Produces Fine Vintners, Too

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Food Critic
Published June 9, 2004

A rare and vanishing breed was sighted in Florida during a brief appearance on the North American continent last month.

Latin for the genus is Primum Familiae Vini, but you’d recognize the species: Rothschild, Mondavi, Antinori, Drouhin, Hugel, Torres and so on.

The PFV is a tiny exclusive club that includes 11 famous family wineries, and if such well-known brands can’t be called endangered, they can be classified at risk. Occasionally one suffers from internal family strife, like the sibling rivalry of the Mondavis. All face a difficult environment.

Which is one reason they banded together as PFV a decade ago. They meet twice a year, a private session at a member’s estate, the other a brief charity tour where they host the grandest of winemaker dinners with the owners and their wines.

When they arrived at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota last month for one of this year’s dinners, PFV showed off vintages old and new, of wine and winemakers, to raise funds for Grapes for Humanity.

If the emphasis was on the young, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild of Ch. Mouton Rothschild, now near 70 and anything but retiring in voice or jewelry, served as grande dame and Auntie Mame.

Half the families, even those that date back 500 years, sent 30-something scions, who now have serious roles in the business. They exchange market and vineyard news, but they’re young enough to pile into a convertible to hit Lido Beach or trade tips on Euroshopping for shoes. The group’s current president is a freckled young marchesa from the 26th generation of winemaking Antinoris, Alessia, 28.

(Sister Marcia Mondavi represented her family now that brothers Tim and Michael have split.)

Despite their fame they all worry. Rothschild was typically frank.

“The competition is ferocious and the New World wines are very good,” she said.

As the Rothschilds and other families have vineyards in the United States and Chile, “New World” often means Australia, whose good, inexpensive wines have made it a world power in less than 20 years. No Australian family is a member of PFV.

Corporations of all nationalities control more and more of the wine market and mass production has created a class of international blandness.

Ideally, family wineries, great and small, are closely tied to the terroir of home estates and traditions built over generations. “They can make fake silk now and fake cotton, you know with computers, but no one can make fake wine, at least I haven’t heard about it. It takes the human hand,” Rothschild says.

Or in the words of young Antinori: “The difference Italy can make is we have so many different varieties. (Elsewhere) there seems to be a standardization; it’s all cabernet, merlot and chardonnay. They need to have some differences, some new varieties. Italy can give this.”

The survival of these families hinges as much on on their adaptability as their grand old names, and that too may run in the family.

Piero Antinori was among the first to challenge old Italian wine laws with the Chianti-like Tignanello that started super Tuscans 30 years ago. Today Antinori has vineyards in California, Washington, Chile, Hungary, Malta and expanded plantings in Umbria and southern Italy. Daughter Alessia has added a new premium olive oil to the portfolio.

The Miguel Torres’ main vineyards are in Catalonia but daughter Miramar has her own brand in Sonoma.

Joseph Drouhin makes wines in Burgundy and the Willamette Valley of Washington (“Oregon soil, French soul,” says Laurent Drouhin) and Vega-Sicilia of Spain has a tokay winery in Hungary.

The baroness, too, is proud to point out, “My father thought we ought to have a more democratic wine,” which produced Mouton Cadet after a weak vintage in the 1930s. They still produce it, as well as generic varietals from the south of France and grand partnerships, such as Opus One with Mondavi. At home, she warns Bordeaux must be vigilant about quality.

But the newest generations do have something to work with, treasured vineyards, patience and long experience on the land, something every vintner in PFV could appreciate when they opened a sleek bottle of Egon Muller Scharzhof Riesling, 1959.

The best things last.

Chris Sherman, who writes about food and wine for the St. Petersburg Times, is the author of “The Buzz on Wine” Lebhar-Friedman Books, $16.95. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

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