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Under the Tuscan son: Lamberto Frescobaldi on balancing tradition with innovation

Lamberto Frescobaldi opens the cellar door on 700 years of noble Italian family business at Marchesi Frescobaldi. James Beech hears how he sustains the ancient winemaker with shrewd acquisitions, partnerships and innovations

The 30th generation winemaker Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi was raised on the stories of his eminent ancestors who have produced wine in Tuscany since the beginning of the 14th century. They were explorers, musicians, scholars, bankers and politicians, trading with European courts and supplying wine to royalty and the papacy, as the family archive reveals in documents dating back to the 1200s.

Yet the story that resonated the most, his favourite tale about his namesake from childhood, speaks to his approach as the principal of the huge $230 million winemaking family business operating across seven beautiful estates.

Lamberto Frescobaldi’s Medieval namesake built the bridge between the family’s land and Florence“Our ancestor, Lamberto Frescobaldi, built in 1252 a bridge over the Arno River to connect his lands to the centre of the town of Florence,” he says. “The bridge now is called Ponte Santa Trinita [St Trinity Bridge].

The family still lives in the later 16th century palace located on the square which bears the family name. It speaks to his commitment to building enduring foundations for sustainable prosperity. As the 52-year-old president of Marchesi Frescobaldi, he is responsible for all the agriculture and wine products, as well as the development of the company, including acquisitions.

Don’t sit on what you received, create more than what you are given,” Lamberto Frescobaldi says.

“Be responsible for the capital and set goals. Don’t act impulsively.” His sense of careful stewardship has borne fruit on the vine in more ways than one.

The various companies in the group produced 11 million bottles of wine in 2017, sold in 90 countries around the world. The most significant international markets for Marchesi Frescobaldi are Italy, the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Japan and the Asian market in general.

Florence, Ponte Santa Trinita (St Trinity Bridge)

In 2017, the group turned over €205 million, an increase of 4% compared to 2016 from all its activities, including wine sales, restoration, retail and agricultural products. It was a growing trend over the previous decade, which saw group turnover increase 65%, from €58 million in 2004.

Wine sales in Italy grew by 8%, credited to the domestic market’s increasing interest in quality wines and the strength of the group’s brands.

The business grew internationally by 2% overall. Europe proved notably healthy, with an overall business growth of 15% led by Germany and Switzerland. Canadian business continued to grow by 13%, while Asian sales grew by 7%, with China accounting for 56% of that growth—indicating it will soon be the region’s most important market.

The United States, however, saw turnover drop by 10%, due to a change of importers after a long collaboration in the market.

“The world is looking for quality wine and that is what we need to deliver,” Lamberto Frescobaldi says. “[China and India are] difficult markets, I need to do more!” 

Lamberto Frescobaldi admires the views of the vineyards across Castello Nipozzano

Planting the seeds

In 1950, the previous Marchese Lamberto Frescobaldi and his son Marchese Vittorio, today honorary president of the family business, set about modernising the agricultural techniques and winemaking practices of the principal family estates, particularly at Castello Nipozzano, Castello Pomino and Tenuta Castiglioni.

Castello NipozzanoVittorio Frescobaldi expanded in the 1960s, encouraging vinicultural specialisation at new vineyards planted in suitable soils. Soon, more than 500ha of vineyards were planted on the family estates surrounding Florence. In the early 1960s, Vittorio’s brother, Piero Frescobaldi, began to lay the foundations of a modern distribution network in Italy and abroad. After Piero’s early death in 1964, his younger brothers carried on his work: Ferdinando focusing on the Italian market and Leonardo on the international business.

Lamberto Frescobaldi, son of Vittorio, says he always knew he wanted to deal in agribusiness since he was aged 13 and has no regrets today. “I began very early at the age of eight to work in the vineyards during the summer. Before it was a game, then after finishing agriculture studies at university, I began working on the project of planting new vineyards. That was my first job, and even now after so many years what I love the most is planting a new vineyard.”

Lamberto Frescobaldi visits the family’s vineyard on the prison island of Gorgona

Today, Frescobaldi is president of the operating company that manages the business with a holding company above. His management style is one where “delegation is essential—if not, you don’t have time to imagine how to develop the company.”

The expansion ethos instigated by the father is also held by the son. The acquisition of Tenuta CastelGiocondo in Montalcino in 1989 is considered an important milestone in the development of the business. It was followed in 1995 by a partnership with the Californian Robert Mondavi business to create the Luce della Vite estate, which the group took full control of in 2016. Frescobaldi studied agricultural science and management over four years at the University of California at Davis. He was the natural liaison between his clan and the Mondavis when the two families coinvested in vineyards in Tuscany’s Maremma. More partnerships followed, exposing Lamberto to alternative methods of viticulture which would influence the traditional practices back home in Tuscany.

Lamberto succeeded his uncle Leonardo Frescobaldi as president of Marchesi Frescobaldi, the family holding company, in 2013. In 2017, the group acquired Tenuta Perano at public auction. The acquisition marked the official entry of the group into the Chianti Classico market.  

The Ristorante Frescobaldi restaurant in London was inaugurated in 2015 as the result of a joint venture between Marchesi Frescobaldi and the Good Food Society. “I believe that the future of our family company is to expand into new wine areas that can strengthen us,” Frescobaldi says.

“Thus, acquiring new vineyard estates gives me a clear vision of the future. We usually invest with our own equity, but I don’t have prejudices. We invest in [the commodities] what I know the best; agriculture and agribusiness in general. It is natural that some of your investment will not perform. The take back is to concentrate on what you know the best.”

But how should family businesses balance tradition and innovation? “There is no tradition without innovation,” he replies. “Innovation is the essence of life. Often people are scared of innovation, but it is the only way to give a future for a family in a business. The way to achieve is with good preparation of the future generations to come.”

The family was working sustainably before sustainability became a family business cornerstone. “We all need to be responsible for the environment. My goal is to leave a better place that what I received.”

Famiglia Frescobaldi

Harvesting the fruit

That notion of custodianship extends to philanthropic endeavours. Marchesi Frescobaldi partnered with the prison authorities on the Island of Gorgona, Italy’s Alcatraz, since 1869. The 70 inmates serving the end of their sentences on the island are paid the same union rate as at other Frescobaldi wineries to harvest grapes and work in the winery on the island. While they are forbidden from imbibing, they learn new skills, regain their dignity and can support their families.  

The group was the only winery to reply to the prison’s call for a sponsor in prisoner rehabilitation in 2012. “I believe it is a great project and the impact on all of us in Frescobaldi is very positive,” he says. “I hope it can go on for many years to come.”

In 1991, Frescobaldi married Eleonora, the daughter of Florentine industrialists. He has warned his three university and school-aged children Vittorio, Leonia and Carlo, they must get a masters’ degree and four years’ experience before they can ask to join the family business. Such is the rule for everyone in the latest generation.

He does not see a problem with engaging the next generation of his family to get involved in the business. However, he is keen to impart the “complexity and anxiety of how you run a family business” to the next generation as part of the eventual transfer.

The successors should be “culturally prepared, know the business deeply, be ready to have the business be more important that any of your needs.” What does Lamberto Frescobaldi want his own legacy to be? “I would like to be recalled as one who has given structure, stability and growth at the family business.” Building a bridge, one might say.



 

Frescobaldi family members active in the Company

ESTATE OF PLAY

The Marchesi Frescobaldi Group is owned entirely by five Frescobaldi brothers and their descendants: 

The late Dino’s heirs, Vittorio, Maria, Ferdinando and Leonardo, plus Vittorio’s wife Bona Marchi. “We are five with me involved, but many more that have a stake,” Lamberto says. “We need to be transparent and determined to make the business be healthy.” Compagnia de’ Frescobaldi SpA is a holding company that owns 100% of Marchesi Frescobaldi, the group that manages: 

Six agricultural estates and their production (Castello Pomino, Castello Nipozzano, Tenuta Perano, Tenuta Castiglioni, Tenuta CastelGiocondo, Tenuta Ammiraglia and Remole) 

The Attems estate in Collio, the only estate outside of Tuscany  

The Ristorante Frescobaldi Firenze company that deals with food services 

A sub-holding, Tenute di Toscana, controls Ornellaia e Masseto, Luce della vite, and Tenute di Toscana Distribuzione

 

Editor's note: Interview conducted before the coronavirus outbreak.


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