Small is Big


How an Italian espresso heir changed a piece of Montalcino

Francesco Illy has done many things for love.

In Montalcino, his muses have been art, wine and a woman.

Illy, 62, is the eldest son of the third generation of Italy's high-end espresso clan. A professional photographer, he is also considered the family's eccentric artista.

In 1987, he was shooting the interior of the New York Italian restaurant Palio, known for its stunning murals painted by Italian artist Sandro Chia. "I fell in love with Sandro's art," says Illy, his blue eyes shining brightly, not looking the part of an Italian industrial scion in his rumpled red wool jacket, scraggly white beard and ponytail.

Illy befriended Chia, who invited him to stay at his highly regarded wine estate, Castello Romitorio, near Montalcino.

Illy fell for the landscape and began thinking of buying his own place. He found it 10 years later when Chia's winemaker, Carlo Vittori, called about a farm being sold by a retiring shepherd.

In 1998, Illy bought Podere Le Ripi—130 acres that include forests, olive groves and loam, clay and limestone slopes ideal for vineyards. With a long appreciation of wine benchmarks such as Gaja, Giuseppe Mascarello and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti to inspire him, he started planting two years later, about 5 acres of Sangiovese at first. In 2003, he began producing a Brunello di Montalcino called Lupi e Sirene.

All might have gone smoothly from there, but Illy developed another obsession: plant the full blog here at