It’s been said (and sang) that “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” and Salvatore Ferragamo couldn’t agree more. There is no other way to explain how his life path completely shifted from a career in finance to one in hospitality, specifically the ownership and operation of Il Borro — a Tuscan winery, hotel, and restaurant group. And he owes it all to one life-changing bottle of wine.
That wine was Château Haut-Brion, the first Bordeaux vintage to be named after its terroir and the first luxury wine brand to be classified as Premier Grand Cru Classé. It is essentially a palette-changing wine, but for Salvatore — he of the pedigreed Ferragamo fashion family — its complex structure started a storied journey that would lead him from America, where he had been studying at New York University’s Stern School of Business, back to his home country of Italy.
Salvatore, boyishly handsome at 51, remembers this defining moment well. He had been visiting his uncle Massimo, the former proprietor of luxury Tuscan resort Castiglion del Bosco, at his home in Millbrook, New York. After a 1982 Château Haut-Brion was pulled from the depths of his cellars, the rest, as they say, was history. “I thought, This wine is truly unbelievable,” Salvatore recalls now, over Zoom, from his office above the Il Borro winery. “There was an incredible elegance to the wine, with a beautiful balance of tannins. It was a memorable experience, [and one] that made me fall in love with the wine business.”
The million-dollar phrase here is “wine business.” It’s not as if his love of wine was surprising. I mean, he’s an Italian man from a cultured family who was raised to drink wine like water. But a career in this field? Well, that’s a different story. And I am here to tell it.
Salvatore always dared to be different. It was his twin brother, James, who followed in the proverbial footsteps of their grandfather (Salvatore’s namesake) as Ferragamo’s men’s and women’s leather product director, while he himself opted for a career in finance and international business, completing both his undergraduate and graduate degrees at NYU, working in firm sales and as a stock analyst before joining international accounting company KPMG Peat Marwick in Florence.
It wasn’t until his father, Ferruccio, purchased Il Borro from the Duke Amedeo of Savoy-Aosta in 1993 that his best-laid plans began to go awry. Ferruccio needed his help in restoring the nearly 3,000-acre property to its former glory, you see, and Salvatore was powerless to resist. You never go against the family, after all.
“[My father] needed a family member to be hands-on at the property during the very busy time of restoration, of planting new vineyards, of putting the land back to work, and developing its restaurant businesses. And so, I thought, You know, I’d love to be part of this rebirth, the rebirth of Il Borro.”
It was a wise decision, needless to say, because Il Borro is truly a spectacular place. It’s postcard perfect, located 45 minutes south of Florence in the upper Valdarno valley between the mountain ranges of Pratomagno and Chianti, within a small, medieval village pre-dating the 13th century that had passed between various noble families until the Ferragamos became its stewards. Its rolling hills, acres of vineyards, and charming cobblestoned streets are almost fairytale-like.
But because it had been ignored for so long, the renovation was quite a process. Its ancient structures — formerly a castle and stronghold — still bore battle scars from World War II and required the painstaking and patient work of local artisans and craftsmen to make it whole again. Salvatore — along with his sister Vittoria, who manages the gardens as well as special projects for the property — was instrumental in the step-by-step success of Il Borro, protecting its past while simultaneously making it a modern, internationally recognized luxury player in the travel and tourism industry — a five-star, historical estate with modern amenities and its own wine cellar, lauded restaurant, and even an art gallery.
“It is a fantastic achievement, taking Il Borro from what it used to be, to what it is today,” he admits. “Thirty years ago, it was in a state of abandonment, of complete disrepair. We have been able to restore it, transform it, and bring it back to its original beauty, staying very faithful to its authentic soul.”
So, although his twin entered the family business, it is Salvatore who most resembles his namesake — a man who started out small, but who ultimately built himself an empire. (Salvatore the first was a cobbler who came from nothing, while his grandson was born into a wealthy, prestigious family, but you see my point.)
But you were waiting to hear how wine transformed Salvatore’s life, no? So now, the story continues. When he began to bring Il Borro back to life, his wine business epiphany had long come and gone, leaving a lingering, unsated desire for more. And he began to wonder (as any man surrounded by the rolling hills of Chianti would): Could a vineyard work here?
The short answer: yes, it could. The more complex reality is that this desire very nearly didn’t mature to fruition. “When we started [Il Borro], it was with the very simple concept of restoring a few houses in this medieval village. And then I said, ‘You know, we should also produce a little bit of wine.’ But my father was very reluctant at first, and I think rightly so,” he recalls.
Ferruccio’s trepidation was not without reason. “My grandmother [Wanda Ferragamo, who became CEO of the Ferragamo fashion house in 1960 following her husband’s passing] was a fantastic person and had a wonderful farm that we manage today called Viesca, which is just outside of Florence. Viesca used to produce wine. I remember as a young boy, going to collect the grapes and so on. But I have to say, the wine was horrific, really bad. So, when my father started [Il Borro], I told him, ‘It’s the ’90s; everybody’s making wonderful wines from Tuscany. We should make some wines here on the property.’ He said, ‘Well, let’s just make a few acres, because the wines that I remember from childhood were not so good.’ Then he realized that the potential for fantastic wine from this area was great, and today we have 300 acres of vineyards.”
Indeed, Il Borro has been home to the cultivation of Chianti grapes since the early 17th century. It is a sublime location for wine, as Salvatore so smartly realized. And so, with that, new grapes were finally planted in 1997, and by 2003, the very first vintages of Il Borro Toscana were available for purchase. Since that first release, they’ve been a hit, in part because — like Salvatore himself — the brand dares to be different, growing grapes outside of the traditional Tuscan realm of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah, such as sangiovese.