The world's first all-fe­male win­ery is win­ning awards in a male-dom­i­nated in­dus­try, while Old World pro­duc­ers strug­gle to rein­vent them­selves.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY SO­PHIE KALKREUTH

The world’s first all-fe­male win­ery is mak­ing waves while Old World pro­duc­ers strug­gle to rein­vent them­selves

T us­cany is known pri­mar­ily for things that don’t change: sweep­ing am­ber hills, charm­ing medieval vil­lages and the rus­tic flavours of san­giovese grapes. But de­spite its pic­turesque scenery and cul­tural her­itage, in­clud­ing a tra­di­tion of arts pa­tron­age that stretches back to the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance, the re­gion isn’t rest­ing on its lau­rels, es­pe­cially when it comes to wine­mak­ing. Grape grow­ers from Chi­anti to Mon­tal­cino con­tinue to in­no­vate and chal­lenge in­dus­try stan­dards.

March­esi Anti­nori, Italy’s largest wine pro­ducer, re­de­fined the scale and func­tion of the mod­ern wine cel­lar when the com­pany built a mu­seum-like head­quar­ters in 2013. The sculp­tural, corten-steel

build­ing, lo­cated just south of Florence, houses of­fices and wine-pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties as well as a 200-seat au­di­to­rium, a rooftop gar­den and an arts pro­gramme. In the medieval town of Castello di Ama, one of Chi­anti’s top-rated winer­ies fea­tures site-spe­cific art works from con­tem­po­rary masters like Lee Ufan, Louise Bour­gois and Anish Kapoor scat­tered through­out the his­toric stone build­ings, oak bar­rels and bloom­ing gar­dens.

Wine­mak­ers in the re­gion are also think­ing about sus­tain­abil­ity. Salcheto Win­ery, which over­looks the pic­turesque town of Mon­telpul­ciano, is Europe’s first off-the-grid vine­yard and serves as a com­pelling ex­am­ple of how fu­ture vine­yards might op­er­ate.

Then, there is the gen­der chal­lenge. Donatella Cinelli Colom­bini, who is based in Mon­tal­cino, be­came some­thing of a vine­yard rev­o­lu­tion­ary when she opened Il Casato Prime Donne – Italy’s first win­ery run solely by women. “I was brought up among vines and bar­rels in my par­ent’s win­ery and I al­ways dreamed of mak­ing great wine,” says Cinelli Colom­bini, who sports a sil­ver bob, stylish spec­ta­cles and a no-non­sense at­ti­tude. In 1998, she started out on her own.

Cinelli Colom­bini’s an­ces­tors have owned land in the Mon­tal­cino area since the 16th cen­tury and her fam­ily was one of the first to cul­ti­vate and sell Brunello di Mon­tal­cino, the prized lo­cal wine known for its rich red color and tones of to­bacco and un­der­brush. In the late 1990s, when her par­ents re­tired from man­ag­ing the sprawl­ing coun­try es­tate, they gave the bulk of the land to her brother. How­ever, 16 hectares – wild and un­planted, with the ru­ins of a 15th cen­tury struc­ture and a few bar­rels of Brunello – went to Cinelli Colom­bini.

Brunello re­quires con­stant at­ten­tion, Cinelli Colom­bini says, so the first thing she needed was to hire a cel­lar mas­ter. For this she con­tacted Siena’s oenol­ogy school, but she was told that no cel­lar masters were cur­rently avail­able. “The an­swer I got was: You must book cel­lar masters years be­fore,” she re­calls. She was sur­prised – and wor­ried. The Brunello was im­por­tant and she couldn’t move for­ward with­out a cel­lar mas­ter. So she called back a few days later, this time re­for­mu­lat­ing her ques­tion. “I called back say­ing, ‘But have you got a good fe­male cel­lar mas­ter?’ This time the an­swer was yes.”

Plenty of skilled women were avail­able, the school ex­plained, be­cause lead­ing winer­ies didn’t want to hire them. “I dis­cov­ered dis­crim­i­na­tion that was so old and wide­spread that it had be­come nor­mal and in­vis­i­ble,” Cinelli Colom­bini says.

Wine­mak­ing has been a tra­di­tion­ally male oc­cu­pa­tion through­out its 8,000-year his­tory (Just read the Bi­ble and you’ll find suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence, says Cinelli Colom­bini). In Italy to­day, women who work in grape grow­ing or wine­mak­ing com­prise about 28 per cent


of to­tal em­ploy­ees, but very few suc­ceed in reach­ing lead­er­ship po­si­tions.

There are ex­cep­tions of course, pri­mar­ily at large fam­ily-run winer­ies. Alessia Anti­nori along with her sis­ters, Al­biera and Al­le­gra, for ex­am­ple, are the heirs to March­esi Anti­nori and cur­rently com­prise its first fe­male man­age­ment team. For the last 25 gen­er­a­tions, since its found­ing in 1385, the own­er­ship of the Tus­can win­ery has passed smoothly from fa­ther to son.

But it would be a stretch to char­ac­terise the ap­point­ment as re­flec­tive of a fun­da­men­tal shift in at­ti­tude about women and wine­mak­ing. Piero Anti­nori was con­fronted with a chal­lenge his an­ces­tors never faced: there were no sons to carry on the fam­ily busi­ness.

Women’s pro­fes­sional ad­vances have been slower in Italy and other south­ern Euro­pean coun­tries com­pared with places like the UK or the US, but Cinelli Colom­bini be­lieves the gen­der im­bal­ance con­tin­ues to cut across na­tional bor­ders. “It’s not just Italy,” she says. “This is what it’s like all over the world.”

Fol­low­ing her call to the oenol­ogy school, Cinelli Colom­bini was de­ter­mined to do some­thing to demon­strate that the pro­duc­tion of great wines “has no gen­der”. She started by rip­ping up the weeds and wild growth and plant­ing vines her­self – mostly san­giovese, but also the long-for­got­ten Sienese va­ri­etal foglia tonda. Then she hired a fe­male wine­maker. At first peo­ple were shocked. “And then we started win­ning award af­ter award,” she says.

Casato Prime Donne is lo­cated about 25 miles south of Siena and to­day has 18 hectares of San­giovese vine­yards pro­duc­ing rosso and Brunello di Mon­tal­cino wines. The vine­yard rolls along the sur­round­ing hills, while tast­ings take place in a build­ing sur­rounded by tanks of fer­ment­ing grapes. In the up­stairs room, vis­i­tors can sit and take in the Tus­can coun­try­side.

The win­ery is one of 210 pro­duc­ers in the Con­sor­tium of the Brunello of Mon­tal­cino and ad­heres to strict con­trols, which af­ford them the qual­ity DOC and DOCG la­bels. Crit­ics con­sis­tently rate the wines favourably. Wine Spec­ta­tor gave the Brunello Prime Donne 2010 vin­tage a score of 96, not­ing aro­mas and flavours of cherry, raspberry and plum ac­cented by liquorice and to­bacco with a bal­anced fin­ish.

Fat­to­ria del Colle, Cinelli Colom­bini’s se­cond vine­yard, is lo­cated be­tween Chi­anti and the Or­cia DOC and in­cludes 17 hectares of vine­yard and six olive groves. Among the va­ri­eties grown here are the re­vived foglia tonda as well as Chi­anti and dessert wines made with traminer grapes.

Cinelli Colom­bini’s all-fe­male staff cul­ti­vates wine largely by hand, and by us­ing an or­ganic and bio­dy­namic regime that is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar among Tus­can grape grow­ers. Some pro­duc­ers claim bio­dy­namic wines have bet­ter ex­pres­sions of ter­roir. For Cinelli Colom­bini the rea­son­ing is sim­ple: you get bet­ter grapes. “I be­lieve in re­spect­ing na­ture,” she says. “The wine pro­ducer must lis­ten to the vine­yard and un­der­stand its ne­ces­si­ties ... fine wines are born from the vine­yard, it is na­ture that makes them.”

Re­cently Cinelli Colom­bini has also taken the all-fe­male con­cept a step fur­ther, pro­duc­ing the Prime Donne se­lec­tion, which is cho­sen each year by a tast­ing panel of four women. She has also es­tab­lished an an­nual prize recog­nis­ing fe­male achieve­ment – the “Casato Prime Donne” In­ter­na­tional Award.

But sup­port­ing the role of women in wine­mak­ing is only one of many chal­lenges Cinelli Colom­bini faces run­ning her vine­yards. These days, cli­mate re­al­i­ties are adding fur­ther lay­ers of com­plex­ity.

A year of low fruit pro­duc­tion due to weather or dis­ease of the vine may re­sult in hav­ing to re­place some or all of the vines, and the bad years are be­com­ing more fre­quent. Ac­cord­ing to a report from

De­can­ter mag­a­zine, wine grow­ers used to write off one year in ten to bad weather such as frost, hail or drought. To­day, grow­ers must bud­get for two or even three years a decade to be lean.

When I vis­ited Tus­cany in July, it hadn’t rained in over two months and the earth was so dry it was crack­ing open. Heat waves con­tin­ued through the sum­mer and the Tus­can sun was so hot that it burned the oak leaves. “We hope the rain comes,” Cinelli Colom­bini told me at the end of Au­gust. “Part of the grapes have been ru­ined by the sun. It is go­ing to be a scarce and early har­vest.”

On the one hand, Cinelli Colom­bini says the in­crease in tem­per­a­ture has al­lowed winer­ies like hers to grow per­fectly ripe grapes ev­ery year – this was not the case 30 years ago. But an in­crease in droughts and vi­o­lent storms is wreak­ing havoc on the vol­ume and qual­ity of wines pro­duced. Wine pro­duc­tion in 2016 slumped to its low­est level in two decades, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Vine and Wine. Some wine­mak­ers find that warmer tem­per­a­tures are caus­ing grapes to ripen ear­lier, which changes their sugar and acid lev­els, lead­ing to lower-qual­ity wines with higher al­co­hol con­tent.

But Cinelli Colom­bini con­tin­ues to take chang­ing head­winds in stride. In ad­di­tion to mak­ing wine, she has tapped into the growth of agritourism – a trend in which peo­ple stay in farm­houses and ranches – by open­ing up the stone farm­houses to tourists ea­ger to ex­pe­ri­ence the vine­yard lifestyle first hand. Fat­to­ria del Colle now has a restau­rant, a cook­ing school and a well­ness area of­fer­ing vinother­apy treat­ments. There are also swim­ming pools, ten­nis courts and nearby hik­ing trails.

Run­ning a win­ery is stress­ful, Donatella says, but also in­spir­ing, and she en­cour­ages young women in­ter­ested in wine-mak­ing to be in­dus­tri­ous, to ob­serve their col­leagues and above all, to lis­ten. “This is why it is so im­por­tant to sur­round your­self with smart peo­ple who are not afraid to tell their opin­ion,” she says. “The ‘yes man’ leads to dis­as­ter.”


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