Prima donna

  • Wednesday 1 May 2002

Italy's wine world is losing its male-dominated image as a new generation of women enter the family business. MICHELE SHAH picks out seven successes.

Italy is a land of great tradition, a country where many roles are still played out according to conventional customs and belief. Over the last 10 years, however, the wine world has evolved, opening its doors to a new generation of young women winemakers. It has been difficult selecting only seven, but those included are representative of the many women working with wine throughout the wine-growing regions of Italy. Ten to 15 years ago it was still a rare sight to see a woman pruning or 'supervising' the technical aspects of winemaking. Today a number of young, talented and passionate women specialising in oenology, viticulture and agronomy help to make up the new generation of women winemakers in their 20s and 30s. These women divide their time between the winery and promoting their wines, jumping on and off planes, dashing from one continent to the next, from trade fair to trade fair, marketing their wine in an expanding and competitive market.

This new generation of winemakers descends from well-established wineries. They were born into wine production. This is representative of Italy, a country which up until 50 years ago was deeply rooted in agriculture and where land and property is passed down from generation to generation. None has yet started their own wineries, but this perhaps will be an initiative of the next generation of women in Italian wine.

Gaetana Jacono

An explosive mixture of passion, pride and a keen sense of challenge encouraged Gaetana Jacono to assert herself as a woman winemaker in Sicily, where tradition is still deeply rooted. Jacono took over her family winery in 1990, at the age of 23. In just over 10 years she has 'revolutionised' this small, agricultural property, which previously sold most of its wine locally to a modern commercial winery, and is now gaining global acclaim.

Valle Dell'Acate, in the province of Ragusa, has 85ha (hectares) of vines and produces some 192,000 bottles. Jacono is responsible for communications and marketing around the world. Although her father is in charge of production, she helps assemble new wines, tasting, and deciding where the company is going and what they should be producing and marketing. 'Our terroir has distinct characteristics, so our strategy has been to produce wines that reflect the nature of the land – using local varietals such as Inzolia, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Frappato and a pure Nero D'Avola.' With a degree in pharmacology, Jacono worked for two years as a researcher for Boehringer Mannheim in Milan. When she decided to re-establish Valle Dell'Acate she 'learned that it's best to let things develop at their own pace'. Having replanted an initial 30ha, she plans to replant the remaining 55 over the next five years. 'Sicily is a land of powerful contrasts,' she says, 'of contradictions and strong women who until recently had almost no status in public. My challenge is to make a wine that expresses female sensuality and my terroir.'

Emilia Nardi

Emilia Nardi was born into a large, traditional Italian family, the youngest of eight. Her family's origins are Tuscan and deeply rooted in agriculture, in particular the mechanical side of the industry. On finishing school she had a choice – either join the family business producing agricultural machinery or the family winery in Montalcino. She opted for wine, developed a passion for it and has never regretted her choice.'I began by making out the farmers' pay packets. I knew little about how wine was made, so it was all a bit daunting.' In 1984, aged 20, when she joined forces with her father at the main estate, Casale del Bosco in Montalcino, she was inspired by a love for the land, the vines and a passion for Sangiovese. Today she is a professional, competent winemaker and promoter of her inherited business, which includes two other estates, Manachiara and Castello di Bibbiano in the neighbouring town of Buonconvento. 'When I started I had little leeway. We had a total of 58ha and produced wine in large quantities. Our production was around 300,000 bottles. Today we have expanded the vineyards to a maximum of 80ha though, due to constant replanting, only 30 are in production. Our present production is around 180,000 bottles.' When Nardi became managing director in 1992 she embarked on a long-term replanting project, calling in external consultants such as Yves Glories from Bordeaux, and cataloguing every vine, carrying out a clonal selection on the Brunello Sangiovese variety. 'I realised we needed long-term projects and long-term investments. I had to get my head around the fact that what was important was the long-term success of the winery.'

Raffaella Bologna

It's no wonder Raffaella Bologna's father, Giacomo, was inspired to name his lively Barbera after his bubbly, vivacious daughter, calling it 'La Monella' – a mischievous little girl. Giacomo, a legend in Piemonte, was responsible for the renaissance of Barbera, a wine considered unworthy. In 1982 'Bricco dell'Uccellone', an intense, elegant Barbera, was an innovation. Today Barbera is among Piemonte's top wines.'I was born in 1969 and at my baptism, my father insisted that my lips be wet with wine – with Barbera, of course. He said it would bring me good luck,' says Bologna, who grew up helping out in the family winery, Braida, at Rocchetta Tanaro in the province of Asti. After completing her studies at Alba's School of Oenology she did a brief stage at a winery in Friuli and then headed to the US to study at the University of California at Davis. Unfortunately just as she was about to begin her studies there she got news of her father's critical health and returned home to take over the winery. Her father died when she was 20, and she and her younger brother Beppe, also an oenologist, found themselves running Braida.

Today Braida is a 30ha winery, with a modern approach to winemaking. It buys in 30% of its grapes and turns out an average of 500,000 bottles per year. Barbera is its prime trademark, but the range includes other traditional wines of the area, such as Dolcetto, Grignolino, Moscato and Brachetto. Her most recent project is a 13ha vineyard, from which a new cru, Barbera 'Montebruna', will be launched this September. But Bologna's bubbly personality is Braida's best promotion.

Nadia Zenato

If a day were made up of 100 hours, Nadia Zenato would still be dashing around. She's dynamic, down to earth and has worked hard to get where she is today. Just turned 30, she is responsible for the communication and sales of Zenato's four estates, with a total production of one million bottles per year. Zenato's estates are all in northeastern Veneto and comprise a total of 90ha, producing Amarone, Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico and Ripassa. Zenato was born into the wine business. Inspired by her father, Sergio, she began representing the family business and marketing Zenato's wines at international trade fairs at the age of 20. At the same time she studied law at university and graduated with a dissertation in viticultural legislation. 'I wanted to know more about EU wine and viticultural legislation. My thesis was an in-depth study of the appellation areas of Italy. I feel we are still behind in this sense and need to redesign the appellation legislation and above all develop a proper viticultural register on a national level, which will cover all areas of production.'

Zenato does her share of grape picking and barrel tastings, and has a keen sense of judgement when it comes to marketing strategies. 'It's not always easy being a woman in the wine world. One has to prove oneself and be emphatic about ideas and decisions.'

Alessia Antinori

Tall, slim and blue eyed, Alessia Antinori, 26, the youngest daughter of Piero Antinori, personifies her family history of centuries of winemaking. Today Marchesi Antinori owns 1,600ha of vines spread over 13 Italian estates, in addition to wineries in Hungary, in Napa Valley and a joint venture in Washington State. 'It was my decision to study oenology and viticulture. Of course I was influenced by my father. As a child he took me to visit our vineyards and wineries in Tuscany. When I finished school and said I was thinking of studying art, he said fine, but what about wine?' Antinori is lively, dynamic and carries herself with relaxed self-confidence. At 17, before embarking on her degree in oenology and viticulture at Milan University, she spent a few months in London working at Fortnum & Mason's wine department, doing a wine course and a brief stage at Christie's.

She entered the family business in 1998, where she concentrated on the technical, experimental and innovative aspects. She is keen to take on new challenges. One of these is 'Novizio', the making and marketing of freshly pressed, frozen olive oil. Franciacorta, the newly acquired 60ha property in northern Italy's sparkling wine country, is Alessia's latest occupation. 'This is my first independent wine project for which I will be totally responsible.' Her enthusiasm is palpable: 'Franciacorta is a world apart. The grapes are still hand picked at harvest. It's a very expressive terroir and a great challenge to vinify a sparkling wine.'

Francesca Planeta

Planeta, one of Italy's youngest and most innovative producers, is considered Sicily's leading winery. Francesca Planeta, together with her father Diego, has built up the company, step by step, starting in 1995, at Sambuca in western Sicily with 45ha of vines. Newly married and just turned 30, Planeta has a Masters in marketing communications and two years' experience as product manager for Nestlé Italia. Today she manages the marketing and communications side of the business. Over the past six years it has expanded rapidly to include properties in Menfi, Noto and Cerasuolo di Vittoria in Sicily, totalling some 300ha of vines and a production of 1.1 million bottles. Planeta is passionate about Sicily's native vines, such as Nero D'Avola, Frappato, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, and the almost extinct Moscato from Noto. 'Sicily isn't an easy country to work in. Its people are very traditional and don't take easily to changes. We are considered one of the most innovative wineries in the trade – when we started our Chardonnay project everyone was against it, then they all copied us. The same happened with the Nero d'Avola project.' She believes in experimentation. A recent project involves the microvinification of national varietals grown outside Sicily, such as Fiano, Sagrantino, Teroldego, Canonao, Vermentino and Aglianico.Planeta spends half the year travelling the globe marketing her wines, but whenever she can she likes to chill out in the country with a book, a good glass of wine, her dog and of course her husband.

Chiara Lungarotti

Chiara's childhood memories are of scurrying around Lungarotti's wine cellars on her bicycle, winding her way between the workers' legs and generally making a menace of herself. 'The winery was my world. This is where I grew up. Some of my most precious memories are of being hoisted on to my father's knees as he drove the tractor though the vineyards.' Inspired by her father's love of the land, and following her oenologist sister Teresa, Lungarotti studied agriculture at Perugia University, completing her thesis in viticulture in 1998.'Initially both my sister and I had to prove ourselves as winemakers. My father was a conservative and rather prejudiced. It took him time to accept that both his daughters were worthy winemakers.' Teresa had paved the way. 'It's not easy explaining to the winery workers, some who have been here for years that a “young girl” is going to change things. We encountered a lot of resistance when we started cutting back on quantities – they thought we'd gone crazy.'

After the death of her father in 1999, Lungarotti at 31 is managing director of the family winery. This turns out 2.5 million bottles per year. Plus its olive groves produce 15,000 litres of olive oil. Since 1992 she has worked in most sectors of the winery, from harvesting to bottling. Her true passion is the vineyards, experimenting with new clones and overseeing the nursery.

Michèle Shah is a freelance writer, living in Italy.

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