Located amongst the rolling hills of Tuscany lies Montalcino, home to one of Italy’s most renowned wines, Brunello Di Montalcino. Made exclusively from the Sangiovese grape, this wine was awarded the first-ever DOCG designation (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin) in 1980. It is the highest designation given under Italian wine law.
With a history that dates back to the Etruscans, winemaking has always been part of the culture here, including a male-dominated industry burdened by discrimination and habit. However, female winery owners and winemakers have taken Montalcino by storm and transformed and turned the tides to make a place for women in the wine industry. Let me introduce you to three of these dynamic and revolutionary women of Brunello Di Montalcino, who I had the opportunity to chat with recently.
Donatella Cinelli Colombini
With an estate and family history of winemaking dating back to the 16th century, owner Donatella Colombini created Casato Prime Donne in 1998. It is the first winery in Italy with an all-female staff, borne out of the desire and need to reduce discrimination and show that “muscle” is not the only ingredient required to produce wine.
What circumstances led you to create an all-female staff?
Donatella: To be truthful, it happened by chance. I am the descendant of a historic family of Brunello producers. My vineyards are on land that my ancestors began cultivating over 400 years ago. In 1998 I left the family estate to create a new project that included two properties that needed renovation: Casato in Montalcino and Fattoria del Colle in southern Chianti. To help me, my mother gave me some wine in a barrel to begin my own production of Brunello. I needed a cellar master to take care of my wines, so I called the nearest oenology school and asked for the name of a good student. They told me that they were all booked. When I called back and asked for a female student, the reply was, “We have many, as none of the good wineries want them.” I realized that discrimination was so widespread that it had become “normal,” so I decided to change the situation. From this incident came the idea of creating the “Prime Donne” Project and becoming the first winery in Italy to be staffed only by women. It demonstrates that the production of fine wines does not require muscles, just talent, and intelligence. Now we have three female winemakers, and we export to 39 nations around the world. The wine critics’ ratings are excellent, and sales are going very well. In the beginning, it was difficult, but we did it. Part of the Prime Donne project is also the Brunello Prime Donne chosen by a panel of four female wine tasters, the Prime Donne award (given to women who change the female model), and a hiking trail with quotes from the winners.
You are a pioneer and inspiration to women. If you could tell the future generations of women winemakers one thing, what would it be?
Donatella: I would tell them to have more courage and to learn something new every day of their life. Women are much better than they think they are, but they must have more faith in their talent. Often women renounce because they are scared of not succeeding. They renounce so they can dedicate time to the family. But this is a mistake; they will be better professionals, mothers, and wives if they accept the challenges life puts in their way. If they do not even try, then they have already lost. In the same way, it is wrong to search for professional success at any cost. “Those who go alone walk more quickly, but those who walk with others go much further,” says an old proverb to which I would like to add a phrase: Those who help others go forward will never be alone and will have given meaning to their life.
Giovanna comes from a long line of winemakers with family roots that go back to 1850 when the family estate Tenuta di Sesta was founded. At that time, the family was immersed in cultivating grapes, olives, and grain. It wasn’t until 1966 that Giuseppe Ciacci bottled the estate’s first Brunello di Montalcino. In 1994 the original estate was divided among family members. Giovanna took her share of land and in 1995 created Tenuta di Collosorbo. Today, she and both of her daughters run the 30-hectare winery. Giovanna manages the general administration. Her daughter Laura works as both an oenologist and a viticulturist. Her other daughter Lucia is the agronomist and also responsible for marketing.
Tell me about Tenuta di Collosorbo.
Giovanna: Tenuta di Collosorbo comes from one of the oldest estates of Montalcino, owned by our family since 1850. After the death of Giuseppe Ciacci, his sons decided to split the estate. It was 1995, and I gave a new name to the estate, Tenuta di Collosorbo. I have always been focused on elegance, quality, and traditions. In 2008 my daughters Laura and Lucia started working full time at the estate, making it one of the first female estates in Montalcino.
Many children that grow up in a family business tend to go off and do their “own thing”. Did your daughters always know that they wanted to be part of the family business?
Giovanna: Laura and Lucia grew up surrounded by the taste and smell of the wine. When they were young, before university, they were torn between their roots, estate, passion, and family, and their desire to do something different with their powers. Lucia thought of becoming a doctor, and Laura wanted to become a veterinarian. But in the end, their passion for the estate, their roots, countryside, and wine won. And both of them decided to study for it.
What challenges do you and your daughters face as women in this industry?
Giovanna: The wine business has been mainly a male world until 15 years ago. In the beginning, it wasn’t easy to demonstrate our competence and our power, both inside and outside of the estate. But now, after 26 years, we are really proud of our job and of the teamwork that we have created inside Collosorbo.
Col Di Lamo is an exclusive, all-female organic winery owned by Giovanna and her daughter, Diletta. It was founded in 1994 after her daughter was born. The estate covers an area of approximately 80 hectares. Giovanna inherited her passion for wine and winemaking skills from her father, who passed away in 1991. However, she took a detour before returning to her roots. Giovanna considers her wines “her creations” (children) and continually spreads her love and respect for the land and her products. It is a small production winery of quality and refinement.
What inspired and motivated you to make this an all-female winery?
Giovanna: For me, it was a natural process. My company is my creation, which I wanted for myself, and for which I fought a lot in a world that was still very male chauvinist, especially the wine industry. I think I had to prove triple, compared to others, to make it clear that a woman, completely alone and starting from scratch, could create wines of the highest quality. When I tell my story, I always say that I consider my company another daughter of mine. I gave it a name; I dedicated all the commitment, love, and dedication I have to it, as with my daughter Diletta.
Where did you do your training to become a winemaker?
Giovanna: I graduated with honors in law and had embarked on a career as a lawyer. I felt, however, that this work, although gratifying, was not my way. So at the age of 40, I decided to drastically change my life and have a part of the family business (it’s not so obvious if you are a woman). So, without any particular skills and the help of anyone, I threw myself body and soul into this fantastic adventure. There have been very difficult times. The beginnings were really hard, I only had men around me, and no one believed I could do it. Luckily they are the same ones who now hold me in esteem.
What is Diletta’s role in the company?
Giovanna: Diletta helps me in communication. I believe that a young vision is essential in a world that runs more and more on the Internet, especially social networks.
Tell me about some of your challenges with winemaking and the industry.
Giovanna: I strongly believe in wine and organic products in general. I was among the first to choose this type of cultivation in Montalcino, not without criticism. But I am convinced that it is the future. I feel like a guest in this land, and I have chosen to do this job precisely because I love the planet, and I want to respect and enhance it as much as possible, even for future generations.
All of these amazing women are members of Il Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, founded in 1967. Its mission is to safeguard its product and accentuate the best qualities of Brunello wines. It is a free association comprised of 203 producers representing small and large wineries, including 22 producers outside the Consorzio. As part of Il Consorzio’s initiative, Finally Brunello will be taking place in New York from June 14th through June 20th. It is an excellent opportunity to taste Brunello wine from 56 wineries paired with food from 38 participating restaurants presenting a prix fixe menu. To learn more about this event, visit https://www.finallybrunello.com/
In the coming weeks, I will be sharing and reviewing several Brunello wines.
A note about the Feature Photo: The work of art depicted in this photo is called Points of View and is on the hiking trail of the Prime Donne connected to Casato Prime Donne Award.