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Top 10 women in Italian wine

The days of Italian wine being a man’s world with women in the background doing the paperwork are now fading as many daughters take over the reins. Tom Bruce-Gardyne meets 10 women making a difference.

CHIARA LUNGAROTTI – Cantina Giorgio Lungarotti (Umbria)

If Chiara Lungarotti had dreams of doing something else in life they didn’t last long, for as she says: “My father (Giorgio Lungarotti) was so smart, he made me love this kind of life since I was a little kid.” In 1979 her elder sister Teresa left to study agronomy in Bordeaux where she was taught by Denis Dubourdieu, and a few years later Chiara followed suit, studying viticulture at Perugia University.

“I started working in the different fields of our estate – the vineyards, the cellar, the hotel… I wanted to understand everything,” she says. It was just as well, for when her father died in 1999 she became CEO. “I was one of the very few women and always the youngest, so I just listened and learnt a lot.”

Dubourdieu, who describes her as “a dear friend”, was invited to help replant the family’s vineyards in Torgiano. “I wanted our Rubesco wine to be a great expression of Umbria and to reflect our personality,” Chiara explains. She says she only really began to see the results of the replanting in 2005. Five years earlier she expanded Lungarotti, but not into Sicily or Puglia like so many rivals. “I strongly believe our wines have to be an expression of the territory they’re from, and our territory is Umbria,” she says, “ so I bought a small estate in Montefalco called Turrita.”

SILVIA FRANCO – Nino Franco Spumanti (Veneto)

After school Silvia Franco was never quite sure whether to join Nino Franco, the Prosecco business in Valdobbiadene founded by her great grandfather in 1919. Having dithered over studying winemaking or business, she decided to study interior design in Milan and worked there for a year, before the lure of the family firm pulled her home in 2006. Eight years on she recognises the importance of this brief taste of life on the outside, and wonders whether it should have been longer. “Having experiences outside your own business is a really good thing, and you bring them with you when you start,” she says.

She focussed on sales, but says; “I’ve always followed my father in all the different aspects of the company.” It was Primo Franco who really built the brand beyond the Veneto, with exports now accounting for 65% of the 1.1 million bottles sold. According to his daughter he is no rush to retire. “I don’t think he could ever stay at home doing nothing.”

Gradually she is taking over the reins, and though her business card just says her name, Silvia describes herself as “more like the CEO, even though the presence of my father in the company is still very important”.

FRANCESCA PLANETA – Planeta (Sicily)

“How did I manage with a father like that?” laughs Francesca Planeta, when asked about the early days of Planeta before it became a Sicilian power-brand. Luckily her father, Diego Planeta, “was incredibly open-minded compared to his contemporaries.” She says: “He married an Englishwoman and brought us up differently.”

After college in the UK, Francesca joined a big food company in Milan, while her cousin Alessio Planeta was starting to help her father turn the family farm from grapes and citrus fruit into a modern wine business.

In 1995 Francesca returned to Sicily for a holiday at the start of the harvest. “I remember the first Chardonnay grapes arriving and thinking – I can do something for my island. This is a great challenge.”

She quit her job in Milan and decided to join her father, Alessio and cousin, Santi, to build Planeta. “The great thing for me was that I was creating something together with my father,” she explains. “We were partners in this project – it was no longer ‘father Francesca Planeta and daughter.’”

Looking back, she is full of admiration for her old man. “He was really great and wanted our generation to lead with him in the background.” At one stage Diego admitted to her, “I think I’ve reached my goal now that people ask, ‘Are you the father of Francesca?’”

DARIA GAROFOLI – Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli (Marche)

Vini Garofoli is the oldest producer in the Marche, making Verdicchio and supplying UK supermarket giant Tesco with its own-label version for a near, record-breaking 25 years. Its secret weapon is Daria Garofoli who remained behind the scenes for 33 years as a full- time mum, English teacher and wife to chairman Gianfranco Garofoli. “When I retired in 2001, I asked him if I could have something to do,” she explains.
“He offered me two afternoons a week and said, ‘Don’t imagine, you’ll become export manager because you’ve got to stay here with me!’”

The irrepressible Daria Garofoli force of nature Daria had other plans. Within three months Daria Garofoli had flown the nest to promote the company’s wines abroad, averaging 100 days a year on the road. At the same time she nurtured her son, Gianluca (33) to eventually take over as export manager. She says he shares a similar personality and she now feels safe with him handling big projects on his own. Meanwhile, Gianfranco Garofoli prefers to stay at home where he is also president of the Verdicchio producers association. This is probably just as well for beyond the Marche, Gianfranco might simply be known as: “husband of the more famous Daria”.

GAIA GAJA – Gaja (Piedmont)

“I don’t have a title on my business card, so it’s difficult to explain. I do everything,” says Gaia Gaja, daughter of Angelo Gaja – Italy’s cult wine superstar, or “the mad man of Barbaresco” as Jancis Robinson MW once called him.

“My father is 84, but he’s not stepping back, thank God,” says Gaia who joined the business ten years ago. “He’s very Gaia Gaja wise and understands that all the decisions we take are my decisions because they won’t affect the wines for five or six years.” With her winemaking younger sister, Roseanna, she’ll tell him what they’re going to do. “Sometimes he’s not so happy, but he always says ‘OK, do it’.”

It was the sense of family that inspired Gaia at first, the passion for the wines came later. “The thing I love is to think that what I’m doing is not only my passion,” she explains, “but it was the project of my father and the dream of my grandfather. Hopefully, in another 30 years, it will continue within the family.”

She says the aim is to continue making the best wines in Barbaresco, and try and do the same in Montalcino and Bolgheri. If and when that goal is reached, then maybe another region will be given the Gaja treatment. “But it will always be in Italy,” says Gaia emphatically.

JOSÉ RALLO – Donnafugata (Sicily)

Before the name was immortalised by Lampedusa in The Leopard, Donnafugata was the Bourbon Queen who fled Naples for Sicily to escape Napoleon’s troops. Loosely translated as “woman on the run”, José Rallo of the eponymous Sicilian wine sees it differently. “For me it’s a woman looking forward who wants to escape and change.” In her eyes that defines her mother Gabriella, a teacher married to a wine dynasty from Marsala, who inherited an estate of her own and abruptly quit her job. “I saw my mother change and become a real entrepreneur,” says José, who was 11 at the time. Ten years later her parents launched Donnafugata together.

Fleeing Sicily to study economics before working for a US management consultant, José spent quite a few years “on the run” before falling in love with a Sicilian. This dragged her home and in 1990 she asked her father if she could join in. He was delighted, but made her start at the bottom to test her commitment. She describes him as “the world’s biggest feminist”, and yet “a very rational man” who can only be won over through reasoned debate. Today José and her winemaking brother Antonio are effectively in charge though her parents are still heavily involved. José also does a lot to promote Sicilian culture through art and music.

ELENA MARTUSCIELLO – Il Grotta del Sole (Campania)

Le Donne del Vino (women in wine) has been a remarkable success story of banding together for the common good – not something that comes naturally to most Italian men, especially in the wine business. Elena Martusciello of fourth generation family producer Il Grotta del Sole in Campania joined soon after the association was formed in 1988. In 2009 she was elected national president of a body that now represents 650 women working in every aspect from winemaking and management to restaurants and journalism.

“Before we were alone with everyone doing their own thing, now we have a collective voice to promote and explain our wines,” she says.

Elena married into the trade in 1965 and says, “I quickly fell in love with the world of wine which is the central point of the family.” She started out in admin and went on to establish a second winery in the 1990s with her two sons, before taking over Il Grotta del Sole when her husband died in 2001. Today she acts as an honorary chairwoman having overseen the transition to the next generation with her son Francesco now CEO.

SABRINA TEDESCHI – Az. Agricola Fratelli Tedeschi (Veneto)

Every day 81-year-old Lorenzo Tedeschi still opens and closes the family winery in Valpolicella according to his daughter Sabrina who works with elder sister Antonietta and younger brother Riccardo. The three effectively run the business with their father in the background, happy to give advice. The Tedeschi family has been involved in wine since 1630, but it was Lorenzo who took the business beyond the Veneto in the 1960s. Today exports account for 85% of the 500,000 bottle production.

“All of us played in the winery and smelt the fermentation when we were children, and my father always talked to us about the business – he shared everything,” says Sabrina who entered the firm in 2000. Having trained as a food technologist and taught winemaking for ten years, she claims there was never any pressure to join Tedeschi.

Today she looks after marketing and shares exports with Riccardo, the winemaker, while Antonietta takes care of finance and domestic sales. “With the next generation there will be seven – five of them women – so the future’s feminine,” she says with a grin, before adding quickly: “What makes the difference is not male or female, but passion.”

CRISTINA MARIANI- MAY – Castello Banfi (Tuscany)

“The inspiration for my family’s business came from Teolinda Banfi,” says Cristina Mariani- May, who sees her great aunt as a true female pioneer who made it to Vatican as head of Pope Pius XI’s household. “She’s buried there, and when you see the photo on her tombstone, you’ll see why she was the first woman to live among thousands of celibate men. She was by no means a looker!”

However Teolinda passed on her wine knowledge to the nephew she looked after before he returned to New York to establish Banfi. In 1978 the firm used its fortune from Lambrusco Riunite to buy the Poggio alle Mura estate (Castello Banfi) in Montalcino. Despite alarming rumours that the Americans were bulldozing Brunello to plant the 7,000 acre estate, Cristina doesn’t remember any controversy. She was just seven at the time.

Today she’s joint CEO with her cousin James, and looks after Castello Banfi while he takes care of US distribution and key suppliers like Riunite and Concha y Toro. “Though, with just two of us at the helm, we’re involved in everything,” says Cristina who joined Banfi in 1993.

“Knowing that I was the daughter of the owner, and having only ever studied liberal arts, I wasn’t ever going to feel secure, so I did a business degree.” As for her father, Cristina says: “I don’t think he expected a lot of me,” which she feels was a definite blessing. Had she been a son faced with higher expectations and the need to prove himself, it might have been a good deal tougher.

MARILISSA ALLEGRINI – Allegrini Estates (Veneto)

The Allegrini family may have been involved in Valpolicella since the 16th century, but with two brothers heading that way, the young Marilisa Allegrini wasn’t really interested. “As a teenager I wanted to do something else, so I studied to be a physiotherapist, and worked in hospitality. But at one point, when I was 26, I felt the family’s really important, and in the long-term a family business is much more exciting.”

Her father was thrilled. “Like any father, I was the smartest, most beautiful girl in the world, and he wanted me to join the business.”

They spent only a few years together before his premature death in 1983, but it was enough for her to grasp his vision for Allegrini. “When he died, we realised we need to sell so I started travelling everywhere,” says Marilisa.

Her father had been quite protective about her jetting off alone and felt there was no need to hit the road. “If people want to buy, let them come here,” Allegrini once told her. Luckily his daughter, now president and CEO, realised the importance of sales of marketing.

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