Food & Drink
Wine, women, & wisdom in Tuscany
Donatella Cinelli Colombini comes from a family that has been in the winemaking business in the hills of Montalcino, in Tuscany, for more than four centuries.
“My mother Francesca was a very respected winemaker and the manager of the family estate,” Cinelli Colombini says. “She was known for her talent in making an excellent Brunello di Montalcino and for keeping the quality of the wines produced at the family estate very high.”
The fact that her mother was a woman managing the family estate was unusual, but because she was an only child, there was no son to take over the estate when her parents wanted to retire. For Cinelli Colombini, the situation was different. Her decision to start a winery with an all-female staff was born as much out of her frustration as her pedigree.
“My brother was given the family estate when my mother wanted to retire,” she says. “At that time production was around 300,000 bottles a year. I received vineyards, some farmhouses in need of repair, and a quantity of Brunello di Montalcino. I decided then and there that I was going to leave my family, and the estate, and I was going to create my own project. I was determined to make it to the top with my own wine.”
In 1998 she started two wineries, Casato Prime Donne in Montalcino and Fattoria del Colle in Trequanda.
Starting the project was difficult. “The main structure dated from 1592 and was in ruins,” she says. “I needed money for restoration of the buildings, I had to rebuild and replant everything, and I had to start up the business. I had no staff, but what I did have was an ambition, and I knew I needed a high-calibre team to get there.”
She sold off part of the property to raise money and borrowed as much as the banks would give her. Then she got down to work.
Since she hadn’t studied the science of winemaking, and therefore was not an oenologist, Cinelli Colombini contacted the oenology school in nearby Siena to see if any graduating students had the talent and the interest to help her start her wineries from scratch. She had received a significant quantity of Brunello di Montalcino from the family estate, and she needed a cellar master who could monitor its barrel aging.
‘The gender discrimation was so normal and widespread that nobody even reacted’
“All the schools I called said that most of the best male students already had job offers and that I should have contacted them much earlier,” Cinelli Colombini says.
“However, I was told that there were many female cellar masters available. None of the important wineries had wanted to hire them. Suddenly, a whole new situation presented itself to me because I had so many talented women to choose from.
“Again and again I was told that making wine was men’s work and too difficult for women to do,” Cinelli Colombini remembers. “The gender discrimination was so normal and widespread that nobody even reacted. And that’s why I decided to have an all-female staff.”
Because she wanted to show other Italian wineries that it was not just illegal but also a waste of potential to continue discriminatory hiring practices, Cinelli Colombini decided to challenge another area of the industry, this time focusing on wine tasting.
The Prime Donne Project was born.
“At the time, around 1998, all the Italian wine guides used only male tasters, even though women were – and still are – the largest consumers of wine in many places around the world,” she explains.
In answer to the predominantly male wine tasters found in the Italian guides, Cinelli Colombini selected a panel of four women representing different countries to choose a 1993 Brunello that was just for women. They selected a traditional-style Brunello, which had been aged only in large barrels. Since then, the four tasters meet twice a year to select a traditional Brunello, which then becomes the Prime Donne.
“I started the Prime Donne project as a way to show that women’s tastes and preferences are important for the wine industry,” she says. “I also wanted to prove to everybody that you need brains, not muscles, to make good wines.
“Tuscany is such a traditional place. Telling people you are making a Brunello di Montalcino for women is the equivalent of saying you are blending a special lipstick just for men.”
But her determination has paid off. In 2003 Cinelli Colombini won the “Oscar” for Best Italian Producer from the Italian Association of Sommeliers, and in 2012 she won the coveted Premio Internazionale Vinitaly. She was also recently awarded the title of Cavaliere al Merito della Repubblica, an order of merit of the Italian republic, for her professional contributions to winemaking.
Seeing the problems that women encounter in the wine industry firsthand has been the catalyst for Cinelli Colombini to become involved in Tuscany’s branch of the Women of Wine Association, where she offers women in the wine industry networking opportunities. Today the national association has 600 members.
“Thirty percent of all the people working with wine in this region are women, but the number of female managers is very low and the number of female oenologists is even lower,” she says. “It is difficult for women to manage important estates with important wines if we aren’t given the opportunities.
“My project with my estate is working well,” Cinelli Colombini says. “We have won recognition for our work, and we will produce around 150,000 bottles in 2015. I am so happy that my daughter Violante is working alongside me. One day it will be her turn to show the world what she can do with this estate.”
Text: Tsemaye Opubor
Published: February 24, 2015
Last edited: March 17, 2015