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Women break through the oak ceiling of a male-dominated field


By Frank Cipparone
If it’s true that wine, women and song go together, then Italy’s wine industry is singing a new tune in a country where change comes slowly if at all. For years women were welcomed as long as they stayed in the background in marketing or management. The hands-on job of making wine was hands-off. Custom dictated that a woman’s only place in the vineyard was at harvest time.
Thirty years ago, Elisabetta Tognana organized “Le Donne di Vino” to challenge ingrained prejudices and stereotypes regarding the ability of women to guide grapes from the vine to the bottle. The raised eyebrows and bemused condescension of the wine establishment were hurdles to overcome. Acceptance has been sporadic, but gains can be measured by the success of women across Italy. As the following profiles attest, women are breaking through the oak ceiling of a male dominated field.
When Viviana Malafarina, an outsider from Genoa, arrived in Barile she was the spark that Basilicata’s wine culture needed. A self-taught winemaker, she transformed and modernized the operation at the Basilisco winery near Monte Vulture in order to make Aglianico that was fresher and more refined. She was also the first to source all her grapes from a single vineyard of 100-year old vines.
Following a legend is never easy, especially if your father was Bartolo Mascarello, the dean of Piemonte who died in 2005. Not only did Maria Teresa Mascarello take on the challenge, she never skipped a beat. As her father had done, she bucked the “modern” trend in Barolo by blending Nebbiolo from different vineyards, using time tested methods of long fermentation without temperature control and extended barrel aging. With no website or marketing of any kind, she turns out 15,000 bottles a year that would make her father proud.
A city girl from Rome without previous training or experience, Stella di Campalto has run Podere San Giuseppe on her own since 1992. She makes only two wines, Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino, which have become sought after for their lack of pretense and bare bones winemaking. The first certified biodynamic producer in Montalcino, she releases wine when she feels it’s ready, usually later than most Brunello wineries.
Elisa Semino is the fifth generation of her family in Piemonte’s Colli Tortonesi, and the first woman to make wine. Almost 30 years ago she and four other winemakers revived Timorasso, a forgotten local grape that is somewhat like Chardonnay. At the La Colombera winery, the “Queen of Tinorasso” also makes Croatina, Cortese and a rare local called Nibio.
For Arriana Occhipinti the key to wine is to accept what nature gives and respect it. The self-avowed “nature’s child” has become the face of a new generation of Sicilian winemakers. She founded her winery near Ragusa in 2004 a 22, starting with two acres of abandoned vines attached to a family house. Her passion for the land is reflected in her organic methods and belief that “a natural wine is a human wine.”
Though she would probably be reluctant to be deemed the superstar of Italy’s wine resurgence, Elisabetta Foradori’s accomplishments speak for her. She took over the family winery at 19 with a commitment to raise the stature of Teroldego, Trentino’s primary red grape. Over the next 30 years she replanted her vineyards in the Dolomite Mountains and turned to more traditional methods, including aging in clay amphoras. Thanks to her, a native grape has gained new found respect and commercial appeal.
Angela Velenosi from Abruzzo adopted Ascoli Piceno in southern Marche as her home. Since starting her estate in 1984 at 20 she has risen to become president of Consorzio Vini Piceni and extended her operation into Abruzzo by purchasing vineyards near Contraguerra. Her line of wine, including local varieties like Passerina and Pecorino, is exported to 50 countries.
Marina Cvetic began her love affair with wine by helping out in her grandfather’s vineyards in Croatia when she was 7. Moving to Abruzzo, she married winemaker Gianni Masciarello and took over the entire operation of the winery in 2008. Setting a goal of changing the long-standing negative perception of Abruzzese wine, annual production has increased from a couple thousand bottles to over a million.
I had the chance to meet Francesca Curto at her family’s Tenuta Sulla in Sicily. Well attuned to her evolving role as a woman in a patriarchal society, she told me that “… for women if my generation it has become easier, a little. When I started, I was not certain that my ideas would be accepted. Now maybe I am seen as a winemaker, not just some woman who makes wine.” And one who makes the best Nero d’Avola around.

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