Italian Women Winemakers Add Their Imprint to Family Legacies

GrapevineIn my last two columns, I’ve discussed the role of women in winemaking — specifically in the United States and Western Europe. Selective strides have been made in the last quarter century by women winemakers who have been given the opportunity to ply their trade. In the United States, women have been able to penetrate the wine industry based on their proven skill and talent. However, in Western Europe, women have attained success not necessarily through talent but through the fickle finger of genealogy or marriage.

This week, my focus is on Italian wineries.

The traditional Italian winery patriarch wields autocratic power within an egocentric culture that is typical of old-line, stereotyped Italian males. The current economic plight in Italy has stifled career opportunities by historic proportions.

These factors permeate the ranks of the Italian wine industry, even now in the enlightened 21st century movement of equal rights. Many women have been denied access to the male-dominated positions of responsibility in wineries. Ironically, this discrimination applies equally to women seeking career employment in the industry and to family members in the line of succession at family-owned wineries.

In the face of these obstacles, inroads are being made. Many of today’s women are more highly educated, and in many cases more highly motivated, than their predecessors and male counterparts. And they are proving that women have more sensitive palates than men, thus helping wineries appeal to a broader customer base.

How so?

Italian families have farmed their vineyards for generations. Invariably – almost exclusively – the wines have been imprinted with the stamp of the patriarch of the family. And being male dominated, the wines have invariably been “masculine”: bold, tannic and meant to age for years. However, in the last 25 years, more women consumers have become the primary wine purchasers and their palates and preferences differ from masculine wines, and toward those wines that are more aromatic and structured with greater finesse. Savvy male Italian winemakers are slowly ceding decision-making authority concerning style and balance to women (typically their daughters).

In the face of this slow change and halting diversity, there are prominent Italian women who are at the helms of successful and world-acclaimed family businesses. Here are two examples:

The Marchesi Antinori estate has been a family-owned Tuscan wine business since 1385. Over that span, 26 consecutive generations of males have led the winery to great success. Several years ago, the current family head, 83-year-old Marchese Piero Antinori, was faced with a monumental dilemma: all his offspring were daughters. Three of them – Alessia, Albiera and Allegra.

A woman had never been at the helm of this 636-year-old winery. What to do? Compounding his dilemma, none of his daughters expressed an interest in assuming the reins of the business – even if offered.

Fearful of losing his business, the Marchese reluctantly brought in an outside investor as a partner. This proved to be untenable. Miraculously, the daughters – and their father – had a change of heart. Fast forward to 2021: the outside investor is gone, and all three daughters have executive management roles in the now world-wide business. Family succession is assured in the qualified hands of highly educated, capable and tradition-focused family members – who happen to be women.

The Colombini family began their long tradition of Brunello winemaking in the Tuscan region of Montalcino in 1592. In the 1960s, the reins to their Fattoria dei Barbi were assumed by the first female heir, Francesca Cinelli Columbini, a historic first. However, when choosing between her son and daughter to be her successor, Stefano was given the reins. Daughter Donatella eventually left to assume the reins of her eponymous winery. Now, nearly a quarter century later, her wines are renowned for marrying tradition with new technology. She has achieved world prominence with a singular focus: all of the winemakers are female. They in turn have designed an award-winning Colombini Brunello. Next in line? Donatella’s daughter, Violante.

Next week, the French wineries.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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