Why you should care
Because feminism might now be available in a bottle.
Tradition tends to die hard, especially in the deep south. And we’re not talking North Carolina. For centuries, Sicily has been a land where men have ruled in every field. Young ladies, even noble ones, knew only two stages of life: that of daughter and then of wife.
In the wine industry, it’s no different. All the historically famous vineyards — from Duca di Salaparuta to Cusumano and Barone di Villagrande — have been run by men. Apparently, being a baroness doesn’t help. “I’m not even allowed to be called a baroness; only the family males can,” says baroness Chiara Planeta, whose family dates back to the 16th-century Spanish invasion of the island-region. Her title, unlike that of her brothers and cousins, she says, is nothing more than a scrap of paper. “I did have a little baron boyfriend once,” she adds.
But today a new type of aristocracy flows in Planeta’s veins: that of wine. She’s part of a growing group of young and determined winemaker ladies emerging from the growing Italian wine industry — worth 9.4 billion euros, it has grown 6.5% in the past three years, according to European agricultural association Coldiretti. Another woman of wine, Mariangela Cambria, returned to her native land after studying abroad. “Women are a winning asset in all wine firms. We bring a lot in terms of patience and determination, typical female traits which are essential in agriculture,” Cambria says. “That’s why we’re better than men when it comes down to public relations, the promotion and marketing of our wines.” And if you didn’t get her point, she keeps going: “Come on, we all know it: Men are terrible at strategic communication!”
Francesca Curto’s niche wine estate makes what might be the best nero d’Avola in the world.
Sicily’s women of wine are also pushing elite wine tourism, absent in the past due to a focus on the core production business. But with women stepping in now, hospitality has become another trademark of the industry. They are in charge of organizing gourmet tasting tours, and stays and banquets in their family’s ancient estates, surrounded by fig trees and lemon orchards. They run boutique wine hotels and B&Bs, hold sommelier courses and take part in conferences across Italy on women’s empowered role in the sector. Planeta’s La Foresteria, a luxury wine resort in the wilderness with a spa and infinity pool overlooking the sea, organizes exclusive trips to coveted Sicilian spots.
As part of their group, the Women of Wine, Chiara and her cousin Francesca manage the five Planeta wineries that are scattered across Sicily. The Ulmo Winery, her family’s ancient estate, where a centuries-old, pinkish farmhouse called a baglio has been turned into a wine boutique, is an open-air lab for innovative wines. Set in a breathtaking location, it rises on the sides of a lake featuringan impressive ruin of a jutting-out Arab fortress and harbor, and a Renaissance fountain engraved with phrases of St. Frances’ “Canticle” as a good-luck charm against drought. It is here that in recent years, for the first time in Sicily’s wine history, non-local grapes such as merlot, syrah and chardonnay were planted to produce premium bottles exported worldwide. The newest estate, Feudo di Mezzo, opened in 2012 on the fertile black flanks of Mount Etna; it’s set inside a solidified lava flow that occurred in 1566, which has given birth to elite grape varieties such as carricante and nerello mascalese.
Women have always been part of the wine industry, working on the land and on the vines, but never in the C-suite. In recent years, the role of women in the industry has undergone a metamorphosis. Their rise in the industry reflects not only pro-equality trends typical of modern society, but also a need among wine firms to creatively tackle growing global competition and boost exports. Today, out of 600 wine producers in Sicily, 30% are women, up from almost none a few years ago, and their percentage is constantly growing, says Francesca Curto, another heiress of wine whose Norman ancestors colonized this land in the 1660s. “In the past, women were behind the scenes, but today, being more self-confident, they’ve stepped in to take care of corporate reputation and image, which are crucial in running any business, let alone wine,” Curto says.
Grand cru bottles of premium harvests are emerging. Cambria points to their 2011 Cottanera bottles; they are numbered, as the production process takes up to two years due to the vines, which grow on what she calls “the most fertile and exclusive patch of volcanic soil.” Similarly, Curto’s niche wine estate makes what might be the best nero d’Avola in the world, a local grape variety typical of Sicily’s easternmost tip. “We are constantly innovating in production process, recovering old techniques and replanting traditional vines called alberello to boost the authenticity of the nero d’Avola, because the real, original one can only be found here,” she says. “We use two vines for just one bottle.”
Despite the female crusade, men still play the bigger role. This year, the “world championship” of white wine that took place in Brussels was won by a Sicilian winemaking firm led by a group of male businessmen. Many critics point to the fact that Sicily’s female winemakers have done a great job, but still have a long way to go compared to their female northern colleagues who are more known worldwide. During a tour at the Sicilian winery Feudo Arancio, I spoke with many of the (male) rivals. “They boast about having ‘blue wine’ just because of their aristocratic origins — that’s their biggest, and only, asset,” they complained, more or less in unison.
Carolina Cucurullo of biodynamic producer Masseria del Feudo, which eschews traditional wooden barriques for cement tubs that allow for greater wine oxygenation, believes wine is not just a noble drink to savor, but also a lifestyle to share with others despite some pleasant side effects. “I personally like to greet visitors at the estates and make them taste all bottles before they decide which ones to purchase. Even if this means that I start drinking at 9 a.m. and am tipsy by 10.”