Donatella Cinelli Colombini- Feminism in wine?

Women and wine #2

Last October we published a feature on the role of women in the wine business and directly following Humble Grape listed the most influential ladies in the world of wine. Amongst the varied list, one Italian lady stood out in particular, Mrs Donatella Cinelli Colombini, also known as the ‘Queen of Brunello’ in Italy and a pioneer of Italian wine tourism. Mrs Donatella is the only woman in Italy that currently manages two wineries (Casato Prime Donne and Fattoria del Colle) where the staff are exclusively female, Mrs Donatella is a revolutionary pioneer that changed the destiny of Italian wine tourism as far back as the early 1990’s.

The Queen of Brunello

Humble Grape met the Queen of Brunello and is proud to share her fascinating story…

Born and bred in Montalcino, Mrs Cinelli Colombini, after a scholarly career as an art bibliographer in Siena and several years in her family wine business decided it was time for a challenge.

Casato Prime Donne is the first winery established by Donatella in Montalcino. A host of different sculpture surround the winery forming a path titled the vineyard trek of associated artists. Each art installation is signed with a dedicated quote by the winners of the International Casato Prime Donne Award. The award was conceived by Donatella and it is open to all great Italian and foreign women which have been inspirational to other females. Winners of the main prize category – the Prima Donna award, have included the fashion designer Carla Fendi and La Scala’s ballet dancer Carla Fracci. Other prize categories award viticultural scientists, journalists and photographers who have praised the terroir of Montalcino in their works.


The vineyard trek of associated artists

The artwork has been designed by local artists and has been thought as a meditative route where everyone can be inspired by the quotes of great women.

The Prime Donne Project

The International Prime Donne award was established along with the Prime Donne Project in 1998, when Donatella inherited from her mother two farmhouses (the future two wineries) and some wine (her future Brunello). To go solo, however, she required a team of winemakers able to mature the wine and establish a sound product to market and sell. Donatella promptly called the Siena’s winemaking school looking to recruit a oenologist and with great disappointment she was told that all male winemakers were booked in advance by large producers. In the same school, however, there were many talented women eno-technicians that no one was hiring. Donatella realised that the role of women in the wine industry was minimal so she chose to recruit a female winemaker who to this day is the cellar manager of both wineries. This was the early days of the Prime Donne Project, the wineries staffed entirely by female workers.

The only female staffed winery in Italy!

The only female staffed winery in Italy!

Brunello di Montalcino Prime Donne

The initiative expanded and Brunello di Montalcino Prime Donne was born. Every year Donatella, her eno-technician Barbara and French oenologist Valerie Lavigne, together with an international tasting panel of women working in different areas of the wine industry meet up and brainstorm in order to create Brunello Prime Donne, a Brunello di Montalcino specifically conceived for women.

The tasting panel

Donatella has created a concept of wine education that is easy and accessible to all. Prior to her wine enterprise, in 1993 she founded the Movement of Wine tourism in Italy and Cantine Aperte (winery open days). The former is the first not-for-profit organisation which groups 1000 wineries across Italy and promotes wine tourism and culture via winery visits, events and workshops for wine tourists, lovers and experts alike. Mrs Cinelli Colombini has managed to apply a name and structure to wine tourism in a country that struggles to communicate its wine heritage – she has lectured on the topic in Universities  across the country and published some important books. Cantine Aperte is a series of  winery open days throughout the year- held on the last weekend of May, September during the harvest, the 3rd week of November (to taste the Vino Novello – Noveau wines) and at Christmas. The initiative spread quickly in each Italian region and has been recognised as one of the most successful wine tourism programs in Italy and abroad.Donatella's vineyards in Montalcino

Furthermore, Donatella has been involved with the creation of Calice di Stelle, a special night of wine tasting hosted outdoors in hundreds of locations across Italy where wineries and cooperatives offer unique tastings under the stars. This wine tasting takes place on the 10th of August, traditionally known in Italy as the night of shooting stars  or St Laurence night.

This all adds up to a great woman who has certainly gone beyond the wine glass ceiling and is a source of great inspiration  worldwide for women and men alike.

Humble Grape meets Donatella Cinelli Colombini
Donatella Cinelli Colombini 

1. Do you remember the first wine you ever tasted?

That’s a difficult question, I cannot remember exactly which one but it would have been a Sangiovese-based wine for sure.

2. When did you realise you wanted to make wine your life?

I think it was the challenge behind it: today as well as in the past, if you call someone “farmer” in Italian, it means that you are ignorant, dirty and backwards. The idea to reach the top within the rural world and to bring ‘farmers’ to excellence fascinates me as well as challenges!

3. What has pushed you to become a female entrepreneur in a male dominated field?

Being my family in the wine business, I did not have many choices back then: the first one was to renounce to have my own company and the other one was to accept the challenge and get going. I acted spontaneously, opting for the second one.

In Tuscany, wine is our root and so it was almost a forced choice, forced by the circumstances of the place I was born and bred in. If I wanted to set up my own business, it was going to be a winery-  grapes and unaged wine were part of my family inheritance!

4. Which woman working in the wine industry do you admire most and why?

I admire many of them; however, the first person that comes to mind and everyone else’s mind is probably Jancis Robinson. She is a worldwide wine guru: as a woman, she reached the top and now she sits next to the most authoritative males within the industry.

Then, I really like Debra Mailberg because she hasn’t not only managed to establish herself as the number one wine advisor in Hong Kong, but she has also become the voice of Asian consumers. That means she is extremely brave, competent and able to communicate in a superb manner. It’s amazing how you can find pictures of her inside the taxis all around HK, meaning that she’s trusted and recognised as a wine ambassador by everyone.

5. What are the major challenges for all those ladies working in the wine industry in Italy and abroad?

There are loads of women working in the wine industry but they have no dominance, no decisional power and no influence. In Italy as well as abroad, the challenge will be met only when women will be equally present in the boardroom – (Donatella calls it the suit buttons’ room).

This is a priority for women because statistically they hold more degrees and have higher qualifications, they have interdisciplinary backgrounds and they are more linked to their terroir than their male counterparts therefore their goal is to work with local resources and achieve excellent results. Women, are mothers and grandmothers, they see the terroir as family and so they naturally want to protect it. With a sustainable and a less speculative approach they can really give a stable identity to agriculture and create an equal distribution of wealth and development.

6. Can you offer a piece of advice to all women approaching the wine industry?

Never stop learning in life, and study outside your background because cultural exchanges are fundamental to become open-minded.

Focus more on creating the cake rather than competing for a slice of it, therefore seeing colleagues as partners not as competitors is the key to success. Learn to live and see a job as something that can enrich not just a company but also the environment around you. Finally, create dynamics of development beyond your business, reaching to your personal life and always have the guts to risk for those. I believe all of this to be necessary if we want to bring people and communities forward.

7. Wine culture is still for a small niche of the dedicated few. In Italy you’ve introduced, Cantine Aperte (winery open days), giving a name and a structure to wine tourism in a wine producing country. What else needs to be done in order to demystify wine and reach more people?

I have to say that a lot has been achieved so far; the most important thing to do now is to create a healthy drinking culture including campaigns for young people against binge drinking. To drink better and to discover new flavours is exciting! To talk more to young people and millennials about wine and health is an invaluable stepping stone to educate the future adult wine consumers.

8. How do you educate your visitors to wine and gastronomy?

We offer walking wine tasting in different sites of the winery to allow visitors to understand the link between nature and what they find in their glass.

In addition to this I have created vineyard trekking. All guests get a little handbook , easy to read and with good simple content. Once in the vineyard, they find signposts where they are explained how a wine variety is harvested and the difference between a young and an old vineyard. At the end of the path, there is quiz and a prize.

9. We think that when wine meets technology great things can happen. What’s your opinion?

Technology is extremely useful in the winery especially when it can reduce the impact of chemicals. On the other side, we use technology and social media to write news and interesting content for our users. Obviously the most followed articles are based on popular topics such as “wineries with the most debts” and exclusive chateaux for holidays, whereas only a few engage on articles about what’s happening in the vineyard at this time of the year. So what we do to reach more people is to publish both.

10. What do you think of bringing your own bottle of wine to a restaurant and paying a reasonable corkage fee (BYO)?

It’s indeed a very good initiative but I think restaurateurs need a different approach! To me the future of the wine in restaurants is by glass and not by bottle. We’ll see if I am right in a few years’ time…

11. Favourite food+wine match.

I am a meat eater- my favourite treat is a Florentine Steak- if I cannot have a Brunello with it, I love full-bodied red wines such as Touriga. Certain Barolos drive me crazy too as well as certain Australian Shiraz! I am definitely a red wine person, to me white wine is a holiday wine…

12 Favourite wine soundtrack. What do you listen to when you sip your Brunello?

Brunello is perfect with some lounge music – Paolo Conte is a leading Italian composer within this genre and my Brunello pairs with it so well!

13. Which wine regions fascinate you most apart from you native Montalcino and Val’ Orcia?

Well, it changes every time, at the moment I’d say Friuli (north-east of Italy) and Croatia.

14. We have hosted a series of articles on our blog called Unknown Grapes.

Which unknown grape would you “advertise” more?

Foglia Tonda ( Sangiovese’s forefather) ! It’s a difficult grape, late ripening and very prone to drought. Its cultivation was abandoned 100 years ago, but Tuscany has started a campaign to protect some of its clones and the regional government has invested money in forgotten food and grapes just last year. Imagine, foglia tonda it’s one of the oldest Tuscan grapes and it’s slowly disappearing. We are working together to find the rare clones and worked together with the University of Bologna to create a grape hatchery. We are trying to look for the mother plants of this grape in the Tuscan mountains. In the 18th century’s wine culture, foglia tonda was used for blends with Sangiovese because it was similar to Merlot, giving structure to the wines. Why don’t we study this amazing local grape instead of resorting to international varieties for our blends? That way we could finally have a Super Tuscan based on classic native varieties!

More info on Donatella’s wineries here:

A huge thanks to Donatella, her daughter Violante and all the staff of Casato Prime Donne and Fattoria del Colle for the warm welcome and hospitality last December.

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