The women of wine

The women of wine

Mon 16 Apr 2018 6:10 AM

Wine is perhaps the most culturally symbolic beverage in recorded Italian history. Inextricably linked to Tuscany’s genetic makeup, the drink is one of the region’s oldest businesses, an industry recently subject to somewhat of a Risorgimento. In the last decades, international world-class varieties (especially French) have shared the limelight with traditional local grapes. In this shifting environment, new generations of winemakers have turned to alternative and innovative production methods, their focus set on sustainability and on reviving indigenous varietals.

Yet despite apparent advancements and the maturation of values, industry professionals have also faced a grim reality: though no other business has permeated Italian culture and identity with such consistency, it is also true that no other industry has excluded the presence and leadership of women for so long. In Italy, “women winemakers have always been viewed with something between suspicion and amusement” wrote Ann B. Matasar in her 2010 book Women of Wine: The Rise of Women in the Global Wine Industry. That wariness extends far beyond women oenologists and to women throughout the wine sector. It’s this inequality that heralded the birth of a groundbreaking organization 30 years ago: Le Donne del Vino, an association that is slowly but surely overturning male dominance in wine.

Le Donne del Vino was established in Florence on March 19, 1988, a group of roughly 70 women led by one of four original associates, Elisabetta Tognana. In what was then an even more male-dominated industry, the women officially presented their association at the 21st edition of Verona’s wine trade fair Vinitaly. The act of female solidarity “roused smiles,” as current president Donatella Cinelli Colombini recalls, “as if to say, what could these women possibly be?” A model for the surfacing of similar organizations all over Europe, today Le Donne del Vino is the largest women’s wine organization in the world.

Donatella Cinelli Colombini

Boasting 770 members, “the organization’s aims are twofold,” explains Cinelli Colombini: “to promote the role of women and the diffusion of the culture of wine and to encourage responsible consumption”. Since its origins, the organization has employed an interdisciplinary approach in embracing the entire wine supply chain: from producers to restaurateurs, wine shop owners, sommeliers, journalists and other experts. Only a few years after its birth, the group grew to see international representatives, the new millennium bringing about its division into regional delegations.

Yet despite the improvement, “{wine} remains a very masculine industry,” Cinelli Colombini sustains. “Women began playing leading roles in the second half of the twentieth century. Now they are starting to become more numerous but still remain a minority.”

Women run approximately 21 per cent of Italian companies, a third of which are food- or tourism-based (source: Unioncamere). They manage 28 per cent of wineries with vineyards, 12 per cent of industrial cellars, 24 per cent of companies that market retail wine and 12.5 per cent of wholesale ones (Cribis-Crif). Yet despite the rise of women in management positions, they are lacking in the highest positions of power: in the CDA (Food Distribution Consortium), female presence falls below 10 per cent.

Promoting female presence in roles that directly impact policy is quite a challenge, Cinelli Colombini explains (“Women simply don’t run”), leading the association to prioritize encouraging the candidacy of women in consortia. Through courses focused on legislation, territorial marketing and the importance of consortia, the organization hopes to encourage more women to run for leadership positions, a means of implementing change from the top down.

Yet the association has achieved plenty in its first 30 years, hosting major events, impressive charity initiatives, wine seminars, courses, tastings and more to connect women and encourage shared initiatives. In about one month, Le Donne del Vino will launch pilot courses on communications and gender wine marketing, a database that will offer training opportunities (internships, courses and scholarships) for women under 30 hoping to break into the wine world.

Perhaps the most telling facet of women in wine is their dominance in the most innovative sectors. “If we look at companies directed by women,” says Cinelli Colombini, “we’ll see that they are more aligned with what we want to see in the future,” namely, organic wineries, companies focused on the preservation of older vineyards, ones with higher exportation rates and higher-quality products. Cinelli Colombini remarks, “I have noticed that, especially given the increased number of educated women, they are now seen as a great opportunity for growth,” a stark contrast to the smiles provoked 30 years ago.

It is clear that the Italian wine industry’s shifts in production methods and global impact are directly linked to the growing presence of women in managerial positions. Looking to the future, Cinelli Colombini cites Wine Australia chairman Brian Walsh, who epically declared that the wine industry was “losing talent” while referring to the many woman who study viticulture and wine production but that leave the industry. In Italy, oenology claims a 50 per cent female enrollment rate; roughly 10 per cent pursue careers in the field.

As the owner of Italy’s first all-woman winery, Cinelli Colombini is optimistic about the impact of female solidarity in the wine industry. “I hope the authorities will soon face everything with {Walsh’s} attitude,” she says, “as little by little things are changing.”

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