Meet the Women Winemakers of Brunello, Italy

Caterina Carli of Il Colle; Cristina Mariani-May of Castello Banfi; Donatella Cinelli Colombini of Donatella Cinelli Colombini winery; Gigliola Gianetti of Le Potazzine
Caterina Carli of Il Colle; Cristina Mariani-May of Castello Banfi; Donatella Cinelli Colombini of Donatella Cinelli Colombini winery and Gigliola Gianetti of Le Potazzine / Photos by Susan Wright

In Italy, where the majority of wineries are still family affairs and everyone lends a hand, women have long worked behind the scenes. Traditionally, however, they had little to no decision-making power and received even less credit for their roles. As recent as 20 years ago, it was rare to come across female winemakers or winery bosses. But times are changing.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by Cribis, part of the Crif Business Information group, just over a quarter of Italy’s estimated 73,700 wineries are managed by women.

In Montalcino, Tuscany, their empowered presence is keenly felt. From boutique estates to international powerhouses, these trailblazing women focus on finesse and complexity in their wines, and most embrace organic and environmentally sustainable practices. Not coincidentally, they’re also making some of the best Brunellos out there.

Laura Brunelli
Laura Brunelli / Photo by Susan Wright

Laura Brunelli

With his last name, it only seems like destiny that the late Gianni Brunelli would become a Brunello producer. Though born in Montalcino, Gianni moved to Siena as a boy after his mother sold the family farm.

It was there that he and his wife, Laura, established one of the area’s most successful restaurants, Osteria Le Logge, near Piazza del Campo. In search of the freshest ingredients, the couple bought back the Brunelli’s small Le Chiuse di Sotto farm just north of Montalcino in 1987, where they began to make Montalcino’s prized olive oil and Brunello for both their restaurant and their friends.

Ten years later, they purchased around 11 acres of south-facing vineyards with views of Monte Amiata at Podernovone, and soon started to spend even more time in Montalcino.

After Gianni’s death in 2008, Laura carried on the couple’s winegrowing philosophy and dedication to excellence, and she continues to uphold the high standards that create Brunellos with Sangiovese’s hallmark sensations of wild cherry fruit and mineral complexity.

The vineyards at Podernovone are particularly beautiful, thanks to her penchant for planting rare antique-rose varieties alongside the manicured vines. Treatments against vine diseases are kept to a minimum, and she avoids herbicides and pesticides.

In the cellars, tradition prevails. The estate uses only natural yeast for fermentation, and wines are aged in medium-sized Slavonian casks.

“I like to get natural balance by blending Sangiovese from the two vineyards,” says Laura. “Wines made from Le Chiuse di Sotto grapes have perfumed bouquets, while Podernovone’s grapes give the wine more structure and depth.”

Laura sold most of her interest in the restaurant several years ago and moved to Montalcino to focus on the Brunello estates. She has since also embarked on several ambitious projects including the construction of a spacious cellar in Podernovone.

Claudia Padelletti
Claudia Susanna Padelletti / Photos by Susan Wright

Claudia Susanna Padelletti

One of Montalcino’s oldest families, the Padelletti clan has owned vineyards in the appellation since 1571. Generations of doctors, lawyers and university professors have lived abroad, but they would always come back to tend the family’s agricultural holdings.

Following the family tradition, Susanna Padelletti gave up a successful banking career to return to Montalcino.

“After graduating in economics, I entered the banking industry in the 1980s,” she says. “I constantly studied to learn the new technologies that were just coming out and was able to attain important roles in the banking world back when the powerful positions were held exclusively by men.”

“When I first started running the farm, the male workers initially regarded me with distrust, but having my father’s support won them over.”—Claudia Susanna Padelletti, proprietor, Padelletti 

In 1990, Padelletti began running the farm while she continued to work in banking. Weekends and vacations were spent in Montalcino learning everything from pruning vines and stripping leaves to racking wines in the cellar and bottling.

“After years, my male colleagues at the bank finally accepted me as a woman manager,” she says. “Then, when I first started running the farm, the male workers initially regarded me with distrust, but having my father’s support won them over and they eventually accepted me.”

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Her father, an engineer, traveled frequently. He sold the farm’s grapes to other producers and made just a small amount of wine for family consumption. Padelletti transformed the business and began to make and sell Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino from their tiny property northeast of town from a total 10 acres of Sangiovese.

Staunchly traditional, she ferments her wines with wild yeasts in glass-lined concrete tanks. They’re aged in large casks to make perfumed, terroir-driven wines with great aging potential.

Padelletti started working full-time at the winery in 2004. When her father died in 2008, her son, Silvano Tarducci, joined the firm. Her daughter, Viviana, plans to move back to Montalcino this year.

Caterina Carli
Caterina Carli / Photo by Susan Wright

Caterina Carli

The Il Colle winery, headquartered just south of the town center, is one of Montalcino’s small gems. Once part of the historic Conte Costanti’s Colle al Matrichese estate, family inheritances and divisions split the original property during the 18th century.

In 1972, Alberto Carli, a notary from Siena, and his wife, Ernesta Giannelli, purchased the 49-acre property and began planting their first vineyards. Situated around 1,148 feet above sea level, this area tends to produce Brunellos that are elegant and, at times, almost ethereal.

In 1998, the Carlis purchased land in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, a warmer part of the denomination. Their idea was to blend Sangiovese from the two areas to achieve more body, as well as split the risk of having grapes from a single subzone that could suffer more than other areas in certain vintages.

“I’m convinced this is the best and most enjoyable job in the world.”—Caterina Carli, proprietor, Il Colle

At an elevation of 720 feet, grapes from Castelnuovo dell’Abate’s more southern vineyards are harvested around 10 days earlier than those at Il Colle. They lend structure and ripe fruit flavors to the exquisite aromas and finesse of wines that hail from the family’s original holdings.

After Alberto passed away in 2001, his daughter, Caterina, took over.

“When my father passed away, I was 29 and was working at an accounting firm, but I didn’t have any doubts about leaving my job to work at the winery fulltime,” says Caterina, who holds degrees in economics and banking. “I’m convinced this is the best and most enjoyable job in the world.”

To make Brunellos that boast structure and finesse, Caterina uses the ultratraditional winemaking methods she and her father learned from one of Italy’s most famed tasters and maestro of Sangiovese, the late Giulio Gambelli. Like her father, she ferments with wild yeasts and without temperature control, followed by long skin maceration of 30–40 days. Lengthy aging, up to four years for Brunello, takes place exclusively in Slavonian casks.

Donatella Cinelli Colombini
Donatella Cinelli Colombini / Photo by Susan Wright

Donatella Cinelli Colombini

Cinelli Colombini’s family has made wine for hundreds of years, and they helped launch Brunello in the 1960s. Ambitious and energetic, not only is winemaking part of Cinelli Colombini’s DNA, but she was among the first Italian producers to understand the importance of wine-related tourism. In 1993, she founded the nonprofit association Movimento Turismo del Vino, which translates to “wine tourism movement.”

The president of the Associazione Nazionale Le Donne del Vino (National Association of Women in Wine), Cinelli Colombini has also long been an outspoken advocate for women in the wine industry.

After working for years in the family business, she founded her own firm in 1998. It comprises two family properties given to her by her parents: Casato in Montalcino, and Fattoria del Colle in Trequanda.

Starting from scratch, Cinelli Colombini had initially needed help with the small amount of Brunello that was aging in barrels when she acquired the Montalcino estate. When she called Siena’s enological school, however, she learned that its best students, all male, had already been recruited.

“Women have taken big steps forward, but there’s a long way to go before arriving at equal pay and opportunities between the two genders.”—Donatella Cinelli Colombini, proprietor, Donatella Cinelli Colombini

“I asked if they had a female student, and they replied there were nine, all available because ‘wineries don’t want women,’ ” says Cinelli Colombini.

After this incident, Cinelli Colombini was compelled to combat the status quo, and the Prime Donne (First Ladies) Project was born. She renamed her Montalcino estate from Casato to Casato Prime Donne and assembled the country’s first all-female winery staff.

“Women have taken big steps forward, but there’s a long way to go before arriving at equal pay and opportunities between the two genders,” she says. “The wine world is still dominated by men, but women’s contributions are increasingly essential because women are strong in areas where Italian wineries are weak: commercial marketing and communication.”

Today, Cinelli Colombini’s daughter, Violante Gardini, is in charge of marketing, in addition to being the current president of the Tuscan chapter of the Movimento Turismo del Vino. The firm’s consulting enologist is Valérie Lavigne.

The estate has selected a strain of indigenous yeast and ages its wines in tonneaux and large casks to produce fragrant bottlings that boast energy and elegance.

Cristina Mariani-May
Cristina Mariani-May / Photo by Susan Wright

Cristina Mariani-May

Founded in 1978 by American-born brothers John and Harry Mariani, Castello Banfi has been credited as introducing once obscure Brunello to tables across the U.S. Today, the firm’s sleek, full-bodied wines are appreciated around the globe, and much of that success can be attributed to the work of John’s daughter, Mariani-May, Banfi’s president and CEO.

Castello Banfi was one of the first wineries to produce a single-vineyard Brunello. The estate, in the southern reaches of the denomination, offers various vineyard altitudes and microclimates across its more than 7,100 acres, one-third of which are under vine.

In the early 1980s, the firm teamed up with the University of Milan to conduct an in-depth analysis of Sangiovese, and has been a leader in clonal research of the variety ever since. It’s now also on the cutting edge in the cellar, where red wines ferment in unique hybrid tanks made of steel and wood to result in softer tannins.

“Women have always played an integral role in the wine world, but over the last several years, we have received more recognition and respect,”—Cristina Mariani-May, proprietor, CEO and president, Castello Banfi and Banfi Vintners

The wines are aged predominantly in carefully toasted French oak from wood seasoned on the estate. Banfi’s Brunello is aged in custom 350-liter barriques and large Slavonian casks, while its single-vineyard Poggio all’Oro bottling and Poggio Alle Mura selections are aged in barriques.

Her drive and willingness to experiment have led to a number of innovations, like those hybrid fermentation tanks. She’s also implemented sustainable practices that include a “bio-bed” system to detoxify wastewater at Castello Banfi and a switch to lighter-weight bottles that reduce the winery’s carbon footprint.

Mariani-May is not only in charge of Castello Banfi, but is at the helm of Banfi Vintners, the global brand that includes the firm.

A graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and Columbia Business School in New York City, she joined the company in 1993. She shared the role of CEO with her cousin, James Mariani, starting in 2007, and became Banfi’s sole CEO and president in 2018.

“Women have always played an integral role in the wine world, but over the last several years, we have received more recognition and respect,” says Mariani-May. “I’m honored to be part of the current generation in the wine business and hope one day my daughter will join the future generations of women.”

Gigliola Gianetti
Gigliola Gianetti / Photo by Susan Wright

Gigliola Gianetti

Founded in 1993, Le Potazzine is owned by Gianetti and her two daughters, Viola and Sofia Gorelli. Potazzine is a common Italian term of endearment for children, and it’s the nickname that Viola and Sofia’s maternal grandmother bestowed upon the girls.

As the estate was founded the same year Viola was born and expanded with the arrival of Sofia in 1996, the name seems perfect.  Le Potazzine is located a few miles southwest of town in the Le Prata area. It’s one of the cooler parts of the denomination, thanks to the high altitudes. At around 1,663 feet above sea level, the winery’s vineyards are among the highest in Montalcino.

Fifteen years ago, most producers considered the area too high for fickle Sangiovese to reach ideal ripening, but it’s now considered ideal for today’s hotter, drier growing seasons.

The firm also owns property in the warmer Sant’Angelo in Colle area in the far south, where vineyard altitudes reach about 1,115 feet. Grapes from the two vineyards are blended to make perfumed wines that offer both structure and finesse.

“Our goal has always been to make elegant, balanced Brunellos. We never push for power and concentration.”—Gigliola Gianetti, co-owner, Le Potazzine

Gianetti used to consult with Giulio Gambelli, and now does so with Paolo Salvi, who trained under the late Sangiovese specialist.

As such, Le Potazzine remains proudly traditional. Fermentation occurs spontaneously, with wild yeasts and no temperature control, followed by long skin maceration. Aging takes place in medium-sized Slavonian oak casks, and cellar hygiene is paramount.

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“Our goal has always been to make elegant, balanced Brunellos,” says Gianetti. “We never push for power and concentration.”

Viola, who holds a degree in economics, joined the winery two years ago, while Sofia, who recently earned a degree in languages, plans to come aboard fulltime this year.

“I tell my daughters to follow their instincts, and to never give in to market trends,” says Gianetti. “But it’s harder for women. If men have to give 100% to succeed, women have to give 120%.”

Marilisa Allegrini
Marilisa Allegrini / Photo by Susan Wright

Marilisa Allegrini

While Allegrini earned a degree in physical therapy from the University of Verona, she eventually gave in to her passion for wine. She joined her family’s Veneto-based winemaking firm full-time in 1980, beginning as its sales and communication manager and becoming CEO three years later. Since then, her drive and energy have elevated the company’s reputation and opened up new markets.

Allegrini’s love of wine and new challenges ultimately led her to Tuscany. In 2001, she and her brother, Walter, founded the Poggio al Tesoro winery in Bolgheri. She later discovered the San Polo estate in Montalcino, and in 2007, purchased 50% of the property to make it a part of the Allegrini group. In 2015, she and her family acquired the remaining interest.

Located on the southeastern side of Montalcino, the stunning site benefits from a vineyard altitude of 1,476 feet above sea level.

“Giving the next generation opportunities and responsibility is crucial to developing their entrepreneurial spirit.”—Marilisa Allegrini, chief operating officer, Allegrini Estates

Its dry, breezy microclimate and marked day-night temperature changes generate Brunello with structure, finesse, pronounced aromas and complexity.

Here, Allegrini and her family have eliminated the use of herbicides and other harsh chemicals and adhere to environmentally sustainable practices. Thanks to their efforts, San Polo was the first winery in Tuscany, and just the second in the world, to be awarded the CasaClima Wine certification for sustainability. It’s been certified organic since 2017.

Allegrini is also president of the Italian Signature Wines Academy, on the governing board of the Brunello di Montalcino Wine Consortium and a member of both the Donne del Vino and the Women of the Vine & Spirits associations.

In 2015, she appointed her daughter, Caterina, as the CEO of San Polo, while Riccardo Fratton became estate manager and in charge of winemaking.

“Giving the next generation opportunities and responsibility is crucial to developing their entrepreneurial spirit and keeping the wine industry dynamic and moving forward,” says Allegrini.

Published on March 20, 2019
Topics: Women and Wine
About the Author
Kerin O’Keefe
Italian Editor

Reviews wines from Italy

Italian Editor Kerin O’Keefe reviews all Italian wines for Wine Enthusiast. Previously she wrote regularly on Italian wine for Wine News, World of Fine Wine and Decanter. She is the author of Franco Biondi Santi: The Gentleman of Brunello (2005), Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy's Greatest Wines (2012) and Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine (2014).

Email: kokeefe@wineenthusiast.net.



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