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On a torrid morning in late August, Francesca Moretti is all smiles even though the heat has dictated an early harvest. "It seemed like the heat and lack of rain over the past few months were going to cause a terrible harvest, but it's turning out very well," says the 38-year-old at her Bellavista winery, an hour east of Milan. "There are a lot fewer grapes this year, but the quality is excellent."
Ms Moretti, an oenologist with a degree in agronomy, talks with the ease of someone who has spent her entire life in or near these vineyards. As chief executive of her family's two wineries in Franciacorta, just south of Lake d'Iseo, and two others in Tuscany, it is Ms Moretti's job to worry about yields, sugar levels in the grapes and the danger of rain during the harvest. She took over from her father, who remains as chairman, five years ago, putting her among a growing number of women at the head of Italian wineries.
While there are no official statistics on female ownership of Italian wineries, industry groups estimate the figure at about 30 per cent. According to the national statistics office, that is the same percentage of women owners in all Italian agriculture businesses - from wineries to olive groves and corn fields - in 2010, the latest year for which data are available. That number, which has inched up about 5 points in a decade, stands out in a country where men dominate the upper echelons of corporate life, occupying more than 90 per cent of board seats and every chief executive position at the country's 50-largest listed companies.
From the manual labour in the vineyards up to the positions of agronomist, oenologist, managers and even the sales representatives, sommeliers and wine journalists, men have dominated for centuries. "You have to fight all your life and if you are a female manager in the wine industry, you have to fight twice as much because nobody listens to you," says Ms Moretti.
Just over the hill from Bellavista is the family-owned Castelveder winery where Camilla Alberti, the 37-year-old chief executive, is taking a break from the harvest. Like Ms Moretti, she struggles to reconcile motherhood with running a winery, a juggling act made all the more difficult by the need to respond to snide remarks from those not used to dealing with a woman in charge.
"You have to be ready because the comments come," says Ms Alberti. "I've had three kids in the past six years and this has inevitably made it difficult from a work point of view. My male colleagues with three kids don't face the same issues. It's just not the same. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better to stay home with the kids, then I tell myself not to give up, that it's just a question of time before things get easier."
Female-led wineries in Italy run the gamut from the relatively large, such as those managed by Ms Moretti, which together produce 3m bottles annually and last year had EUR32m in revenue, to Aglieta, which produces about 18,000 bottles near Montalcino in Tuscany. The majority are family-owned and some - such as Firriato and Donnafugata in Sicily - are jointly run by a woman and either her husband or brother.
Women who work in the wine industry are usually better educated than their male counterparts and often have worked in other areas before turning to wine, says Donatella Cinelli Colombini, who owns and runs a vineyard in Montalcino that produces Brunello, one of Italy's most highly regarded red wines, and another vineyard in southern Chianti. She says these two characteristics tend to make women more open to innovation. Nonetheless, men still dominate the industry and how it operates. "When negotiating with suppliers and clients, women are expected to back down before men," she says. "Sex matters also with the banks. If we need to negotiate financing I usually send my husband because he gets more funds and better rates than I do."
Sabine Ehrmann, a German who owns and runs Tenuta Tenaglia in Piedmont, echoes this view. "Wine is still very much a man's world in Italy, but we women are making inroads," she says. "You have to be very tough, which is how I am. When I put something in my head I go forward and am hard to stop."
Ms Cinelli Colombini, often referred to as "La Signora del Brunello" for her role as vice-chairman of the consortium that represents Brunello producers and the only woman on the group's 15-person board, has hired women for all the crucial positions at her wineries, including oenologist and agronomist, jobs that even more than others have traditionally been done by men.
One reason is that she believes it gives her business a competitive advantage. "The taste of wine is adjusting to the fact that more and more women are drinking," she says. "Until now important wines were produced by men for men, and in the future women's tastes will be considered more. Women have a more sensitive nose and palate so they prefer wines with strong aromas that aren't too dry."
Women also have different sensitivities when it comes to marketing their wines, says Ms Ehrmann. As tough as she says she is, she unabashedly announces that her winery's motto is "Il vino è amore", or "wine is love." With that in mind she has also made Tenuta Tenaglia a cultural centre with art exhibitions and concerts.
While Ms Ehrmann and Ms Cinelli Colombini have older children, for Ms Moretti at Bellavista and Ms Alberti at Castelveder there is the challenge of taking care of toddlers following a day in the vineyard or cellar. Ms Moretti until recently had help from her husband, but now a new job keeps him away for most of the week.
For Ms Alberti it is mostly up to her to get the three children fed and ready for bed. "My husband doesn't help very much with the kids in the evening," she says. "He actually grumbles because he sees me tired and asks if it's really worthwhile for me to be working. Sometimes he tells me I should take a step back and not work so much. When that happens I tell him he should slow down if he wants to, but I'm not going to."
Back at Bellavista, Ms Moretti pours a chilled glass of a recent vintage as she sits down after the walk through the tunnels under the vineyard that house 6m bottles of Franciacorta. But the respite is shortlived. "I have to return to being a mother," she says as she turns to leave, explaining that her two children, both under three, are waiting to be fed and then put down for a nap.