Biodynamic Vintner, Fonterenza, IT

Published Date: 16th January 2012

Open Windows | In Conversation

Biodynamic Vintner, Fonterenza, IT

January 16th, 2012

The preservation of one’s sensibilities and individuality is as laborious as the conservation of old architecture. My search for such safe keeping led me to twin sisters, Francesca and Margherita Padovani. They are passionate and successful biodynamic women vintners who are committed to honouring nature, conserving architecture, and respecting balance.

On the morning of our meeting, they were up at 5:00 a.m. and had already spent time working in the vineyard. Francesca and Margherita do it all—planting the vines, training the shoots on the wires, cutting the grass, carrying out treatments, harvesting, managing the cellar, running the business and marketing. If I could describe their terroir, I would say theirs is one of two strong-willed and animated personalities, combined with generous measures of love, labour, and wholesome living. We can learn a lot from the pair of them, who pair well together, on living with purpose, oneness with nature, and freeness from the accumulation of things. They teach us to preserve our being.

Your home radiates warmth. It dates way back, doesn’t it? (I ask Margherita, who is sitting with me at the well-worn farm table as Francesca makes us espresso.)

Margherita Padovani – Yes. It is a very old farmhouse, and many families from the town lived here through the years, with animals downstairs and farmers upstairs. All the farmhouses here are kind of old. We have house documents dating our home back to 1400.


To experience this history and energy with you both is so very special. Thank you for preserving it instead of tearing it down and building over.

Margherita – It would be like killing a person. This house has personality. It is not just a thing; it is alive. You know, these walls, they talk about the past. To tear it down would be like putting down a church and rebuilding it.


Not everyone appreciates this approach. Do people need to possess something more and feel deeper to honour preservation?

Margherita – Yes, not everyone is like this. If you go to many other farms around here, you will see things have changed a lot. People want to put their fingerprints on something. They want to put their style, their way of living on the house. But people need to put their hands on it like it is human. What we did was just make it more livable. This room (the large room in which Francesca was making espresso at one end while Margherita and I were talking at the other) was previously two living rooms. And we did not touch it too much around here. Only one of the floors is original. We redid the rest along with the roof, and we still have to make minor changes because the house is really old.


Francesca Padovani – (Joins us with espresso) – In that room (pointing to another room) some part is old, and some part is new, but it is older than this (gesturing to where we are sitting).

Margherita – My mother put it in, in the 70’s.


So your parents lived here?

Margherita – We used to live in Milan, and we would come here for holidays from the time our parents bought it in 1975.


How did your childhood shape your approach to life?

Francesca – Our mother was a high-profile businesswoman, and we had more things than other children our age but less of our parents’ love, as our parents were separated when we were small. Our mother was always far away, and we were with our brother in Milan. This made us very independent; we went on vacations, international camps with people from all parts of the world. It could be Norway, America, Switzerland, or Spain.


Instead of succumbing to the culture of accumulating, having lived the high life in Milan, you decided to move here, to Montalcino. What drew you to nature?

Francesca – We had this part from the beginning, and we are lucky because we were coming here from the time we were little. This was a very simple place—no heating, no telephone, no electricity. But we used to come here, spend the summer, the freezing winter and the weekends as much as we could. So we always had two exposures—the city and the real countryside.


It has been a natural progression.

Francesca – I think so. Also, it was tough in the beginning because we did not have people to communicate with, to talk, to know, to have relationships with.

Margherita – For me, it is more difficult now than before.


Why do you say that?

Margherita – I am getting more and more into my life here with nature, with animals, with my job, and I have less and less time to do other things. All my energy is here.

Margherita, you moved from Milan to Montalcino almost 14 years ago.

Margherita – I am not a city woman. I hated Milan. I came here to work with friends during the summer, and I just stayed. It was my dream to live here. I love the country. I love being with plants and animals.


And Francesca, what about your move to Montalcino?

Francesca – I moved here in 2000. When Margherita moved here, I moved to Scotland for a year, working as an au pair and taking English courses. After which I came back to Milan and tried my hand at different things. Then I thought I’d better go and keep this going with Marge (Margherita).


Since you do not see immediate results from a vineyard, what moments confirmed you were here to stay?

Francesca – I think the moments came and went. We were building something we did not know.

And though we could see we were doing a good job, there was no money; we had to wait for our vineyards to grow. We did not choose to buy grapes or buy wine, so we had to ask the banks for money and build up. We are still anxious to pay back money, but on the other hand, we want to do the job in our way—in this natural way that we were working.

Margherita – I was sure from the beginning that this is it.


You just knew?

Francesca – Yes. And I was never anxious about this. I was sure about this. Yes, I was anxious about money, but not about my job, about what I was doing. I was very, very sure.


It is interesting. When something is right, you feel it in your bones.

Francesca – Yes, yes, that is the thing! You know when it is right. And then things happen, you start to bottle the first wine. And then follow a process to get the wine ready, you go to the market, and people begin to see you and your wines. It took so many years. And then we started to get feedback and people knew us. We are the girls who came from Milan to Montalcino, worked every day of the week, no vacation, nothing, working, working, working. And I think, in the end, this work paid off.


Being a vintner is backbreaking. Why is it perceived as being glamorous?

Francesca – This is because most women producers do not work in the vineyard. It happens in small estates, but it is rare. And typically vineyard owners focus on other aspects of the business—they tour the vineyard and the orchard.


It is tough work. What do aspiring vintners have to keep in mind?

Francesca – Yes, it is.

The first thing they must have is big, big passion and then patience, as it takes a long time to see the fruits of your work. And then one must have curiosity and a willingness to learn.

Margherita – For us it took 12 years to have our first Brunello. Making wine is not like growing tomatoes; it is a long plan. You plant the vineyard, and it needs 20, 30, 40, 50 years for the vines to give more and more, for the soil to give the real complexity.


Like life.

Francesca – Yes, yes.


You are rewarded for working together and doing what you love. Tell me what it is like to work together, the dynamics of sisters?

Francesca – I know it can be difficult, we are twins, and we have strong opinions. It can be very hard; it can be very nice. But what we know is that we are essential to each other.


What is the magic of working together, as sisters?

Francesca – When it works, there is a connection. What Marge does, comes back to me and it becomes more natural. It becomes more balanced, and I do not have to go to another person and say do this or that. She knows what she has to do, and I know what I have to do.

Margherita – It took years, but now it is…

Francesca – Becoming perfect, the balance. We sit and talk about what we do, and what we are going to do. It is beautiful. Now it is beautiful, but there were moments when we said okay, that is it. I would have an idea, and she would have an idea, and we would fight.


Do these arguments work to your advantage?

Francesca – Yes, because we are alike, and at the same time we are very different. And having different opinions is good to balance things because she may say, “No, I do not want to do this.” Then I say, “But why, look, this, this, this, this.” It is good.


So you are each other’s sounding boards?

Margherita – Yes, but now we respect each other more.

Francesca – Now we respect each other’s skill, it is about knowledge. Like I will ask her, “Why are we doing this job in the vineyard?” And she will tell me why, and I say, “Yeah, yeah…I know.” I respect her opinion. And then I will tell her that I am selling the wine to these people and not to these because she has to know. And she respects and trusts me for what I am doing.


Do you have a lot more responsibilities now than when you started? If yes, how do you divide them?

Francesca – Yeah, more and more. In the beginning, we both did it all, the vineyard and the cellar. But for the last three years, we sometimes hire help. Due to the selling aspect, I have to travel a lot and show our wine. Marge stays here. So with the years, we started to divide the responsibilities into what is naturally her way and my way, which is perfect.

Margherita – In the beginning, we had an oenologist (expert in the science of winemaking), but not anymore.

Francesca – And since we now do everything ourselves, we have more responsibilities. Also, if we do something wrong, in the cellar, in the vineyard, it’s our responsibility.


What has been the focus of biodynamic wine making?

Margherita – For us, we work in a way that our focus is on the soil, on the vines, on nature. We make natural wine and not industrial wine, so to have a balance in the vineyards is important. We are lucky; we have beautiful soil, beautiful terroir.


Explain terroir to me.

Francesca – The soil terroir is a mixture of things— the soil, the climate, the environment. When you have wine from a terroir, it shows from where the wine comes. You will feel it in the wine; you will feel the vintage. So that is what we want to do, a terroir wine, wine that shows everything. And to do this, you have to work in the most natural way. For us, that means no chemicals, as little as possible. For the main disease of the vine, we have to use copper and sulphur, which are organically accepted. Plus, we work with herbal teas, and we use biodynamic preparation, and everything is done by hand. Each vine is a different; each part of soil is a different. We try to find a balance, and from that make wine that shows terroir.

It is the same philosophy in the cellar. When making wine, a lot of people add lots of stuff to the wine; it is not just grape, it is a lot of things. We do not even know how many things. We use grapes and try to vinify as the vintage asks, to have a very intimate way of working.


The focus for you is to make authentic wine.

Francesca – Yes, yes. The problem with most of the wineries is they want to make wine that everybody likes, so they have a standard to do this, this, this and this.

Margherita – They do the same thing in the vineyard. But we treat every part of the vineyard differently, in a very intimate way, as each part of the vineyard is different. You have to follow plants differently because there is a stronger…


Oh, it is like having children in a family, every child has different needs.

Francesca – Exactly. Let’s put it like this, one child always cries, the other child never cries. One eats, the other doesn’t. You don’t treat them in the same way.


True. Tell me how you arrived at biodynamic farming?

Francesca – We have known about this technique for many years, but we arrived very, very slowly. And the preparation is a very specific preparation; we make it at a particular time of the year, of the day.

Margherita – We have been following the biodynamic calendar almost from the beginning because you follow the moon, not the growing moon and descendant moon, but another kind. There the moon goes far away from the earth and comes back closer to the earth.


Does this calendar apply to the cellar as well?

Francesca – Yes, yes. We follow the moon for everything, for the cellar, for the vineyard, for the pruning.


And you are committed to following the biodynamic way.

Margherita – Yes. And since we are working this way we have seen the soil change, it is working. It took us time to do it in a very systematic way.


How is it different from organic?

Margherita – It is a different way. For example, in organic, you can use insecticides coming from plants, but it’s still an insecticide. We would not want to use insecticides; we would like to use a balance—if we have insects, we have to find a way to let the insect live in an environment that is not so good for it. Not to kill it but to make it difficult for it to live well.


And how do you go about this?

Margherita – We use copper, but less than half of what we could use, or we use natural sulphur.

Francesca – Not the one that comes from petrol but the one that comes from caves. There is a difference in using petrol sulphur and natural sulphur.

Margherita – We have flowering plants in the vineyard to have insects and bees, to then have birds. You have to make the place more of a haven for plants and animals.


Does respect for the soil and earth organisms come from consciously thinking about social responsibility or has it been a philosophy of life?

Francesca – It is more a natural way. And yes, living in the countryside is also helping me a lot. When you are living in the city, you lose a little bit of yourself. You realize you are more linked to nature now, to the seasons.

Margherita – It is both. And it is getting more and more deep in me. For example, for me it is not to use too much water, not to waste food. Every year you see something in nature that is wrong, plants that have cancer or a type of insect that is all over one year. Another year there is another insect. There is something that is not good. And we know what we eat comes from nature, so we have to look after nature. You have to love nature. You have to respect it.


And this is what you are extending to your vineyard.

Francesca – This is the goal. We are surrounded by woods. And these lands that we planted were fields without chemicals for many, many years, so we had a pure, healthy place.


You started on a perfect foundation.

Margherita and Francesca – (In unison) Yes, it was very good.


Can one be true to oneself and still be profitable in business?

Francesca – Yes, it is l but this is the way we want to work. I mean, it takes time to trust people, but one can be that way.


When you look back at the last 10 to 12 years, do you feel a great sense of accomplishment?

Francesca – Oh yes. But sometimes we do not realize it, and then we go: “My god, we have come a long way!”

Margherita – But there is still a lot to do. A lot to do.

Francesca – The results are also when you sell the wine. To see our bottles in stores, people buying it, people coming all the way asking for us and sending emails that they drank Fonterenza, and they loved it, it is so, so beautiful.


You are successful women, how do people around you react to your success?

Francesca – We have friends, men and women whom we can trust and are happy for our success. Also, our friends are successful themselves, which is great. We support people who have the same philosophy. Even with the organic producers, I am happy if they are doing well; I am not competitive with them.


I appreciate this attitude. How have you managed to nurture this attitude in a competitive industry?

Francesca – It is more linked to business companies, where you have many people who want to climb the ladder; it becomes a nightmare. In our world, it is difficult to have this idea, especially because we feel close to people who are close to us. We share knowledge and support each other. But it is only with people we trust.

Margherita – I will not send people to someone if they are not good. We also talk a lot about producers from other regions. In the natural wine world, we are like this (indicating closeness, as she gestures with hands), French, Italian. There is a group of us, and we meet at different tastings, and they come to visit, and we visit them. So it is a big family, and it is fantastic.

How different is it working in an olive grove compared to a vineyard?

Francesca – Olives are on trees and are less work, so it is a different approach to work. We have to prune them, but we do not have to treat them, and they take care of themselves. The harvest of olives is beautiful. It is in October, November. It is during the vinification that makes it hard as we are finishing harvest, starting vinification, and then we start olive picking. Autumn is a very busy time for us.


Is the olive oil, produced from the 1,000 plus trees in your orchard, sold under the same brand name?

Francesca – It is the same brand, but the label for olive oil is Silverio. It is after Silverio, the farmer who taught us to work in the olive grove. He also sold his olive grove to us a few years before he passed away. We made the label with his name when he was alive. I love him.


It’s so special, what does Silverio mean?

Francesca – It’s an unusual name, Silverio comes from woods, it goes back to nature.


Children show great curiosity in something as simple as watching sprouts grow, but as they get older, they lose interest and tend to gravitate toward the consumption of material things. If almost all of us have it in us to nurture, why do we move away from it?

Margherita – I think because we live in a society in which you have to show, you do not see anything anymore that is inside. We have to appear, to have status symbols. Buying is like breathing now.

Francesca – Everybody has this disease to buy, to buy, to buy without thinking.

Margherita – I do not do this. Over the last several years, I began to see people every day with new shoes, and I just hate it. It is crazy, it is crazy. It is stupidity. In a few years we are not going to have anything, something is going to happen for sure. We are over 6 billion people, and we cannot go on like this.


Do you find yourself being at peace when you consume less, notice things, and then consciously make changes?

Margherita – Yes, I think the first step is to realize this. For me, that is very important, to know what I am doing. Then you can decide. And yes, to find a balance.


You are fortunate to live in a surrounding with uncluttered spaces that allow you to find this balance. How do people living in an increasingly cluttered world find this?

Francesca – One must think and then realize, maybe count to five before doing something and be more concerned. When you know what you are doing, you know what your action is.

You have to be very lucky to find thinking people to show you different ways to be in the world and do things. One has to open up the mind, meet different people from different cultures and open up one’s head.

The problem with our society is that it usually forces us to be a certain way and we have to follow those rules, we have to be a particular person. It is not true; we can be someone else, we can think other things. This helps you to know there are different ways to be in the world.

It is a difficult concept, but with time, I realize this. You know in the wine world, to make wine you have to do this, this and this. But that is not true; you can instead do this, this and this. And wine can be like this too. We can do it in 3,000 different ways and have different results.


The wine industry, like most professions in the world, has been a male-dominated industry. Are you noticing a shift today—with an increase in women vintners?

Margherita – Actually, the real farmers, the women, were working like men. Of course, the woman has to take care of the family, the children and so many other areas because we are women.

Francesca – The shift is happening everywhere. Women are good; we can do the same a man can. And I am stronger than many, many men I know. I am stronger because I worked, I worked, I worked, and your body becomes tough. We can do it.


Do you think there is a silent revolution that is tilting the balance?

Francesca -It is changing. I see a bit of crisis, in men and women. It is more for men right now because women are strong. We are working a lot; we are trying to have our careers. Yes, it is a strange moment for the family. We have children very late, no more at 20, maybe 40 or you do not have children. I know a lot of women who are 40, and they still have no children and no man. It is a changing moment, I think. And men are a bit scared of women…what is happening? Italian men are so used to their mothers, they are 40, 50 and they still have their mothers ironing, washing, and cooking. They do not know how to be different.

Oh, I know about the kind of men you are talking. At times I feel it is more the women, mothers and sisters, keeping men dependent for fear of losing control over them, but it is packaged as love.


Tell me, were the initial stages tough for you?

Margherita – In the beginning when I was 20, it was really tough. I was doing something I did not know. But now, I do as I feel.

Francesca – When men see women, especially in the countryside, they think they can play with you, they can sell you anything, and you would not know.


You are a far cry from women on Italian television. Does the misrepresentation bother you?

Margherita – You know what? It has been more than 15 years since I have had a television. I do not read newspapers either. This is bad in one way, and good in another way.

I shun the media because I do not want to be possessed by the way they want us to live and think, as this is what happens to people who watch TV and read newspapers. They can put you where they want.

I have not owned a television for a while now, but it is repugnant…

Margherita – Of course, I see that women are treated as objects many times. In many cases, they give them more money, which people want, but that is not the way I want to see women.

Francesca – Also, this is not a true representation of women, our friends are not like this.

Margherita – In Milan, one year they all dress in a standard way, and the next year it is something new. It is a big group, and that is what politics and the government wants—people like sheep, and there are plenty of sheep. They want people to go in the same way, think the same way because it is going to be easier for them to get the vote, to get money, to have control. The ones who are not controlled, the ones who want to do their own thing, they are fewer and fewer, and that is the big problem in the world. It is not an easy environment we live in and thus we have to fight more, we have to be stronger.


I could not agree more with you. Was it always like this, the projection of women in Italian television?

Margherita – Yes, since we were very young. But in the 70’s and early 80’s, the showgirls in Italy were so different; they were chic, well dressed, spoke in many languages. They could sing and dance; they could do everything very well; they had talent. But today, from what I hear and sometimes see in a newspaper at a bar, it is just the display of the body and a smile from the mouth.


Farming was once organic, and it is slowly coming back. Could the same healthy cycle happen with media?

Francesca – Yes, I believe that. Every time, everything goes back to the original. People who believe in what they are doing, they are going to be there.

Take wine production. It’s not just a five-year deal because one has to sell the wine, or we have to show the wine. Those who are doing a good job, who believe what they are doing, are going to be around 10 to 20 years. So we will see that the trend is going to go to the organic and the biodynamic. And everybody is going to be biodynamic, and then the market is going to say: “Okay, now we have to choose this wine because it tastes good, we trust these people.” So it is going to come back—it is a cycle.


The Tuscan region is magical. Does living here change the way one feels and thinks, and does it, in turn, affect your life overall?

Francesca – Living in the countryside, especially for women, the body follows nature more than when you are in the city, for sure.

Margherita – Just watching nature, just watching the sunrise and the sunset, those things are big things for us. Very simple, but beautiful.

There’s intimacy.

Margherita – Yes, there are a lot of woods. It is very important, it is a big land for nature, for the animals, and we are not too far from the sea.


What is the best way to enjoy wine, in moderation of course?

Francesca – It is important to drink pure natural wines—not industrial—as it’s more digestible, it’s healthier, and it gives you an emotion. Wine that talks to you is like eating a piece of cheese that is made from good milk in a good way. It is not just the taste; it is also the nutrition.

Margherita – And you do not have to get drunk.


When Francesca and Margherita Padovani sit down with friends and family, to celebrate the moment, how do they bring about the essence of enjoying wine?

Francesca –It is quite exciting, when friends come over, we open bottles from different vineyards, taste different wines. It is discovering a new taste, and it becomes really interesting. And you are drinking wine that is made by people who love what they are doing, so it is good for you. It is beautiful; you are drinking a place, you are drinking a person, you are drinking a story. That is the emotional thing of drinking these wines.


To learn more about Francesca and Margherita Padovani visit their website.