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Breaking Traditions: This Woman Is The First To Run Her Family's Italian Winery

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Cristina Chiomenti lives a life that sounds like the perfect movie plot—New York City lawyer who moved to Tuscany to run her family's century-old winery. But following in the footsteps of a family history brimming with so much success and history isn't all glamorous.


With her roots planted in both Italy and New York City, Chiomenti began her career as a lawyer in New York City—at the very same firm founded by her grandfather. Today, she practices law in Tuscany while operating Fattoria del Teso, the 50-hectare Vineyard her great-grandparents bought over 100 years ago. Taking over the family business is not without its share of learning curves and obstacles to overcome. Here, Chiomenti describes in her own words, why she chose this path and what being the first woman to run the family business has taught her—and can teach you too . . .

“I'm a fourth-generation lawyer. My great grandfather (Filippo Vassalli, 1885 –1955) is considered in Italy the founder of modern civil law, having drafted in 1942 the Italian Civil Code. This was a monumental task as it required mastering ancient Roman empire laws and modern laws such as the Code Napoléon issued by Napoleon in France in 1804 and the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch published in Germany in 1900. Whilst fully absorbed by his profession, my great grandfather Filippo was always reminiscent of his origins from Tuscany and never lost contact with his beloved land. Finally, in the 1930s – after a long search – he bought a 50 hectares farm called “Fattoria del Teso." It lays at the feet of Montecarlo a village (borgo) ideally located one mile above sea level, 40 miles west of Florence and 30 miles east of the beautiful coast of Tuscany (Viareggio, Forte dei Marmi).

"Montecarlo position has always kept an important place in history. The land surrounding it is devoted to the cultivation of high-quality olive oil and wines."

Montecarlo position has always kept an important place in history. The land surrounding it is devoted to the cultivation of high-quality olive oil and wines (Montecarlo Rosso and White, both produced with a certified process and with Denominazione Origine Controllata). In the 14thcenturies armies from Pisa, Lucca and Florence contended this territory through bloody battles. The very name of the city Montecarlo is a tribute to Charles IV of Luxembourg who had a decisive role in a battle against Lucca. Following the purchase of Fattoria del Teso by my great-grandfather in 1930, the history of my family and the history of Fattoria del Teso intertwined inextricably for generations to this day. My great-grandfather loved the farm and the land per se and took every opportunity to travel from Rome to Tuscany to enjoy the fantastic hills and scenery surrounding the Fattoria del Teso.

In 1979, my grandfather Pasquale initiated the production of wine and built the structure where the cellar is now located. As a founder of one of the top international law firms in Italy, Chiomenti Studio Legale, he meticulously designed every detail of the winery. From vineyards, to grapes to the selection of the ancient barrels to be put in the cellar (the barrels used for the production of Vinsanto came from a scotch whiskey distillery and are still in use). I would say that to this day, Fattoria del Teso and its products reflect the drive of my grandfather: a very modern man with a bright business vision whose achievements speak for themselves. After the Second World War in 1948, he founded an associated law firm inspired by the big Anglo-Saxon international law firms. This firm is today one of the biggest firms in Italy, with offices in London, Bruxelles, New York and China. It's the firm where I work today—in New York Cty we have an office in Rockefeller Center and it's probably the biggest Italian law firm in the United States. Our firm works in close collaboration with the most important American law firms, assisting US clients in their investments in Italy and Italian clients in their business activities in the US.

After the passing of my grandfather, my father took over the law firm and the farm, preserving and continuing the tradition of “Law and Montecarlo" initiated half a century before by Filippo.

"As a founder of one of the top international law firms in Italy, Chiomenti Studio Legale, he meticulously designed every detail of the winery."

Today, I have the privilege and honor to continue such a tradition and follow in the steps of my family.

I graduated in law school and focused on building my career as an international business lawyer within the international firm that bears my family name. I spent several years in New York City where I graduated from NYU in 2005 in International Legal Studies. At the same time, Montecarlo has always been a fundamental part of my life and the most important memories of my life have its beautiful hills and scenario as background. When I was a kid, I played between the numerous trees in the farm, learning to drive the bicycle between the vineyards and spending hours laying in the grass looking to the sky. During my teens, I spent hours studying on the porch and walking through the fields.

My grandfather was my first mentor. Although he died in 1990 I have a lot of memories about him. His devotion and passion in handling the firm. His courage in being one of the first Italian lawyers studying abroad (he also studied in the United States). The way he loved Fattoria del Teso and the way he was proud of every single vineyard he planted and barrel he bought. It is definitely very important to find mentors during life. Stories of personal and business success are fundamental examples to follow. Today, like my great-grandfather in the 30's, I travel to Montecarlo from Rome whenever possible and it is my favorite place to spend holidays and vacations. I decided to put all my energies and focus on the Fattoria del Teso and the Montecarlo wine. Even though law still fascinates me, I feel that my destiny is in the farm. I apply to farming the same values of quality of service and pursuit of excellence that I put in the law is my mission.

My family instilled in me the same work ethic and values which allowed my predecessors to establish themselves as leaders in their respective fields.

My grandfather Pasquale managed to establish an international law firm in the difficult post-WWII years. He has been and still is a model for the generations of lawyers who continue to practice in the firm that still carries his name. Entrepreneurship, vision, and dedication are values that my family taught me and that I still apply to Montecarlo.

I moved back to Italy in 2008, after four years in New York City. Like my great grandfather Filippo, I never severed my ties with Italy and Montecarlo and feel that my place in the world is closer to my land. I'm the first woman in the family practicing law and managing the Fattoria. Both activities present challenges which – in my opinion – are bigger compared to my male peers. Gender equality is slowly getting the attention of the public in Italy but, nevertheless, numbers show a lower number of women in leading positions. I take particular pride in proving that I'm up to the task and capable of keeping up with three generations of great, brilliant male lawyers and farm owners. And, I 'm most protective of our tradition which is to only make wine using our grapes, use our traditional bottles and labels and keep our cellar as it was at the time of my grandfather—with the obvious innovations necessary to keep the products up to date. I'm protective of the land and of the ancient Villa built in 1800. Keeping vineyards, meadows, trees, and structure in order requires constant care and love. Our ancient cellar can host about 120 people for wine tastings and meals and it's my job to constantly increase the number of tourists coming to visit us from all over the world.

There's no greater satisfaction than having success and overcoming many obstacles and - sometimes - some prejudice, in a context that is not predominantly female. Those around us see these results and understand them and appreciate even more. I believe in the absolute need to be able to relate to everyone and in the infinite school of knowing how to get the best out of people. These are goals that I set myself every day. My models of leaders, in the family and outside, are the line with these values and then I inspire myself."

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Business

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.