People 14 May 2018
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."
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.