Barbara Fitzgerald writes My name is Barbara Fitzgerald, and I am a proud California native and Italian-American who finds much joy in the wine industry. I love that wine connects us to the Earth, to history and to each other. I am an enthusiastic Italian Wine Ambassador, certified by the Vinitaly International Academy, as well as awarded Level 3 in wines by the WSET. Over the past 15+ years, I have lived and breathed Direct to Consumer Marketing and Strategy, helping wine brands find exponential increases in revenue, brand awareness, and customer base. I combine my years of experience with critical thinking, data analysis, creative ideas and a penchant for storytelling. I currently own my own consulting business called Apri La Creative, helping wineries in both the US and Italy develop and grow their DTC strategies. I live most of the time in Sonoma County, spending a few months of the year in Puglia, Italy.
11 years ago, I visited Azienda Agricola Fratelli Cigliuti in Barbaresco and had such an impressionable experience with Claudia Cigliuti, I told myself, “I should write this all down.” Over a decade later, it’s time for me to make good on that promise, as Claudia has never ceased to inspire me.
My husband, Dan and I spent three days of our honeymoon in Piemonte, on the hunt for lesser-known Nebbiolo. Ourselves wine producers, we asked one of our distributors to curate a list, on which Cigliuti stood atop.
On a scorching July morning, we began our journey from Monforte d’Alba to Serraboella. We had a comically small hatchback Toyota hybrid, yet Dan took the corners of the country roads like we were in a Ferrari. The sky was crystalline, the vineyards bustling green and the dramatic hills seemed as they had been carefully laid by an artist’s hand. If it sounds like a dream, I can assure you – it felt like one.
Finding Cigliuti was its own adventure. Wine tasting is Piemonte is so different than in my home of Sonoma County; California wineries announce their presence, but in Piemonte it felt like they were protecting a precious secret. Though our GPS signaled we had arrived, we found nothing to indicate a winery could be there. It looked like we’d stumbled upon an empty residential neighborhood atop one of the most storied ridgelines in the wine world. The only human activity was a thin, 60-something blonde woman we spotted casually smoking a cigarette on her balcony. She appeared disinterested in our plight and instead focused her attention on (what I later learned they referred to as) their “yard” – their UNESCO World Heritage yard.
Growing weary after our fourth out and back, Dan suggested I (being fluent in Italian) ask the woman if she could point us to the winery. I popped out of the tiny car and stood under the balcony, like Romeo calling up to Juliet. “Stiamo cercando Cigliuti. Sa dov’è?” She looked at me, calm and cool, and said, “Sei qui.” “You’re here.” Without a sense of urgency, in the beautiful way the Italians can relish in a moment and simultaneously make Americans squeamish, she descended from her balcony and opened the gate.
She introduced herself as Claudia’s mother, Dina. Her daughter, she said, was running behind because she was working in the vineyard. The slight frustration from my hospitality experience was quickly scolded by the empathy of the winegrower in me; there are some tasks which cannot be left for later.
Dina nonchalantly entertained us. She spoke no English, and waited patiently me for me to translate for Dan. She told us about the only time she’d been in the States – Chicago, and it was too cold. She was a no-nonsense woman who seemed eager to get back to her “yard;” yet, she didn’t abandon us.
Soon, I noticed the gate through which we had entered starting to pull back again. It moved slowly, seemingly in an effort to create suspense; or, perhaps because even Italian technology can savor the moment. On the other side stood a woman barely taller than five feet, dressed in cotton shorts speckled with holes, a soil-dusted tank top, beat-up work boots and a fanny pack around her waist. Her hair was tousled and it was plain to see the beads of sweat in her brow were from working in the sun rather than bathing in it. Again, my Sonoma County hospitality brain marveled at the differences between our two worlds.
She jogged over, waving her hands apologetically and thanking Dina for looking after us. She spoke perfect English, making it sound all the more romantic with her lyrical Italian accent. I was quite relieved, as I had been wary of my own ability to translate technical vernacular for my winemaker husband.
From the moment the gate revealed Claudia, I was taken. She exuded a vibrancy and even as she hurried towards us, I could tell she, too wasn’t one to let the beauty of the present escape. She was in her late-thirties, barely older than my husband and I, and yet I could feel the lifetime of wisdom coursing through her. In an instant I knew I would have much to learn from her.
Claudia began our tour where everything in our world begins – the vineyards. She looked at, spoke about and tended to her precious vines with the tenderness of a doting mother and the expertise of a sage. This wasn’t just her work – it was her destiny, what gave her life and continued to sustain it.
She was proud to explain her father, Renato, had been an early adopter of green harvesting in the 1960s. This might not sound ground-breaking to those from the New World, but in the poverty and famine stricken post-war landscape, the notion of a young farmer dropping (“wasting”) fruit in the vineyard left the locals baffled and even angered. Renato stuck to his guns; treating Nebbiolo for quality over quantity, he believed, would pay off in the end. Many years later, nearly all of Piemonte would undergo this same viticultural revolution.
Claudia wasn’t just great because of her father’s merits, though they did help nurture her deep comprehension of her vines. She’s a force in her own right, and continues to evolve her skillset beyond what has been handed down. Renato has two daughters, Claudia and Silvia. For many years, he considered himself unlucky. How would the work continue without a son to take it over? Today, he knows just how blessed he is.
Claudia and Silvia have divided all the aspects of running a winery – from production to marketing and sales. The whole team (father, mother, daughters and two hired hands) work the vineyards, and Claudia doesn’t have to tell us it’s where she’s most alive – it’s written all over her face. Seemingly unbothered by the work required, she cooed with her contagious grin, “this is my happy place.”
She showed us the delicate way in which Nebbiolo must be green harvested. Rather than dropping entire bunches, the bottom portion of the bunch is cut with tremendous care not to disturb the portion remaining on the vine. The work is incredibly intricate, and requires the patience of people who do not rush. And, much to her delight, the “smaller hands of ladies.” Finally, something in which she wouldn’t have to prove her worth over a man’s! Claudia cradled each bunch like she knew the worth of their weight in gold – liquid gold.
She spoke about the differences between growing Barbera and Nebbiolo, and how they’d planted hazelnuts in the exposures that weren’t suited to growing either. Of course they farm organically, but they’re too small an operation to bother with the red tape of certification. She talked about the importance of the canopy growth, since Nebbiolo is such a late ripening variety, and how the use of canopy is being modified with the changing climate.
At one point, she noticed a bit of canopy hanging too heavily. She unzipped the pack around her waist, revealed a pair of clippers, and started pruning as our conversation continued. The magnitude of this lesson wouldn’t hit me until later. Here was a woman who’d taken the reins in a “man’s world,” carrying her tools for success with her everywhere she went. I’ve thought of that pack many times in my career – carry only what you need, don’t overburden yourself with what you don’t.
Of course, farming wine grapes isn’t always romantic. Some years are harder than others (like in 1992, when Cigliuti lost their entire crop to hail). But, Claudia reminded me, “we don’t farm for one vintage; we farm for the life of the vine, to give it health, vitality and prosperity for a hundred years or more.” The nothing-exists-in-a-vacuum message hits me every time.
After much conversation and continued pruning, we moved on to taste the wines in a small room with a large window overlooking the majestic land we’d just explored. The wines are like Claudia – bright, sincere, and quietly powerful. She explained that, of course, they do as little as possible to the wines in the cellar – the wines are born in the vineyard and that’s where they become who they’re meant to be.
She spoke in a way that felt like we’d known each other for years; there wasn’t a hint of condescension, despite the fact she was a veritable icon, giving us the most significant Piedmontese wine education we’d received up to then. Spending time with her was like being in the presence of someone incredibly comfortable in their skin – the kind of innate authenticity that makes a moment, a woman ineffable.
We continued to the winery, crossing the courtyard to stand outside two colossal barn doors – the type that hold generations of lore and require the use of all your body weight to move. She paused mid-opening to say, “I need to take off my shoes. They’re too dirty from working in the vineyard.” This level of reverence for the temple that housed her craft burst my heart about as wide open as my jaw dropped.
Her feet garbed in only socks, she led us around the tanks, barrels and bottling line. Dan and I peppered her with easily a hundred questions, but she never grew tired of us. She began each response with “Ah!” “Yes!” “Ok!” “Allora!” as if she was genuinely delighted by our insatiable curiosity.
We asked Claudia if we may purchase some of the wines. She said yes, but we shouldn’t feel “obligated.” We were newlyweds who had just spent nearly every cent we had on our wedding, so our budget for wine was virtually nonexistent; yet, I knew I couldn’t leave this moment without a piece of what we’d just been gifted. We bought 6 bottles, a huge splurge for us at the time; still, a move we both knew we’d never regret.
Claudia disappeared to package our wine (the woman does everything). She returned, about to hand off our carrier, and then softly hugged them back into her chest, into her heart. “You’re going to take good care of these, right?” She knew we were at the beginning of another 18 days of planes, trains and automobiles across Italy. I respected the hell out of her question, and the degree of care she had for every single bottle. It was more important to her that her wine was treated well and properly enjoyed than to make a sale.
Our visit was close to three hours. In that time, Claudia didn’t once talk about her individual achievements, of which there were many, I would later learn. She was among the first women in Barolo or Barbaresco to take over winery operations, but she never told us that. She taught herself how to navigate international markets successfully, but there was no boasting. She didn’t complain about working seven days a week or managing nearly every aspect of the business. She spoke about the different approaches to production across the region without putting anyone else down. And, when I asked her if she had any advice for successfully running a multi-generational family business with her sister, her response was simply, “I know her strengths and she knows mine. We respect each other for those.”
Over a decade later, I still get emotional thinking about the largess of our time together. I seek out Claudia’s wine anywhere and everywhere I can, not just to enjoy fabulous Nebbiolo, but to be reminded of the professional – heck, the human I aspire to be. Just by being herself, Claudia proffered me a powerful lesson in how to be a successful woman in wine: lead by example, respect your land and put it first, respect your consumers, respect your wines, respect your peers (within your family, company, industry). And, always carry the tools you need in your fanny pack.
The photo is the author's own.