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Protagonists

When enterprise generates more than just goods

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30 April 2021

Valentina Argiolas and her wine-related solidarity projects


“When I started, I was the only woman in the company; there wasn’t even a ladies restroom”. For my first day here, the sales manager did some hand drawings and stuck them on the doors. Today there are about ten of us”. This was January 3, 2004, and Valentina Argiolas, a 24-year-old economics graduate, was just taking up her position in the family vineyard in Serdiana, in the province of Cagliari. The company has grown thanks also to the female capital that she herself has begun to put to good use. “I loved art and literature”, she says, “but since I’m the first-born, I decided, out of a spirit of service or sacrifice, to follow the family’s direction”.

Was it hard?

At the beginning, yes, I did not understand anything.  However, after several crises, I found my own space with a bit of courage; I changed many things, and accepted external collaborations. They let me do it, I do not know whether it was out of trust or disinterest. I have increased the travelling and personal relationships with other producers. I expanded the hospitality sector, which has now become a business in its own right with an all-female staff. This includes tastings, visits to the winery and vineyards, events, and cooking. Slowly I created a team that has also developed communication and exports. There has been a growth in turnover, in brand awareness too.

Who, or what, has helped you?

I have a wonderful relationship with the many producers I have met while travelling, characterized by esteem, collaboration, exchange, and common growth. These relationships have allowed me to understand many things that I was completely unaware of before. At first, I felt wrong. Then I realised that it was a natural process that belonged to my generation. That I had to lead it without being subjected to it. I have found many great colleagues along this path, who have been and remain examples and guides. One of them is Donatella Cinelli Colombini, who chairs the Le Donne del Vino association (The Women of Wine) with the mission of strengthening the role of women in control bodies. The association, of which I was also regional president, was set up in the 1980s. In the beginning, it was the producers’ wives, mothers and sisters. Over time, the presence of women in active roles and their access to positions of power have increased. In addition, the world of Italian wine has improved a lot. It has become more communicative with our ability to grasp the subtleties, tell different stories, and enjoy their uniqueness. To move forward collaboratively. Men, on the other hand, tend to be a bit competitive. I do not want to generalise, but women do not need to mark their territory. I have two sons and I always say that I train a lot in the gym because I have to have a bit of brute force with them.  This is how men are, and it is up to us to teach them respect.

Are you saying that you could do even better on your own?

The bond of sisterhood is very constructive, but I like to work all together.  Everyone complements the other in his or her specificity and professionalism.

Do women have a particular aptitude for management?

We have the ability to get inside things a bit more, in sync with others; to understand, rather than clash. Although always very firmly. This has something to do with the habit of making many cogs work within the family. Our organisational capacity is not comparable to that of the manager of a company, who runs the company and that is it, whereas we are capable of doing three thousand things in a single minute; and if we forget, we are also capable of catching up and readjusting. I think it is a congenital thing. The woman is always the head of the pack who keeps everything under control, as in the matriarchal Sardinian families where she wove, not only the loom, but also all the relationships.

How important is the relationship with the land and the sense of generational change in family businesses like yours?

We have a very strong bond with the land.  We combine traditional vines with innovative and avant-garde techniques. We have been working the land in a sustainable way since 1970, and over the years, this has increased a lot. We carry out integrated viticulture, which is a middle way between traditional and organic. For this, we only give the vines the minimum amount of support required by climate change. First, we implement sustainable practices, then others if there is no other solution. We pay a lot of attention to biodiversity, and we have been focusing on this for ten years. This year, finally, despite the sadness caused by the pandemic, we were able to celebrate, by planting our first vineyard created with self-produced clones. This is how we can preserve a territory and a wine’s identity.

You are a pilot company for research by several national and international universities, what prompted you to invest in clean energy production?

Once again, it is respect for the environment. In 2009, we installed a photovoltaic system that permits us to produce 50 per cent of our energy needs autonomously. The land must be cared for and loved, and this passion must be passed on to future generations through concrete actions. The land should not be something distant, but something to return to for inspiration and to strengthen our roots. We were born, and work in a precious territory. Preserving and keeping all this intact is a responsibility, a daily commitment that guides us in every decision.

You say you have has been guided by the experiences of others. However, at the same time, the example of Cantine Argiolas has been generative, and your innovations have inspired other winegrowers. Will you also have to walk together to get out of this crisis?

Today, there is a need to understand, to do a careful job at a psychological level with our partners, respect, and great care in communication. At the same time, we need to think of new things, to reinvent ourselves, because not everything that was valid up until 2020 is still so. I hear from our partners at least once every two months, even if it’s just to say: “Hi, how are you?” To keep this large community together, because working with wine is extremely interconnected with people. Weaving these relationships is very feminine.

Why have women paid the highest price in terms of jobs?

Because there is no social structure to support women’s work. In addition, we need education against prejudice. I have also suffered it as an employer, when I have wanted to hire women, the first objection I received was, “What if they have children?” We went ahead anyway, but it hurts to hear this. In addition, a woman who has power, or visibility, is not always accepted, she is often seen as a threat, depriving a man of his authority. We have to manage the balance in daily life; we have the ability to understand people on the fly. This is also female capital.

Who are the great women of our time?

Kamala Harris. Then Lady Gaga: I love her empathy, what she conveys, and her sense of respect. I was moved when she received her Oscar and said: “It’s not how many times you fall that counts, but how you get back up”. However, there are also great men. Pope Francis is perfect for us at this moment in history. He preaches respect; respect for women, respect for the environment, respect for different religions, respect for roles, for commingling. These words alone would be enough to change the world for the better. Even Obama has explained that diversity is wealth. We experience this all the time in wine.

In addition, you have also gone to Africa: what is the Iselis project?

It is a solidarity project that began in 2010. We work in collaboration with the association Africadegna with the construction of a hospital in Lutendele, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has the name of one of the company’s main wines, because linking a solidarity project to a wine means that every year there is a renewal, a new project, just as the wine is different every year.

By Federica Re David