Posted by: Andy Kelly
I recently submitted an entry into Jancis Robinson's Summer Writing Competition 2020. The theme was around Sustainability and there was only ever going to be one winery I wanted to showcase...
Whilst we did not win, the article was published on Jancis Robinson's website which provided Montemaggio with some great exposure and I also got my name out there too. Below is the full, unedited version of the article which allows Valeria's personality to shine through, focuses a little more on the staff and provides better insight into how Valeria and the team at Montemaggio are ahead of the curve in terms of the customer experience.
There was only ever going to be one nominee for my sustainability hero and that is Fattoria di Montemaggio.
Based in Radda, Chianti, Fattoria di Montemaggio is a family owned, 70-hectare estate of vineyards, olive groves and forest. The estate lies on a slope between 450 – 600 metres above sea level with the 8-hectare vineyard primarily growing Sangiovese with smaller plots of Merlot, Pugnitello, Chardonnay, Malvasia Nera and Ciliegiolo.
The estate produces wines of outstanding quality, but it hasn’t just limited itself to this endeavour, producing Grappa, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and most recently, a new skincare range.
I was fortunate enough to meet with the young and charismatic owner, Valeria Zavadnikova, via Zoom. Thankfully, the limitations of technology did little to dim her enthusiasm with her personality and passion for sustainable winemaking permeating our entire conversation. She explained to me how she immediately fell in love with her surroundings, “I was born in the Soviet Union and my grandparents had this big vegetable garden where we would grow all of our fruits and vegetables” Valeria continues: “I remember being super happy in this vegetable garden and the feeling of tranquillity and being at one with nature at Montemaggio takes me back to the vegetable garden in my childhood. Actually, one of the first things I did when my family bought Montemaggio was plot a vegetable garden of my own!”
It’s not always been plain sailing for Valeria at Montemaggio. A lawyer by trade, her father purchased the vineyard in 2007 and quickly realised that he could not give up his original business so he asked Valeria if she wanted to run the estate. “I had no idea how to run a business” Valeria remembers: “I tried, but after two years I realised that I needed to study wine and business marketing to support the vineyard so I went to Bordeaux and completed a second Masters in Marketing and Management in the Wine and Spirits Sector”.
What was never in doubt, however, was Valeria’s desire to produce organic wines. For her, being organic is not a trend but a philosophy and one which she is constantly striving towards at Montemaggio. “I care so much about my health and eating healthily. I really believe that we are what we eat and it’s so important to take care of ourselves. I don’t want Montemaggio to be a big commercial winery, I want to do something that I love. I love wine and I want to produce it in the best way possible. The idea of getting things out of something that I would have otherwise thrown away is so exciting and I love it. There is no waste and nobody has to suffer”.
We discuss the impact that Covid-19 has been having on her business and as the conversation flows, it’s refreshing to see the air of optimism in her outlook. But, as we progress, one worry becomes abundantly clear. “I’m troubled with all the masks and things that you can only use once before having to throw them away. How much of this is going to end up in our oceans? The thought of this is killing me”.
Montemaggio has been certified organic since 2009 by the CCPB and you will find the Ecocert logo on the back of all their wines. It’s a vigorous process as Valeria is keen to stress, “In order to be certified organic you actually need to have two certifications, one for organic grapes and another for organic wine…” she continues: “We have an external body who comes to do all of the checks and they check everything but it’s very important to us to have this certification because it is also recognised in the US, meaning I am able to sell my wines as organic in the US also”.
Valeria is vehemently against the use of pesticides in her vineyard, having seen first-hand the damage that they cause. Not only are these pesticides harming the plants but they can metabolise inside the grape, changing its DNA. She explains that not only will these pesticides get into the soil and cause more damage but it’s then transferred further afield by rain water, devastating a much wider area. “I’ve seen pesticides contaminate ponds and kill the fish living there. Imagine fishing in a pond or a lake that’s been contaminated in this way and then eating the contaminated fish?” She ponders.
Valeria has discovered that there are more natural and ingenious ways of ridding her vineyard of unwanted pests whilst also promoting biodiversity. “There are these little bugs eating the cypress trees across Chianti and we realised that ladybugs eat the larvae of these little bugs so we purchased ladybugs and placed them in the soil at the bottom of the trees”. This met with limited success but there was one other ingenious method she employed to rid her vines of ravenous caterpillars. “A lovely butterfly always comes and leaves her eggs on our vines and the caterpillars will eat everything!” Valeria continues: “so instead of killing them we put a plastic pouch filled with the male butterfly’s hormone. When the female comes to lay her eggs, she gets confused because she can’t find the male and flies away to lay her eggs elsewhere”.
That’s not to say that they she doesn’t use certain elements to support her vines. Copper is employed in the vineyard to tackle fungus which is permitted by Ecocert, the compromise being that the spray will just confine itself to the plant and not spread to the soil.
Valeria is keen to support the ecosystem as much as possible and makes use of a lot of cover crops such as Barley. Barley is particularly effective when planted at the bottom of her slopes as it soaks up a lot of the excess water that would otherwise pool in the area.
There are other necessary evils that Valeria accepts are part and parcel of the winemaking process. So2 is added to her wines but in minimal quantities, just enough to ensure that her wines remain fresh and survive the long journey via container ship to the United States.
Speaking of shipping, Montemaggio are pleased to be phasing out their current packaging, substituting their old polystyrene wrapping and replacing it with recyclable cardboard. It’s a great step forward, and one that elicits a funny tale from Valeria, “I’ve been doing some testing, by throwing my bottles packed in the new cardboard off of my terrace to the floor below and I’m satisfied now that my bottles will arrive intact to our customers!”
Her desire to recycle as much as possible has also extended to the bottles themselves. Both the Chardonnay and Rose are bottled with a glass cork, allowing customers to use the bottles for a range of other purposes once they’ve enjoyed the wine.
Aside from producing Grappa and Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Valeria has recently launched her own skincare range. Borne from the seeds and skins of the grapes that contain flavonoids, her range includes a face scrub & serum, eye contour cream and anti-ageing day cream. The stem cells used in her skincare range would otherwise help the plants regenerate so these same stem cells should support the regeneration of our skin. I’ve been using the face scrub for a number of weeks myself and my sensitive skin does feel better!
This isn’t a vanity project either, it’s borne out of Valeria’s desire to avoid waste: “I would have otherwise thrown away the skins and the seeds but I’ve been able to do something else with them. This resonates really well with my idea of sustainable agriculture and not throwing anything away,” we can even expect a hair oil in the near future.
Great emphasis is placed on the health & wellbeing of all the staff working at Montemaggio. Illaria, her agronomist, has worked with her since 2007 and Valeria believes that her own risk-taking approach is suitably tempered by Illaria’s more traditional style, complementing each other well. For the remainder of her small team, great emphasis is placed on understanding the complete workings of the vineyard. This gives her team a sense of place, allowing them to understand the importance of their role within the vineyard. They’re all encouraged to advance their own professional development and Valeria even takes an active interest in their career choices. For example, by encouraging Haseeba, her cook, to undertake any cooking classes that will improve the offer to tourists.
Staff retention is high and, most importantly, they are all happy. “If my workers are happy then I have found that they are more flexible and they treat our customers well. It’s also important for our customers to see that my team are happy as it enhances the reputation of my vineyard,” Valeria explains.
The importance placed on the customer experience at Montemaggio also deserves praise. Valeria has harnessed the power of social media to build a closer connection with her customers with a strong presence on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The quality of Montemaggio shines throughout the customer journey. The website is slick and the purchasing experience is very simple. Delivery is swift (I received my most recent purchase within 5 working days from ordering), and you can sense the passion that’s gone into making the wine from the quality of the packaging, right down to the lovely message inside highlighting Valeria’s mission.
And, what of the wines themselves? They’re fabulous, with the Chardonnay being my absolute favourite. But don’t just take my word for it, take a look at their website and you can see for yourself just how many awards these wines are winning.
So, what next for Montemaggio? Well, Valeria isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s completely aware that there is more that she can do to boost her sustainability credentials. “I would love to install solar panels and have my tractor to run on biofuel. I would also love to become biodynamic and have a 100% sustainable ecosystem where everything works in unison but these things take time and cost a lot of money. Everything that I’m able to achieve right now I try to achieve, and for me this is a legacy that I will leave to my children and future generations,” she explains.
In the short term, Valeria would like to do a couple of videos on composting but there’s a niggling worry in the back of her mind, “I want to do a couple of videos about the worms but are people really going to find any of this interesting?!” she ponders.
I wouldn’t worry Valeria. Given your enthusiasm and the love you’ve put in to Montemaggio, I think a couple of videos about your passion shouldn’t be too much trouble.