Carl Kanowsky | Barbara Widmer, the soul of Brancaia

Carl Kanowsky on Wine

So, as I was talking about, in my last column, the Swiss family, Widmer, had found a home away from home more than 40 years ago in Tuscany, specifically in the Chianti region. 

Initially, it was essentially a vacation home that also produced some wine. Barbara Widmer, the daughter of the founders of Brancaia and its current winemaker, was too young to have a role at the winery in the 1980s. In the 1990s, she was studying architecture, preferring city life to a rural lifestyle. 

At the ripe old age of 22, Barbara suffered an existential crisis. While she loved architecture, she knew what she liked and what she didn’t. She realized she had no desire to be hired by a client to design a building or a home in a style she detested. She still has a passion for architecture (in fact, she designed all of the furniture at the winery). But what was she going to do, if not be an architect? 

So, she retreated to Chianti and spent a few months mulling about her future. During that time, she experienced a harvest at Brancaia. And that’s when she had an epiphany – wine was to be her future. She then went to work at another winery, went to oenology school, and returned to Brancaia six years later. 

My friend, Sandra, then asked Barbara a great question. At 28, Barbara was a young woman who was going to jump headlong into a career dominated by men. Sandra wanted to know what challenges Barbara faced in making this career choice.  

Barbara called her parents “very modern.” She has two older brothers, but her folks never distinguished her from them. There was never any discussion about saving Brancaia for one of the sons. Such a supportive environment gave her the foundation she needed to excel. I asked why she thought her parents saw her as the winemaker in the family. Her answer, with a smile and a laugh, “I don’t know. Maybe they just wanted to get rid of me.”  

In retrospect, she said the other family members saw the winery as a hobby, whereas she has a passion for it. 

Barbara is also selfless. While she’s been the only winemaker at Brancaia for the last 25 years and it has achieved international fame during that time, she heaps praise on the long-term staff Brancaia has enjoyed, from the workers in the vineyard to the folks in the cellar.  

Brancaia has become a trendsetter during Barbara’s time as the winemaker. For instance, in the Chianti region there are very strict rules about how wines labeled as Chianti must be made. One of those rules is the grape Sangiovese must be dominant. In Chianti Clasico, the wine must be at least 80% Sangiovese. And while Brancaia has some outstanding Chiantis (which we will discuss in the next column), it was one of the first to make so-called Super Tuscan wines. One of its trademark wines, Il Blu, is predominantly merlot with only 25% or less of Sangiovese. 

Il Blu started in 1988. Barbara says that the rules for Chianti wines from the 1980s to 1996 created the perfect environment to step away from tradition. Back then, any wine to be labeled Chianti Clasico not only had to be heavily Sangiovese but must also include some white wine. According to Barbara, these rules prevented winemakers in the Chianti region from making world-class wine. Thus, Super Tuscans were born, wines featuring Bordeaux varietals. 

Barbara believes that the success of the Super Tuscans (which were selling for more money than the Chianti wines in the 1990s) drove the changes to the Chianti rules. The old Chianti rules required that at least some white grapes had to be included in the final blend. Then, in 2006, seeing that the market was responding more to the Super Tuscans than the Chianti, the rules changed to prohibit any white grapes in Chianti at all. 

Barbara has taken Brancaia from making two wines to making nine. As she says, “You have to try to understand the quality of the grapes, to discern what they want to be. You have to follow the needs of the grapes, which led us to the wines we have today. Our selection of wines was not a business decision – it was the opportunity presented by the grapes.” 

Thank God she had that crisis at a young age. Now, the world gets to enjoy her creations made possible by her stepping away from architecture. The wines next. 

Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker.  

Barbara Widmer. Photo courtesy of Carl Kanowsky.
Barbara Widmer. Photo courtesy of Carl Kanowsky.
Brancaia’s wall of awards. Photo courtesy of Sandra Chiusano.
Brancaia’s wall of awards. Photo courtesy of Sandra Chiusano.

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