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Wine Crush

A Winemaker’s Story of Coming Home

Laura Bianchi's decision to leave Castello di Monsanto ultimately helped her save the winery

Janice Williams By October 19, 2021
illustration of Laura Bianchi and her father
Illustration by Nicole Jarecz

If someone had asked a teenaged Laura Bianchi what she wanted to do with her life, winemaking would not have been her first response, despite growing up at Castello di Monsanto, the winery her father established in Chianti Classico in the 1960s.

“My love for Monsanto grew throughout my childhood, but I also convinced myself that I wanted to pursue something outside of the family business to challenge myself,” Bianchi recalls. 

That urge to experience something beyond life in the village of Monsanto led Bianchi down a new, exciting path. Little did she know, that road would inevitably lead her to where she truly belonged: right back in Chianti Classico. 

Leaving home

Bianchi spent much of her childhood roaming the vineyards, helping her father Fabrizio Bianchi test Sangiovese grapes’ sugar levels and tasting sweet must from the vats. She remembers listening to the farmers share old stories of the Monsanto village after a long day of harvest. One fond memory she holds dear is when she and her siblings snuck into the attic of the Monsanto castle and stole a bottle of Vin Santo, Tuscany’s classic dessert wine. Her father was not pleased. 

That was nothing compared to how he reacted when she told him she didn’t want to become a winemaker — she wanted to be a lawyer. 

“My father did not take that very well,” she says, adding, “We ultimately did not speak for six months because of my decision.”

Like many 18-year-olds, Laura Bianchi wanted to experience the world on her own. She wanted to live in the city, and she wanted to take up a profession that would allow her to help others. “I always liked the idea of being able to help people who were in trouble,” she says, adding that going to law school had long been a goal. 

She gained her law degree from Università degli Studi di Milano Facoltà di Giurisprudenza — with honors at that — but her career as a lawyer didn’t last. After working at a law firm for eight months, she began feeling suffocated working all day in a closed room. She missed her family. She missed the fresh, open country air, the rows and rows of grapevines. 

“It became clear to me that the decision to pursue law was dictated by my pride, by my head, and not by my heart, which had already shown me my destiny years prior,” Laura Bianchi says. 

Upon her return to Monsanto, Laura Bianchi was thrust back into the role of a student, learning everything she could about winemaking from her father, farmers, and the land itself. “My father always told me, ‘I will not teach you how to make wine. You will learn the process along the way by working with me and with the people who work in the vineyards and cellar. Working day after day, you will become aware of what you want to interpret from these vineyards.’ It is the best advice he has given me,” she says.

“We must learn to accept what is out of our control. In viticulture, nothing is invented overnight, and for that, you must have patience.”

Full circle

Bianchi’s first harvest, in 1989, was grueling. Constant rain caused the grapes to go bad. Castello di Monsanto didn’t produce a single wine that year. It was so bad, Bianchi questioned her decision. Fortunately, the next vintage — 1990 — was spectacular.

“That harvest was my ah-ha moment where I began to understand the joy of bringing grapes to the cellar and the enthusiasm behind creating wines,” she says. “It taught me to be calm, patient, and consistent. We must learn to accept what is out of our control. In viticulture, nothing is invented overnight, and for that, you must have patience.”

Those lessons came in handy for Bianchi a few years later when Castello di Monsanto found itself facing some legal trouble. A U.S.-based agrochemical company, Monsanto, sent the family a letter requesting they cancel the winery’s trademark registration in the U.S. The Bianchis knew how powerful Monsanto was. But they also knew their winery’s trademark history. Plus, they had a lawyer in the family.

“When my father received the letter, he told me, ‘It’s your time to use your law background in the best way,’” Bianchi recalls. “He left the responsibility of handling this matter completely to me.”

She spent 15 days looking through the company’s archives, searching the business’ timeline for mentions of anything pertaining to the U.S. Page after page, word for word, she read over more than 900 pages of documents. Finally, Bianchi found something. 

It was just one sentence, in the company’s guest book of 1971. The president of Monsanto had been to visit and had signed the book.

“What an honor to have the same name,” he wrote. “You produce wonderful wines.” 

The lawsuit was dismissed. 

A legacy continued

With more than 30 years of experience as a winemaker now under her belt, Bianchi says she knows now that every bit of her purpose was always rooted in wine and continuing the family legacy started by her father decades ago.

She has brought a stronger emphasis on sustainability and expanded production of Castello di Monsanto’s lineup of Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Trebbiano, and Malvasia. The winery has gained Forest Stewardship Council certification, and the company is currently working on a study involving carbon neutrality to better support and maintain the forests surrounding Castello di Monsanto vineyards.

Soon, the ground will break on Bianchi’s latest project: a hotel on the winery grounds with her niece serving as the head chef at the on-site restaurant. Bianchi’s two children are too young to follow in her footsteps, and she will encourage them to have their own experiences outside of the family business, as she did. But she says she can see at least one of them deciding to continue on with the winery in the future. 

“I remember finding a school essay I wrote at the age of six. I proudly declared that I would live in Monsanto because this is where I truly felt at home,” Bianchi remembers.

It turns out, she did.