'The Brothers Grimm couldn't have come up with a better plot': one woman's mission to create Italy's first organic winery

Marina Marcarino defied her father to achieve her dream. He ended up working for her

Marina Marcarino
Marina Marcarino was determined to follow her passion despite objection from her family Credit: Punset winery

It’s easy to assume that anyone in charge of a family vineyard in an aristocratic wine region might have had their life mapped out for them at birth. In reality that’s rarely how things pan out. In the particular case of Marina Marcarino, making wine was so explicitly what her parents did not want her to do that they refused to allow her to apply to oenological school. Undeterred, Marcarino enrolled on a university agriculture course – but she told her family she was actually studying engineering.

“I was supposed to be an engineer,” says Marcarino. We are standing in a room of what was once her grandmother’s hilltop farmhouse. It is now the heart of a small – and highly regarded – organic producer called Punset (the word means “small hill” in the local Piedmontese dialect) just to the south of the village of Neive in Barbaresco.

“We were a family whose main business was construction, so my father, grandfather and uncle wanted me to continue that activity. It was mostly state contracts like hospitals, schools and railways, very boring, no fantasy. It was not too difficult to say, ‘I want to do something else.’”

Marcarino is a pioneer who has forged Punset to fit with her own, ahead-of-its-time belief in the importance of taking a holistic approach to viticulture. She is quietly spoken and unshowy, but going with the flow has never been her style.

Her interest in vines and the outdoors came from hanging out with her grandmother as a child. “Because I was quite active, I was refused by four kindergartens. So my grandmother said, ‘OK, I’ll take her with me.’ She had a farm – animals, fruit, vegetables and actually winemaking was a sort of second family business and a hobby for my grandparents. I really fell in love with it. It was the beginning of my dream.”

Marcarino managed to reach her second year at university before her father discovered what she had been up to. There was a big row. She was sent to work on construction sites: first a court (“Super-boring!”) then a railway (“Even worse!”). “I was crying, ‘You can’t take my life. Give me one chance, let me run the farm for a year; if I don’t lose money then I do what I like, if I do lose money I do what you like.’”

The Brothers Grimm could hardly have come up with a better plot. Certain she would fail, her father agreed. It was 1982, not an easy time to be a wine producer in Barbaresco, a region whose reputation was transformed in the last two decades of the 20th century.

Three weeks in, Marcarino realised she could not manage without help. She approached a university tutor who said that she would need to come up with a project. “At the time people were using a lot of strong [herbicides and pesticides]. I felt that it was important, working in the fields and on the farm, to make them a healthy place.” She started a project on organic viticulture and gained support, not just from the university but also from two “old men from the local town, my grandfather’s friends, who heard of this crazy story and offered to come and work for me for free”.

Punset winery Credit: Punset winery

That first year Marcarino made a very small quantity of wine, sold a lot of grapes – and turned a profit of 10 lire to win the wager. She has not looked back. In 1987 Punset became the first certified organic winery in Italy.

The two old men continued to work for her (after two years, in a paid capacity) and one of them carried on until he was in his late 80s. Marcarino then had to tell him, “We can’t carry on because I can’t get worker’s insurance for you so if you cut your finger I am in trouble.” He said, “If you fire me, you kill me,’” but she had to.

In 1994 her father retired and came to work for her for 10 years: “That was the best time and I should say that this was a very good lesson in the family, because after me all the younger people are free to make their own choice.”

I like Marcarino’s wines very much – they are harmonious and vital, gentle but also bright. But this is not a woman who stopped thinking once she had built her business. She recently began to read around the works of Japanese philosopher and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka.

Like many other wine producers, she is concerned about climate change – standing outside the farmhouse in a long quilted coat, she shakes her head because a pink rose is flowering and the pear tree is in full white blossom on Jan 20. “Winter is almost disappearing, we have to accelerate all the pruning work because the vine sleeps for a shorter time. And this year we saw that many insects didn’t go to sleep for the winter.”

Rightly, she sighs about the lack of responsibility people take for their choices. “I never go to those shops that keep their doors open all winter long, for example. Yes I’m just one drop in an ocean but if someone else does it too then we are two drops… it is more than clear that something has to be done.” One choice for wine drinkers is to buy from sustainability-conscious producers like Punset – not a difficult decision when the wine tastes so good.

Punset wines are available through Armit Wines & Decorum Vintners.

Wines of the week

Awatere Valley Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2019 New Zealand

(12.5%, Lidl, £6.99)

A lively Marlborough sauvignon blanc that leans to the green, barbed-wire side of things – think fierce tomato leaf, aggressive citrus and green capsicum, with elderflower on the side.

ChÂteau d’Emeringes Beaujolais Vieilles Vignes 2018 France

(13.5%, The Wine Society, £8.50)

A bright and very true beaujolais made from the fruit of old vines – think summer pudding with a tremble of graphite. Don’t wait for summer: chill it and enjoy it now with a chicken casserole.

Artesano de Argento Fairtrade Organic Malbec Cabernet Franc 2018 Argentina

(14.5%, Sainsbury’s, £10, down to £8.50 until March 24 )

This cabernet franc grown in Argentina has more of a plump, raspberry-jelly flavour than its Loire counterpart. Here it pairs very well with malbec – and the wine comes with both Fairtrade and organic credentials to boot