Francisca van Zeller

Francisca van Zeller

Quinta Vale D. Maria (Brand Manager)

Her father's passion led Francisca to wine.

Francisca van Zeller is from a Portuguese wine family with deep roots in the Douro Valley. Her father, Cristiano van Zeller, is a well-known and highly successful wine producer whose family had owned and operated Quinta do Noval since1894, before it changed hands in the 1990s. (Her father was co-administrator of Quinta do Noval in the 1980s and 1990s). We met with Francisca at Quinta Vale D. Maria, which was acquired by her parents in 1996 and been in her mother's family for over 250 years.

Francisca took a circuitous path to her current position in the family wine business. Her first degree was in history from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2007, followed by an MA in journalism two years later from the Universidad San Pablo-CEU. She worked in various positions for the next four years and then heard the calling from her family's roots. She completed the Universidad Católica Portuguesa's graduate program in Viticultura e Enologi in 2015, and now holds the title of Exports Manager and Marketing at Quinta Vale D. Maria. Shortly after our visit, the winery was sold to Aveleda, a leading Vinho Verde producer owned by their cousins, Martim and António Guedes. As part of the sale, Cristiano remains executive director of Quinta Vale D. Maria, Francisca continues as the brand manager, and Joana Pinhão remains the chief winemaker.

Very much a visionary, doer, and ambassador, Francisca is heavily involved in developing and implementing the marketing and distribution strategies for the Quinta. She manages the winery's relationships with journalists and clients directly, but also through the “Douro Boys” group and the more recently formed “D'Uva, Portugal Wine Girls,” of which she is a founder. In addition, she is involved in the Quinta's winemaking process, especially in the final definition of the wines. During our conversation, Francisca talked extensively and with great passion about the plans for further developing Quinta Vale D. Maria wines and refurbishing some of the centuries-old buildings on the property.

The Douro Boys are associated with what some call “The New Douro” and its focus on the excellent still wines now being produced in the Douro Valley. In the past five years, both still wines and Ports from the Douro were listed among Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines. The Douro Boys, with representatives from a group of five wine estates, Quinta do Vallado, Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale D. Maria and Quinta do Vale Meão, has as its goal positioning the still wines of the Douro on an equal footing with the traditional Port wines. Francisca's father was one of the group's organizers. The members of D'Uva are well known professional women from different regions of Portugal, and include leading winemakers, viticulturists, owners, and marketing and sales managers. Among its goals is promoting Portuguese wines throughout the world.

Opportunities for Women. Francisca noted that winemakers such as Filipa Pato in the Bairrada wine region and Sandra Tavares da Silvia (see below) have done well in the industry, and their recognition helps younger women seeking winery positions. She thought that in sales, “Being a daughter of a recognized family in the wine business may be an advantage, as it is still a rarer case than being a son who has gone into the business. It can attract attention just because of the gender difference.” Overall, though, in her experience, marketing and trade appear to be more balanced between women and men than other areas of the wine industry.

She observed some specific disadvantages for women — sommeliers are still mainly men and they don't seem to include female sommeliers in their events (there are relatively few female sommeliers in Portugal). Similarly, few tasting circles include women, and members of the circles typically do not invite women to join them. In addition, only rarely does one see women as wine buyers.

In the area of viticulture, both Francisca and Maria Manuel Maia, a viticulturist, thought that the change in Maria’s field was slower than in winemaking, and that it was “still a man's world.”

The Port and Douro Wines. Quinta Vale D. Maria produces award-winning Vale D. Maria Whites, Reds, Port and CV (Curriculum Vitae Douro Red), the estate red. The 2009 “Tinto” Quinta Vale D. Maria Douro received 96 points from Parker. And the Quinta Vale D. Maria Douro Red 2013 was named to the “TOP 100 Wine Spectator List of 2016.”

Francisca surprised us with a gift bottle of the 2013 Quinta Vale D. Maria “Vinha da Francisca” Douro Red made from fruit grown in the vineyard bearing her name.