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MOVING TO ITALY

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’

Many people dream of enjoying a slower pace of life in rural Italy after decades of the 9-5. But some make the leap much earlier. One former UK professional tells Silvia Marchetti how she swapped the London office grind for winemaking and never looked back.

‘Why I ditched my UK corporate career for an abandoned Italian vineyard’
Sofia with Italian wine experts at her estate. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

At some point in life living the dream means abandoning one’s job, and this usually happens when people retire and think about what to do next. 

But one UK professional made the opposite choice: in her early 20s, she decided to ditch a promising career in the corporate and consultancy sector to move to deepest rural Italy and recover her ancestors’ long-lost vineyard. 

Scottish-Italian Sofia di Ciacca, with two degrees in law and history of art, worked for four years at KPMG in London and Edinburgh before she took the opportunity to do something different in life.

Her ancestors, who hailed from the tiny village of Picinisco in the province of Frosinone, Lazio, had migrated to Scotland decades ago. Every time she visited Italy as a child during the holidays, Sofia would feel the pull of her roots.

READ ALSO: ‘What we learned from moving to Italy and opening a B&B’

“I found myself presented with an opportunity very young, thanks to my family’s historical connection to the area, and thought: I either take time to build a career, or I can grab this chance,” she says.

“When you’re building a career, you already know what your trajectory will be: that you’ll be in an office here, and another office there. I realised I didn’t want that.”

At 23 she asked herself: why do later in life what I can do now? 

Sofia at work. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

This awareness took a while to develop, she says.

“As a child when I returned to Italy it was only as a holiday, not my day-to-day life. Imagine a young girl from Scotland, who had to learn about wine. I never thought about it when I was young.”

“Picinisco is so real, out of my comfort zone. That fascinated me”. 

Sofia, now 33, says she decided “to create something of value, that lasts in time and memory”.

Her family had started renovating old buildings in the area, and supported her career leap, but the wine business was something she was going to personally handle and dedicate years of sacrifice, study and hard work to building.

READ ALSO: ‘Do your homework’: An American’s guide to moving to Italy

Sofia had to learn from scratch, in a job that wasn’t quite like sitting in an office in front of a computer, and that required specific physical and social skills. 

She spent around four years studying the secrets of winemaking with Italian wine consultants in other parts of Italy, mainly on vineyards in Tuscany, where she learnt how to clean tanks, press grapes, plant vines, organise and run a canteen, and do the vendemmia (grape harvest). 

“I did traineeships, met experts, other international wine students, and all this helped me to grow,” she explains.

“The wine world is very complicated, you need to learn basic principles and engineering before you can even fathom how to start anything. Only once you learn, study, then you can have your own say, go see how local farmers work, understand how deep they plough the soil”.

Almost 10 years later, her winery now produces premium wines, honey and extra virgin olive oil. The wine is from an ancient grape variety grown in the area, called Maturano, of which production had been forsaken when local families migrated. 

She says it’s all a matter of gaining self-confidence built on hard graft, and it’s best to be honest and humble about things you don’t know, and are willing to be taught. Understanding the “rural respect for farmers” was key for her.

Sofia in the vineyard. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

One challenge was figuring out how to split her life between two countries: Scotland and Italy, and deciding where to locate the sales site, whether it was best to be in the cantina in Picinisco or marketing her products in Edinburgh. She says the balance is still not perfect.

But the toughest obstacle was tackling Italian bureaucracy. 

“I shed a lot of tears. The regulations hindered the business, like getting grants. You really need to follow the rules, understand the system, get the right people to advise you,” she says.

“But above all, stay honest. People will try to befriend you pretending to help, but it’s not worth it. As foreigners at the beginning you just don’t know how things work in Italy, you need to ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to do that”. 

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Another feat was the practical side of wine-making itself, which requires a lot of physical work, from hand-picking the grapes in the organic vineyard to getting the winery in shape. 

“You need to get physically fit, and the machinery at first was really not for me,” Sofia says. 

“I wasn’t great at understanding how it worked but luckily I had the right people to teach me”. 

The first harvest came after years of tough vineyard revival. The six-hectare vineyard produces some 30,000 bottles a year, which have already won three international prizes. Alongside the premium white 100 percent Maturano wine, it also yields a sweet amber-coloured passito wine. 

Sofia with her children. Photo credit: Sofia Di Ciacca

“I’ve always been fascinated by grapes, passionate about how they turn into wine,” Sofia says. 

“Recovering the indigenous Maturano variety was a success, it grew well with the fertile soil and the climate. The grapes are left to do the talking, no yeasts are used.”

In the meantime, it’s become a family affair: Sofia got married – her husband, also Scottish-Italian, is a wine importer – and their two toddlers have now started taking part in the vendemmia.

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RENTING

Reader question: How can I find an apartment to rent in Rome?

The Eternal City is a popular destination for foreigners wanting to stay for a few months or even years, but finding a place to rent can be complicated. Here's where to start.

Reader question: How can I find an apartment to rent in Rome?

Question: I’m moving to Rome in the spring with friends and we’re looking to rent an apartment in a central area. Do you have any suggestions for good sources of rentals in Rome?

For those staying in Rome for just a few weeks, it’s often simplest to go with a short-term booking site like Airbnb.

If you’re planning on staying for longer than this, however, it’s probably more cost-effective to go the official route and sign a rental agreement – though be prepared to deal with a certain amount of hassle (more on this below).

Some of the most popular websites in Italy for rentals are idealista.it, immobiliare.it, and casa.it, where you’ll find a wide range of apartments for rent.

All the listings on these sites are in Italian, so it’s helpful to familiarise yourself with some key vocabulary.

READ ALSO: Ten things to expect when renting an apartment in Italy

In affitto is ‘for rent’ (in vendita, ‘for sale’). For a short-term let, you’ll want a place that’s furnished (arredato). A  locale is a room (note: not a bedroom), so a bilocale is a one-bedroom with one other room and a monolocale is a studio. 

It’s worth reviewing all the photos available and if possible the floor plan (planimetria) so you know exactly what kind of set up the house has; for example a trilocale doesn’t necessarily have two bedrooms, but might just be a one-bed with a separate living room and kitchen. 

For people beginning their search without any Italian, the English-language real estate listings aggregator Nestpick is a good option – though bear in mind you’re unlikely to find the same range of options as on the Italian-language sites.

If you’re coming with a university, they should be your first port of call; some will have a roster of trusted landlords, or can at least direct you to online forums where you can seek recommendations from current and former students.

READ ALSO: Do renters in Italy have the right to keep pets?

Facebook is also a good place to look: Rent in Rome and Rome Expats have two of the largest groups dedicated to searching for an apartment in the eternal city. If you know you want somewhere for at least a year, Long Term Rentals Italy is also an option.

As a guidepost, InterNations, an information and networking site for people living overseas, lists the average monthly rent in Rome as €1,220.

Italy’s rental contracts tend to favour tenants: common contracts are the 3+2 or 4+4, which means the rent is locked in for at least three/four years, at the end of which the renter can choose to renew at the same rate for another two/four years.

Facebook groups can be a good place to start when apartment-hunting in Rome.
Facebook groups can be a good place to start when apartment-hunting in Rome. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The contratto transitorio (temporary or short-term lease), by contrast, is for anywhere between one and eighteen months. Bear in mind it’s the landlord, not the tenant, that’s locked into these minimum time periods – just make sure there’s a clause that allows you to move out after a specified notice period.

Landlords often prefer to rent our their apartments with contratti transitori so they have more freedom to sell or raise the rent, so you may be at an advantage if you’re looking for a place to stay for just a few months.

Even with just a short-term lease, a landlord can request up to three months’ rent (!) in advance as a security deposit, and it’s common to ask for two. To stand the best chance of getting your deposit back, it’s worth taking detailed photos of the property before you move in so you have a record of its state.

READ ALSO: ‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

If you’re going through an agency, it’s also common for tenants to pay a finder’s fee of one month’s rent – all of which can make initial costs rise very fast. The silver lining is that in Rome you can (and should) negotiate on the rent, deposit, and other contract terms, and not just take what you’re offered.

Some landlords will suggest you bypass an agency and deal directly with them. While avoiding the agency fees is tempting, this can leave you in a very vulnerable situation as you have no legal standing if it turns out you don’t have an official rental contract – so it’s not advised.

It’s also important not to hand over any money until you’ve viewed the apartment in person (or had a trusted representative do so on your behalf) and confirmed the listing is legitimate. Scams are not unheard of in Rome, and foreigners are ideal targets.

READ ALSO: Moving to Italy: How much does it really cost to live in Milan?

When browsing listings, consider what’s important to you in terms of the neighbourhood and type of property – and if there’s anything you’re unsure of, it’s worth seeking out advice in online groups from people already living in the city.

A ground floor apartment on a cobbled side street near the centre, for example, may sound ideal, but if it’s in a touristy neighbourhood you may find you’re quickly driven mad by the sound of rolling luggage bouncing past your window all hours of the day and night.

Finding an apartment to rent in Rome can be a challenge, but if you put in the effort, you’re sure to find your ideal base – and move on to making the most of your time in one of Europe’s most picturesque and historically rich capitals.

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