Italian vintner pairs wine with jazz

Singer and winemaker Jose Rollo

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Kai Ryssdal: Official retail sales numbers will be out tomorrow from the Department of Commerce. But a company with an inside line released its figures today. Based on its credit card transactions, Mastercard's guessing sales were up 1 percent last month...if you take cars out of the equation. That's solid, but a hair shy of expectations. It's tough in a down economy for retailers to figure out new ways to get consumers interested. But a family of wine makers in Italy has found a new way to promote its product. One you almost have to hear to believe. Megan Williams reports on the new business twist behind the old idea of wine, women and song.


Megan Williams: On a hot, sun-bleached morning, the tour begins in the courtyard of Donnafugata wine producers of Sicily.

Tour guide: So West Sicily and Pantelleria is an island between Sicily and Africa.

The Sicilian Rallo family began producing wine in the mid-1800s. Twenty-five years ago, they came up with the Donnafugata label. It literally means "the woman who fled," referring to a queen who escaped to Sicily. The company now churns out about two million bottles a year, making them one of the top producers in the region.

Jose Rallo: How are you?

Jose Rallo, a striking brunette with a high-voltage smile, is the force behind the company.

Rallo: (sound of wine being poured) Chiaranda is more international, is a blend of Chardonnay and Ansonica. Chardonnay grapes are harvested in the night...

For Jose, a jazz singer, wine is about more than simply taste. Every wine has a harmony and rhythm -- its own music. Take Ben Rye, Donnafugata's prize-winning desert wine, whose grapes are picked at night to preserve their sweetness.

Rallo: Sweet, sensual, warm, fruity was making me thinking to Brazil, of course.

Williams: Can you sing a little sweet Ben Rye song?

Rallo: [Sings]

Williams: Or the red that recalls Sicily's Arab roots -- "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights."

Rallo: Ah, a Thousand and One Nights. I immediately thought of about a jazz ballad. And the name is perfect: "An Older Man is Like an Elegant Wine." [sings] Some things are worth waiting for...

Jose's recorded two CDs of her wine ballads and sells them over the Internet. But what makes the singing more than a corny marketing gimmick is that proceeds go into a microcredit program. Donnafugata lends up to $25,000 to budding entrepreneurs, pairing them with experienced local business people who act as mentors. Three new ventures are up and running: a commercial laundry, a delivery service and a crafts business. In five years, Jose hopes that number will be around 100.

Rallo: Sicily and the South of Italy have a lack of entrepreneurial culture. People are used to ask from the state and local municipality, and so on. So, I hope this project can help change the mentality.

Italian wine expert Alma Davanzo says like more and more women who are running wine businesses in Italy, Jose's fresh marketing and community connection make the company stand out.

Alma Davanzo: Jose is a big part of this because she also embodies the modern woman and the Sicilian woman, which is a wife, a mother, and a manager and a singer. And she carries all of this with a passion into the wine making and into economical project. You know, a modern way of doing what should be done traditionally.

Like singing the blues -- red and white. [more of Rallo singing]

In Marsala, Sicily, I'm Megan Williams for Marketplace.

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