The Wine Exchange
Allen R. Balik
Expressing the power of women through wine
A few weeks ago, I was intrigued by the Register’s Business Editor Jennifer Huffman’s weekly “10 Questions” column in the Business section. This particular installment by Huffman featured Napa vintner and winemaker Kira Ballotta and the story behind her two brands – Olivia Brion and Cantadora.
Reading Kira’s story and her response to several of Huffman’s questions peaked my interest and prompted an email to Kira so I could learn more about her history and background on each of the brands. A phone conversation followed, leading to a personal meeting and tasting of her delightful wines.
Kira is a 5th generation Californian with a degree in finance who began her career in San Francisco with a valuation firm where mines were their major specialty. However, the occasional winery client appeared. When this happened, Kira happily filled the niche and was encouraged to learn more about wine. This lead to several years of working and learning about wine in Napa and Australia as well as pursuing academic studies in chemistry, science and viticulture in her “spare time.”
Kira began her career in wine at Constellation but found that business analytics and supply chain studies did not satisfy her ultimate goal. In the ensuing years, Kira filled many roles for prestigious wineries, including Quintessa, Alpha Omega and Mollydooker (Australia) before she began making wine on a commercial scale for Olivia Brion in 2016 that became a full-time position in 2019. Cantadora (a storyteller who hands down myths and stories by word of mouth) would follow and its inaugural release will be this fall.
I found the story behind the illustrative labeling and stylistic differences expressed by Olivia Brion and Cantadora wines intriguing and prompted a search for more background. It turns out Kira not only designed individual labels for all wines within both brands, she also crafted each wine in a distinct stylistic model to portray her vision of the character depicted on the label.
Kira explains the narrative of Olivia Brion wines by saying, “Olivia is based on real women of the time, often overlooked by history, who made great strides demonstrating the strength, resilience and irrepressible spirit of women.” Each Olivia Brion label is a whimsical interpretation of “Olivia” (a fictional character who tells a story) with each representing a new chapter and adventure in her life.
Centered around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, each label is based on the life endeavors of a real woman who would have been Olivia’s contemporary if she were actually alive. In Kira’s representation, “Olivia is a suffragist, daring athlete, a descendant of a great French wine family and more.”
Kira pointed out an example of Olivia as a cross of an imaginary and real-life character. “The ‘Taquine’ label is based on the life of Annette Kellerman (1887-1975). The image shows Olivia frolicking on the beach and in the background two police officers are running towards her. She is about to be arrested for wearing a ‘too-small’ bathing costume.”
The real Annette Kellerman was arrested for a wearing a bathing suit of her own design on a beach in Massachusetts in 1909. She later swam in the Olympics, started her own eponymous line of swimwear and choreographed synchronized swim sequences in early silent films.
Kira explained her inspiration of exhibiting other staunchly dedicated women depicted on the Olivia Brion labels and individual stylistic impressions of the wines with further examples. Annie Londonderry, the first woman to ride her bike around the world is symbolized with Pinot Noir; Effie Hotchkiss, the first woman to ride a motorbike across the United States is represented with Tempranillo; and Aida de Acosta, the first woman in motorized flight with a dirigible two years before the Wright brothers is memorialized by Grenache.
As a lifelong adventurer, Olivia was constantly pushing the envelope and each of Kira’s wines is inspired by her indomitable spirit. The wines are clean, elegant and fanciful. They are meant for early enjoyment, adding a vinous interpretation and individual expression of the character on the label.
In telling the many engaging adventures of Olivia’s characters, Kira began to realize how storytelling relates to wine in the mind of the merchant and consumer. She enjoyed relaying these spectacular stories but began to realize what she most wanted to share were stories about modern day women working hard and focused on shaping today’s world one step at a time.
What followed was the creation of Cantadora wines. The labels, stories and wines are a contrast to the imaginary life of Olivia Brion. With this brand, Kira speaks of “living” women who are vigorously active today doing inspired work for others. The launch of three distinctly different wines this fall celebrates the dedicated work and fascinating tales of three inspirational and trailblazing women.
The front labels depict each woman beautifully photographed in her own setting with the wine’s name (The Protector, The Healer and The Sage) reflecting the valuable benefits derived from that woman’s work. The individual stories appear on the back label.
Kira added, “I felt the stories of these three women highlighted the trifecta of how we can help women and children while also aiding them in the continuation of their efforts. To that end, I have made a commitment to donate 10 percent of all sales of each wine in support of the organizations they have founded.”
Sonia Melera (The Protector – a Tempranillo) is a native of El Salvador who migrated to the U.S. as a teenager and later co-founded San Francisco’s La Casa de Las Madres in 1976 as the first domestic violence shelter in California. Kira worked as a volunteer with Melera at La Casa de Las Madres that later resulted in an inspiration for the founding of Cantadora.
Cynthia Tom (The Healer – a Mourvèdre) is a 3rd generation Chinese American who founded A Place of Her Own to help women transform heartache to resilience through art. Tom’s work entitled “What is Feminist Art?” is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.
Marianne Page (The Sage – a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Viognier) is an economics professor at UC Davis and co-founded the UC Davis Center for Poverty and Inequality Research. The center provides evidence based policies that reduce poverty and increase children’s equality of opportunity. She is a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research and a member of Governor Newsom’s Council of Economic Advisors.
All Cantadora stories are current and depict the actual life and work of brave women often flying below the radar. The wines are bolder in style and more deeply structured reflecting the depth of each woman’s steadfast effort and the reason Kira has chosen to honor her in the Cantadora collection.
With a degree of pride and emotion, Kira concluded our conversation with this heartfelt message: “Telling the stories of Cantadora has already enriched my life so much; I hope it will see a ripple effect on others. These may be dark topics, but they are our reality, and these women are an inspiration in their approach to real change.”
Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 40 years.