Intoxicating Romance

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Maltese Couple Share Long Love of Each Other, and Homeland

Visiting Josette Miceli and her husband, Maltese Ambassador Mark Miceli-Farrugia, is a bit like stepping back in time. Their official residence is nestled away from the street in the back corner of a lovely wooded lot located in Northwest D.C., just up the road from the grand Italian Residence. Their diplomatic home resembles a large but quaint English cottage with a sunroom overlooking an old-fashioned side garden — a favorite spot for the couple’s only child, 11-year-old Christopher, who attends the British School of Washington.

It’s a warm, inviting place befitting a couple that comes from an equally warm and inviting homeland — one with 7,000 years of history to boot. Interestingly, the Micelis, who’ve been married for 30 years, have left their own small imprint on that history by creating Malta’s first-ever vineyard, which continues to operate while the two work from Washington.

Though previously not known for producing wine, Malta has provided fertile ground for a thriving culture for thousands of years. An archipelago in the Mediterranean, Malta is home to several important World Heritage sites and a proud, if tiny, member of the European Union since 2004. Ambassador Miceli had previously served as Malta’s non-resident envoy to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from 2002 to 2007, although Washington, D.C., is the family’s first posting abroad.

This unique Mediterranean stronghold gained its independence from Britain in 1964, although the layered mosaic of Maltese culture dates back to 5200 B.C., with its prehistoric inhabitants whose mysterious temples still remain. What followed was a long line of people who invaded and conquered the land, leaving their marks on this melting pot of civilizations.

Malta’s checkered past includes Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman rule from about 1000 B.C. to 60 A.D., after which came the Byzantine Empire, Arabs, Normans and the famed Knights of Malta — who in the 17th and 18th centuries brought a new golden age to the islands that still bear their namesake, turning them into a citadel for Christianity. Then in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, on his way to Egypt, took over Malta, although the people rose up and with the help of the British, quickly ended French rule. Malta subsequently served as an Allied bastion in World War II and headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet.

Today, this group of rocky, densely populated islands is, not surprisingly, a popular tourist destination, with its dramatic coastal cliffs overlooking the sea and natural harbor dotted by cruise ships.

It’s against this intoxicating backdrop that the Micelis took a chance on an interesting business venture: the Meridiana Wine Estate at Ta’Qali, Malta’s agricultural heartland.

Trained as a solicitor with a master’s in international law, Josette helped her husband set up the vineyard, the first ever on Maltese soil. Mark, whose family had been in the wine importing business for more than 80 years, established Meridiana in 1994 after being inspired by other successful vineyards around the Mediterranean.

Today, this entrepreneurial couple has partnered with Marchese Piero Antinori, a descendant of the oldest established winemaking family in the world, and now the vineyard produces 130,000 bottles annually of six types of wine.

“Luckily, Malta’s weather is perfect for winemaking,” explained Josette. “For instance, we don’t experience any frost during ‘bud burst’ or hail or rain during our mid-summer harvests. Our 47-acre site is located in the center of the largest Maltese island so we are ensured that our drip-irrigation watering system is naturally salt free.”

The technicalities of winemaking are a far-removed world from diplomacy in Washington, but Josette says the two aren’t that far apart. “Really I do the same thing here that I do there: establish relationships and promote goodwill and understanding for Malta. Of course here we want to maintain and strengthen the good relationship Malta enjoys with the United States,” she said.

“I do miss the tranquility of the vineyard. I go home twice a year and I’m always there for two full summer months to oversee each harvest,” she added, noting that Mark’s sister Francesca and her own sister Aida take turns acting as their eyes and ears at the vineyard when the Micelis can’t be there to personally host guests.

“I love entertaining,” Josette said. “As an ambassador’s wife here in Washington, it is more formal. Obviously, entertaining in our vineyard is more casual. It’s my job to greet guests, many from cruise ships, and organize a wine tasting on our tranquil terrace, overlooking our vineyard,” explained Josette, a petit brunette who admits to no formal, scientific training in wine. “I’m no expert but I have established a good palate. And I love meeting people from all over the world, as I do here.

“I love hosting American families and couples,” she continued. “And we love to have our neighbors over. We always have a Christmas neighborhood get-together.”

And clearly, she’s made an impression on her American counterparts. Josette was just elected president of the Commonwealth Women’s Association, which consists of female ambassadors and diplomatic spouses from the 40 member countries of the former British Empire. “We are planning a really big fundraiser this spring so we can help some worthy cause in the Washington metropolitan area,” Josette noted. “I’m so happy knowing I make someone else happier; it makes me feel good.”

A devoted Catholic, Josette also volunteers weekly to teach Catechism classes at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Chevy Chase. “I love teaching. We discuss the Ten Commandments and how they can affect daily life. Children are so innocent. They are looking for guidance and we talk about taking the ‘good road’ … we are looking for a sense of responsibility and duty,” said Josette, who before studying law, had been a teacher back in Malta.

That’s where Josette met her diplomatic, business and life partner 37 years ago. Mark and Josette’s love story starts during the time of Carnival in Valletta, Malta’s capital, where the narrow, winding streets are so crowded that many residents watch the colorful winter festival from their top-story windows. It was 1971 and Mark was in the parade “dressed up as a vampire,” he recalled.

“I looked up to a second-floor window,” the ambassador fondly remembered, “and there was this charming young woman waving at me. Only later did I find out that she was waving at the guy behind me, my friend Henri. Josie was only 16 then and I, 21, was five years older. I asked Henri to introduce us — and he did.

“I always remembered her,” he continued. “The next time we met, three years later, was at the entrance to the Reef Club, a private beach club.” This time, Josette, now 19, was ready for his phone call.

“When he called and asked me, ‘Are you busy?’ I said, ‘Oh, yes I am.’ Well, I was busy with a book but I didn’t want him to know that! I was playing hard to get,” she recalled.

It would be a game of hard to get for the both of them for several years. Some time later, Josette spotted Mark again in town. He had just graduated with an economics degree from the University of Malta and was taking a marketing course at the Chamber of Commerce. “I remember that he had on this lovely navy blue suit and perfect white shirt and he was the one asking all the good questions. I asked everyone, ‘What’s his name?’”

But this handsomely dressed man left the island again to earn a master’s of science degree in management studies from the London School of Economics. It would be another three years before Mark would see Josette again, but they started corresponding, and when he returned in 1976, they finally began seeing each other.

“We dated for three to four years,” Josette said. “But I didn’t really know what to expect. One day we were at someone’s wedding and an old friend of Mark’s said, ‘And when are you two going to get married?’ He answered, ‘We’ll be married by November.’ And we were!”

Now, 37 years since their first meeting, he can’t imagine life without her. “We just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary and our love is just as young as it ever was, as when we first met each other,” said the amiable ambassador who often tells Washingtonians to just call him Mark.

“He is my best friend,” Josette later told me. “I’ve learned so much from him. We discuss everything together and we can’t imagine living separately.”

And Washington life seems to suit them both. “I am really happy here,” Josette said. “Washington is such a wonderful cosmopolitan city with theater and opera and people from all over the world. And Americans are so warm and friendly. They go out of their way to learn about your country.

“Our son Christopher is so happy here in his school,” she added. “He has three close friends in the neighborhood and they love to play in the side garden and build huts. Sometimes they take me for what they call a ‘walk’ in the woods since we’re so near Rock Creek Park. But their ‘walk’ is really a tough ‘hike.’ I end up climbing up and down these big rocks and fighting my way through the brush,” she joked.

“Now our biggest worry is, when it comes time to go home, how to convince Christopher to go with us back to Malta. He so loves it here. He still goes home with us in the summer and loves playing with Tikka and Casper, our two Chihuahuas, and all his cousins. But his closest friends are here now.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014