Thursday, September 27, 2012

Women in wine

Like many other industries, men dominated the wine industry for thousands of years. There are, however, a few historical examples of women revolutionizing the industry, and their contemporary counterparts continue to grow in number. An article from UC Davis Magazine from a few summers ago states that according to the Wine Institute, 15 to 20 percent of winemakers in California are women. Women Winemakers currently reports the same figure, and suggests, "gender parity will soon be achieved." 

The "Champagne Widows" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:  

Madame Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommery are examples of female revolutionaries of the wine industry. When Madame Clicquot was widowed at age 27, she inherited a winery from her husband. Not only did she successfully manage the thriving champagne brand, but she is also credited by some historical accounts as developing riddling, a technique used in the production of champagne to consolidate the yeast in the neck of the bottle for removal. Today, the Veuve Clicquot champagne brand is among the most prestigious and valuable in the industry. 

Unlike Madame Clicquot, Madame Pommery did not inherit an already successful champagne house. However, during her reign she not only grew her own company, but also influenced the whole industry to make greater efforts to improve wine quality. This included using better raw materials and investing in the production process. This improvement in quality enhanced the reputation of champagne abroad and led to increased global sales.

Today's women in wine:   

Following in the footsteps of the "Champagne Widows" before them, many women have shattered the glass ceiling and made a name for themselves in the wine industry. The UC Davis article mentioned above reports that in 1965, MaryAnn Graf was the first woman to graduate from the university's famed viticulture and enology program, but by the 1990's nearly 50 percent of its graduates were women.

MaryAnn Graf is not only the first female winemaker to graduate from UC Davis, she is also the first woman to serve on the Board of Directors of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture. MaryAnn co-founded Vinquiry, a wine-testing lab in Sonoma County. While she retired after more than 40 years in the industry, she continues to consult.

Another UC Davis graduate and winemaker, Merry Edwards, said she encountered gender discrimination repeatedly while pursuing her career. She found that the perception of women as the weaker sex worked against her, even after she was able to prove that she could handle the physical aspects of the job. Today, however, she has her own winery, label, and Pinot Noir vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

Yet another well-known female champion of the wine industry and UC Davis graduate is Heidi Peterson Barrett, who Robert Parker dubbed the "first lady of wine." In addition to making her own wines under the La Sirena label, Heidi has several ultra-premium clients including Amuse Bouche, Paradigm, Lamborn, Kenzo Estate, Au Sommet, Vin Perdu, and Fantesca. In 2000, a 1992 six liter bottle of Heidi's Screaming Eagle sold at the Napa Valley Wine Auction for $500,000- an auction record.

Female consumers also play a role in the wine industry: 

In addition to highlighting the triumphs of several female UC Davis graduates, the UC Davis article notes that in addition to making wine, women love to drink it. It reports that according to the Wine Institute, 57 percent of wine consumers in the United States are women. This has an influence on industry marketing professionals, as women rank label design, bottle shape, and winery philosophy as important as wine quality.

Madame Bollinger on champagne:

"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it if I am; otherwise I never touch it- unless I'm thirsty." 


Sarah said...

Excellent piece, and I love that quote! It is exciting to learn about these trailblazers in our own backyard.

CET said...

After reading this post I started to wonder if wineries with women winemakers more highly acclaimed. According to a study conducted by two professors from Santa Clara University, the answer is yes, at least in California.

The study looked at California wineries listed in Opus Vino (a book that that identifies leading wineries) and the sex of the winemaker. The study found, relative to those for men, a significantly higher percentage of wineries having women winemakers were listed in Opus Vino (23% of women winemakers were listed in Opus Vino as compared to 14.1% of wineries with male winemakers).

So, why is this the case? I don't have a definitive answer, but the Washington Post suggests, “It may have something to do with persistence. It takes the same effort and skills for a male or female winemaker to succeed, but women can face additional challenges achieving success in a male-dominated field.”

The 2011 Winemaker of the Year, Cathy Corison, also suggested "There’s pretty good evidence that women have perhaps better sensory abilities...And, I believe that winemaking is all about details.” Whether it's persistence or a better sense of taste and smell, it's clear that women are making huge strides in this industry.