A short history of Women in Wine
story Kathleen Thompson Hill (From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)
In the United States, “real men” didn’t drink wine long before they didn’t eat quiche. Men drank bourbon, Scotch, gin, vodka and beer. But never wine. They just made it.
Strange, isn’t it? A beverage long thought to be “feminine,” predominantly produced by the Y chromosome set? Weird, that the making of wine has long been a gentleman’s game? Or is it?
Way back in 4,000 B.C., grapes were grown near the Caspian Sea, were later planted in Mesopotamia, and by 1,600 B.C. there were vineyards all over Greece. Ancient drawings depict oodles of men drinking wine, raucously drawn depictions of brotherly bacchanals with nary a woman in sight.
Throughout its history, women–always wine’s biggest purchasers–seemed to play only bit parts in its production. Of the few women who did manage to win early managerial positions in the business of wine, most earned their places at the demise of their husbands.
Like Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin, whose husband, François Clicquot, owned Clicquot Champgne. When he died in 1806 she decided to step into his role rather than sell the business. She took over
operations and made Clicquot into a grand success, now part of the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy group.
For years female enologists could find work only in the labs, entering the business through chemistry. So they came through the doors in their lab coats, or as instructors and corporate executives, waiting for the men to catch on. It took a long while, but the men finally got it, and today some of the most celebrated winemakers in the world are women.
Claude Anne Leflaive and Lalou Bize-Leroy are two. Australians Vanya Cullen and Tricia Horgan and Corinne Mentzenopoulos Baroness Phillipine de Rothschild of France are three others.
Closer to home, the great Zelma Long pioneered California winemaking in the 1970s, all but inventing the California style at Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley. Long was a maverick, adventurous with new blends. She pioneered grafts and vine trellises in vineyards all over the valley, then extended her reach to South Africa, France and Israel. Her mark is still felt in vineyards in Oregon, Washington, and even at Sonoma Valley’s Gundlach Bundschu.
Heidi Peterson Barrett is a well-known consultant who has made wine for premium labels such as Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Vineyard 29, Grace Family, Paradigm, Showket and Amuse Bouche.
Eva Bertran leads Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards for the Catalan-owned
Freixenet wine family, with a business background learned in her native Barcelona. She arrived in Sonoma to find a winery location and extend the label’s reach, already prominent in Europe. Bertran also is the current president of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance.
Cathy Corison became winemaker at Freemark Abbey in 1978, then made wine at Chappellet. She currently makes wine for her own label, at Corison Winery near St. Helena.
Eileen Crane leads the famous Taittinger family’s Domaine Carneros, as both winemaker and president. A graduate of the UC Davis enology program and the Culinary Institute of America, Crane has had the top spot there since 1987.
Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo worked her way up the old-fashioned way at Sebastiani Winery, from tasting room grunt to president and CEO.
Merry Edwards mastered the high art of making pinot noir in California, using grapes from the cooler Russian River Valley and Sonoma coast.
Gina Gallo, a third-generation winemaker from one of the world’s bestselling wine families, leads Gallo Sonoma.
MaryAnn Graf, who majored in fermentation science, became the first woman to graduate from the viticulture and enology department at UC Davis in 1965. Graf is thought to be the first woman winemaker in California.
Vanessa Robledo, the first Latina and daughter of immigrant workers from Mexico to lead a California winery, was president of Robledo Family Winery. She now serves as president of Black Coyote Winery and owns a majority share of its stock.
Jean Arnold Sessions currently serves as president of Hanzell Vineyards, following stints at wineries such as Chateau St. Jean, Chateau Montelena, J Vineyards, Jordan, Chalk Hill and Williams Selyem.
Carol Shelton produces zinfandel and has made wine from more than 40 grape varietals. With Dr. Ann Noble of UC Davis, Shelton helped develop the Wine Aroma Wheel during the late 1970s, giving tipplers a precise vocabulary with which to imbibe.
Mary Sullivan long made wine at Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, and later at Beringer.
Helen Turley owns Sonoma Coast’s Marcassin winery, which makes pinot noir and chardonnay, and served as winemaker at her brother Larry’s Turley Wine Cellars until 1995.
Winemaker Margo Van Staaveren reached her 30th harvest with Chateau St. Jean in 2009, quietly innovating all that time.
Master Sommeliers Andrea Immer-Robinson and Karen MacNeil serve more as ambassadors for good wine than as winemakers or winery executives, teaching and consulting around the world.
So it took longer than it should have, but more and more women are working their way into wine. From the outside, the wine world appears dignified and staid, a place of propriety and hauteur. But inside the game it is deadly competitive, a boisterous bare-knuckled fight for supremacy. Like in those long ago drawings, the party goes on, it remains loud and clamorous, though now it’s co-ed. Finally, at long last, women are in the enological mix, and the wine world is far tastier for it.
To meet or mingle with women in the wine industry, check out WomenForWineSense.org.
(From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)