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Women confront gender gap in wineries’ executive suites

When she took over as president of Domaine Carneros in 1987, Eileen Crane was one of the few women to lead a North Coast winery. At the time, Michaela Rodeno was president at St. Supery Vineyards and Winery in Napa; the rest typically served in various roles at their family-owned wineries.

“It never occurred to me that I could be a CEO of a winery,” said Crane, who switched careers in the late 1970s from a path in academia.

Beginning as a tour guide at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, Crane worked her way into the sparkling winery’s lab and then up to assistant winemaker. She was recruited to become winemaker at Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards in 1984, and ended up managing construction of the Sonoma winery that was completed within 14 months. The French wine family Tattinger noticed Crane’s abilities and brought her over to start its Domaine Carneros sparkling house in Napa County.

The 69-year-old Crane has seen some advances for women climbing the corporate ladder in the wine industry. “I certainly see a lot more women in executive positions, particularly around marketing,” she said. “There are number of women winemakers.”

But the wine glass ceiling has not been shattered and much work remains, Crane contends. Overall, she would give the industry a grade of B-minus for its promotion of women into executive ranks and key positions.

Nonprofit groups are attempting to play a greater role in the campaign to achieve gender parity in the $34 billion retail wine industry, where women represent 60 percent of consumers and 80 percent of the buyers.

Women of the Vine and Spirits, a New York-based group, has sponsored an annual symposium the past four years in Napa that has served as a premier networking event for women looking to advance in their career. Women for WineSense, founded in 1990 by Rodeno and vintner Julie Johnson, holds wine education and networking events, most notably through its 10 local chapters across the country. Its Sonoma/Napa chapter has 200 members.

And two years ago, Sonoma-based Wine Women was formed with a hyperlocal focus on frequent networking and events, with 50 different forums planned through the rest of the year to help spark debate on the subject.

“The wine community is tight-knit. Jobs and careers often advance based on who you know and with whom you have a relationship,” said Marcia Macomber, a co-founder of the group.

Data show the dearth of women in top winery positions. Women occupied only 21 percent of the senior executive positions at 175 wine businesses surveyed last year by Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute.

By comparison, 23 percent of the senior leadership positions at the top 1,000 U.S. companies by revenue are held by women, according to an analysis by Korn Ferry, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm.

“It’s definitely gotten better than a decade ago,” said Liz Thach, SSU’s Distinguished Professor of Wine and Management, who also noted a lack of overall research pertaining to winery management. “It’s still an issue.”

To be sure, the industry does have women in high-profile roles such as Stephanie and Gina Gallo at E&J Gallo Winery of Modesto, the largest wine company in the United States; Barbara Banke of Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa; and Carolyn Wente of Wente Vineyards in Livermore. A crop of entrepreneurial women also are flourishing at a smaller, boutique level — including Nicole Abiouness at Abiouness Wines in St. Helena, Delia Viader at Viader Wines in Deer Park and Susie Selby of Selby Winery in Healdsburg.

But those gains have been made against decades of wine being a male- dominated industry as the fine wine market emerged in the North Coast during the late 1970s. Some of that gender imbalance is traditional given wine is an agricultural product and the vast majority of vineyard workers are men. Likewise, cellar work has historically been a male vocation, given the strength needed to move heavy barrels and operate heavy machinery.

Selby said she found out firsthand when she worked in a tasting room early in her career and learned to drive a forklift to be able to retrieve wine cases when stock got low. That skill later helped her become a warehouse manager overseeing male workers.

“I think the traditionalism of the industry is really a barrier that other industries don’t have,” said Selby, who has operated her boutique winery as a sole proprietor since her father’s death in 1997.

Women winemakers have made tremendous strides, led by Merry Edwards, who in the 1970s helped put Mount Eden Vineyards in Saratoga on the map of wine aficionados and later started her own winery in the Russian River Valley. Still, one 2015 academic study reported only 15 percent of lead winemakers were women.

Marketing, wine education and hospitality are areas cited where women are more significantly represented, and those positions serve as the base to advance in their careers, those interviewed said.

The major issue is women reaching the top spots, said Linda Hansen, business area manager for The Personal Perspective, a Santa Rosa-based human resources consulting group with winery clients. She had previously worked at Treasury Wine Estates and Trinchero Family Estates in St. Helena, where it hired its first female top executive in 2016, chief financial officer Kirsty Cringan.

Like Crane, Hansen said she would give the industry a B-minus grade. “It’s slow and gradual,” she said.

The employment pipeline for the industry has seen greater parity. For example, about half of the students and alumni of SSU’s Master of Business Administration program — including those with an emphasis in winery management — are women, according to John Stayton, executive director of graduate and executive business programs. The national average for MBA programs is 30 percent.

Deborah Brenner, founder and CEO of Women of the Vine and Spirits, noted that her group has served as a resource to spark conversations within companies about how to better advance female workers. Some women working for one large Napa Valley winery came to her group for advice on how to raise issues such as mentorship programs with the male executives, she said. Brenner would not reveal the name of the winery.

“There is a very big successful winery that has all male executives, and some women came to me and said ‘please help us convince our company join (Women of the Vine and Spirits),’ ” Brenner said.

Consequences can be damaging for those companies that do not have women in decision-making positions, she noted. For example, Diageo was pilloried on social media earlier this year for introducing a new version of its iconic Johnnie Walker brand of Scotch whisky named “Jane Walker,” with a portion of the proceeds going to “organizations supporting women’s progress.” TV host Stephen Colbert joked that in response “female drinkers everywhere will say, ‘Finally, a brand that is condescending to me.’ ”

“If you have women in leadership roles, the results could be different,” Brenner said.

Gallo is one wine company with a strong women’s initiative program, Brenner said. The company has women in vice president and director roles in traditional areas as well as finance, legal, information technology, operations and supply chain, said Michelle Lewis, vice president of global human resources at Gallo.

“We continue to focus on developing and advancing women into key leadership roles throughout our organization,” Lewis said in a statement.

One key is more women speaking up for themselves and their abilities, Crane said, instead of solely feeling “grateful that we have had this opportunity.”

More than 20 women attended a Wine Women forum on the subject Tuesday at Gloria Ferrer, with a few male executives providing their thoughts as well. Larry Smith, senior vice president of human resources at Jackson Family Wines, noted that gender parity is a priority for Banke at the 1,700- employee company.

“It’s the tradition of what can I do as head of HR?” Smith said of the company’s commitment to female hiring and promotion. “How do we level the playing field and bring equality, whether that will be in pay or treatment to eliminate gender bias?”

Silvio Coccia, director of hospitality and consumer sales at Jarvis Estate in Napa, urged women in attendance to be honest and direct in their communication with their bosses.

But Sally Srok, a hospitality consultant, challenged Coccia with a counterpoint to his advice.

“The double-edged sword for a women executive: Women, more often than not, are judged on how they say something, and not what they say,” Srok said. “Studies show that if a woman is assertive, they are considered to be aggressive. Women are typically demoted or held back in their career from that.”

Coccia said he appreciated such directness, but Srok noted “that many have a problem.”

“Isn’t that why we are here?” Coccia replied. “I think that’s probably trying to break down social mores; those things that have been part of our existence. Isn’t that why we are here to evolve beyond that — to get to a common ground where communication isn’t gender specific?”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.