By Alicia Wanek
Winemaking is an industry which is still very male-dominated. According to Woman Owned Wineries, a nationwide directory of female wine entrepreneurs, of the 4800 wineries in California only 19 percent of the wineries are owned or co-owned by women and only 10 percent of head winemakers are women. But those numbers are growing. As more women see their potential in the field, the number of women enrolled in enology (or the Latin spelling Oenology, the study of wine) and viticulture (the study of grape cultivation) programs in universities across the nation is larger than ever before. In 2013 at California State Polytechnic University – San Luis Obispo, one of the top five largest programs in the nation for Enology and Viticulture, only 34% of the students were female; four years later women made up 53% of the degrees granted.
In many ways, winemaking is an industry well-suited for women. At the risk of overgeneralizing, women are known for many of the qualities that are of necessity when it comes to winemaking. Patience, organization, an appreciation for subtlety, and intuition, are all key in the process. After all it can take a full three years to get from the initial planting of a brand-new grapevine through the first harvest, and the first vintage might not be bottled for years after that. According to Kathleen Ward, founder and winemaker for Libelle Wines, “I think patience is a big thing. Women can be a little more in tune. Sometimes it can take longer than expected, but we make sure it’s a very clean and thoughtful process.” From vine to bottle Yvonne Ward-Hughes believes women are great at nurturing the process. The owner of Libelle’s vineyard in Colorado and another in Texas (and Kathleen’s mom) adds, “I enjoy walking the vineyard daily watching each phase of the vines’ life cycle from bud break through version up to harvest.”
“I think patience is a big thing. Women can be a little more in tune. Sometimes it can take longer than expected, but we make sure it’s a very clean and thoughtful process.”
The process, of course, all starts in the vineyard. Sophie Drucker, a winegrower for Deloach Vineyards, a part of the esteemed Boisset Collection, knows that making good quality wine starts with the time and dedication she puts into the grapes. There are even fewer female viticulturists than winemakers, but Sophie sees it as a strength. She began her career in France before coming back to California where she’d grown up. A graduate of the viticulture program at University of California-Davis, she calls the field “a beautiful melding of a lot of different skills.” “My job is really the job of a project manager. I coordinate between the internal and external sides of the business,” she explains. Sometimes, her goals and the winemakers don’t always align. “You’ve got to have strong communication skills, and women tend to be good at that.”
Sophie is not alone as a female with the Boisset Collection vineyards. She points out that at Boisset there are “proportionally more women that you usually find in winemaking.” Boisset even sponsored the first ever Wine Women conference and held it at one of their vineyards. Patrick Egan, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Boisset Collection, said, “This is another great opportunity and a milestone for this organization that is promoting the strength of women in the wine business… Bringing people together around wine is what we do. If we can bring women together to promote their leadership in wine – that’s incredibly important to us.” Founder Jean Charles Boisset is proud to have women in some of the largest positions within the organization. He says, “I grew up surrounded by strong women and am now married to one and raising two beautiful daughters, so of course I also support being surrounded by phenomenal women in my business life as well. I’ve always said our strength lies in our people, and we’re proud to have so many amazing women part of the Boisset team making fantastic wine!”
The art of making those fantastic vintages is, as Kathleen Ward of Libelle says, “ultimately a blend of science and art.” Katie Carter, head winemaker of Lyeth Vineyards, also part of the Boisset Collection, agrees. When Katie first started in the business, she says it was “invigorating to be exposed to the integration of winemaking and hard science.” Returning to her hometown in Sonoma county after college, Katie started working for a small winery in their lab. Soon the biology major realized her potential in the organization. The winemaker in that first job taught her about the “elevage” (loosely translated as the raising up) of wine, and she knew she wanted to be part of guiding that process outside of the lab as well.
Outside of the lab literally means “outside” at times. Sophie estimates as much as 20% of her job is done outside in the vineyard, and Katie points out there is a lot of physical labor before you get to the more creative side of winemaking. Yvonne at Libelle believes, “…I think we (women) aren’t afraid to get our hands dirty and to work really hard for a greater goal.” She says of her daughter Kathleen “…she is always so excited to go to the barrels in the morning and smell, listen to, and look into the pressed grape juice as it is bubbling away.” Kathleen says despite the less-than-glamorous aspects of winemaking, “There’s not a part I don’t like.”
It may be the long-held belief in the power of “women’s intuition” that, in the end, leads women to produce such great wines. Women are generally more likely to “go with their gut,” as Kathleen says. “You have to follow your heart and intuition,” she adds. Katie has seen that if you only make wine formulaically, things can go wrong. By relying on intuition, she is better able to “listen to what is the possibility of the wine” and guide it to its full potential. Wine is, in the end, a matter of taste, but Kathleen believes women “have amazing palates and noses.” “More and more women are working harvests and making extraordinary wine,” she adds. At the end of the process, opening the bottle they’ve helped to create is the biggest reward.
“Napa Valley is so about collaborations. I am consistently talking to, working with, and even laughing with other women-run wine brands and others in wine country.”
These amazing women continue to blaze trails for those young women coming out of the universities today. Kathryn Hall of HALL Wines says, “Napa Valley is so about collaborations. I am consistently talking to, working with, and even laughing with other women-run wine brands and others in wine country.” Kathryn is a vanguard in the industry. She, along with her husband Craig, has certainly proved women can be successful winemakers. HALL Wines has the distinct honor of earning not one but two perfect 100-point scores for their wines from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Kathryn points out that “Female winemakers have been producing wine for a long time – this isn’t a new story – but I am always excited to see how the business overall is changing when it comes to leading change in our industry. And most of those efforts are spearheaded by women.”
Katie Carter of Lyeth is quick to point out that, though men make up a big part of the business, it is also incredibly supportive of women. Though at times along the way, she has overseen a team of men and reported to men, she says that “overall, there have been no limitations.” These women are proving just that – the future for women in wine is limitless. Since women drink more wine than men, it seems only fitting more of them are making the wine, too. As Kathryn Hall says it, “I enjoy wine personally first. That’s the start of pursuing a business venture. Gotta love what you do, right!” Despite the challenges, these women are all passionate about the industry, and just like a fine wine, their potential is only getting better with time.
“If we can bring women together to promote their leadership in wine – that’s incredibly important to us.”
Editor’s Note: Boisset Collection is a diverse “family of families” collection of unique wineries with roots in many of the world’s most prestigious terroirs in France, California, Italy and Canada. Currently there are 29 wineries in the Boisset Collection, including John Legend, Raymond, JCB, DeLoach, Bouchard Aine & Fils, Domaine de la Vougeraie, and Louis Bouillot.
Click here to learn more about opportunities to join the Boisset Collection as a wine Ambassador.