From the vineyard, to the laboratory, to the tasting table, to the meeting room, etc. – Women have long made their mark in wine production. They have developed cultivation techniques, demonstrated the influence of yeast and linked the specificity of the clones to the terroir; they have created companies and brands to research together and create quality wines for all palates. But they also faced incredible challenges in the wine world simply because of their biological gender.

In recent years there has been increasing media attention for this struggle. And thanks in large part to the work and guidance of the pioneers before them, women have some guilty pleasures, too. This recognition can be an important step towards equality in the sector, but crucial conversations about diversity and inclusion remain necessary and should not be overlooked.

To explore how barriers in the wine industry and the perspectives of those who face them have changed and not changed over time, we look at the journeys of nine very different American women winemakers.

Shalini Sekhar / Photolab

Generally, those who have been in the profession longer follow the more traditional wine route, which begins with formal training or emphasizes the importance of apprenticeship. The various avenues taken by relatively new developers show that while formal grants are useful, much more accessible approaches are also proving successful.

Theodora Lee, owner and winemaker of Theopolis Vineyards in Mendocino, California, first studied law and has a distinguished career as a senior partner and attorney at Littler Mendelson P.C. Lee has worked in the industry for 17 years.

I started in the tasting room at Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda [California] and quickly became one of the tasting room managers, says Shalini Sekhar, who studied music education and music performance. Sekhar, winemaker and owner of Ottavino Wines San Francisco Bay Area, has been in the area for 15 years.

 

Wine is the result of many living systems working together, explains Cathy Corison. That’s what appealed to me as a biologist. Corison has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in food science and oenology. She has been in the business for 42 years and is winemaker and founding partner of Corison Winery on St. Helena.

This field is the best way to combine [creative art and science] …. I worked for Lisa Van de Vod at the wine lab on St. Helena. Helena in 1976 [and] was its first employee, says Carol Shelton, who has a degree in fermentation science. She is winemaker, president and co-owner of Carol Shelton Wines in Santa Rosa, California, and has been in the business for 44 years.

I’ve learned from working in restaurants…. I wanted to travel and discover through the lens of wine…. I wasn’t sure where it would take me professionally. Says Rae Wilson, who studied music and photography. Wilson has been in the industry for 13 years. She is a winemaker and owner of Wine for the People in Austin, TX.

Leah Jorgensen, who has worked in the wine industry for 20 years, has a degree in English literature and creative writing, followed by postgraduate training in holistic nutrition. She is the owner and winemaker of the Leah Jorgensen Cellars in Newberg.

Carol Shelton / Photolab

For those who entered viticulture early on, some of the biggest challenges were assumptions based on appearance and starting or maintaining a family. Women today still face these obstacles.

I had to sit on a customer’s lap if I wanted him to take my weekly order, Jorgensen says. Meanwhile, a number of salespeople from other distributors, all men, were looking at her and turning her

Being short and blonde [was a challenge]. I’ve heard that phrase too many times from the little blonde in the lab, Shelton says.

When you want to have a family, it’s hard to find a balance, especially when it comes to production and harvest time, says Anne Moller-Racke, owner of Blue Farm Wines in Sonoma, Calif. She’s been in the business for 39 years.

My pregnancy has been a big obstacle, says Sekhar.

People have this image of a winemaker or a young, tall and thin woman – I’m neither, and they assume someone has to make the decisions for me…. The assumption that men make the wine [is the biggest challenge today], Corison says.

People assume that being a female winemaker is somehow different than just being a winemaker, says Ray Wilson.

Regardless of their experience in the industry or their identity, all of these women recognized a common strategy: to keep fighting for what is right.

Very good timing and a lot of work have helped me achieve my goals, Corison says.

to be resilient and willing, Ray Wilson says, and I’d be in the wrong business if I didn’t.

Ultimately, if [your work] works, it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man, Moller-Ruck says.

Although the Black Lives Matter movement has gained prominence since last year, BIPOC voices continue to fight for equality and acceptance.

For me and others, there are still racial barriers…. I have my own business and I work with great people, says Sekhar. But everyone at BIPOC knows that if I were to return to a more traditional role in a basement, most of these obstacles would still be there.

I would like to see the sense of collaboration continue to grow among winemakers of all races, ethnicities, genders and creeds, says Delia Viader, owner and founder of Viader Winery in Napa, California. She’s been in the business for 34 years.

We need more diversity – there are so many white people here, especially in the basements, Jorgensen says.

Katy Wilson / Photo Lab

Over the years, practical experience has always played an important role for these women, regardless of their origin or level of education.

I worked on a 1,000-acre vineyard in the Central Valley [10 hours a day, six days a week for minimum wage with no overtime], says Kathy Wilson, owner and winemaker of LaRue Wines in Sonoma, California. She has worked in the industry for 18 years.

Growing up with wine at the table is, in fact, the best education, Viader says.

I spent the first 20 years developing my winemaking skills, says Moller-Ruck, expanding and replanting my vineyards.

I’ve worked in great restaurants with great wine programs in St. Louis and Austin, Texas, says Ray Wilson.

Rae Wilson / Photo Lab

Women who identify with other marginalized groups are increasingly problematic.

Race, ethnicity and gender determine my journey, for better or worse. Proving my abilities, my worth and my place in the team will always be part of my story, Sekhar said.

As a black female winemaker… People are still surprised when they hear I own the land where the grapes are grown, Lee says.

Mentors have always played a key role in increasing inclusion and diversity in the industry. In recent years, however, women have begun to open doors for others.

With the help and advice of women from all walks of life… I hope to set up an internship and apprenticeship program to build bridges for women who may not see their place in this business, Wilson says.

I try to take the time to interact with my colleagues and mentor young people, says Sekhar.

Being part of a winery and batonnage company for women, says Katie Wilson, has helped me see that I have sisters in wine, where we can support each other.

Delia Viader / Photolab

Many women winemakers have been inspired by those who were not in the winemaking profession. Others were attracted by the wine itself.

But there are many people I admire in the wine industry, Corison says. Oddly enough, it’s the great wines of the world that have inspired me the most.

Katie Wilson says her great-grandmother was an inspiration. She had such an impact on my life that I named LaRue after her – Veona LaRue.

My dad taught me to drive a tractor when I was eight years old and instilled in me a love of the land, Lee says.

My husband Mitch McKenzie has been the most stimulating force behind my career decisions, Shelton says.

Leah Jorgensen / Fotolab

Don’t be shy: What do you think are the most innovative ideas you have brought to the wine industry so far?

I was able to plant my first vineyard in the mid-1980s and replant it in the mid-1990s with new planting material and a new vineyard design, says Moller-Ruckke. Then I started a big cloning experiment at Donam Manor.

I can’t say it’s unique, Corison says, but understanding that good grapes make good wine was key.

People lower their defenses for what they think is wine…. When someone deviates from what they already think they know about an insect or a place, that’s when the experiment can really begin, Wilson says.

All the vineyards I work with are within seven miles of the Pacific Ocean and have a palpable influence of the ocean on the vines and my wines, explains Cathy Wilson.

The vineyard is designed to be planted in open rows in 4″ x 5″ and 4″ x 6″ configurations, which means a density of 2,200 to 1,800 vines per acre, Viader said. In turn, berry farming has become much more palatable.

Discover (in California) lesser-known white grape varieties [such as Grüner Veltliner and Fiano]. … While I love seeing these varieties in the classic places they grow in the world, I’m curious how to translate that to California, Sekhar says.

Realizing the potential of Cabernet Frank in Oregon and becoming the first American vineyard to produce Cabernet Frank Blanc, Jorgensen said.

In the 1970s, the industry did not believe that yeast strains were important to the taste of wine. I did the experiments… and I was able to prove them wrong, Shelton says.

Amy Moller-Racke / photolab

Training, enthusiasm and mentoring are important for all women and women working in the sector.

Know your worth and don’t settle for less, says Katie Wilson. Rest assured, there is an industry of women winemakers to support you.

Don’t take no for an answer. Just start walking, Corison says.

In the style of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Fight for what’s important to you, but do it in such a way that others join you, Lee says.

Seek out mentors, says Ray Wilson, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t think you’re less entitled to a seat in the room.

Make education a priority, says Jorgensen. It’s not enough to tell an anecdote or shake hands. Be the expert. Learn everything you can. Be curious.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to build your network if not for your career development, then for support, mentoring and camaraderie, says Sekhar.

Acknowledge those who have supported you along the way and pass them on by helping those who are just starting out, Shelton says.

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