Men in the vineyards, muscles gleaming in the hot sun. Men hauling barrels in the cellars. Men making wine. The age-old romance of winemaking was founded on the image of the charismatic man—often the one whose name is on the label. Is any of this changing, I wondered, as I foraged for stats and anecdotes about women winemakers in the 21st century?
Celebrated British wine writer Jancis Robinson offered me this wry comment on the increase of women in the world of wine: “Women are a much more powerful force in the wine business than they were when I started 40 years ago. Most of the men I meet in the wine business admit that their female partners are better tasters than they are. But, there is still a bit of a glass ceiling for women as far as important positions in bigger companies are concerned.”
Robert Marsh, an expert in the domain of Central Coast wine sales, went further. The ceiling for women in the business isn’t glass, he says, “it’s cement.”
Marsh believes the biggest impact women have had on the wine business is in sales and marketing.
“And that’s because many women have started their own brokerages, having been turned down by the large, male-dominated firms,” he says. Marsh works for Alexia Moore, who started her company in the ’70s. He says it’s difficult for women to get into wine distribution “because of the culture of old-school men.”
Wine researcher and University of Santa Clara professor of psychology Lucia Gilbert’s 2014 case study of top California wineries indicated 14.7 percent female winemakers in 2014, versus 10 percent in 1999.
“That’s not much of an increase in 15 years,” she says.
In her 2015 study for American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE), Gilbert found that, contrary to the widely touted myth that women winemakers in California are shattering the glass ceiling in an industry historically dominated by men, in fact only 9.8 percent of California wineries have a woman as their lead winemaker. In a similar study of winemaking roles among Australia’s wine producers for the AAWE, Jeremy Galbreath reported in 2014 that 9 percent of wineries employed women in the top winemaking role.
Because there are fewer women winemakers, Gilbert’s study noted, their careers experience particular challenges. Those who are successful are not only highly motivated, but also have to deal successfully with challenge and risk management.
Marsh says he finds a female winemaker is rarely an important factor in sales.
“The winery itself, how its grapes are grown, its program—organic or biodynamic—those things I’ll mention,” he says. “If I’m talking with a true wine geek, or if I encounter a woman buyer, I might mention that the winemaker is a woman.”
Probably the single biggest impact a woman has made in local winemaking, according to Marsh, is at Bargetto Winery. So that’s where I began my attempt to let local women winemakers tell their stories, and get some other perspectives on women in the business, as well.
Olivia Teutschel, Winemaker, Bargetto Winery
Aptos native Olivia Teutschel, who has been Bargetto’s winemaker of record for the past two years, tells me she has always loved farming and being outdoors. At Cal Poly, Teutschel thought she would try wine marketing, but found her life’s work when she took a winemaking class. “It was very hands-on. We learned with actual equipment, the nitty-gritty stuff. I loved it!” When it came time to do an internship, Teutschel went to Edna Valley and applied for a cellar job. “It was my first and only interview,” she says. “I was told, firmly, that it would be ‘hard work.’ That evening, I sent back an email and said I could do hard work. I got the internship. But then I really had to prove myself. Get there early and stay late.”
Graduating in 2009, she interned at Sebastiani Vineyards in Sonoma, in the lab of a very big, old company. Then in New Zealand, she worked at Vavasour Winery to get more experience. Then she met Peter Bargetto of Soquel Vineyards on a winemaking tour right up the street from her aunt and uncle’s house. “He put me to work, at first on weekends at Soquel Vineyards and then at Bargetto during weekdays,” she says. Her current favorite house wines include Bargetto Winery’s Nelson Vineyards Syrah. “This vineyard is very consistent, even in rough years. The other thing I’m most excited about is our Regan Reserve Chardonnay.”
Why are you good at this?
OLIVIA TEUTSCHEL: Being so detail-oriented, I think. Being a detective, paying attention—in fact, that might be a gender item. It’s served me well here. I ask questions. I enjoy being really organized. Organized but flexible. There are a lot of moving pieces in winemaking. The mystery—the unknown—is part of the excitement. But I also like all the nitty-gritty things. Right now, Bargetto is surfing the changing tides. My job as winemaker was made easier by the fact that I was here as an assistant for many years first. And it’s getting easier. With owner-operated wineries you have to do all the work. I do it all—everything but driving the truck filled with grapes down those winding roads.
Is being female an extra hurdle?
I’ve only been the official winemaker for two years. When I first started as winemaker, there were some awkward moments. There was a seniority thing—a lot of people have been here for a long time, and suddenly I was their boss. But it wasn’t about my being female.
Nicole Walsh, Owner and Winemaker, Ser Wine Company
Nicole Walsh earned a degree in winemaking at Michigan State before coming to Santa Cruz in 2001 to work at Bonny Doon Vineyard. After a stint as a wine consultant in New Zealand, Walsh returned to manage the estate vineyard for Randall Grahm in San Juan Bautista.
At what point did you start your own label, Ser?
NICOLE WALSH: I began Ser because of Alex Krause, my old friend and winemaking colleague at Birichino. He gave me the idea. After the economic collapse, we scaled down to 15,000 cases at BD. The world had no money, I felt negative and I was pregnant with our second child. It was a soul-searching year. Krause said to me, “You’re a winemaker. Make wine!” I talked to Randall, he said OK. I bought a few tons of grapes—you have to get good grapes.
What was the big change when you had your own label?
It’s inspired me, rekindled my passion. I’m creating something based on my own decisions. It’s such a different connection with wine. It’s also renewed my relationship with Randall. I’m learning so much. 2013 was my first label. Next I’m opening up a tasting room in Saratoga with Silvertip. If I’m going to be small and artisan, I need more exposure. Direct to consumer—I felt it was the next step.
How hard is it to juggle family, winemaking, and real life?
I’m completely overwhelmed! I have two kids, working for Randall, and now my own label. I need some balance. I’m a surfer, and I haven’t surfed for three months. I wonder, “Am I ever going to see the ocean again?”
I just did an Outstanding in the Field dinner. And I realized “this is what it’s all about.” Sharing the wine, paired with foods. This was the moment to savor. I love wine. It felt very special.
Are there any advantages to being a women in this business?
A woman is an exotic, I believe. There is some textural distinction in the wines themselves—a delicacy, an elegance. Using the same grapes, my wines were different than those made by men. That might be described as feminine. A certain quality. I don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely there. I think wine made by a woman is most appealing to other women. It’s still surprising that there are so few of us. A big two-day tasting in Healdsburg last month opened my eyes. It was such a boy’s club. I think it is empowering for other women to see a woman making wine in a male-dominated field. Women customers, when they taste the wine and I tell them I am the winemaker, their eyes light up, there is interest, more questions asked.
John Locke, Wine Buyer, Soif
Are women treated differently in the wine world?
JOHN LOCKE: I imagine women winemakers are given a shorter leash than men. Women probably have to be better than men to keep their jobs, or at least advance through the ranks. I am not prepared to say that women are dispositionally more likely to be superior to men in the realm of winemaking, though the ones who do make it to the top probably deserve to be there.
Are they considered a rarity?
From my own perspective, I do not think women winemakers are exotic or rarities anymore. That being said, one does hear distributor reps and journalists note with regularity that a particular wine is made by a woman, suggesting that this is noteworthy and might inform one’s opinion of the wine or the house from which it comes. Rarely do people talk about Cathy Corison’s Napa Cabernet without noting that there is a feminine quality to it. So yes, certainly many people believe this could help move boxes. In the case of Cathy Corison, her reputation is beyond reproach, so in my opinion, very few professionals purchase the wine based on her gender, only her considerable chops. I would be quite frankly very surprised if the wine industry is so extraordinarily progressive that it has managed to be nearly unique in transforming from a formerly male-dominated business into one based solely on merit. I would like to think it is a meritocracy, but I would be surprised.
Leslie Fellows, Owner, Uruguay’s Artesana Winery
Are women more prevalent in South American winemaking?
LESLIE FELLOWS: Yes. Our female winemakers are in charge of Uruguay operations, vineyards, production, tourism, sales and export preparation. In Uruguay, there are many women winemakers and owners, partly because so many are family operations.
Do you see any signs that women are making an impact elsewhere in a traditionally male profession?
There are more and more women winemakers making a name for themselves in the U.S.; however, I believe we still have a long way to go with distribution. The industry is dominated by huge companies like Southern, Republic, and Young’s. There has been a lot of consolidation in recent years—fewer and fewer small-to-mid-size distributors. This is unfortunate, as big distribution—the “big boys”—generally are less interested in working with small producers. And men are making the choices of what we drink!
Do women bring some special—or at least different—approaches to wine, both crafting and marketing?
Yes, I think absolutely. Our winemakers make a big bold Tannat wine, though they seem to have a little more elegance than other Tannats I’ve tried. Regarding marketing, it’s more difficult to say. I think women have to work harder in general in this industry to be recognized. It’s a very competitive business and you have to develop a thick skin.
Jane Dunkley, Associate Winemaker, Bonny Doon Vineyard
Jane Dunkley has spent the past year translating the vision of Randall Grahm into distinctive results. Growing up on a “big cattle farm” in West Australia, she worked grape harvests as a teenager before taking a biochemistry degree. “In the end the degree wasn’t that big a deal. People need to see that you can do the work,” she says. “I did custom winemaking at many wineries. It’s not glamorous, but you got to work with many wines. I was trying to soak up as much as possible.”
In 2014, Dunkley heard about the assistant winemaker gig at Bonny Doon, where Nicole Walsh was vineyard manager and Randall Grahm had just inaugurated his San Juan Bautista estate property. Dunkley became an instant fan, both of the winery founder and the town.
How did you get into winemaking?
JANE DUNKLEY: In Australia, there are a lot of women in the industry, but not a lot at the top. It’s still a bit of a rarity.
Why Bonny Doon Vineyard?
Santa Cruz fit me—I had found my people! [Grahm] is the architect, I’m the engineer. Day to day I get to figure out the wines. It’s fantastic to be near his vision.
How do you succeed in this legendary facility?
I’m still young enough [at 30] to push myself. I’ve gotten where I am by always pushing myself. My mother is a very strong woman. She was a great model. In fact, she encouraged me to come here.
Is it glamorous?
In 2014, I went to vineyards more, but now I’m doing a lot of spreadsheets. Mostly the grapes come to me … It’s about spreadsheets, OSHA compliance, safety and health. And Randall doesn’t sleep, so when I wake up at 6 a.m., I’m already behind schedule.
What’s it like working as a woman winemaker at Bonny Doon?
Randall Grahm has always had a posse of strong women around him, so clearly he thinks women are up to the task. I do tend to use my intuition more, and I try to describe wines in a visual rather than biochemical fashion. But I also do the hard work like a man. I was a tomboy growing up. You’ve gotta be one of the boys.