March is Women’s History Month, and it’s a time to celebrate the achievements of the women who have overcome the odds and broken glass ceilings. In the wine industry, women are starting to break through everywhere, and that is something we should all raise a glass to.
Up until the mid-20th century, the wine world was occupied almost entirely by men. Women were excluded in much the same ways as other industries, through traditions and laws that barred their entry and forced them to remain behind the scenes. There were a few exceptions, the most well-known probably being Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the “Widow Clicquot,” or “Veuve Clicquot.” When her husband died, she took over his wine business and pioneered many new developments in wine, including inventing the riddling table to clarify champagne, and blending the first rosé champagne. Veuve Clicquot is now one of the largest champagne houses in the world. While women like Clicquot did make an independent name for themselves, their entry into the wine business was invariably through a husband or lineage. Their success didn't represent access, but rather a particular alignment of stars.
During our over 6,000 year history with wine, women spent a large chunk of it not even being permitted to drink wine (apparently, women were prone to “excess,” “inebriation,” “indiscriminate sexuality,” “promiscuity,” and well, we can’t have any of THAT). Unfortunately for women, socializing with booze was also how men networked, conducted business, and made political connections. Women, therefore, were excluded from all of these opportunities for advancement.
Eventually wine was normalized enough that women were allowed to drink it, but they still weren’t allowed into any of the hangout spots. This exclusion naturally also extended to the wine growers’ associations, and that persisted for a depressingly long time. In fact, the oldest and most elite of the Bordeaux “brotherhoods,” the Jurade of Saint-Emilion, didn’t admit its first female members until 2000.
When it comes to wine, women are fighting against some really old, really ingrained prejudices that have shaped the entire industry. And yet, they have fought, they continue to fight, and they’re starting to win. And by extension, we’re all winning, because they’re making some really good wine. We’re now at the tipping point for women in the industry: that moment when the right combination of factors comes together to spark a movement.
Today, women are either owners or co-owners of at least 38% of California’s 4500+ wineries. This is still low (by contrast, women make up 57% of wine drinkers according to a 2016 Nielson study), but it’s a long way from where we started. We’ve been able to get this far in part by working together and supporting fellow women in the industry.
Here’s the truth: it’s a rare woman who shatters a glass ceiling on her own. Actually, it’s rare for glass ceilings to shatter at all; most of them are slowly cracked by many women bashing their heads against them. (Sound painful? Trust me, it is.) There are absolutely trailblazers and pioneers who achieve success through sheer determination, but I’m certain that most successful women wouldn’t characterize themselves that way. In my experience, our individual successes can often be attributed to the efforts and support of other women and allies.
That’s why I want to take the time to highlight some of the amazing women who have worked incredibly hard to bring their wine visions to life, in an industry that didn’t always welcome them--and in a time, now, when a global crisis keeps us apart. Let’s work together to raise these women up, along with all of the other strong women in the wine industry, by supporting their businesses and enjoying their wines. And trust me, you’ll enjoy the wine these women are making.
Cristina Gonzales - Owner and Winemaker - Gonzales Wine Co.
Cristina Gonzales’s grandparents were migrant farm workers from Texas, who moved to Wisconsin to pick cherries in search of a better life. Cristina’s passion for wine began as a backpacker in 2001 when she reached Mendoza, Argentina, the epicenter of South American Malbec. She entered the wine industry in 2006, working in many regions including California, Oregon, Tasmania and Australia. She also worked in many positions in the wine industry, including cellar hand, lab assistant, warehouse manager, and bottling line manager. In 2010 Cristina founded Gonzales Wine Company and began winemaking herself. Cristina currently resides in Portland Oregon, producing wines with minimal intervention, no added yeasts and small amounts of sulfur, from grapes grown in Southern Oregon and Washington.
Lisa Warr-King Packer - Owner and Winemaker - Warr-King Wines
Lisa Warr-King Packer founded Warr-King Wines to highlight the unique wines of Washington. Lisa worked for 20 years in high-tech marketing before changing careers. She’s a lifelong gourmet who grew fond of Oregon’s Pinots in her college days. She took classes in wine at Lake Washington Tech at a friend’s urging and continued to get a degree in enology at WSU. She later worked at Patterson Cellars and spent a harvest working at Chateau Ste. Michelle to learn how to make white wines on a larger scale, before beginning Warr-King Wines in 2013. Warr-King Wines specializes in bold, structured wines with fruit-forward flavors.
Sabrine Rodems - Owner and Winemaker - Scratch
Sabrine grew up near Napa and Sonoma, and frequently picnicked at wineries with her family as a child. She began her career in the film and theater industry, getting a BA from UCLA in Theatre, Film and Television. After many years in film and theatre, Sabrine went back to school for a MS of Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis. After school she decided to move south to Santa Cruz, instead of north to the traditional wine regions. She praises the “geologically different” sites around the Central coast that are well-suited to a diverse range of grapes. Sabrine produces small-lot Riesling, Sparkling Wine, Grenache, Pinot Noir and Cabernet from vineyards in Monterey, Arroyo Seco, Santa Lucia Highlands and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Nicole Walsh - Owner and Winemaker - Ser Winery
Nicole spent over 20 years working in every imaginable position at Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, CA. In 2008, Nicole was invited to join Churton Wines in Marlborough, New Zealand, where she helped convert the vineyard to biodynamic production and managed production. This experience led her to opening Ser Winery: She wanted to explore her own region and make wine that preserves and reflects the purest expression of the grapes, and the climates and soils that influence them. Nicole gives her wines the freedom to evolve as the grapes dictate, elevating their unique qualities instead of trying to conform them to a particular idea of what a wine should be.
Nancy Irelan - Owner and Winemaker - Red Tail Ridge Winery
Nancy is the winemaker and partner at Red Tail Ridge. She has been in the wine industry for over 35 years. Nancy’s career path includes a decade at E&J Gallo as VP of Viticulture & Enology R&D, a PhD in grape genetics in the UC-Davis Viticulture and Enology Depart, along with various consulting gigs. After years of large volume production and mass appeal, Red Tail Ridge is a personal journey of introspection for Nancy, as she focuses on how to best represent the unique personality and terroir of her vineyard. Each wine is a tiny time capsule of typicity that reflects a moment in the life-history of Red Tail Ridge.
Katy Wilson - Winemaker - Anaba Wines
Katy is the head winemaker at Anaba, where she crafts world-class Rhone and Burgundian wines in Sonoma. Raised on a walnut orchard in the Central Valley of California, Katy went on to earn degrees in Wine and Viticulture, and Agricultural Business from Cal Poly where she discovered that a career in wine perfectly catered to her agricultural interests, as well as her creative and scientific talents. After college, Katy worked harvests abroad in Australia and New Zealand, as well as held winemaking posts at Flowers and Kamen before joining Anaba in 2014. Katy believes in letting the vineyard speak for itself, with minimal intervention, creating a portfolio of balanced wines that showcase the truest expression of each varietal.
Shalini Sekhar - Winemaker - Waits-Mast Family Cellars
Shalini began working with Waits-Mast in 2013 when she was the Custom Crush Winemaker at ROAR Wines in San Francisco. A former musician, she shifted to a career in wine; marrying the same combination of art and science that fueled her passion for music. She studied Enology and Viticulture at Fresno State University, honing her skills at Williams-Selyem Winery, Copain Custom Crush (now Punchdown Cellars), and Bluxome Street winery. She now makes wine at Waits-Mast Family Cellars wines in San Francisco and the Neely family’s wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Shalini was included in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2019 Winemakers to Watch, recognizing her work with both Waits-Mast and Neely wines.