Women in the Wine Industry

Women in the Wine Industry

A Gallup survey taken back in July of 2021 revealed the average person’s alcoholic beverage preference in the US, as it is broken down by subgroups. Turns out, at a bar, men will choose beer (54 percent) over liquor (28 percent) or wine (15 percent). Women will choose wine (49 percent) over liquor (26 percent) or beer (23 percent). It further breaks it down in age groups. The 21- to 34-year-olds will choose beer, liquor, and then wine. The 35- to 54-year-olds will prefer beer, wine, and then liquor. But the 55 and older crowd will greatly choose wine first, beer, and then liquor. There are suggestions that education and household income may have contributing factors.

In a separate survey, it was found that women purchase more wine bottles (55 percent) than men (45 percent). But men will generally purchase more expensive bottles. Women’s motivation for purchasing is driven by social needs, to share with friends, is associated with culture, conversation, laughter. Men’s motivation is pragmatic even in social occasions where technical knowledge can be exhibited, collectable, or the showoff, brag factor.

In 2021, Zippa, the Career Expert, reported that 82.2 percent of all winemakers were male with 17.8 percent female. If more women enjoy consuming wine then men, why is this split between men and women so drastically lopsided toward men? It is 2024, right?

The “gift of the gods,” as the Egyptians would suggest, heightens spirituality, relieves daily stress and a host of other physical ailments. The men were allotted wine in jars in tombs to continue a comfortable after life. Women were thought to become intoxicated and act promiscuous in the afterlife. It was also accepted that the upper class, Greek men drank wine to reduce inhibitions, relax, enhance social interaction (sex), but frowned on women drinking as they would dilute their wine with seawater. The Greeks developed male drinking clubs called symposia where the only women allowed were musicians, servers, or prostitutes. Respectable women were excluded from political or commercial relationships. The Romans replaced the symposia with a convivia, same thing but no women permitted. They thought that if women were there, there would be adultery.

Historical biases against women in the wine industry persisted for centuries, evident in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, where only prostitutes gained entry to male-only drinking establishments. This exclusion continued in the New World, with private gentlemen's clubs and all-male dinner parties maintaining a male-centric atmosphere associated with intellectual sophistication.

It is not a big jump from being male and participating in these intellectual, male-only drinking groups to being an exclusively all-male winemaking industry. As the US was only a colony, the landowners were required to have no less than 10 vines for wine production. Out in (not yet) California, Spanish missionaries arrived in San Diego in 1769. Father Junipero Serra planted California’s first grapes. The laborers were the surrounding indigenous men.

Over the next hundred years, California’s wine industry steadily grew as European immigrants moved in and California gained statehood. In 1848, the discovery of gold sparked a population boom which put a burden on the southern California wineries. By 1869, the University of California (not yet based in Davis) opened and established a wine research and education department. Agoston Harazthy, the “Father of California Viniculture,” brought 200 varieties to pioneer what would grow. In the 1880s, the Italian immigrants built a wine empire in the Cucamonga Valley (southern California).

The knee jerk happened in 1919 with the coming of the 18th Amendment ratification. The US had built about 2,500 commercial vineyards, most of which were in California, that all had to do something else. Zinfandel was not considered a wine grape at the time and was produced into wine for religious reasons. Some Italians still grew and sold the fresh grapes which then could be made into wine for personal consumption. 200 gallons was permitted under tight regulations.

Only about 100 wineries survived through Prohibition. The program for Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis started in the late 1930s to help revitalize the industry. Vines take a while to produce any fruit from baby new plants. Then having to train a whole new generation on how to enjoy and drink wine took time too. By the 1960s, California grew to 271 wineries. It was about this time winemakers like Cribari, Gallo, Paul Masson, and Boones Farm were established. But it would take the first celebrity chef, Julia Child, to popularize wine drinking to the American Public. The momentum started. The second push happened in 1976 with the “Judgment of Paris,” where the French experts, in a blind tasting, ranked the California wines above the French for the first time.

Going back to the topic of women in the wine industry paving a path: In 1965, Mary Ann Graf earned a degree from the University of California in fermentation science and went on to be the first woman winemaker in California. In 1974, Dr. Anne Noble became the first female faculty member for UC Davis’s Viticulture and Enology program.

Dr. Noble’s research has universally changed the way wine is described. At the time, wine was described as either feminine or masculine, with the latter often considered superior. Femininization of wine was a backward complement conjuring up social and cultural stereotypes and reinstating unflattering relationships of women, wine, and sexuality.  Instead, Dr. Noble developed the Wine Aroma Wheel to describe wine’s characteristics. Coming from a sensory and chemist background, Dr. Noble used food terms that everyone can understand like nutty, fruity, floral, spicy, or woody. Visual references of the aromas made it easier for both professionals and amateurs to identify flavors.

Carol Shelton, the California Queen of Zinfandel, was a student of Dr. Noble and participated in the development of the Wine Aroma Wheel. Carol, as a little girl of 6, would be in the kitchen as her mother was preparing meals. Her mom would ask Carol to play the “identify the scent” game in the dish. Developing and honing those skills there was only part of Carol’s story.

A side note here. The question of whether women smell and taste better than men raises considerations for their advantage in crafting wine. Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Cardiff consistently indicate that women excel in odor identification and sensitivity compared to men, irrespective of demographics. Dr. Linda Bartoshuk's research at the Yale School of Medicine further classifies tasters into non-tasters, medium tasters, and supertasters, with the latter group—primarily composed of women—displaying heightened sensitivity and more taste buds.

While women may naturally possess better tasting abilities and more sensitive palates, their social exclusion from tastings and judging panels has hindered the full development of these skills. Men have dominated the field due to opportunities, practice, and training, despite women holding a natural advantage. In Australia, women faced exclusion as judges in wine shows until 1983, marking a significant shift from the last stronghold of male domination in the wine industry influenced by rural conservatism.

When Carol graduated, wineries had a long-standing division of labor. Women were relegated to administrative positions regardless of training and despite holding a degree. No women should be in the winery during the production of wine. Women were not considered strong enough or physically capable enough to stomp on grapes and get the right amount of extraction. As a consolation prize, women were allowed to pick and sort grapes, as those tasks are more needing of maternal care. But even then, women were considered chatty and inefficient.

Most frustrating for Carol was that she was told, “Women are not allowed to work in the cellar.” Women were considered too weak to handle barrels, racking, and working with other equipment. Even with the advent of modern technology reducing the need for physical strength, this “protection” of women became a subterfuge for discrimination. Rather than being assessed as individuals, women, as a class, were written off. Persistent superstition compounded the problem. Apparently, women’s menstrual cycles would sour the wine.

Despite facing the common prejudices of her time, Carol Shelton was fortunate to work with legendary winemakers André Tchelistcheff, at Buena Vista, and Peter Lehmann, at Saltram, in Australia. These experiences proved invaluable in shaping her career as a winemaker in Sonoma County. In 1981, she joined Rodney Strong and Windsor Vineyards, where, during her 19-year tenure as a winemaker, she bottled a remarkable 45 different wines annually, showcasing her versatility from sparkling wines to port.

The unease experienced by women in the wine industry is evident in their hesitancy to put their own names on labels—a contrast to the confidence of many male counterparts. This reluctance may stem from a lack of self-confidence or a concern about appearing self-promoting. For women, labeling their wines with their own names signifies increased confidence and pride, reflecting personal growth. Overcoming societal attitudes, such as the perception that reaching high professional positions is a male prerogative, becomes a significant aspect of their journey.

Zinfandel became a focal point for Carol, drawn by its unpretentiousness and diverse flavors. Exploring different growing regions, she allowed the terroir to speak through the wine, solidifying Zinfandel as her favorite. In 2000, encouraged by her husband Mitch, Carol took a bold step to establish her own winery, assuming the roles of President and Winemaker. The journey was challenging and financially demanding, with the first vintage funded by selling barrel futures. Carol is grateful to the early supporters, some of whom remain loyal club members at Carol Shelton Wines, acknowledging their crucial support in the initial and ongoing success of her venture.

Carol is a trailblazer! There are many points where she could have just quit. Why go into a male-dominated industry knowing it’s going to be miserable and somewhat abusive. Today, she is a decorated winemaking veteran with five Sonoma County Winemaker of the Year awards and countless gold medals to her name.

The perception of women in the wine industry has undergone positive transformations in recent years, marked by increased visibility, educational initiatives, and the rise of women-led wineries. Recognizing the expertise and creativity of women winemakers, the industry is moving toward greater gender inclusivity, challenging traditional stereotypes. Programs supporting mentorship and networking for women in wine, along with changing consumer awareness and a shift in industry culture, contribute to a more diverse and equitable representation of women. While progress is evident, ongoing efforts are essential to address any remaining challenges, and ensure sustained advancements in gender equality within the wine sector.




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