By Laura Ness
While their ranks are steadily growing, women winemakers are still relatively rare in California, with about 10% of the total. One region where they are especially strong in numbers, though, is the Central Coast. We put some questions to four of them, including Anna Marie dos Remedios of Idle Hour in Carmel Valley, Sabrine Rodems of Wrath and Scratch in the Santa Lucia Highlands, Olivia Teutschel of Bargetto in Santa Cruz and Nicole Walsh of Bonny Doon and Ser, also in Santa Cruz.
- What are the main obstacles for women who want to become winemakers?
AMDR: To be honest, I do not feel that being a woman creates obstacles for us as winemakers, except maybe in the close-minded few who make the comment that we shouldn’t be driving forklifts or be pulling hoses, etc. I believe those men would be sexist no matter what we are doing. I think it takes a strong personality to persevere in this field: the work is tough, it takes all your capital to make it happen and it is so easy to fail, so the stress is real. Those are challenges any winemaker faces.
SR: I have always been in “physical” male-dominated jobs, first as a stagehand and now as a winemaker. The biggest obstacle for men and women is putting yourself out there. Saying, “this is what I know, and this is what I don’t know”, and being open minded and open to learning new things. I learned how to be an electrician from “doing”….take the thermostat apart (make sure the breaker is off first!), but take it apart and compare it to one that works. What is wrong? And then also knowing when you need to call an electrician.
OT: Women have to prove themselves in the workplace mentally and physically more than men. The cellar can be a very “manly” place, where brawn is very important to accomplish daily tasks. It’s hard to gain experience in the cellar if some of the tasks are always dished out to the physically stronger men. Mentally, women tend to be more emotional about things that are stressful (and harvest is stressful!). I have a harder time relaxing than my male coworkers. That could just be my personality, but in general I think women show those emotions more freely.
NW: Some of the main obstacles for women who want to become winemakers are physically related. Cellar work requires heavy lifting! It also requires a mechanical mind to fix pumps, change oil on compressors, fix glycol leaks, etc. I think the stereotype of women might prevent them from getting a job in some situations. If the winery is small and they don’t have a budget for extra people, I would bet they would want a man around for “fixing things” and moving heavy stuff. A related example, this coming from another woman winemaker I know, recently commented to me that she didn’t want to have just a bunch of women working in the cellar this Fall. I had to agree with her that we wanted some strong men around, as chauvinist as that sounds. That said, I know I have become rather strong over the years and can fix my share of equipment. However, it took time for these skills to develop.
- Can you share a breakthrough experience or lesson?
AMDR: Over a decade ago, I was talking with a friend/mentor about white wines, when he shared a tank sample with me and I realized that I needed to know everything I could about this white wine, because it would be the first white wine I considered making: Viognier. A month later, I found myself flying in a plane to Condrieu to taste and learn.
SR: My breakthrough experiences have been in the past few years when people ask me my opinion and I actually feel like they are listening and care about the answer. I think at some point you realize, “wow, I do know this stuff!”
OT: I will never forget my first harvest job interview. I dressed up nicely, like I would for any interview. When I arrived, the assistant winemaker (dressed casually and sweating through his baseball cap), took one look at me and explained how hard it is to work in the cellar during harvest. He also mentioned that they’ve hired women in the past and some have quit before the harvest was over because they couldn’t handle the workload. This immediately scared me; I had no experience in cellar work and was not even sure I wanted to be a winemaker. I like a challenge so I took the job anyway. From that day forward, I felt as if each day I was proving myself to that assistant winemaker and my other coworkers. This experience truly helped me grow and taught me how to work hard in the cellar next to my male peers. This first job in the cellar also sparked my interest in winemaking as a career.
NW: Since I started Ser, I believe a consistent lesson I am learning is to have confidence and faith in myself and in what I can accomplish. I remember the weeks before I was about to open my wines for people for the first time, I couldn’t sleep and was a total wreck. I was so worried and had thoughts and discussions with my husband to just bulk the wine out and forget the whole thing. I remember pouring at my first tasting at Pinot Paradise in the spring of 2014 and having such positive feedback. It was an incredible feeling. I am my worst critic and I’ve learned a lot of lessons since.
- Is there something characteristic about wines made by women? If so what?
AMDR: This may sound corny, but I would have to say, aromatics. I think women winemakers allow wines to ferment and age with less manipulation, resulting in wines of more restraint and more honest aromatics. When I say honest, I mean specific to the place and variety, not vanilla or toasty oak, or creamy butter, some of the flavors of manipulation. We all have expectations for what each variety brings to the table in terms of flavor, body and aromatics. I think women winemakers may make up 10% of the total number of winemakers in the state but have been more influential because of the quality of the wines produced comparatively speaking.
SR: I don’t think there is one characteristic. I just think women are more intuitive when it comes to flavor and texture of wine. We know when we like it and what we like about it. I wish there were more female wine critics, because I think the vocabulary would become more interesting.
OT: I would have to say women winemakers tend to pay extra attention to detail. I believe winemaking is all about details. I’m not sure exactly how a wine’s characteristics change because of this attention, but I imagine these wines carry these details in their aromas, color, structure, flavor and finish. I think this extra care and attention could potentially make for a more focused and clean wine.
NW: To be honest, I don’t know that I’ve tasted that many wines (perhaps unknowingly) made by women. I know that I notice a big difference in the wines I am making for Ser and the wines I make for Bonny Doon. I believe there is something transferred to wine by its maker, whether that is their intention or vision for the wine. It is hard to express, but I notice a delicate texture with my wines. A feminine quality or refinement that has been a consistent theme with my Ser wines.
- Who is the woman winemaker you most admire?
AMDR: Cathy Corison. She has stuck to her guns and made her wines her way with subtlety and restraint despite their power, against the tide in Napa Valley. Now, with rising support for the “new California” style of restraint in wines, Corison’s wines are getting the acclaim they deserve.
SR: Carole Meredith was a professor of mine at UC Davis, and she and her husband make Lagier-Meredith. I think Carole is a very no-nonsense, no-bullshit kind of a person, and I am like that too, so she gives me confidence to continue telling it like it is. I am very non-marketing. I think wine consumers can see right through most of the BS and it just makes the wine industry look aloof. We need to restrategize about this angle because the industry and wine reviewers are ostracizing our own consumers. People have more information at their fingertips, so when you try to tell them you “pick at 24.5” when the alcohol is 15%, you have some ‘splain’in’ to do.
OT: Kathryn Kennedy. She was not only one of the first female winemakers in the California wine industry, but also one of the first in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Her legacy lives on in her impressive success story and distinctive Cabernets.
NW: Lalou Bize-Leroy. I was amazed by her wine and I love that she is given credit for building DRC into one of the most sought after wines of Burgundy. After she was ousted from the company, she has made a name for herself especially among the best Biodynamic producers and leading Burgundy producers. I, too, believe in Biodynamic farming, but until I can have my own vineyard, it is not that easy to come by BD vineyards to source from.
- What’s the most annoying question people frequently ask you?
AMDR: “WHICH WINE IS YOUR FAVORITE?” Seriously it’s the most popular question I get in the tasting room. It usually takes me a moment to not answer sarcastically when I respond that I wouldn’t bottle a wine I didn’t love. I usually make a joke that the wines are my kids and that I love some more than others. I think people can relate to that. I try to explain that I believe wines change often and evolve so I try not to have that kind of expectation when tasting. I prefer to experience that “AHA” moment where I’m pleasantly surprised after tasting a wine I haven’t tried in awhile. That’s my joy in wine.
SR: I really don’t think there are annoying questions. What I don’t like is when people don’t taste wines because they “don’t like Chardonnay”, or “don’t like Pinot Noir.” People should be open to tasting. They can always spit it out. If you are paying for a tasting, taste everything!
OT: “Which wine is your wine?” My first harvest as winemaker was 2014, but I also feel very connected to many 2013 wines that are being blending and bottled now. I don’t believe the wines will dramatically change now that I am winemaker. The winemakers before me have done well. I plan to do the same and hope the vintages ahead treat me well! Also, it’s really hard to name something as mine when it is really a team effort to produce wine; I’m very lucky to have dedicated and hardworking teammates in the cellar.
NW: What I have found frustrating at events is that it takes a lot of work to connect with people and get them to understand that this is my winery, that I make the wine, everything. If I am pouring with my sales rep, Henning, they assume it is his winery. He loves to introduce me, but sometimes we don’t get the chance.
- If you were to use a wine type to describe yourself…what type would you be? Why?
AMDR: Cote Rotie, of the old feminine style, more grace and elegance than power. New Cote Rotie wines are aged in 100% new French Oak, powerful and structured and much more masculine. I think the old school Cote Rotie, structured from the granitic soils, took some softening from Viognier to make the wines approachable. It took time to see the beauty in them. I can be too structured sometimes in my personality, with high expectations for doing things so specifically. With experience, I’ve been able to soften my approach and expectations. It has just taken time to reach this stage in my career and my wines.
SR: Stemmy and edgy.
OT: Probably a Santa Cruz Mountain-style Pinot Noir. People like to see me as delicate and feminine but in reality I’m not really either of those things, just like many Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs. 😉
NW: My favorite wine in the world is Barolo. I love Nebbiolo and I suppose I would like to describe myself with some of the same characteristics of these wines. The wine appears delicate (typically light in color), have sensual aromatics, but also have surprising tannins, structure and strength. In the best I’ve had the pleasure of tasting, there is an inner joy that is expressed along with a bright, lively nature.