By Dawn Dolan
Having many years in the wine industry, and settled into their high-profile work in the Napa Valley, these women comment on being a woman in the industry, and why gender isn’t the defining factor. Commenting are veterans Heidi Barrett of Barrett Wines, Calistoga, Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock Winery, Stag’s Leap District, Cathy Corison of Corison Winery, St. Helena, and new mom Helen Keplinger of Keplinger Wines, Napa.
Is there something characteristic about wines made by women? If so what?
H.B. I think it’s very individual. Big wines are made by women, and delicate, silky, and elegant wines are made by men too. It take a certain personality type instead of gender. The job is to serve up delicious juice every year. I’ve thought about it a lot, and it keeps coming up. Are men or women better tasters? We have our specialties for tasting components, and the idea may be that women have more taste buds per mm, so they may have a biological advantage. But I’d love to get to the point where I just talk about why I’m a good winemaker, and not a woman.
E.V. Not that’s particularly associated with being a woman. A winemaker that makes masculine wines or feminine wines…this is a more stylistic thing than a gender thing. Women have an innate ability for multitasking, which helps in winemaking.
C.C. Women make all different styles of wine from all over the world. If we bring anything special to the table, it’s attention to detail. Women have had to be better.
H.K. I tend to think of wines and their makers more on an individual basis. Certainly wines made with heart are a reflection of their makers, and capture some of their personality in the wine. And thank goodness – it’s such an intriguing piece of a wine’s story.
What are the main obstacles for women who want to become winemakers?
H.B. At little wineries it is strength…you have to be really fit. You do a lot of shoveling, tractor work, operating equipment, and moving heavy barrels…one needs to be strong and healthy. Employers may look at smaller, petite women as being the weak link. In the old days, when you came aboard you were being sized up by the guys to make sure you could pull your own weight. We’re smart and capable, but in that particular job you are only as good as the weakest link. Or, you could end up with just a desk job in a large corporate structure and never have to move barrels!
E.V. For anybody who is getting into it now, the challenge is the scarcity of jobs. Now people stay put (in a winemaking job). It is less about gender, and more about the availability of jobs. Thelma Long, Celia Welch, and Cathy Corison all pioneered for us. They made it clear that women belonged here in this industry and established that women were a part of winemaking. In Napa, the scarcity of jobs is the obstacle. The good news is there are a lot of developing regions that new winemakers can explore: Washington, Oregon, and the Central Coast.
C.C. There aren’t any real ones. Winemaking, like many pursuits, was long largely a man’s world. It’s been a pleasant surprise to see how quickly that has broken down in my lifetime. Slowly, our society is learning how to integrate work and family life. It’s a challenging juggle.
H.K. I think there are far fewer obstacles now than there used to be. However, although there are many women in this industry, there are still many more men. Relationships are key to getting connected to jobs, vineyards, and opportunities, and there are still men who are more likely to hire other men or who are more comfortable working with other men. Starting out, it can be hard to forge the relationships that will be key in helping achieve what you desire in your career, but those relationships, once made, tend to go the distance.
Can you share a breakthrough experience or lesson?
H.B. The lesson I learned was how to make it work for me. If I proved that I was a hard worker, then I would be part of the team. Dive right in. Volunteer for the hard stuff. It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do it. Working in Germany and Australia, women weren’t the norm in the cellar, so we had to work harder to prove ourselves.
E.V. Most gratifying has been the ability to mentor people. I get emails or calls, not just women, but young men as well. One of the greatest things we can do is inspire and empower young women to go for it. I was unaware that people would call and write. It’s very rewarding.
C.C. When I studied winemaking in the mid-1970’s, Viticulture and Enology were separate departments in different buildings. Though I wasn’t required to take a single viticulture class, I took them all. During my early winemaking career, the vineyard manager grew the grapes and the winemaker made the wines. The intersection was the moment when grapes samples arrived in the laboratory for analysis, leading up to a picking decision. From the start of my own project, thirty years ago, I have always spent most of my time and energy out in the vineyard. I can’t make a wine any better than the grapes that come in the door.
H.K. When I applied for my first real internship, I sent out 30 resumes and cover letters. I had only three replies. Luckily, one of them was Heidi Barrett, who hired me, became a good friend and a great mentor. She was my foot in the door, and she helped me get my start in the form of two great jobs. I now practice her generosity with my own interns, providing guidance and connections to people and jobs to help them get their start, so they can take it where it leads them.
What duties do you have as the winemaker that you never thought you’d have to do?
H.B. The sales aspect is something you don’t think about or train for. Then suddenly you have to meet with people, do interviews, talk with the press; it can add a lot of excitement to the ag business! If you create something, and are artistic, sometimes people want to know about you. It happens in the wine business, and with celebrity chefs and rock bands.
E.V. Something that Davis didn’t prepare us for was the sales. You have to be articulate, and able to communicate with very different kinds of groups. Sommeliers, distributors, and the general public. It’s probably not uncommon for us scientist-types to be a little more inward than outward. However, often we [winemakers] become the public face of the winery with all what that entails.
C.C. I never dreamed I would own my own vineyards and winery. A little bit of business training would have been a good idea.
H.K. I think the amount of cleaning was a shock when I first started out. [Now] it’s long been second nature, and is just a part of the job.
What is your favorite varietal to work with & why?
H.B. Cabernet. I love making Cab. I get to make all sorts of fun stuff, but it’s [Cab] still king for the red grapes. You can make it in different styles, and it’s age-worthy. Like a time capsule that you can take away.
E.V. Cabernet. I got into wine because I love Cabernet. It’s the “King of Grapes” for a reason. I wanted to make it, and I wanted to drink it as a consumer. It’s so versatile. It grows well in climates that are cool, warm—it’s a sturdy little grape. I’m a die-hard Cabernet lover.
C.C. I just love wine, so I drink widely, but I’ve spent my entire adult life specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon. Forty-one years ago, this month, when I graduated from college, bent on making wine, Napa Valley was one of the only winegrowing scenes and certainly the best known. I piled everything I owned in my VW bug and was in Napa within two days. I make Cabernet because I believe that Napa Valley can make Cabernet as well, or better, than anywhere else in the world.
What varietal would you characterize yourself as?
C.C. If I could be a grape, I’d be a Barolo. Very serious and tenacious, with a long view.
H.K. Right now I’d choose to be a Barolo from Piemonte – they’re so pensive, honest, humble, transparent, beautiful, and take time to truly unfold. We were just there in November, and the landscape, people, wines, food made such an indelible impression. Wines in which to lose yourself; simple food made magnificent by the incredible quality of the ingredients.
What do you never get asked but would love to comment on?
H.B. I like to be interviewed because I’m among the best at what I do, not because I’m a women. Eventually, no one will even consider gender. Individual merits will be important instead of gender. I look forward to that change. For now, if it helps the progress, then that is why we still talk about it. If we can continue and give someone a hand up or encourage and inspire, then that matters.
E.V. One of the things that drives me a bit crazy is the term “winemaker”. It conveys the idea that the winemaker makes the wine. In most wineries, it’s a team effort and a collective process. Wine is only as good as every single person who puts their hand to it. At Chimney Rock it is six people plus the ranch hands, as well as our ownership that gives us the support to do what you need to do. Not just one person.