Unlike reports on women’s tasting abilities, there are no studies on relative merits of female vs. male vineyard workers, but anecdotal evidence abounds. Wine Industry Advisor speaks to winery owners and winemakers about why they’ve welcomed more women as full-time field crew.
A lot of ink has been spilled—with good reason—on the dearth of women in positions of power at wineries.
Despite numerous studies asserting that women are better tasters of wine than men, they have a long way to go before they’ll be able to make, distribute, or sell wine at the same rate men do.
According to a study conducted by Wonder Women of Wine and the Wine Nerd, it may take more than a decade; according to Women Winemakers, of the 4,200 bonded wineries in California, just 14 percent reported having a woman as their lead winemaker in 2020.
It’s a real problem, and one that is getting more and more attention. What is still flying under the radar, however, is the lack of females in the field; or if they do make it onto a picking crew, it’s typically a one-and-done situation with no room for growth on the other side of harvest.
“When I started the hiring process to bring on a new cellar master, I interviewed men and women,” says William Allen, winemaker at Sonoma’s Two Shepherds Winery, which produces about 3,500 cases of wine annually. “I was shocked by some of the stories I heard from women. Many of the women I interviewed had graduated from enology programs and gone onto work harvests at well-known wineries. But when harvest was over, they found there wasn’t a job for them. Or if there was, it was an offer that would have pushed them into the lab, or the tasting room.”
For Allen, that transformed his hiring plan. “I decided to focus on bringing in women across the board at the winery,” he says. “I have them working in the cellar and the harvest, and honestly, it has been a great experience for everyone. In addition to having great palates, many of the women I work with have better attention to detail, which is key at harvest time.”
Women at Every Level
It’s unclear whether, like Allen, Rob Astrin was making what he considered to be an ethically sound and politically progressive business decision when packing Adelsheim Vineyard with women. But the fact is, that’s where things stand, and he says he’s thrilled “by the amazing team of women,” including winemaker Gina Hennen and vineyard manager Kelli Gregory, along with her assistant, Danielle Zarro at the Willamette Valley winery.
For Gregory, 35, the issue of gender is a nonstarter.
“It’s so interesting, but I was just following my passion for plants, science, and soil, and the wine industry clicked for me,” she says. “I had no idea what a male-dominated industry it was. In graduate school and when I first started out, I was surrounded by women who are legends in the industry, including Leigh Bartholomew and Patty Skinkis.”
But while Gregory was (blissfully) unaware enough to aggressively pursue her dreams without worrying if she’d be taken seriously, she acknowledges how she has occasionally been received in the field.
“Working with and overseeing a crew of 10 men alongside Danielle has been an eye-opener,” she says. “I will say that, culturally speaking, many of the people I work with are not used to having a female boss, and someone who’s younger than them. But I find that if they are treated with respect (because they have deep knowledge and experience and should be) you can earn their respect.”
Workers aren’t the only ones who push back either, she says: Other vineyard managers she works with on non-estate vineyards were initially dubious.
“But once people see how you work, and your results, those doubts dissipate,” she says. “As far as I know, Danielle and I are the only female manager and assistant manager team in Oregon. But I’m seeing more female vineyard managers and women working in the fields every season.”
Like Gregory, Renee Graves, whose official title at Ketcham Estate is “director of happiness,” is baffled by the dearth of women in wine in general, especially in the field.
“We have a team of women making the wine, in the cellar and in the vineyard,” Graves says. “I have never understood why there aren’t more women in the field. We work with John Grace in Healdsburg who helps us with seasonal harvest workers, and he has mostly ladies on his crew. They come in with this amazing attention to detail, tying vines to wires after pruning with such precision. During picking time, a lot of the women focus on picking leaves out of bins, and their smaller hands make faster work of it.”
Seeing Is Believing
At Fabbioli Cellars in Leesburg, VA, with 30 acres under vine and about 7,000 cases in annual production, co-owner Doug Fabbioli says he cut his teeth on winemaking in California working for women.
“That definitely clued me in to what an asset women can be in the vineyard and the cellar,” Fabbioli says. “My current vineyard manager, Celia, is phenomenal. Her brother was our manager for years, but he had to go back to Mexico. She came on and you could tell that the crew had doubts, but she had the field skills, and, more importantly, the leadership skills, to overcome them. Now, we have mostly women, seven women and one guy year-round. She is so detail oriented, and you need that with dropping fruit, pruning and leaf pulling. Sure, there’s a lot of heavy work in the vineyard, but I find the women are fully capable of handling it.”
Another Virginia vintner, who prefers not to be identified to protect the identity of his crew members, says any doubts and biases he had were overturned quickly when he saw what his female team members could do.
“We have the team working on our estate vineyard, but we are also part of a cooperative union of growers and we share the team,” he says. “There was definitely a lot of doubt in the beginning, but we all agree that the lead woman we have is an enormous asset, and is often the fastest and the best on the entire team. Her work ethic is an understatement, and she has incredible loyalty and pride in craftsmanship.”
There will always be a place for men in the field. They bring their own set of skill sets, strengths, and experiences. But by bringing more women into the vineyard, our industry is expanding that breadth of talent and innovation for the betterment of the vines, the wines and wine business.
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox