What Happened to the Glass Ceiling?

Elizabeth Vianna, winemaker and GM of Chimney Rock Winery, Napa Valley
Elizabeth Vianna, winemaker and GM of Chimney Rock Winery, Napa Valley

When Lucia Gilbert heard that women had shattered the glass ceiling in the California wine industry, she had to find out for herself if the rumor was true.

Gilbert, a professor of psychology and counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, specializes in studies of the career paths of women in male-dominated industries. She wanted to know how females in the wine industry, specifically women winemakers, had pulled off this rare accomplishment.

“I started out trying to identify the factors that had allowed them to be successful,” she explained, regarding the investigation that grew from an academic paper, published in 2011, to an ever-expanding database and website. “But when I started my study, it was very difficult to identify who these women actually were. Once you get past the big names like Zelma Long, Helen Turley or Merry Edwards, people didn’t seem to know who these women were. And then I realized that the numbers that had been thrown around were not based on any real data but simply on what people supposed to be true.”

Gilbert then spent an entire year, assisted by her husband, Jack Gilbert, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Santa Clara, compiling a database of women in California who held the position of lead winemaker at a bonded winery. (womenwinemakers.com)  While the public perception of the number of women in this role was believed to be anywhere from 15 to 30 percent, the Gilberts discovered that the actual number was closer to 10 percent. So, if 90 percent of the lead winemakers in Calfornia were, reportedly, male, was it fair to say that women had, indeed, shattered the proverbial ceiling?

“It’s pretty good for a male-dominated field,” she said, “but it certainly wasn’t a shattered ceiling.”

And yet anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that any restrictions there once might have been for women eager to pursue a career in winemaking have steadily receded with the passage of time. Impediments faced by pioneering winemakers like MaryAnn Graf, Elaine Crane, Carol Shelton, Long, Turley, or Edwards, among others, simply do not exist for the vast majority of women entering the field today.

(L-R) Kate Jones, Lucia Gilbert, Cathy Corison (owner and winemaker, Corison Winery), Jack Gilbert. Ctsy Lucia and Jack Gilbert
(L-R) Kate Jones, Lucia Gilbert, Cathy Corison (owner and winemaker, Corison Winery), Jack Gilbert. Ctsy Lucia and Jack Gilbert

“One of the great things is we found that women winemakers don’t want to be known as women winemakers, but known simply as winemakers,” Gilbert added. “For the same reason that we don’t refer to male winemakers as male winemakers. We just call them winemakers. It takes a while for a field to change, to begin to see people who have been in the field as qualified and excellent. That’s the change that is happening in the wine industry, the recognition of excellence that doesn’t depend on male or female.”

Elizabeth Vianna, winemaker and general manager of Chimney Rock Winery, agrees. “Being a woman has certainly not been an impediment,” she explained. “Our road was paved for us years ago by those pioneering women. I really can’t think of any obstacles I’ve encountered simply because I’m a woman.”

“There is great camaraderie among the women winemakers I know,” Vianna added, “but I have also received strong support in my career from many men. This is a collaborative business. What matters most is ability. Making good wine has nothing to do with one’s gender. Whether you are male or female, in this business you have to work your way up. I’ve not found that being a woman has had much relevance to my career.”

Upon graduation in 2000 with a master’s degree from the University of California – Davis, where her class was 50 percent female, she became an enologist at Napa Wine Company. There she worked alongside several women -- Heidi Barrett, Erin Green, Pam Starr, and Celia Masyczek –all notable winemakers who became colleagues as well as mentors.

“Finding mentors, finding good role models is critical to success in this field,” Vianna said. Having the right tools, of course, is equally important. “ Some of my best skills are patience, personnel management, and the ability to listen. Is this related to being a woman? I don’t really know.”

Nova Cadamatre, Red Winemaker at Robert Mondavi Wineryunder Genvieve Janssens, another groundbreaking California winemaker, says that she doesn’t think of being a woman as an advantage or disadvantage in this field.

“I think that winemakers are winemakers, I really do,” she said. “I honestly do not believe that either sex has an advantage over the other. People who have reached the level of winemaker in this area are pretty much on par.”

“I run into a lot of women winemakers, so I’ve always been a bit confused when I hear the statistic that 90 percent of all California winemakers are men,” she continued. “Either I’ve worked with a disproportionately large number of women or there’s more women in the field than the statistics say there are.”

Nova Cadamatre, courtesy  Chris Leschinsky/Robert Mondavi Winery.
Nova Cadamatre, courtesy Chris Leschinsky/Robert Mondavi Winery.

Cadamatre does not see male and female winemakers as constituting separate groups. “There are, of course, certain challenges, just in general, that come from being a woman in the workplace that you can only ask other women about,” she explained. “Like when it comes to maternity leave or being pregnant on the job – those questions can only be answered by women. But as far as just general career advice, I’ve gotten great support from men and women. It comes down to the person whether they are willing to help.”

“I think there are a lot of assistant winemakers who are female, enologists who are female, vineyard managers who are female. I’d like to see them counted in this survey as well.”

For some observers of the California wine world, the need to worry about the progress of women simply no longer exists. In a recent post on his blog The Gray Report, W. Blake Gray opined that irrevocable change has occurred, that women have secured their places in the industry. It is, he said, no longer a story.

“It would be good for me, professionally, if sexism is still widespread in winemaking,” Gray wrote. “US newspapers and magazines are endlessly interested in stories of women overcoming barriers in male-dominated industries. I've written the "women winemakers in region X" story a few times, and since I get paid by the story, I'd like to write it every two months for the rest of my life.”

“But it has been getting harder to do,” he continued. “I ask women winemakers all the time if they find difficulty being a woman in the wine industry. The answer, lately, has almost always been "no." You can't sell the "women winemakers in California" story anymore: it's just not news. You have to look further and further afield. It probably is news in Croatia, and maybe I'll do that next.”

While the Gilberts’ data is certainly true and accurate, perhaps it is less an indication of patent, ongoing sexism in the wine industry, and more of a snapshot of a field that is constantly and continually evolving. At one point, not so long ago, women winemakers were a rarity. Today, they are growing in number so quickly that their story is no longer news.

As for the glass ceiling, perhaps Lucia Gilbert is correct when she says it hasn’t been shattered. Maybe that’s because today’s women can’t shatter what is no longer there.