Climbing the Vine to Success

Alison Crow, photo by Wilfred Wong
Alison Crow, photo by Wilfred Wong

Today, in 2014, women still make approximately 77 cents to every US dollar a man earns for equal work.  While in some industries, this may not be as apparent – tech for example is rapidly catching up – there are still industries that are sadly lacking equal pay and attitudes, the so called glass ceiling.

In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th, I wanted to find out more about women winemakers, what has changed in the last 40 years of American wine, and what has not.  What is still true today is that those that have cut their teeth and earned their dues have an easier time now than they might have 20 years ago, but breaking in to the business is a hard won fight that is still much more accessible for a man.

The US seems to be behind the curve, still, in an ever changing wine industry.  In other industrialized wine-centric countries, such as Australia, there is less of a perceived gap in both earnings and respect in the wine industry.  Woman, man, winemaker.  In the hard drinking, hard playing culture of Australia, as long as you can keep up at the bar and with the barrels you are accepted as a winemaker.

One of the key questions I wanted to answer was if there was such a thing as gender gap in wine.   Often times we think of a wine as being more “feminine”, such as Pinot Noir; or “masculine”, such as a big Cabernet Sauvignon.  While some differences are obvious in style, is that really due to a  female influence, or is it more stylistic in nature?  Women definitely bring something unique to winemaking; is this biological or emotional?  Science shows us that women are more sensitive to certain smells and tastes.  Could this account for the differences in the styles of wine we craft?  Does this impact the role of women in the industry?

Here in my home state of California, with some 3500 wineries, only 10% have a women as their head winemaker.  That number is significant when you are looking at a state that makes nearly 90% of all of the wine produced in the US.  What is really disturbing about the number is the fact that over 50% of graduates of California’s premier enology programs at Cal State Fresno, University of California at Davis, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo were woman.  So where did all of these women winemakers go?  Why are there so few of these women that are represented in the industry post-graduation?

Much like other industries such as technology, women must be more persistent, more motivated, and more talented than their male counterparts to compete on a level playing field and be viewed as successful.  This is a hard façade to maintain, and might cause some to drop out of the race for more rewarding, and less frustrating pursuits in wine, accounting for the imbalance in numbers.

I sat down with three women winemakers to discuss what it’s like to be a women in the industry today.  Each has a unique perspective:  an experienced winemaker forging new territory in an up and coming region outside of the US, a family winemaking legacy, and an educated California girl working her way up the ranks.  How do they see the industry from the inside?  Is there still an old boy’s club culture in place?  Compared to the early days of California wine, when you could count women winemakers on one hand, things have certainly changed; but how much?

Alison Crow is the winemaker for California’s Garnet Vineyards, which specializes in Pinot Noir.  Growing up in the Central Coast region of California, she was heavily influenced by the wine culture of Santa Barbara and her family’s love of wine and food.  Focusing her studies at University of California at Davis, she worked her first harvest at the obscure and unique Chalone Vineyard in Monterey County where she fell in love with Pinot Noir.  Cutting her teeth with such greats as Randall Grahm, she is passionate about making wines that express the uniqueness of terroir.  For the past 7 years, she has been in Carneros, Monterey, Napa Valley, Russian River, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Barabaa wine countries, and has developed long term relationships with her growers.  Alison firmly believes in expressing the fruit and getting out of the way of the wine.

Sandra Oldfield is a California transplant with a long history in the wine business.  She started her Canadian winemaking career in 1995 after studying at UC Davis.  Working her way up the ranks at Tinhorn Creek, she is now winemaker, CEO and President.  A huge proponent of Canadian wines, she works daily to get them noticed by Canadians and others.

Kim Kramer is a second generation winemaker from Gaston, Oregon.  Working at Oregon’s St. Innocent winery while studying art history, Kim first became inspired to pursue a career in winemaking.  Spending the 2010 harvest in Burgundy, Kim has set a new standard for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and began making the wines for Kramer Vineyards in 2009.

Thea DwelleHow has the industry changed since women started getting into production in larger numbers in the 1980’s?

Alison Crowe:  When I went to UC Davis and started working in the wine industry, pioneers like Merry Edwards, Zelma Long, Alison Green Doran, Carol Shelton and Cathy Corrison had already made their mark in the branded wine world. It was no longer considered strange for a girl to want to become a winemaker. In fact, my class at UC Davis was almost about 50% women, which it’s been for at least the last ten years. As a Junior in high school who grew up in a wine and food loving family, no one thought it was odd that I wanted to grow up to be a winemaker.

TD:  How did you get in to wine?  Was there an a-ha moment, or were born to be a winemaker?

Sandra Oldfield:  I began working in the Rodney Strong tasting room after I got tired of selling dresses at Macy's for many years.  I figured if I could sell dresses in Santa Rosa I could sell wine.  I was hooked about 1 month later.  I was not raised in a family that drank wine so it was definitely something I found and made my own.

TD:Do you still see the wine industry as a man's world?

AC:  Perhaps still in some places, like in upper management and winery ownership and leadership positions and perhaps in parts of the world like the south of France with a strong patriarchal winemaking culture. In the classrooms of the wine universities and on the crushpads of the U.S. it seems to be evening up.

SO:  It is a man’s world but that is in numbers only.  I have never found that I am treated differently because I am a woman.  Within the industry in British Columbia there does not seem to be any distinction made for male versus female winemakers and the wines they produce.  Interesting note, when I went to the Master’s program in UC Davis in 1993 it was the first year that women outnumbered men in the enology program—it was a good time to go because I never felt any different.

Kim Kramer:  I can usually count on one hand the number of female winemakers at any winemaker meeting, so from that perspective, I suppose it still is. Most crush pads are like that as well, so you don’t see many women working up the ranks in the cellar. I hope that’s another change we’ll begin to see.

Sandra Oldfield, by Chris Mason Stearns
Sandra Oldfield, by Chris Mason Stearns

TD: What challenges have you faced that you weren’t expecting? How did you deal with them?

AC:  When I was 19 and at my first job re-fitting must lines in the winery’s machine shop, two guys came in and started making questionable comments about me in Spanish; it was obvious they thought I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I turned around, looked them in the eye and asked them in Spanish if they could please hand me the hammer over there (I also have a Spanish degree from UC Davis). We all got along after that.

TD:  Do you think women make better winemakers? Why or why not? 

AC:  That’s an interesting question. We know that women are more sensitive to bitter compounds and that a higher proportion of women than men are considered “supertasters”. Women are better at identifying aromas when repeatedly shown them in blind trials. Women are less likely to be color blind. On the organizational side, an interesting Harvard Business Review article found that overall, women make better leaders. Does this all add up to mean women are “better winemakers”? We’ll probably never know. One of the most important qualities a winemaker can have is passion and this is a genderless trait.

SO:  Really there is no difference I have found between women and men winemakers.  The only possible difference comes in how they manage people.  Although a generalization, it has been my experience that the human and holistic thinking approach of women helps to make connections and sometimes is a smoothing out force with relationships—but again, as soon as I say that, I can think of a half a dozen male winemakers that do the same.  I hate generalizations, of that I am certain.  I think that I strive to make the wine that the land and the weather has given to me. I try not to impart a lot of things onto the wines but rather make them express the vintage and the terroir.  Is that male or female?  Neither.  It is probably more different when comparing age of winemakers.  When young, you try to fight with the wines more, make them do what you want them to and go where your style wants them to go.  As I get older I fight with them less — I let them have their own way.  I tend to think that would be the same for a man making wine as well.

KK:  I believe winemakers are made, not born.  I think it’s silly to ascribe such labels as masculine and feminine to wine — I know what people mean when they use them, but there’s other terminology one can use that’s far more descriptive, such as "full-bodied" or "elegant." That said, my goal as a winemaker is to produce wines that tell the story of the grapes and the place they came from in the year they were grown. With vintage variability, the wines will land at different places on the spectrum, but ultimately, I prefer wines with balance and have the potential to cellar gracefully.

TD:  What advice do you have for women wanting to get into winemaking?

AC:  It’s the same advice I would have for anyone, male or female. Work with and for winemakers and winemaking mentors that you resonate with and that you will be proud to have on your resume for the rest of your career. Where one goes to winemaking school (or doesn’t) is less important than where one apprentices and develops one's winemaking skills, experience and insight. Choose wisely. I am so thankful I started early in my career (my first job was when I was 19) and made a point of getting in a wide range of experience in a mix of appellations, varietals and styles (Argentina, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Sonoma, Napa). It keeps me from thinking about wine too unilaterally.

TD:  What frustrations have you faced as a women winemaker today?

AC:  The occasional level of surprise I get when I pour at an event and someone exclaims, “Oh, you’re the winemaker! Cool!” For some reason, the guy in the beard and fleece vest next to me doesn’t get that level of incredulity. Just because someone’s young and female doesn’t mean they’re a “booth babe.” They could be the owner.

SO:  I think there is a definite line of women who go on to own wineries.  There are definitely less of them around.  Women make it high up in many wineries, head of marketing, winemaker, head of HR, but few make it as CEO.  I now find myself the only female again at many meetings—just as was the case when I first arrived here 20 years ago as winemaker.  Infrequently I have someone turn to my husband when they’re looking for an answer and he says that I’m the one to ask and the person does a shift toward me—seemingly a bit confused—but none of this is very challenging, only interesting.

TD:  In tech, women struggle to have equal pay for equal work and are often not taken as seriously when it comes to high powered positions. You are an avid author as well as winemaker. Do you see these parallels in winemaking that occur in other business arenas?

AC:  It’s clear that women still have yet to make significant progress into the “C” level (CEO, COO, CFO, etc.) roles in the drinks business which I think is true in many fields. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago women were making their first entrée onto the crush pads of the wine world, I see today’s hurdle as getting wider representation in the upper levels of management. We have yet to achieve this milestone as an industry.

TD:  If you could drink any wine in the world, what would it be and why?

AC:  Since there are far too many notable Burgundies to list, I would have say I’d love to taste one of the old bottles of Veuve Clicquot brought up from the bottom of the Baltic. Though there is still some controversy over the dating of the wine (Did it belong to Louis XVI? Napoleon? ) there is no doubt this is historical juice and reports are that some of it is still in good condition, described as “sweet fizzy and fabulous”. I love bubbles, I love Veuve and I am a big fan of French history - I would love to get my taste buds wrapped around this slice.

SO:  Well, I love older Alsatian and German Rieslings because I love seeing how these wines turn up the quality and levels of complexity as they get older and older.  If I had one wine though it would probably be whichever one I am sharing with a close friend of mine.  The wine really doesn’t matter, but if you’re enjoying one with a friend and the wine adds to that experience, that is the best wine in the world.

KK:  Richebourg. If Pinot Noir can get better than that, I’m not sure I could handle it.

TD:  Where do you see the industry going in the next 20 years?

AC:  In 20 years the wine consumer pool is going to look a lot different than it does today. New markets will be open internationally (India, China, etc.) and domestically, the average wine drinker will have a more diverse ethnicity than today; it’s just simple demographics.

How will climate change and drought affect what we plant and therefore what we drink?   We all need to do a better job of conserving water in the cellar; the wine industry is lagging behind other food and beverage industries in our level of reducing and recycling water for cleaning and sanitation.

As we discover more about the micro-niches where grapes can thrive in the U.S., we’ll keep seeing an increase in new AVAs.  The ungainly Sonoma Coast area will be split into many smaller sub-appellations and new ones will be delineated in Paso Robles, Oregon, Washington State and even into increasingly-important winegrowing areas like Pennsylvania and Virginia. Have you ever had the Picpoul Blanc from Virginia? It can be amazing!

Kramer Vineyards
Kramer Vineyards

It’s clear that the big conglomerates will keep buying up brands and that little startup wineries will keep having a harder and harder time getting into the marketplace and into people’s hands.  My hope is that the new consumer pool, along with curious somms and buyers, will continue to fuel the desire for less pretentious and lesser-known wines so that we all won’t end up drinking the same thing. I think that more and more, people will be craving experiences and a real person behind the bottle as well as of course real wine in it. Maybe it was my years working at Bonny Doon with so many esoteric grape varietals, or now getting my own little brand off the ground, but I can’t help but root for the underdog…and for the unexpected.

KK:  I’d like to see a high enough percentage of women in production, distribution, and journalism so that these types of conversations are unnecessary.


Judging by these three successful winemakers, each with their own unique experiences, we are well on our way to being a powerful force in wine.  As an executive, Sandra Oldfield has taken on a new country struggling with how to compete in a global marketplace.  As a terroir driven Pinot Noir specialist, Allison Crowe has stood up against giant corporate winemakers and created wines that are nuanced and interesting, while still managing a large scale production.  Kimberly Kramer is stepping outside the shadow of her family name, creating a sparkling wine focus and excelling at making the unusual spectacular.

With more strong examples like this leading the way, women winemakers will be leading the pack with balance, elegance, and nuanced wines of acclaim for many years to come.