Many of you will have spoken to Laura Vickers who has been a great asset to our Member Services team for the past six years. Just before Christmas, Laura made it to the final eight in the Young Wine Writers of the Year Award. We wanted to congratulate Laura and share her writing with members. An abridged version of this article was printed in the March edition of Societynews.
Not long ago, I had to buy a birthday card for a fellow female and full-time wine geek. A cursory glance along the shelves revealed a plethora of birthday greetings embellished with tall green bottles and glasses brimming over - perfect! But no, they were all for 'Dad' or 'Uncle'. The closest the women's cards came in comparison was a glittery bottle of bubbly or a pink martini glass filled with a fluffy kitten wearing a tiara. No surprises there, surely - wine is a man thing, right?
Like the historically held belief that women shouldn't be allowed in a winery because their menstrual cycles might spoil the wine, this notion should have been chucked out long ago, preferably to the same place as girdles and white lead face powder. And yet, take a look at the wine industry of even fifteen years back and you'll see very much a 'glass half empty' state of affairs for women in the world of wine.
I'm not just talking about winemakers: on the whole, women weren't even making a dent behind the scenes, not to mention taking a backseat in terms of wine criticism, qualifications and even as consumers. Even The Wine Society still has a hefty majority of male members, and this is merely a microcosm of the rest of the industry.
With that in mind, it's hardly surprising that women have had to force their way into leading roles within the industry - but oh boy (or girl?), have they done it, and done it with style.
One of the elders of the women's wine movement is of course Susana Balbo of Argentina. She graduated with a degree in oenology way back before I was born in 1981 - the first woman in Argentina to do so, but this wasn't enough for gutsy Balbo: she also achieved the degree with honours as the best graduate of her year. Having worked extensively both in Argentina and throughout the winemaking world since the early eighties, it wasn't until the cusp of the shiny new Millennium in 1999 that she finally realised her ambition of making her own wine at Dominio del Plata.
Since then, she has become one of the most respected names not only in South America but in the entire industry. Bearing in mind she views her winery as 'like my third child, a dream come true', it isn't surprising that this passion has resulted in her being seen by many as Queen of Malbec in the country that made the grape truly famous. Maybe it is this maternal affection for her wines that has made her so skilled at the art of blending, enabling her to achieve some of the most delicate and balanced aromas and flavours with the malbec grape at staggering value for money (a far cry from its early days as the many-named ugly duckling of the French varietals). Achieving this at a time when few thought women capable of even being winemakers makes this accolade all the more admirable.
Balbo is not alone on this exciting pedestal though: glancing across the Atlantic in the direction of South Africa reveals the mighty figure of Norma Ratcliffe of the iconic Warwick Estate brand, going strong since the early eighties. She faced a challenge most male winemakers don't have to face: studying oenology at night while taking care of her young children. Arguably the Godmother of female wine producers, Norma has overcome not only the patriarchy of the industry but also battled through the devastating effects of Apartheid - and to top it all, Warwick Estate now runs one of the best black economic empowerment programmes in the country's wine industry.
There's no stopping Norma, though: she also co-founded the Cape Independent Winemakers' Guild in the 1980s, an absolutely invaluable tool for young winemakers who want to learn how to produce wines of quality. The savvy among you may have guessed that - surprise, surprise - a lot of the winemakers being helped are women inspired by Norma's success. So much so, she has also chaired the judges at the South African Woman Winemaker of the Year award. When challenged about the element of positive discrimination in this competition, she was of course unfazed, responding: 'if the men don't think it is fair... let's open it up and see how many apply!'
Feisty women like Norma are found around the world. Going even further back than Balbo and Ratcliffe, Vanya Cullen of Cullen Wines in Australia's Margaret River has earnt the position of Superwoman of wine since beginning to work on the family vineyard in 1983. While Susana and Norma created their winery babies from scratch, Vanya's heart-and-soul attitude to wine is a result of her parents' legacy at Cullen Wines - in particular her mother who she described as 'a matriarch in control of everything.' She didn't have to fight against her husband and co-winemaker though: Vanya described her Dad as 'a champion of women's rights' who 'was very supportive of women and thought that Mum and I would make a terrific team.'
Forward-thinking, ever-groundbreaking Australia might not be a surprising place to find women winemakers actually going back two generations, but the Cullens aren't just a rarity from that perspective: they're also one of the country's first champions of biodynamic production. Cullen has carried her mother's torch in this respect, making Cullen wines not only fully biodynamic, but also Carbon Neutral and a naturally powered estate, using solar energy for the family house and wind power energy for the winery.
Vanya firmly believes their biodynamic status allows her to 'harvest the aliveness of the wine', and she evidently knows her onions (or, ahem, grapes) in this respect: in the year 2000, she was the first woman winner of the Quantas/The Wine Magazine Winemaker of the Year, in 2008 she won UK Drinks Business Magazine's 'Woman of the Year' award, and in 2011 their 'Green Personality of the Year' award for the passion she has shown in continuing her parents' belief in the importance of keeping the environment healthy.
These female Wine Giants are still a powerful force in the ever-patriarchal wine industry today, but what of the new blood? Who else is jostling for status as one of the great Women of Wine?
The good news is there's plenty of competition for the legendary Normas, Susanas and Vanyas of the world. Those who have been paying attention thus far will realise I've only mentioned New World women. How does the Old World compare? Thankfully, there is plenty of hope there too.
Families like the Despagnes at Château Bel Air are a prime example: when their father retired in 1998, he asked not only his two sons but his daughter, Basaline, to take his place at the helm of the business. Basaline is now a major player in Bordeaux wine production, having successfully worked towards making the vineyards environmentally friendly, and even co-creating an entirely new fermentation method that wine writer Jeffrey Davies called 'the single most important development in fermentation technique in the last two decades.'
Perhaps one of the most startling displays of true 'Girl Power' in the French wine industry at the moment is the irrepressible Katie Jones of Domaine Jones in the Languedoc-Roussillon area of the South.
Having lived and worked in the region and the industry for twenty years as the Export Sales and Marketing Director for a major co-cperative, she suddenly came across a small vineyard 'clinging to the side of the picturesque Maury Valley... which reminded me why I'd chosen to leave the UK and live in rural France in the first place.' So just three years ago in 2009, she changed her life completely, ditching her comfy job and donning a pair of wellies to begin the creation of Domaine Jones.
Her partner, the dynamic and charming Jean-Marc, comes from a winemaking family going back generations, but it is Katie who is firmly in the driving seat of her vineyard dream-come-true story.
Her aim is to capture the flavour and character of the region, and her Domaine Jones red (grenache noir), white (grenache gris), and Fitou certainly have something of the grace and majesty of the landscape in which they are grown: so much so, that Robert Parker has already awarded all of her wines an eye-wateringly impressive initial score of between 90 and 92.
Anthony Rose, Tim Atkin and Tamlyn Currie are just three of several leading wine writers who have also championed this tiny new production, and it seems Domaine Jones is only at the beginning of its blossoming success: Katie just collected her gold medal and trophy for her Fitou at the 2012 International Wine Challenge awards.
She collected her award with her Australian winemaking colleague David Morrison, proving that she isn't too much of a feminist to accept a little help from the Other Gender at the start of her winery's journey. My question is when will we stop unconcernedly referring to men like David as 'winemakers 'while still marvelling at the supposed novelty of their long-standing female equivalents?
Not only do I long for the day that small but thriving female-owned wineries are awarded the respect and prestige they deserve, I long more so for the day when these Women Winemakers are no longer known as Women Winemakers, but just winemakers. Likewise, some of the producers I've mentioned today have in the past been patronisingly complimented as making good wine 'for a woman', but it is important for us as an industry to get our heads around the fact that they actually just make good wine. The good news is the glass is now no longer half empty but half full - I think we're getting there.
Societynews March 2013