Grape & Grain

Meet the women who are breaking the wine glass ceiling, as critics, makers and more

Women have been involved in wine for generations, but mostly in sales and marketing. Now increasing numbers are working as sommeliers, winemakers, critics and educators

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 July, 2016, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 July, 2016, 4:55pm

In wine, as in many things, women need to be sharp with our tongues – for tasting, certainly, but also for talking. Generations of women have dominated the wine industry in the areas of marketing and communicating. Lately, they are also climbing the ranks in education, winemaking, and leadership.

In May, I was delighted to share a panel with three of wine’s most powerful voices at Vinexpo Hong Kong: Karen MacNeil, author of the bestselling The Wine Bible, Sarah Kemp, publishing director at Decanter, and Sarah Jane Evans MW, chairman of the Institute of the Masters of Wine.

MacNeil wrote The Wine Bible in 2001 to share her experience and give others confidence.

“When you are a beginner at anything, the road up the mountain is long and sometimes confusing,” she says. “The Wine Bible, is in many ways, the book I wish I’d had when I was on my journey to learn wine.”

The idea of sharing – information, experiences, and education – is a common thread among female leaders. Sarah Kemp says women are collaborative, not competitive, in their approach to critiquing and communicating. “When women talk about wine, it’s a conversation, a two-way street. We want to share the things we love, share information, and share our pleasure,” says the 30-year industry veteran.

Su-Mei Thompson, CEO of The Women’s Foundation, also spoke of a culture of sharing in support of the recent Leading Women in Wine event. “We know that the most successful women are often the most generous about sharing their stories and encouraging others to achieve their goals. We also know women do better with the support of others than they do on their own.”

Women excel in wine education, both as students and as teachers. A record 19 candidates were awarded the Master of Wine qualification in 2015, taking the total to 338. Female graduates outnumbered male graduates 11 to eight.

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‘Master of the masters’ Evans was awarded the Robert Mondavi Winery Award for the highest overall marks in the MW theory exams. She observes nuances in the way women respond to learning which might explain their supposed advantage. “Women are good at careful judgment and deliberation,” she has found. “They provide detailed, articulate answers, rather than jumping immediately to the result.”

Jancis Robinson, MW and acclaimed writer and critic, heralds this decade the era of “the feminisation of wine”. Women make up more than half of all wine consumers in the US and Britain and a growing proportion of the industry’s leaders. Once upon a time, winemaker’s daughters were groomed for sales, while sons followed their fathers into winemaking. Today, sisters are shrugging off dusty stereotypes and rising to positions of power.

I can remember my friends at school acting like I was going to the moon when I told them I wanted to be a winemaker
Louisa Rose

Annette Alvarez-Peters holds one of the largest wine buying jobs in the world, overseeing more than US$3 billion in alcohol sales. Gina Gallo, chief winemaker at Gallo Family Vineyards, is forging the future for one of the world’s largest wine companies. Two of Australia’s most highly regarded producers are women, Louisa Rose (Yalumba) and Vanya Cullen (Cullen Wines).

Rose says, “Prior to the 1990s, unless you were part of a family who made wine, the wine industry was not an obvious career choice. I can remember my friends at school acting like I was going to the moon when I told them I wanted to be a winemaker.”

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These days it is very different. The industry has attracted a more diverse group of people, including women to winemaking and viticulture, says Rose. She feels it won’t be long before there are more female figureheads in Australia.

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California is another region where female winemaking expertise is flourishing; even France has been conquered. Jean-Charles Boisset, whose family owns 28 wineries across the US and France, told the Leading Women in Wine audience that 56 per cent of employees at Boisset Collection are women, including 12 winemakers. “Women take the wine world to the next dimension,” he proclaimed.

Chile, Argentina and Spain are benefiting from more female leaders, too. In the 1980s, Susana Balbo became Argentina’s first female winemaker, and also the first female president of Wines of Argentina, a position she has held twice. She later ran successfully for parliament.

In Hong Kong’s booming wine scene, an increasing number of females are ruling in business, sales and service roles. Mandy Chan says Hong Kong was a great place to establish her premium importation company, Ginsberg+Chan, with her husband Jason.

The best thing about being a woman in Asia’s wine industry is being at the forefront of a growing market
Mandy Chan

“The best thing about being a woman in Asia’s wine industry is being at the forefront of a growing market,” she says. “Initially, customers expressed surprise when they learned that I – a youthful middle aged woman, not a rich old man – ran the business equally. However, once we have dealt with this attitude, there is a lot of respect.”

Yvonne Cheung, director of wine at Swire Hotels, says women fit into Hong Kong’s rapidly changing wine scene because they adapt well to new trends and fashions. “Previous generations were resistant to women stepping into visible roles like sommeliers,” she says. However, in her experience, guests are now more accepting of female sommeliers.

Women seeking to establish themselves as leaders in the wine industry first need to drown out the background noise and find their own voice – be a trailblazer. Speak first or speak early. Shout your passion from the rooftops (or taxi video screens). And above all, stand and support other women in the industry. Boys’ club, schmoyz club.