09.29.134:45 AM ET

Breaking the Grape Ceiling

Half of the graduates at UC-Davis’ oenology program are female. So why do women lead only 10 percent of California’s wineries? Adrienne Vogt investigates the history and present-day culture of Sonoma's old-boys’ club.

As autumn falls upon us, America’s vintners are busy finishing up their harvests and getting ready for crowds to visit their wineries, taste their wines, and buy their products. But when you look at a bottle of California Chardonnay or Oregon Pinot—or better yet, when you swirl and sniff its contents—do you ever wonder about the winemaker who poured his (or her) heart and soul into the glass?

“It’d be really interesting to do a tasting to see if you could tell the difference between wine made by a man and wine made by a woman,” says Megan Schofield, winemaker at Simi Winery in California's prestigious Sonoma County.

Even though winemaking has traditionally been dominated by men—both in the States and abroad—women in the U.S. have made important strides to catch up to their male counterparts in terms of creating complex wines that connoisseurs love. Still, a gender gap remains. The enrollment ratio at the University of California-Davis viniculture and enology program has been about 45 percent female and 55 percent male for the last 10 years, according to graduate program adviser Judy L. Blevins. Yet only about 10 percent of California wineries have women as their lead winemakers.

“There definitely is an old-boys culture in a lot of places, a kind of old-boys club,” Schofield says.

Wide-ranging comparisons between female and male winemakers in the U.S. are hard to come by. The 10 percent number comes from 2011 research by Lucia Albino Gilbert, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. Out of California’s more than 3,200 wineries, Albino Gilbert said she expected the number to be closer to 15-20 percent. Yet even though she's just finished updating her database of California wineries on her website Women Winemakers of California, the female percentage has remained level has remained stubbornly low.

Courtesy of SIMI Winery

According to the book Women of Wine: The Rise of Women in the Global Wine Industry, “California accounts for more than 90 percent of American wine production and commands a five percent share of the world export market.”

So in the grand scheme of things, 10 percent seems like a measly amount—but the growth has been rather impressive, considering that one female Napa Valley winemaker, Cathy Corison, could “count on one hand” the number of women winemakers in the late 1970s.

What’s more, women winemakers may produce superior goods, according to a 2012 study conducted by Albino Gilbert and her husband, John Carl Gilbert, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Santa Clara University. According to the Gilberts’ research, “of all the California wineries with women winemakers, 23 percent were listed in Opus Vino, compared to 14.1 percent of all wineries with male winemakers.” Opus Vino is the de-facto work for measuring wine quality.

“Having their wines more highly acclaimed provides a clear indicator that women winemakers have ‘made it’ and are being recognized in a male-dominated industry,” according to the Gilberts’ research. However, they say women are still a ways off from shattering the wine world's glass ceiling. “Having their wines more highly acclaimed may also lead to the erroneous conclusion that women winemakers are far more numerous than they in fact are,” concludes the study.

Have these women at the high end of the wine industry—whom Women of Wine’s author Ann B. Matasar dubs “wine goddesses”—made it so far because women are inclined to be more detail-oriented and nurturing? The women of Simi Winery consider it an intriguing possibility.

“We tend to compare it to more male-dominated places, in that I think we tend to take care of each other more or we look out for each other as a female-dominated culture here,” Schofield says. “In some places, I know that there’s sometimes more competition between men, and we just don’t really have that here with the women.”

Schofield, along with Director of Winemaking Susan Lueker, runs the day-to-day operations of the winery, where 75 percent of their cellar staff—the people who actually make their wines—are women.

Women leaders are “pretty much the DNA of this place,” Lueker says. Simi, which is one of Sonoma County’s oldest continually-run wineries, has been headed by a woman since 1904. When the founding Simi brothers both died, their sister, Isabelle, took over the winery when she was just 18 years old.

Though the winery has gone through different owners over the years, it’s always kept its focus female-centered. At one point, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy owned Simi, and the company wasn’t as open to female winemakers—visibly, at least. Lueker says the winery used to hide the women workers when LVMH management came to visit, because they didn’t like to see women in the cellar. Simi also hired the first female UC-Davis enology graduate, MaryAnn Graf, in the 1970s. Graf was the first woman to become head winemaker at a major California winery. She went on to establish Vinquiry, one of the first wine analysis and consulting firms in Sonoma. Now her company has three locations and grosses more than $3 million per year, according to Women in Wine.

Zelma Long is another pioneer who made waves at Simi. Long is considered the first woman to hold a top management position at a California winery in the modern era. Lueker says she is “one of first women to break that glass ceiling for us.”

During Long’s tenure as president and CEO from 1989 to 1996, she renovated the winery, introduced new techniques, developed estate vineyards, and mentored female winemakers. “She became an icon commanding near-adulation,” Matasar writes in Women of Wine.

Matasar says that she considers Long to be the most influential woman in the wine world. “She not only made and makes great wine but she is responsible for mentoring a host of women winemakers in California and throughout the world,” Matasar told The Daily Beast. “She remains one of the most respected people in the entire world of wine.”

Long founded both the American Vineyard Foundation and the American Viticulture and Enology Research Network. “Women today have incredible opportunities that they didn’t have 20 and 30 years ago. Every young woman should have a sense of possibility, a sense that she can do whatever it is she want to do in this business,” Long is quoted as saying in Women of Wine. But the book also notes that she thinks women definitely do not have the same opportunities as men in terms of corporate positions.

She’s not alone in this assessment. Respected winemaker Katie Wetzel Murphy says that “the barrier that probably hasn’t come down is the one around the higher positions such as president or chairman or CEO of a winery which is owned by a large corporation. … That’s the place where the least amount of progress has been made,” according to Women of Wine.

Lueker says she’s had male friends and fellow winemakers visit Simi Winery and marvel at how many women are in the cellar. She notes that women in the industry stay tight-knit. Because of wine’s masculine roots, they may be forced to stick together.

“Women were traditionally brushed off because the association of women with wine was originally socially and culturally unacceptable and—to some extent—has remained so,” Matasar says.

Women have been largely excluded from wine’s history—unless it was in a negative sense. Egyptian women weren’t entombed with wine because it was thought they’d get drunk and become deviants in the afterlife, according to Women of Wine. Only prostitutes were allowed into 17th and 18th-century Europe’s taverns and cabarets. And it wasn’t until the year 2000 when women were finally permitted into the storied, 800-year-old wine “brotherhood," the Jurade de Saint-Emilion.

Yet some women did manage to make wine history. During the 1800s, the women called the “Champagne widows,” known as Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommery—armed with business savvy and pure pluck—changed champagne from a red wine to a sparkling white one, effectively making it the most popular wine in the world. In the U.S., Prohibition in the 1920s halted wine production, but Matasar notes in her book that it actually gave women a chance to gain access to the wine industry once it became legal again.

Courtesy of SIMI Winery

Today, more women than men cite wine as their preferred drink, compared with beer and liquor. According to a July Gallup poll, 52 percent of women say they drink wine most often. Only 20 percent of men prefer wine. A decade ago, these numbers were 43 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

This jump in popularity could be tied to the “feminization” of wine. As Matasar notes, “feminization of wine is intended as a left-handed compliment that conjures up old social and cultural stereotypes and reinstates the unflattering relationship of women, wine, and sexuality.” As the proliferation of “girly” wines like Girly Girl Wines and Little Black Dress continues, Mary Orlin at The Huffington Post vents about how we are now in the identity-crisis mode of wines. Names such as Skinnygirl, Be. Flirty, Royal Bitch, and Mad Housewife unfairly label the women who drink them. As Orlin says, “Do we really need a wine label to tell us who we are or how we should be?” There’s a double standard, Orlin says, because there are no “Manly Man” or “Six-Pack Abs” wines for men.

These arguably tasteless labels may be counterbalanced by the importance of women getting their own names onto wines. “The association of women’s names with great wines was collectively the change maker,” Matasar says. It’s an indication of pride and confidence, she says.

There are numerous women that have achieved fame for their winemaking skills, but a few stand out to the experts. Heidi Peterson Barett is responsible for the cult favorite Screaming Eagle. In 2000, a six-liter bottle of her brand sold for $500,000—setting a world record for the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine. La Sirena is her current label. Genevieve Janssens, who was named “Winemaker of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast magazine in 2010, is the director of winemaking at Mondavi Winery. Gina Gallo is a winemaker at the winery started by her famous grandfather, Julio Gallo. Madeline Triffon is the first American to be awarded the Master Sommelier designation. Merry Edwards owns one of the top-30 Pinot Noir-producing wineries. And Matasar says that the Masters of Wine, a designation for the highest standard-bearers of wine knowledge, especially Serena Sutcliffe and Jancis Robinson, influence ratings and prices throughout the world.

“We tend to stand out in the crowd," Lueker says. "We support and inspire each other."