Significant strides have been made in the last quarter century by women in the American wine industry who have been given the opportunity to ply their trade. These women have been able to infiltrate the industry based on their proven skill and talent.
However, in Western Europe, in many instances, women have attained success not through talent but through the fickle finger of genealogy or marriage.
In Western Europe, the culture and ideology concerning wine differ greatly from that in the United States. It is highly political and rooted in ages-old tradition. The role of women in wine has been steeped in subservience at worst and happenstance at best. Women have been relegated to raising families or assisting male winemakers in the field and cellars. It is a culture that is difficult to modify, although, ironically, happenstance is playing a growing role in tilting the scales.
The wine culture of small wineries in western Europe is steeped in a tradition of male inheritance and female discrimination. There are wineries that have been owned and operated by the same family for centuries. In each successive generation, the mantle of winemaker has been passed down to the first-born male.
The irony is that women may be equally, or better, suited for winemaker roles than men.
First, they tend to think differently. Popular psychology generally ascribes to women a right-side-of-the-brain thought process (creative, intuitive and sensory), compared to men’s left-side-of-the-brain thought process (objective, analytical and detail focused).
If one accepts this mapping, women tend to be more focused on producing an ethereal finished product that comes together in the final stages of its creation, rather than one whose individual components have been meticulously crafted by a male in lockstep from the vineyard to the aging cellar.
Second, fine wine is the result of a winemaker’s ability to identify the nuances of the aroma and flavor components of a wine as it is being crafted. Studies have shown that women have a greater sensitivity to smell and taste than men due to more sophisticated olfactory senses and greater numbers of taste buds. With these innate tools, women are more likely to identify individual components of a wine and create a more sophisticated and complex wine.
The end result? Women winemakers produce a number of the most prestigious and highly regarded wines in Western Europe.
Of course, these factors tend to pigeonhole men and women winemakers and can create stereotypical expectations for gender wines. This is far from the truth. Great wines are crafted by great people, but all need equal opportunity, which has been sorely lacking for women in Western Europe.
The barriers for women are being weakened with each passing year, as the old-line discriminating male winemakers cede control to the more open-minded next generation. Not to mention entrepreneurial women who are venturing on their own to start up new wineries. (Did you see Stanley Tucci’s Italy series on CNN in which he interviewed the young Sicilian winery owner/winemaker Arianna Occhipinti?)
Thankfully, there are a growing number of success stories. However, many of these are the result of women thrust into situations brought about by family deaths or by male siblings who surreptitiously walk away from a family winery.
- Veuve (the Widow) Cliquot, who took over her husband’s Champagne business upon his death in 1805 and single-handedly made it one of the most revered wineries in France;
- Lalou Bize-Leroy, who, in 1975, inherited and then catapulted Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, France, into becoming one of the most famous wineries in the world before being forced out and starting her own (very) successful winery; and
- Francesca Planeta, currently the 17th generation winemaker – and first female –
of the highly regarded eponymous Sicilian winery.
Other success stories abound and I will present a cross section across Europe and the New World in upcoming columns.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.