The Rising Recognition of Talented Women Winemakers

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Grapevine Columnist Nick AntonaccioThe profile and style of the most popular wines have been similar for centuries: a certain balance of fruit and acidity, a mild tannic backbone and an ethereal olfactory impression.

However, in the last few decades that profile has seen subtle, sometimes even radical, refinements in the hands of the world’s winemakers.

In America, where the history of today’s popular wineries is counted in decades rather than the centuries-old tradition of Western Europe, wine styles are still being established. The wine business in the United States is big business, dictated by marketing consultants and focus groups, not family heritage. Smaller wineries, anxious to generate a profit, often seek to satisfy the tastes of consumers rather than their own personal style. But in spite of these influences, nuanced changes are occurring.

Most of today’s American wineries date back to the mid-20th century. They tend to be dominated by first- or second-generation winemakers, a far cry from their European brethren.

It seems that the leading edge of this recent change in style, whether in the family cellars of French wineries or the man-built caves of California wineries, is coming from a hitherto unheralded industry demographic: women winemakers (or more appropriately, winemakers who happen to be women).

In the 21st century, women have made immense strides in many walks of life. This is apparent in nearly all industries, including the traditionally male-dominated wine industry. Increasingly, wine-related careers are being sought, and successfully plied, by women. In the last 25 years, several women winemakers have attained worldwide respect for producing many of the most highly regarded and expensive – wines in the world.

Why is this? Is it DNA-based? Is it simply that women may be better suited to produce certain wines?

It is generally believed that women have more sensitive olfactory senses than men, that women are supertasters, possessing more acute taste buds and cerebral sensors than men. In addition, certain women winemakers have proven themselves to be equal – and at times superior – to male winemakers in talent, focus and tenacity. Each of these attributes has contributed to a respect for women winemakers’ ability to understand the intrinsic beauty and complexity of crafting a fine wine.

Let’s scan the international wine industry for women’s influence in today’s vineyards and wineries. I’ll focus on the growing population of women winemakers in the United States. In future columns I’ll highlight their counterparts in other wine-producing regions.

Cult wines represent the epitome of fine wine in the United States, commanding the highest honors, and prices, in the marketplace. The number of cult wines produced by women winemakers is disproportionate to the number of women winemakers in the wine industry. Many of the premier wines in the United States, some commanding prices in excess of $200 per bottle, are crafted and/or influenced by women winemakers. The praise and price of these wines rival the best that French and Italian winemakers offer each year.

The women behind these wines have become cultural icons: Helen Turley (Colgin, Bryant Family), Heidi Barrett (Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle), Merry Edwards (eponymous label), Helen Keplinger (Bryant Family), Genevieve Janssens (Opus One), Nicki Pruss (Stag’s Leap) and Ashley Hepworth (Joseph Phelps Insignia). These are truly remarkable achievements.

The unsettling anomaly is that in spite of the success of this elite group, women winemakers represent only 10 percent of the 1,200 wineries in California. The glass ceiling in the male-dominated American wine industry has relegated many educated and experienced women to the roles of laboratory enologists and assistant winemakers.

The role of women winemakers is dramatically different today than it was a quarter century ago. While the opportunity to succeed is advancing in the United States, western Europe is more daunting.

Next up, western Europe: glass ceiling or padlocked oak cellar door?

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 or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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