The origins of winemaking have been traced back nearly 8,000 years. As societies evolved and advanced over this continuum, the face of the wine industry has remained remarkably static in one regard: the role of women winemakers and winery owners.
A common thread throughout wine’s history is the dominant role of men in the vineyard and in the winery, and the lack of opportunities for women.
In previous columns, I explored the changing role and gaining prominence of women winemakers in the United States and Italy. This week I turn my focus to France.
Nowhere is the dichotomy of the role of women in wine-centric countries as apparent as in France. Their role has been influenced by different circumstances in each French region: culture, engrained family prejudices, and an Old World mentality that blatantly discriminated against women. As these factors begin to ebb in nearly all regions, the fate of women winemakers looks more and more promising.
It seems ironic that women winemakers are at the helm of a number of the most prestigious wineries in the world, yet the winemaking profession as a whole continues to be dominated by men.
Let’s consider three regions.
In the Bordeaux region, a disproportionate number of the most famous, and profitable, wineries either are owned by women or have gained prominence through the efforts of women winemakers. The list of women at the top of the French wine industry is legendary – and long-lived.
Through inheritances, and in several instances sheer willpower, women in Bordeaux have acceded to prominence and have thrived through periods of political and economic unrest. As early as the 19th century, women established and fostered their reputation as artisans and aristocrats. Commanding prices in the hundreds of dollars per bottle today, the wines produced by these women consistently garner accolades as the crème de la crème.
I hold in high regard Bordeaux wines produced by these women. Year in and year out their wines are invariably rated as the top wines in the world: Sandrine Garbay of Chateau d’Yquem, Véronique Dausse of Château Phélan Ségur, Corinne Mentzelopoulos of Chateau Margaux and the late Philippine de Rothschild of Mouton Rothschild. With these women in the forefront, the Bordeaux region is a shining light for women winemakers and owners everywhere.
The Champagne region, likewise, has been fertile ground for women to attain and retain control over wineries. Many inherited wineries from their husbands, stepping up to the helm by circumventing the male-biased hierarchy that dominated the region. Through their operational, marketing and financial expertise, they catapulted the Champagne houses of Veuve Cliquot, Pommery, Laurent-Perrier and Bollinger into world prominence that continues to this day.
Unlike in Bordeaux and Champagne, the Burgundy region suffers from a dearth of wineries that are run by women. It is the least represented region: there are less than 100 women winemakers in Burgundy and over 4,000 domaines.
Women have historically suffered from male-dominated customs and genealogy. One exception is Véronique Drouhin-Boss, the fourth-generation winemaker of Maison Joseph Drouhin, one of the largest and most highly regarded wineries in the region.
Other opportunities are growing. Enterprising women are the beneficiaries of tactics employed during the early development of France as a world power: marriage into winemaking families; influencing the breakup of family parcels into sub lots shared equally by family members; and interfamily marriages to increase control over land ownership – all enhanced by women’s entrepreneurial spirit and dedication.
Although not as numerous as their counterparts in other regions around the world, French women are increasingly gaining the admiration and respect of wine lovers. Look for highly regarded wines from Nathalie Fèvre of Domaine Nathalie and Gilles Fèvre, Christine Dubreuil of Domaine Dubreuil-Fontaine, Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive and Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy.
French women winemakers are increasingly making inroads – and being recognized for their talent and innovation.
Vive les femmes.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.