A Guide to Top Women Winemakers, Still Rare in the World of Grapes

A Guide to Top Women Winemakers, Still Rare in the World of Grapes

A few days before the pandemic lockdown began in New York, I’m at Balthazar restaurant, sipping wines and dishing gossip with a group of female winemakers from Bordeaux.

“My grandmother was not allowed into the cellar at our estate,” says Sylvie Courselle, who runs Château Thieuley with her sister Marie. “My father wept that he had no son to succeed him in making wine. We finally convinced him we, his daughters, could.” She rolls her eyes.

Historically, such places as Bordeaux, Chianti, Margaret River, and Napa were male bastions, where, with few exceptions, men owned the wineries, worked the vineyards, ruled the cellars, and sold the bottles.

In the 19th century and through most of the 20th, the death of a spouse was the way women could take over family wine companies. Trailblazing widows in Champagne such as Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin (Veuve Clicquot) and Lily Bollinger were
wildly successful, revolutionizing the wines and making the region famous.

In the 21st century, some things have changed, but some have not. For sure, ambitious women today have taken on top roles with gusto, which means there are plenty of their great wines to celebrate this summer’s 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the U.S. But despite progress, the wine industry is still reckoning with gender inequality.

According to the recently published book Women Winemakers, by Lucia Albino Gilbert and John C. Gilbert, two emeritus professors at Santa Clara University, only 10% of California’s more than 4,000 wineries have female head winemakers, and women own only 4% of them. Yes, men were the ones attending the University of California at Davis’s viticulture and enology program until the first woman graduated from it in 1965. But by the 1990s, women made up half of all undergraduates. Today, women account for 45% of the 2020 graduating class at the Institut des Sciences de la Vignes et du Vin at Bordeaux University.

There are signs of progress. Champagne’s grandes marques have finally started to appoint women as chef de cave, or chief winemaker. Among them is Caroline Latrive of small, prestigious Ayala: The supremely elegant 2012 Blanc de Blancs was her first vintage. And in 2018, Severine Frerson became the first woman to hold the chef de cave title at Maison Perrier-Jouet.

At larger wineries, more young women are taking the winemaking reins from men. The 32-year-old Emily Faulconer, for example, runs Carmen, Chile’s oldest winery. Generational change is also making daughters (such as the Thieuleys) the new faces of many family estates—even in Japan, where Ayana Misawa is winemaker at her family’s Grace winery. And 50% of wineries in Spain’s Rias Baixas have female winemakers.

The most exciting development in the past decade or so has been the wave of experimental startups launched by rebel women in their 20s and 30s. Star Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti founded her eponymous estate at the age of 21, determined to champion local grapes and biodynamic farming. Jaimee Motley created her namesake wine brand in northern California, focusing on Loire and Savoie varieties such as mondeuse, all while holding a day job as assistant winemaker at Wind Gap/Pax Wine Cellars.

Science is on the side of women’s wine abilities. As The Wine Bible author Karen MacNeil pointed out recently on her Winespeed blog, some studies have found that women are superior to men when it comes to smell and taste. In the 2014 project she cites, researchers at two Brazilian universities and the University of California at San Francisco used a method called isotropic fractionator to discover that women have almost 50% more olfactory cells in their brains than men.

While the wine world, as in so many other industries, grapples with both sexual harassment and discrimination, it’s not surprising that women have created organizations to challenge the status quo. The second Wonder Women of Wine conference had to be postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Batonnage Forum, another wine-focused organization focused on the advancement of women in the industry, is running a series of events virtually through July 10.

A monthly subscription wine club featuring female-made wines recently debuted as part of web platform Women-Owned Wineries (WOW). Started in 2017 by Amy Bess Cook, the initial list of 50 female-owned wineries has expanded to more than 550 across the U.S. that are listed in its online directory. The club offers three bottles monthly for $92; the winery for June is Inconnu, whose Lalalu rosé in particular is well worth discovering. Vive les femmes du vin!

Here are nine affordable picks from both classic and new vintners around the world. 

A Guide to Top Women Winemakers, Still Rare in the World of Grapes

2018 Cullen Wines Dancing in the Sun
A grande dame of wine in the Margaret River region of Australia, Vanya Cullen pioneered biodynamics and now helms the country’s first carbon-neutral winery. Besides brilliant cabernets, she makes fragrant whites such as this new, pear-scented blend of
semillon, sauvignon blanc and verdelho. $20

2018 Eva Fricke Riesling Trocken
Eva Fricke is a new star in the traditional world of German riesling; some estates in the Rheingau go back several hundred years. Her first vintage was 2006. This juicy, spicy, lemon-scented entry-level cuvée is more full-bodied than usual because of the warm year. About $22

2018 Jules Taylor Pinot Noir
A native of New Zealand’s Marlborough region, Jules Taylor left her corporate winemaking career to bet everything on herself. Her juicy, entry-level pinot with tart, red-berry, and spice flavors delivers a lot for the price and is ideal when served slightly chilled. About $21

2019 A Tribute to Grace Rosé of Grenache
New Zealand native Angela Osborne is the master of one grape: grenache. She makes nine different cuvées in California’s Santa Barbara Highlands, including a new sparkling wine. All are nuanced and graceful. To get just the right color in this bright, floral rosé,
she foot treads the grapes herself. $28

2017 Domaine Matrot Bourgogne Blanc
Sisters Adele and Elsa Matrot took over winemaking and running the estate from their father in 2016. Their standard chardonnay cuvée is pure, understated, and surprisingly elegant for the price. $23

A Guide to Top Women Winemakers, Still Rare in the World of Grapes

2018 Filipa Pato Nossa Calcario Branco
Filipa Pato first worked with her famous father Luis, who revitalized Portugal’s Bairrada region, then started her own eponymous wine project with her husband. This citrus-and-spice white made from bical grapes is both zesty and sophisticated. About $33

2018 Asphodele by Chateau Climens
This about-to-launch wine is the first dry white from Berenice Lurton, who has made one of Bordeaux’s best sweet wines since she was 22. This cuvée, from semillon grapes, is delicate yet full-bodied, with a lush texture and floral character. $42

2017 Arianna Occhipinti Il Frappato
Owner, winemaker, and viticulturalist Arianna Occhipinti is dedicated to such native Sicilian varieties as frappato. This one brims with luminous color, crunchy red-cherry fruit, and floral-licorice aromas. $47

2016 Corison Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
“Nevertheless, she persisted,” is how I think of Napa’s Cathy Corison. Under her own label, she’s made elegant cabernets, even when cult cabs got the buzz. This complex cuvée features pure cassis, plum, and dried herb flavors and aromas and a suave, silky texture. $110

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