The Women Of Wine

Changing The World One Glass At A Time

Joseph Baca
6 min read
The Women of Wine
Clockwise from left: Pedro and Susana Balbo stroll the Dominio del Plata vineyards in Argentina; Merry Edwards sorts grapes in Sonoma; Helen Turley has helmed several succesful wineries, including Martinelli Winery; Winemaker Heidi Schröck is gleeful about her namesake winery in Austria; Champagne queen Eileen Crane is president and winemaker of Domain Carneros by Taittinger.
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For too long, oenology ( een-ology , the study of wine) was considered off-limits to the average American consumer. Wine knowledge was a carefully guarded male stronghold of stuffy sommeliers, grumpy English professors with big, red noses and the wealthy. But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the wine industry began selling its products in the United States with a more inclusive approach. A methodical marketing scheme began with easily understood White Zinfandel. Wineries started selling people on Chardonnay and then Merlot, varietals that were easy to drink, whose names had a ring of sophistication. People took notice. It was a one-two punch, and consumers were knocked out by wine and its mystique.

The Internet picked up remaining slack in informing people in the U.S. what the rest of the world already knew—wine is for everyone. Wine sales and the pursuit of wine knowledge increased exponentially. Suddenly people from all walks of life were speaking authoritatively about wine.

During this foment over fermented grape juice, one group was particularly successful in getting its foot in the door and storming the wine industry: women. They’ve become an influential force in wine consumption and production (which, by the way, has surpassed beer in sales). Studies show that women purchase about 65 percent of the wine consumed in the U.S., but Elizabeth Thach, a PhD and professor of wine business and management at Sonoma State University, believes women in the U.S. purchase up to 80 percent of the market share. On the other end of the bottle, the restaurant business—particularly fine dining—has been transformed by the women in wine. Until the last two decades, female chefs or waitstaff were seldom seen, as were female wine buyers or salespeople. All that’s out the window now.

This shift has occurred on multiple levels and on a global scale. Women in other countries have always been wine drinkers. But they’ve used the last few decades’ market growth to carve out a niche for themselves as leaders in the business, as addressed by Ann B. Matasar in
Women of Wine: The Rise of Women in the Global Wine Industry. Her book is an in-depth study of women’s role in the worldwide wine industry and the obstacles they’ve had to overcome. Today, women such as Helen Turley, Susana Balbo, Merry Edwards, Eileen Crane and Heidi Schröck are among the best winemakers in the world. These women produce truly stellar wines. They’re the “rock stars” of the industry.

One of their arenas is Women in Wine, a yearly symposium hosted by Napa Valley’s COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. Women are invited to join in panels and hear guest speakers that include the biggest females in the industry. You might hear Jancis Robinson, Andrea Immer, Leslie Sbrocco, Natalie MacLean or Karen MacNeil speak, all highly regarded sommeliers, wine writers and educators. Women in Wine has become a huge and important event for women involved in the wine industry.

Bottling the Sexes

Biology may play a part in wine’s affinity toward females. Linda Bartoshuk of the Yale Medical School conducted a study with findings that 25 percent of the population are "supertasters"—people with greater-than-average sensitivity for taste—and that the majority of those people are women. Furthermore, the study shows women may also have more highly developed olfactory systems, so they can better separate smells. Although Bartoshuk’s study is controversial, it goes a long way in explaining women’s dominant role in the industry. Other experts differ greatly in their opinions and say women are simply more detail-oriented and better at vocalizing their thoughts about wine.

Differences in how men and women interact with wine don’t stop there. According to Leslie Sbrocco in
Wine for Women, producers have adopted completely new ways of selling their products because the sexes relate to wine in radically different ways. Men treat vintages like trophies, basing purchases on high scores and big names. Women are more practical. Taste and price weigh heavily on their decisions. Women also like the social aspects of wine, sharing it with friends and pairing it with food—and marketing language reflects that. Although it smacks of gimmickry to some, it seems to work. Sales have increased.

Megan Clemans, a representative of Boutique Wines of New Mexico, agrees with Sbrocco. She says since she was first exposed to wine, the focus has changed from affluent men to women of all types and social classes. If you enter a wine store today, Clemans notes, you’ll find brands have been feminized in both appearance and flavor profile.

Jessie Griego of Fiasco Fine Wine has also witnessed sweeping change firsthand. "Having grown up in New Mexico and in the food and beverage industry, I have seen the transformation of what was once an almost exclusively male industry to one that embraces the talents and palates of women," she says. "In the past, many female salespersons were relegated to using ‘sexiness’ to sell … not so anymore. It is now recognized that women have discerning palates.”

New Mexico’s wine industry is bursting with knowledgeable women who’ve changed the landscape. Among them are Holly Penland of Quarters Wine Shops, a newcomer who has had a serious impact on the local industry; Patty Anderson of Anderson Valley Vineyards; Kathy Lovin of The Vineyard Express; Lori-Anne Castillo of Winemark; Mary Gronewold of Marcello’s Chop House; Carol Zonski of Jubilation Liquors; Melissa Olivas of Chama River Brewing Co.; Margaret Sheffield of Kelly Liquors; and Kelly Burton and Nellie Bauer of Chef du Jour and Jennifer James 101. No women have had as much effect on the local wine industry as Myra Gattas at Slate Street Café; Jennifer James, whose name stands alone; Nathalie Gruet; and Laura Mudd. The time, brains and muscle all these women have lent to promoting Albuquerque’s wine industry is beyond calculation. Like a great wine that’s constantly evolving, the potential is boundless for these revolutionary women of wine.
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