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Home » Women in Wine: Systematic Exclusion & the Success of Tenacious Women

Women in Wine: Systematic Exclusion & the Success of Tenacious Women

Women have been excluded from power since the beginning of wine history. Despite the obstacles to their participation, determined women have made a mark on wine’s history since its inception. While there have been many advances in equity and inclusion, especially over the past 100 years, there are still many things to do. We can learn from the history of systematic exclusion and the lessons learned by strong-willed women who have overcome obstacles to help us design a pathway forward for a more equitable and dynamic wine industry. While this article is primarily focused on women in winemaking, wine business ownership, it does not ignore the many contributions that women have made to the industry.
Today, most wine-growing countries have legal systems that guarantee equal treatment for women and men. However, the gender hierarchy in the wine trade is deep-rooted. According to the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE), wineries that are owned independently by women account for only 5% of California and Oregon’s total, and only 3% of Washington State. For people of color, this disparity is even more severe. Washington State had over 1,000 bonded wineries in 2021. However, only two of them are owned by Black Americans (Lashelle Wines is owned and operated by Nicole Cotton Camp; Frichette Winery is run by Shae Frichette, who is also her husband Greg). However, prior to recent reckonings regarding sexism or racism in Washington State, there was a false sense that people in the West had won the equity battle.
Historical Origins

A patriarchal society must have men who control the bloodline. This governs inheritance and property rights in a trade-based economy. Gerda Lerner (a historian and author of The Creation of Patriarchy) suggests that this kind of societal structure could have its origins as far back as 12,000 years ago, when agrarian societies first began. There seems to be a marked increase in patriarchal hierarchies since around 3,500 BCE when Western societies started to formalize trade and record the transfer and succession of wealth. Patrick McGovern of Pennsylvania State University and his team conducted archeological research that found that wine trade and the societies involved in it began to spread throughout the Mediterranean.

Ironically, it’s not hard to imagine that wine’s ability to transform minds and make wine was discovered by a woman. Paleolithic society’s female members were usually the gatherers. We can picture a woman picking grapes and then forgetting about them until she discovered them again a few days later. This discovery may have been frightening, but we can also see that Paleolithic people weren’t quick to throw away food. She drank the horrible liquid and was transported to a mysterious place in her mind where her worries were extinguished, according to Hugh Johnson’s book The Story of Wine. It is possible that she felt like she was in a spiritual realm. She would have shared her experience with her cave-mates and would have wanted to recreate it over and over again. They shared the magic of wine with others, improved the wine-making process, and eventually developed trade.

McGovern identified the foothills in Armenia of the Caucasus Mountains and Iran’s Zagros Mountains as the first areas where wine was made between 6,000-7,000 years ago. It is widely believed that the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, Sumer, was founded around the same time. Sumer’s first female ruler, Queen Kubaba, lived around 5,000 years ago. She was a tavernkeeper. Legend has it that she was immensely popular and ruled benevolently over 100 years.

Rod Phillips, a historian and wine scholar, suggests that wine may have been a key factor in the creation of Western societies. However, it is clear that wine has had a profound impact on Western history’s political and economic development. It makes sense that wine has the ability to remove our worries, generate wealth and stability through trading, and is a valuable food item. Some people may want to protect their privileges and enjoy the benefits it brings. Early wine cultures had a quick way of defining who could make, trade and drink wine. Rules proliferated. The symposium, an ancient Greek wine party, was only for men. In Rome, the convivium, a banquet where women could attend, but not the afterparty, was open to all. Ancient Egypt saw wine exclusions more as a matter of class than sexuality. Women were allowed to drink wine and participate in the wine trade. Both the elite and lower classes of society drank wine while the rest drank beer. The majority of information about the Etruscans, the wine culture that existed before the Greeks and Romans in Italy, comes from the accounts of their mortal enemies, the Greeks. However, if we look at the Etruscans’ art, we can see that women and men may have had equal rights in all aspects of society, including wine drinking and property ownership. Since the beginning of wine documentation, people have struggled with its power and tried to decide who should be included.

The wine trade expanded into the Mediterranean, and became an economic force for empire building. Men had to have jurisdiction over inheritance and wealth, and that meant controlling women’s sexuality and gender. The Romans model their empire after the Greeks, who seem to have first eliminated women from power.

Despite the fact that women are not allowed to drink wine, there has been a strong connection between wine’s transformative power and femininity for as long human beings have been documenting their world. Wine, previously governed by multi-tasking agrarian goddesses had its own male god during the Greco-Roman period. He was known as Dionysus in the Greeks and Bacchus in the Romans. Dionysus/Bacchus, a gender-bender and straddled between masculine and female, helped wine to be in full men’s domain. The best example of this trickery is Euripides’s The Bacchae. This tragic theatrical piece serves as propaganda to control women by presenting drunkenness and sexuality in society as an aberration. It is not by accident that Hestia (the goddess of the hearth) gave up her place on Mount Olympus in order to be with Dionysus. This allowed men to take over the realms of fertility and home. Women were only allowed to drink again after wine was established in the realm of men in the golden age in Rome. In fact, everyone drank at the peak of Rome’s power. This resulted in the most successful wine trade the world has ever seen, with men firmly controlling the purse strings as well as the profit.

Women and Wine – These women are powerful

The age of Rome and antiquity’s gods gave way to Christianity in Medieval Europe and feudalism. As a result, the hierarchy of a male God was replaced by the male line of priests/kings. Women became a part of the property and rarely have their names recorded other than their husbands or fathers. Girl children were powerful pawns in noble circles for the merging wealth and property through marriage. Some strong-willed women were able to make a mark in wine despite cultural restrictions.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the women whose lives had the greatest impact on the wine world, even if it was only vicariously. Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most wealthy and powerful women in the Middle Ages, married Henry Plantagenet Count of Anjou in 1152. He became soon the King of England. The union brought nearly a third (including Bordeaux) of France’s territory under English control. This sparked a civil war between the English and French, which lasted hundreds of years. It also had a profound and fascinating impact on many great wines around the world. For example, when war and trade embargos made it difficult for British trade with Bordeaux, the search to replace the Brits’ beloved claret led the British to make significant advancements in Sherry trade and was influential in the birth of Port.

Catherine de’Medici, another example of such a woman, was a child of noble families and traded her age through marriage. She is best known for her brutality, manipulation, and cruelty in 16th-century Huguenot massacre. Catherine’s rule may have been responsible for many interesting things in the world of food, wine and food. Catherine, according to legend, brought her entire culinary entourage to France with her when she arrived from Italy. Her chefs at court with their exquisite sauces and refined Italian cooking techniques are credited with greatly shaping French cuisine. Her fork is believed to have been introduced to the French by her chefs, who used to stab rustic slabs of meat using their knives.

It is possible that Cabernet Franc was brought to Barco Reale, the Medici’s Tuscan hunting preserve, at the beginning of Catherine. Barco Reale today is where you will find the Carmignano DOCG. This was the first Italian appellation that required the use of Cabernets. (Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon can be interchangeably used and must be included between 10-20% in Carmignano DOCG or Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC). Although Cabernet Sauvignon is believed to have arrived in the post-phylloxera era of winemaking, locals believe that Cabernet Franc was present in the area since the time of the Medicis. This claim is supported by the fact that the grape was included in the original appellation.
Loopholes and laws

Feudal Europe was very inequitable. This was not only for women. The French Revolution, while praised for changing France and inspiring the world towards a free, fair and equal society, only applies to men. The Napoleonic Code of 1805 was the most important legal document of all time. It was based upon Roman codes that gave men complete authority over women. The Napoleonic Code achieved many positive things. It eliminated feudalism, promoted religious tolerance, and standardized the legal system. It made women invisible and stripped them of their individual rights. It also tied them to their fathers in all ways, including effectively eliminating their right to demand that men accept responsibility for the abuse or sexual assault of their children.

The Napoleonic Code’s discriminatory sex provisions were only amended in the second half of the 20th century. This meant that women in France and all countries that had adapted their laws to the code had to fight an unknown enemy in order to achieve anything. Inheritance law stipulated that property should be equally distributed among legitimate heirs. However, because women were not allowed to become wards of their fathers or husbands in a separate section of the Napoleonic Code the only avenues for property or business ownership were being widowed or a spinster. These complex rights of succession resulted in fragmentation of vineyard ownership, most famously in Burgundy. However, women were almost excluded from the wine industry because of these complicated rights.

Some women were able to buy property or start a wine company in the post-Napoleonic era because they were widowed. Since the dawn of European history, Champagne has been at forefront of all wars on French soil. War makes widows. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot was able to shape Champagne by perfecting the process for riddling. This involves slowly turning Champagne bottles so that lees sediment can be moved into the neck. Today, her name is Veuve or “Widow” Clicquot. This refers to her relationship with a man who was not involved in her achievements.

Many other Champagne widows were also dynamic and scrappy, making the concept of the widow a popular marketing strategy. Lily Bollinger was the Bollinger house’s founder for many decades. She is famous for her famous quote, “I drink champagne when it’s happy and when it’s sad.” Sometimes, I only drink champagne when I’m by myself. It is mandatory for me to have company. If I’m not hungry, I will eat it and drink it when it is full. It’s fine if I don’t feel hungry. Louise Pommery, a widow, is credited with creating the first Brut Champagne.

Up until the 1970s, women were able to hold positions of power in the wine industry by inheriting their husbands’ estates. This was true not only in France, but also in the United States. In 1880, Ellen Mary Stewart, a Sonoma County woman, was named after her husband. She had to petition the courts for permission to run her winery after her husband’s death. Isabelle Simi was 18 years old when she took over the family winery after her brother and father died of flu. She would continue to navigate her winery safely through Prohibition, without having to close its doors.

It was almost impossible for a woman of color to become self-sufficient in business or be influential in the wine industry in the mid-1800s. Mary Ellen Pleasant, a prominent real estate mogul, and entrepreneur, was well-known for planting European varieties on her Beltane Ranch property in Glen Ellen. Mary Ellen had to hide herself in mystery. Sometimes she would pretend to be white or act as a cook or housekeeper. Mary Ellen was an abolitionist who helped many women in California’s wild Gold Rush era to be self-sufficient and safe. Although most details of her story are lost, the fact that European vines were planted at her ranch makes her an American viticultural pioneer.

It has been easier to train women to be winery managers and office staff in a system that is not allowing women to inherit property. It is rare that you will find women who learn winemaking from their fathers, or were sent to school by the families to study enology. This has been more common since the 20th century. Inheritance is the best way for women to get into winery ownership or winemaking. Many famous and historical families have daughters as their chief winemaker. Veronique Boss -Drouhin, winemaker at Maison Joseph Drouhin and Domaine Drouhin respectively in Beaune and Oregon), Saskia Prum, winemaker at S.A. Prum within the Mosel, Elisabetta Foradori, Luisa Ponzi and Anna Maria Ponzi (of Ponzi Vineyards) in the Willamette Valley), Gina Gallo (partner/chief winemaker at E. & J. Gallo) and Kathryn Walt Wines in Napa Valley Walt Wines in Sonoma Valley and Walt Wines in Sonoma Although it may not seem like a radical move for women today, when viewed in context of history, it is a significant step forward.
Education: New Pathways

Women who didn’t come from winemaking families started to study winemaking in the 1960s. MaryAnn Graf and Zelma Lang, both of whom held tenure at Simi Winery, and Merry Edwards, who would later go on to open her own winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, were two of the first women to study food science and wine at the University of California at Davis. These pioneering women, and others like them, were driven by their curiosity and passion to pursue a career in winemaking. In the 1970s and 1980s, more women chose winemaking as a profession. However, most of them found themselves either the only or one of a few in their school class.

The 1980s are only a heartbeat from the present in wine’s history. Yet, the idea of a woman opening a winery was almost unheard of in 1987 when Cathy Corison opened her first winery in Napa Valley. Despite a master’s in enology at UC-Davis, and being a highly respected winemaker at Napa Valley’s Chappellet Winery’s Chappellet Winery’s Napa Valley Winery, many people said she wouldn’t succeed. Her achievements and influence are evident today. Kay Simon, another female leader, graduated from UC-Davis with an enology degree. Kay was the Chateau Ste’s assistant winemaker. Michelle was appointed assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste in 1977. She then founded Chinook Winery in Yakima (Washington) in 1983 with her husband. Kay is a strong advocate for women in American wine through her inspirational wines and participation in scholarship programs as well as other philanthropy. They have helped to create a new era where more women choose to work in wine, and are demanding more equity and inclusion for all – not only women but for those who were previously excluded from the business.
Looking forward

The patriarchy has subordinated women since the dawn of time. Laws and cultural structures have prevented women from being in positions of power, influence, and intellectual and creative communities. Women have had to fight against the exclusionary outer structures and the biases within the Western cultural heritage.

Although many legal obstacles to women’s participation in the wine trade are gone, the systemic barriers that prevented them from being included remain. It is now more common and acceptable to study wine, winemaking, and enology. However, this relative freedom is due to the collaboration, partnership, and vigilance of people of all genders that have committed to greater equality and inclusion over the past 100 years. It is clear that there is much more to be done in order to create a truly inclusive wine industry. This is because the goal is within reach for the first-time since the Greeks, or perhaps in all of history.