Of Wine And Women

A Q&A with two SCU professors emeriti who wrote the book illuminating women in the male-dominated field of winemaking.

Of Wine And Women

“Why are there so few women lead winemakers?” It’s the question that sent Santa Clara University professors emeriti and wine lovers Lucia Albino Gilbert and John C. Gilbert on a decade-long journey around the world. Their mission: meet and interview the women in wine.

And the answers they found are familiar to someone like Lucia Gilbert, SCU’s provost from 2006 to 2010 and professor of psychology, who specializes in women’s career development in non-traditional fields. Gilbert first started researching the question for a 2011 study about California women winemakers. In 2012, along with her husband, a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, the couple co-authored another study on evidence of women winemakers’ success in the industry.

Yet far from shattering any glass ceiling—as they had been led to believe by other sources—their data showed that lead women winemakers remain relatively few and far between, making up about 10 percent of that cohort.

More detailed insights, they believed, would come from the stories of the women who had made it as winemakers in the renowned wine regions of California, as well as Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and New Zealand. Their travels and interviews with said women led to the couple’s new book Women Winemakers: Personal Odysseys.

Gilbert Author Photo Color
John C. Gilbert and Lucia Albino Gilbert funneled a decade’s worth of interviews and data-driven research into their new book, Women Winemakers: Personal Odysseys.

Santa Clara Magazine talked to the Gilberts about the challenges the winemakers have faced and their experiences in the wine industry. They hope their writings will inform and inspire other women coming up in the ranks.

Santa Clara Magazine: Why women and wine? What led you both on this journey?

LUCIA: One of the things I study is why women aren’t represented well in traditional male-dominated fields, like applied sciences. Look at medicine and law, for example. Those fields were male dominated in the past, but not now.

But in medicine, the higher-level specialties, like surgery, are still male dominated. And it’s true in the STEM fields. Many women go into math, but they do not move up in those fields, they are not the leaders, they don’t become the people at the table.

There’s a difference between perception and fact, and I’ve studied this issue my whole life. It has been the case for women that if they did get into some important role or moved forward, they were viewed as the exception and that few, if any, women could do it. Still today, one reason there are few women entering certain fields is that they are not encouraged to do so. Women say, “If I’m not going to be successful, why should I do that?” Or, “Why go into computer science if the atmosphere is so negative that I will be unhappy? I’m smarter if I can do something else.” On a subconscious level, male domination operates in the sense that certain groups are not welcome, so they (women) go elsewhere.

SCM: How did you prepare for your fact-finding journey?

LUCIA: We knew that wine and winemaking were male-dominated, and the field also involves applied science. So when we read about women shattering the glass ceiling in winemaking, we were curious. We thought there was an exception here: Women in California have really done something quite extraordinary! How did they do that? But when we started investigating, we could hardly find any women winemakers.

We needed to change our question to basic research: How many women winemakers are there? Maybe we cannot find them because they are not there.

By then, we had read several books on winemaking and the history of winemaking in California, but no one had done any definitive studies on women in winemaking. We started a website, and we put our research out to the world. We started gathering data and built a large database and did the analysis that led to the 2011 study. That’s how it all started.

SCM: How is your research on this subject different from or better than what’s been written before?

LUCIA: First of all, we gathered information for a comprehensive database. We had accurate numbers, and I think accurate numbers are so important here. We think it’s really helpful to the industry and a critical wake-up call, for several reasons.

You have to remember that winemaking and agriculture are thousands of years old, and it wasn’t until 1965 that a woman in California actually got a degree in fermentation sciences. So the history of women as winemakers is short, and the same is true in other countries.

Everyone who thought that California led everybody else in women winemakers, well, it turns out that was not the case. There were two or three winemakers whom everybody knew, including Helen Turley, an amazing winemaker who founded Marcassin Vineyard, and was just elected to the California Hall of Fame.

But as soon as a woman gets a big award, people think, “Oh, well, good. She has shattered the glass ceiling.” But that’s not what it means. There are tipping points and turning points. A turning point is when you get to 50 percent—when the field is half women and half men. The tipping point is where the field really begins to shift, say, at 30 percent.

Lots of women are employed in the wine industry. And they are probably really happy with their jobs or positions, whether it’s wine sales or tasting rooms. But winemaking is a very traditional field, and it’s hard to change attitudes and values in a traditional field

SCM: Can you sum up what happened that affected the progress of women winemakers through the decades?

LUCIA: The first woman winemaker in California was Hannah Weinberger, who took over the family winery when her husband was killed in 1882. She ran their winery in Napa until 1920 when Prohibition was enacted. In 1973, MaryAnn Graf became the first woman winemaker at a California winery; she was also the first woman in California to get a college degree in fermentation sciences.

By then, a couple of things had happened: the women’s rights movement was making progress, and in the middle 1970s, California became recognized for its wines. Suddenly, everyone started buying land and planting grapes, and they needed more winemakers. And so there were more opportunities for everyone. More women started going into the field.

But it’s hard work, especially during harvest when you’re working 80 to 90 hours a week. And for women who had children, it takes a village for their needed support, as they say. But for many who started out, there was no family leave act, or pregnancy leave, and no laws against discrimination, all that kind of stuff.

It was also really important for us to have a framework to discuss the careers of these women winemakers. We started off with the question, “When did you know you loved wine?” and from there, we developed four particular career paths they followed: sensory, family, science/agronomy, and enology.

We are hoping young women or people who are thinking about this field, or changing fields, can read about these career paths and begin to see themselves and how they can move along that career path. Imagining yourself successful in a field is really important because if you cannot imagine a place for yourself in that field, you won’t study it.

SCM: You started researching this subject in 2010. When did you have time to work on this project?

LUCIA: For the first several years, when we were creating our database, we didn’t have to travel for that. We worked at home on evenings and on weekends. During the summer break, we visited various winemakers. Both of us took sabbaticals—they ended up being two quarters each—and that helped tremendously.

I got some funding from Santa Clara; you can get research awards if you present your work at conferences. And that helped. By the time we started writing, we had interviewed 150 women winemakers. In 2014, we decided we needed to go outside of California.

SCM: You write a bit about Santa Clara University alumna Heidi von der Mehden ’97. She’s now the winemaker at Merry Edwards, a winery founded by one of the biggest names for women in wine. What does it mean that the tradition of a woman at the helm there continues?

LUCIA: Merry Edwards is extremely well-known; she worked hard to build her winery and its reputation for pinots. I think she found the very best person who should be the winemaker. I don’t think she was just looking for a woman, but clearly she saw in Heidi someone who is highly capable, someone who would continue to improve things. She wanted someone who is creative, hard-working and who had a vision. Gianna Ghilarducci Kelly ’97 is another female winemaker and is now at Galerie in Napa Valley. Both of these women majored in chemistry at Santa Clara.

Merry Edwards And Heidi Von Der Mehden By Bob Holmes Jill Schlegel
Heidi von der Mehden ’97, left, and Merry Edwards walk the vineyards at Merry Edwards Winery. Photo courtesy Merry Edwards.

SCM: Many of these women worked in the winery labs as a way of entering winemaking. What were they doing in the lab?

JACK: Fundamentally, a lot of the work they do is analytical chemistry and microbiology, like measuring alcohol levels in the wine. Or they are working as the winery enologist. Another component of their job is during the fermenting process. It’s important to be able to know, for example, the sugar content at various times during fermentation; where the alcohol level is and if it can be modified. A winemaker can do a lot of things while the grapes are fermenting.

SCM: So women were in labs early on, but not in wine cellars until later? Compare the lab to the world of the wine cellars. What was the challenge?

JACK: If you want to be a competitive winemaker, you have to work in the cellar, because lots goes on there. Part of it is the racking process—separating new wine from the sediment, and hauling around hoses that connect one fermentation vat to another. The hoses contain wine, which means you might be dragging a hose weighing up to 100 pounds or so. And then you have to handle the barrels and move them around. As women are usually smaller than men, this can be a challenge to them.

So what we learned is that women have to work in smart ways, using physics and leverage to move things around.

In our book, we talk about Cathy Corison, who is about 5 feet tall. As a former gymnast, she used her knowledge of physics and gymnastics so she would not injure her body doing the demanding work required in the cellar. Men who worked with her learned from her, and as a result, they avoided back problems.

A small winery we visited in Spain is designed so the cellar floors can move, which helps a lot when moving things. But everyone has experienced sexism and discrimination. As recently as the 1980s, women were not allowed to work near fermenting wine in some French wineries because of a superstition that if they are menstruating, the wine will turn into vinegar.

The women we talked to said that part of working in a male-dominated field is learning to deal with it and having a very thick skin, particularly when they worked in the cellars. But a lot of the women said they were working so hard they didn’t have time to pay attention to it

SCM: When you told people what your project was about, what was their reaction?

LUCIA: They were fascinated; they said it sounded more like fun than work. Many people don’t pay any attention to who the winemaker is. At conferences, when we told them about our research, people were surprised at how few women winemakers there were. But wherever we go and taste wine, we would also find a way to bring up our research and say, “Did you know that wine you are drinking was made by so-and-so?” They would say they did not know that, and we would ask them if they know that only one in 10 lead winemakers around the world are women.

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