Chile’s Women Winemakers Take Charge

Chile’s Women Winemakers Take Charge

In 1999, when I took my first trip to Chile, I met with the winemakers from industry-leading bodegas including Santa Rita, Caliterra and Santa Carolina. Their names weren’t Rafael or Juan or Guillermo; they were Cecilia, Irene and Pilar. I recall making a mental note of this interesting gender-related fact, but just as quickly I shifted my focus back to learning about the Maipo and Colchagua valleys, the uniqueness of Carmenère, and the still-fresh wounds left over from the tumultuous 1970s and ’80s, when Chile was ruled by General Augusto Pinochet and his military henchmen.

A decade later, and with infinitely more knowledge and appreciation of Chile under my belt, it has become clear that a movement that began in the 1970s and ’80s, took hold in the ’90s, and which has flourished in the 21st century, has reached critical mass: women winemakers’ role in Chile is now measurable, vital and a direct reflection of where the country stands both in sociological and political terms.

Today, roughly one in three winemakers in Chile—and by that we mean head winemakers, assistants, apprentices and consultants— are women. And those numbers carry over into the Chilean university system, where approximately onethird of enology students are female. The impact women have had and are having in producing some of Chile’s finest and most individual wines is palpable.

With that in mind, Wine Enthusiast has chosen to profile four particular Chilean women winemakers who are at the head of their profession. They a re a diverse but similar foursome in that they represent two different generations, but are all career winemakers and highly talented. As a group, they have seen their country emerge from a period when Chile was an international pariah to where it now stands: a leader among South American countries on several fronts, not the least among them global wine exporter and New World market driver.

Among the four, Maria Luz Marin, founder of Casa Marin, a Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir specialist located in the coastal San Antonio Valley, is arguably the grande dame of Chilean winemaking. Marin started her winemaking career in 1973 with venerable Viña San Pedro, at a time when there were no other women making wine in Chile. From there she moved through the ranks, ultimately founding her own winery in 2000.

Another trailblazer among the group is Cecilia Torres, who since 1989 has been responsible for making Santa Rita’s Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon, always one of Chile’s highest-rated and most sought-after wines.

Slightly younger, and molded more from the post-Pinochet era than their predecessors, are Ana Maria Cumsille, winemaker since 2001 at Altaïr in the Cachapoal Valley, and Irene Paiva, formerly of Caliterra and San Pedro but now a consultant to Santa Ema and a founding member of the Board of Directors of MOVI, a budding association of smaller, independent, mostly artisan wineries throughout Chile.

Whereas Cumsille and Paiva had but a few women like Marin, Torres and the now mostly retired Pilar Gonzalez to follow, today’s up-and-coming women winemakers like Andrea León of Casa Lapostolle, Cecilia Guzmán of Haras de Pirque, Macarena Morandé of Viña Morandé, Pilar Miranda of Garage Wine Company, and Paula Cárdenas of Matetic Vi n eyards have a larger selection of women winemakers to look up to.

“Do I feel like we have made a difference? Have we opened up space for women in a business that was once carried only by men? Yes, I feel like we have opened the door to a broader, younger generation of female winemakers,” said Torres. “There are so many opportunities for women in the wine profession that did not exist 10 or 20 years ago, and not just in the making of wine. Marketing, viticulture, quality control, etc.”

A case in point: Michelle Bachelet, South America’s first democratically elected female president, earlier this year finished up her term as president of Chile, during which neighboring Argentina also elected a woman, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as its president. “Chile today is a much better place for women,” says Torres. “And for that we must thank the men—colleagues, husbands and sons—who are more supportive and better understand the new roles that women are playing throughout society.”

Cecilia Torres
Winemaker at Viña Santa Rita in the Maipo Valley with responsibility for Casa Real, one of Chile’s benchmark Cabernet Sauvignons

Ask one of Chile’s 30-to-40-something women winemakers who they most admire within the industry, and chances are they will say Cecilia Torres, who has since 1989 been the hand behind Santa Rita’s world-famous Casa Real Cabernet.

Torres, always quick with a smile, was, in her words, born “many, many years ago along with the first vines of Casa Real.” After graduating from the Universidad de Chile, she started her career in the early 1980s at Santa Rita as an assistant winemaker, working for eight years under the renowned Ignacio Recabarren, “my great master at the time.” Later, Torres moved to Viña La Rosa and Luis Felipe Edwards before returning to Santa Rita in 1990. And that’s where she’s been for the past 20 years, making and perfecting the winery’s iconic Casa Real.

Fond of visiting Brazil (where one of her sons lives) and enjoying Carmenère alongside barbecued salmon, her favorite wine and food pairing, Torres believes quality wines with less fanfare, such as Yalumba’s The Signature from Australia, Château Kirwan from Margaux and the wines of Fitou in the Languedoc, are what make discovering wine so pleasurable. As to what traits women possess that might make them equal or better winemakers than men, Torres said women are “patient, dedicated, constant, persevering, and most important of all, we have passion.

“Though I must point out, these characteristics are not exclusive to women,” she added. “You also can find them in many men. But where I’m sure we are different is in the holistic vision we have. Men, I find, are better at focusing on one specific task with a single target in mind.”

As for how she sees herself: “Definitively as an artist. I’m empathetic, and I really enjoy my job.” And does she encounter resistance or gender bias? “Not anymore, although 20 years ago the prejudice was quite strong. Now at this established stage of my career, being a woman winemaker might even be a plus.”

Maria Luz Martin
Founder of Viña Casa Marin, based in Lo Abarca, San Antonio Valley, a Sauvignon Blanc pacesetter

Born in Santiago in 1949, Marin was Chile’s groundbreaker in terms of women winemakers— there were literally none before her. Upon graduating from the University of Chile in 1973, Marin immediately went to work as an apprentice winemaker at San Pedro before leaving the industry during the 1980s to work in Chile’s fruit sector. From 1990–95, Marin worked for several wineries, including Bisquertt. She then founded her own company in 1995, which sold bulk wine to the U.K. and Europe. In 2000, she founded Casa Marin, where she has since been joined by her sons Felipe and Nicolás. Her specialties include maritime-influenced Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah.

When asked if there was an individual widely considered to be the “queen” of women winemakers in Chile, Marin said that she is that person. “My inspiration was to be the first. It was a big challenge, and I have always liked challenges. I was the first female winemaker to work for a private winery. I guess you could call me a pioneer.”

Casa Marin’s Sauvignon Blancs are widely considered to be models for the emerging “coastal style” of Chilean SB; they are crisp, with intense green fruit and saline qualities. These wines, along with the winery’s Pinots and Syrahs, aren’t overly feminine in style, which suits Marin just fine. “I believe in equality between women and men regarding taste, sense of smell, winemaking preferences. Perhaps women are more perfectionists and pay more attention to the details, but I just try to understand our nature, terroir and vineyards. Nothing in our wines is manipulated or modified.”

And does she encounter gender prejudice in Chile or when showcasing her wines outside the country? “Not at all,” Marin said. “People are now used to seeing a woman doing all the work inside and outside the winery.”

Ana Maria Cumsille
Head winemaker at Altaïr, a chateau-modeled wine estate in the Cachapoal Valley that is part of the Viñ a San Pedro Tarapacá group

Born in Santiago in 1969, Cumsille lives in Chile’s capital city with her husband and one-year-old son Diego. But her work life revolves around making the wines Altaïr and Sideral in Cachapoal.

A 1996 graduate of the Universidad Católica’s enology program, Cumsille completed her post-grad studies at the University of Bordeaux, where she received her Diplome National d’Oenologie in 1999. She began her career as a cellar worker at Los Vascos and Viña Carmen, and then went back to France to work harvests at Châteaux Margaux and La Louvière. Her final training took place at Franciscan in the Napa Valley, which led to a winemaking job at Indomita in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. In 2001 she joined Altaïr, where she has worked ever since.

“I always wanted to work in agronomy because I love the countryside and being outdoors. But with time it became apparent that winemaking was what I loved,” explained Cumsille, who credits Frenchman Pascal Chatonnet, Altaïr’s chief consultant, for being her mentor.

Caught in between pioneers like Marin and Torres and a new wave of younger women pursuing winemaking, Cumsille said winemaking was always an open option for her. “In Chile, enology is not just linked to men, as is the case with other industries. I don’t believe women are better winemakers or wine tasters than men. A good sense of smell, intuition, attention to detail and imagination are qualities you can have being male or female. Fortunately, the mentality of Chileans has evolved; there is no discrimination toward women. Sometimes I think it can be an advantage” to be a woman winemaker.

Cumsille said she was proud when Chile became the first South American nation to elect a woman as president. “It was an example of the role women have in all areas of society, which the wine industry is just a part of. I do think it projected a positive image of our country, and I do believe it has helped in the development and acceptance of Chilean wine in other countries.” She also noted that two-sided cultural changes in Chile have allowed her and other women to become professional winemakers. “There are more educational opportunities, more openness toward women. At the same time, there has been a change among Chilean women. There are more women today that want to work and develop themselves professionally.

Irene Paiva
Consultant to wineries including Santa Ema, Vistamar and others, and founder of her own winemaking company, i Wines

When I first met Talca-born Irene Paiva in July 1999, it was winter in Chile, but she was undaunted. Despite a cold drizzle and the fact that she was pregnant with her second child, we climbed up, over and around the outdoor stainless steel tanks at Arboleda in the Colchagua Valley, where she was working at the time. Meanwhile, I thought to myself, “Wow, this woman is tough…maybe tougher than me.”

A 1991 graduate of enology from the Catholic University in Santiago and the holder of an MBA from Adolfo Ibañez University, Paiva is still a quintessential country girl. “As the gypsy of our family, I started out thinking about working with animals; cows, horses, etc. I grew up near Talca and I spent a lot of time in the country with my cousins, mostly on my grandfather’s farm in Maule. He made wine and maybe that came back to me.” Jump ahead several years and Paiva recalls a seminal moment in her life, one that made her commit to winemaking. “I was working a harvest at Simi in California and I got to spend some time with Zelma Long. One day she invited all the assistants to her house for a barbecue. I still remember a big fireplace in the living room and a beautiful kitchen. It was so warm, and my impression was of a lady who works hard and knows what she wants.”

Since then, Paiva has worked at the above-mentioned Arboleda (then part of the Caliterra joint venture between Viña Errazuriz and Robert Mondavi) as well as at San Pedro and Viña Tabalí. In 2005 she was selected as one of Chile’s top 100 women leaders and was profiled in a book called 24/ 24, which recounted 24 hours in the lives of 24 Chilean career women.

In 2007 she created her own winemaking and consulting firm called i Wines, and just last year she joined the Board of Directors at the Santa Ema winery as well as MOVI, the upstart Movement of Independent Vintners.

“When I started making wine there were very few women working in the business,” said Paiva. “But keep in mind that it was a much smaller industry that was just opening up to the world in every way: exporting, traveling to foreign markets, receiving visitors, etc. We were operating with less resources, less research, less organization, less technology, less everything. Looking back, it was a good time to start; and also a good time to start opening doors for the next generation.”

Published on October 19, 2010