When at its best, wine tends to express feminine qualities, like sexy textures, soft tannins, voluptuous fruit and delicate floral aromas. It’s also been suggested—by Yale University scientists no less—that women have a quantifiably better sense of taste than men.
And yet, a few millennia in, the job of winemaker remains very much a male-dominated position. Amidst the anecdotal evidence visible at almost any wine-tasting event, a 2015 survey from Santa Clara University revealed that just 10% of lead winemakers at California’s 3,400-plus wineries are female. There are signs that this is changing, at least on the institutional level.
The 2015 graduating class from UC Davis’s enology and viticulture program was about half female, up from just one-third in 1999. But it’s not a tidal wave, by any means. The authors of the Santa Clara survey also evaluated how quickly women were moving into top winemaking jobs between 1999 and 2014. Their determination? “Progress appears steady but slow.” (See Women Winemakers of California for more of their work.)
However, here in Santa Barbara County, there’s a long history of women atop the winemaking world. Buttonwood Farm, for instance, was founded in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley in the 1960s by the late Betty Williams, who started planting wine grapes in 1983, the region’s very early days. Then there’s Kathy Joseph, who started Fiddlehead Cellars back in 1989 in what would become the Sta. Rita Hills, and Denise Shurtleff, who started working harvests in 1983 and came to Cambria Winery in 1999, where she became head winemaker in 2003 and now makes more wine than anyone else in Santa Barbara County, male or female.
A second-career refugee from the high-tech world, Karen Steinwachs studied under Joseph and others before becoming Buttonwood’s head winemaker in 2007. She still experiences some levels of sexism in both restaurants, when sommeliers assume the men at the table will be tasting opened bottles, and in the cellar, when delivery guys wonder where the man in charge is or ask who’s going to drive the forklift. But she’s convinced that the southern Central Coast has more female winemakers than the 10% statewide average.
“We believe that is closer to 20 percent in Santa Barbara,” she said.
Last year, to recognize that reality, Steinwachs threw a small event at Casa Dumetz, the winery and tasting room in Los Alamos owned by Sonja Magdevski. About 20 female winemakers attended, including many young women who are bringing the next generation of energy to the industry. Some younger Santa Barbarans to watch include Angela Soleno of Turiya Wines, Rachel Silkowski of Rasi Wines (also assistant winemaker for Loring Wine Co.), and Brit Zotovich of Dreamcôte (who make cider too), among others.
Other than the gender-equality stance, some of these women also believe that they may just be better suited for the job than their male counterparts.
“Can women smell better than men?” asked Steinwachs. “Undoubtedly.”
Tara Gomez, winemaker at Kita Wines and formerly with J. Lohr for many years, agrees. “I think women have a keen sense of smell and taste,” she said. “Women tend to be more detail-oriented and nurturing, and our wines tend to have a certain finesse, elegance, and grace.”
But don’t take their word for it. Both Steinwachs and Gomez will be pouring their wines this weekend at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where “Women Winemakers of the Central Coast” will be toasted. They’ll be joined on a panel by Kathy Joseph as well as Kris Curran of D’Alfonso-Curran (formerly of Sea Smoke and Foley), Morgan Clendenen of Cold Heaven, and Chrystal Clifton of Palmina and La Voix, and another half-dozen women-led wineries will also be serving their wines.
“Don’t expect a catfight, although there are some very opinionated and forthright women on the panel,” promised Steinwachs. “Fear not the estrogen in the room.” See the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History website for tickets.
A few weeks later, the second annual Women of the Vine Global Symposium goes down April 4-6 at the Meritage in Napa. That event sold out in January, further indicating how many are tracking this growth of women in wine, so mark your calendars for March 13-March 15, 2017, when the third annual symposium will occur. More information at Women of the Vine.