In honor of Women’s History Month, Wine Enthusiast spoke to six New World female winemakers. Each shared their unique career path and offered perspectives from Australia and New Zealand to South Africa and the United States. And each gives a nugget of advice for the next generation of winemakers.
Vanya Cullen, Cullen Wines, Margaret River, Australia
“I don’t let anyone push me around,” says Cullen, who was raised by her winemaking mother Diana in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when few women worked in the industry. Her expertise is so sought after that Cullen holds the honor of being the first woman to chair a wine show in Australia, the Lilydale, better known today as the Yarra Valley Wine Show.
Though she got into wine through the family business, it’s the artistic aspect that has captured her imagination.
“It’s a creative way to be with nature and make something delicious,” she says. “It also goes with music, which is another love.”
Cullen, who farms by biodynamic principles, focuses on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. For her, a sustainable mindset is paramount, as she considers herself a custodian of “an ancient land.” The Wilyabrup, which means “place of red ochre,” is a subregion of Margaret River that Cullen believes provides “the purest expression of place because the natural environment is so clean.”
Despite her roots Down Under, Cullen worked a vintage in Napa Valley at Robert Mondavi and another in Burgundy at Domaine Joseph Drouhin.
“Napa Valley was a breath of fresh air, coming from the small country town of Cowaramup in 1985,” she says. “California spoke of freedoms like gender, race and equality. Burgundy was about the land and a way of being with wine that was centuries old.”
Both, she says, “had strong female representation.”
Her advice for women who seek to be winemakers: “Focus on caring for the earth,” she says. “There isn’t a great sustainability culture in OZ. But I see that as a nurturing role for women.”
Trizanne Barnard, Trizanne Signature Wines, South Africa
In Kommetjie, a quaint village on South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, Barnard makes wine for her namesake label. She sources grapes from two diverse regions, Elim and Swartland, and she strives to honor those origins.
“I respect the area from which I source grapes and try to make a wine that reflects as much,” says Barnard.
She was introduced to agriculture from a stay on a kibbutz in Israel at age 18. She moved briefly to England, where she discovered wine. Soon after, she headed home to study winemaking.
Barnard graduated Stellenbosch University in 2002 with a degree in viticulture and oenology. She supplemented that education by working harvests in Australia, France and Portugal. After she returned home, Barnard joined the winemaking team at Klein Constantia.
In 2004, Barnard started work on a new brand, Anwilka. Four years later, she had the confidence to start her own label.
“Creating a brand and establishing a business is never a solo game,” she says. “My husband, Malan, is a pillar of strength to whom I owe much gratitude.”
Her fervor for her career derives from its varied pleasures. “I can’t think of another job that is [as] passion-driven and diverse,” says Barnard. “Where else could you be in gum boots in the cellar, and high heels for a fine wine and dining evening within the same profession?”
Her advice for women who seek to be winemakers: “It’s an amazing industry. It is full of challenges, but see them as opportunities.”
Luisa Ponzi, Ponzi Vineyards, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Ponzi has been involved in the Oregon wine industry since age 2, when her parents planted their first vines. “I can imagine I was more of a hindrance than a help in those early days, but as I grew older, I became fascinated with winemaking and viticulture,” she says.
Though she considered medicine, a summer stint in a hospital changed her mind. In 1993, at age 26, Ponzi became winemaker of the family brand.
Ponzi gained perspective on Old World methods as she attended school in Beaune, France, and interned with Christophe Roumier, of Domaine Georges Roumier in Burgundy, as well as Luca Currado, winemaker at Vietti in Piedmont. She was exposed to more than just the stringent rules that shape European viticulture.
“I was accustomed to doing all jobs in the cellar,” she says. “[As a woman in France], I was strictly prohibited from some work [like punching down the surface cap during red-wine fermentation] and discouraged from manual labor.”
To Ponzi, circumstances for women have evolved, though slowly.
“Recently, my women-winemaker tasting group listed all the women in Oregon making wine,” she says. “It was pathetic. Only about 10 women [held the title of winemaker]. When we expanded it to women ‘making decisions’ in the cellar or vineyard, the picture looked slightly better.
“With almost 800 wineries in Oregon, it should be better than that.”
Ponzi believes that the strong numbers of women enrolled in wine studies programs, along with local mentoring efforts and an emphasis to empower women in sciences, will change those statistics soon.
Her advice for women who seek to be winemakers: “Stick with it, listen to your instincts, find like-minded women, take the long view and enjoy the ups and downs.”
Sarah Crowe, Yarra Yering, Yarra Valley, Australia
From her start of selling plants in a garden center to tending wine grapes, Crowe had inescapable vision after seeing autumnal vineyards in France.
“Their beauty caught my eye,” she says. She entertained the notion her horticultural background might stretch into viticulture. “One rainy day, I picked up the phone and called Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley. I knew very little about wine, but had liked all of their wines I had tasted.”
In 2013, after a stint at Bimbadgen, she departed Hunter Valley for Yarra Valley. She’s made Yarra Yering’s wines since, and picked up a 2017 Winemaker of the Year distinction from James Halliday.
“I sometimes say I’m an accidental winemaker,” Crowe says. “I moved into the winery because there were more hours offered. I fell in love with the work: the buzz of vintage pressure, the smell of fermenting wine.”
In 2008, Crowe worked harvest in the Rhône Valley to glean some Old World perspective.
“It was very traditional,” she says. “I was the only female, and I wasn’t expected to do anything physical—the opposite of my New World experience.” The French focus on the vineyard reinforced her approach at Yarra Yering.
Crowe says that graduation rates for women from Australian oenology programs have shot up since 1972. However, the work culture creates problems.
“One of the biggest issues is rigid expectations around working hours [that make] working and motherhood almost impossible,” she says. “Family businesses get it, but corporate companies…are losing intelligence, passion and experience by being inflexible and patriarchal.”
Her advice for women who seek to be winemakers: “The fight for gender equality is ongoing. It’s on everyone’s radar, and that’s a good thing for the future.”
Kathy Joseph, Fiddlehead Cellars/Fiddlestix Vineyard, Santa Barbara, California
Joseph got her first wine job with Simi Winery in 1981, an outfit that has hired pioneering women like MaryAnn Graf. Joseph sought a new path after a stint in the medical profession. When a call came to help Simi in its marketing/PR efforts, she packed and left Chicago forever.
She found winemaking a good fit. “I had an undergraduate degree in microbiology and was positively intrigued by the mix of business, design, microbiology, outdoors, mechanics, art and language,” she says.
Joseph founded Fiddlehead Cellars in 1989 in Santa Barbara County and, in 1996, purchased the Fiddlestix Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills American Viticultural Area. Her wines express finesse, or “personality with elegance,” as Joseph puts it. Joseph’s focus is on fewer varieties—she grows Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir—and refinement of technique.
Joseph has traveled extensively throughout the Old World, where she’s participated in numerous tastings and met local winemakers. She believes that the European culture is changing.
“As the baton is passed, an educated next generation is fixing problems and improving the breed of Old World wines,” she says.
Joseph says her California base has allowed her to utilize new equipment and be integral to creating American wine history. She’s also beared witness to the proliferation of women in the industry.
“More often, women are being funneled into decision-making positions and less into the laboratory,” she says. “Size and strength are less of an issue for successfully performing cellar and vineyard work.”
Her advice for women who seek to be winemakers: “Society has been drinking wine forever and will continue to drink wine. If you want to be part of it, you need to create a niche and get in front of wine writers to help you tell your story.”
Helen Masters, Ata Rangi, Martinborough, New Zealand
At the helm of production at Ata Rangi for more than 16 years, Masters has earned her accolades. Last month, the Australia/New Zealand-focused magazine, Gourmet Traveller Wine, named her New Zealand Winemaker of the Year.
In 1991, right after high school, Masters spent a year at Ata Rangi. “I contacted multiple wineries,” she says. “Ata Rangi was the only one that answered. I did every job possible…for a year.”
Masters then enrolled at Massey University in New Zealand, where she earned a degree in food technology. From there, she took a corporate job with Nestlé, which cemented her decision to commit to wine.
Masters bounced between multiple harvests before she returned to Ata Rangi as assistant winemaker. She took over as head winemaker in 2004.
“My winemaking approach is very much linked to the vineyard,” she says. “Once the decision has been made to pick, I’m careful not to overlay the fruit with any strong winemaking characteristics.”
Working at a family operation helped Masters raise her own family while growing her career. “Being in a small, family-owned business, I’ve had a huge amount of support,” she says.
Masters says there are more women in the industry than when she started, though her “small wine region has always been very well represented by women.”
Her advice for women who seek to be winemakers: “I’d equally give this advice to [all aspiring] winemakers. If you’re passionate about wine, get into it, boots and all. Learn everything you can, go everywhere you can and most importantly, figure out how you want to work. There’s huge diversity in the industry, with businesses large and small. Within that, there’s great opportunity to find the one that suits you.”