March–Women’s History Month—reminds us of how far we have NOT come. According to the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE), only 9.8% of California wineries have women winemakers. This, even though the first women graduates out of UC Davis’ renown Viticulture and Enology program—Mary Ann Graf and Zelma Long, graduated in the mid-1970s. Curiously, the appellation with the most women winemakers is Sonoma (12.4%) followed by Napa (12.2%). The AAWE hypothesizes that women winemakers immediately gravitate to high-end wine vs. beverage wine which accounts for their higher representation in appellations like Sonoma and Napa that make luxury wine. But there may be something else at work too.
My theory is that Sonoma has the most women winemakers because it’s a pinot noir hotbed. Recently, in conducting research for The NEW Wine Bible (to be released Spring 2015), I discovered the fact that Oregon has slightly more women winemakers than California, despite having 1/27th the grape acreage. Indeed, in the one U.S. state devoted to pinot noir, women account for over 10% of all winemakers.
One question seemed obvious: Do women choose pinot noir? Or does it choose them? I asked Lynn Penner Ash—who became the first female winemaker in Oregon in 1988–her view. Recounting the early days, she said, “In the beginning, Oregon was made up of very small family-owned wineries, and we wanted everyone to do well to establish Oregon as a place for world-class pinot noir. Female or male, if you were willing to work hard at making pinot, you were welcome.” But Penner Ash said there were also more subtle powers at work. “Pinot noir is a reflective grape. We strive to be guardians of it–but not dominators–which some might say reflects a more feminine sensibility.”