How Far We Have NOT Come


Lynn Penner Ash, the first female winemaker in Oregon.

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.”

What are your thoughts on women, pinot , and winemaking?


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6 comments on “How Far We Have NOT Come

  1. In my case Pinot found me- I grew up in Santa Barbara County with my parents enjoying ABC and many many others, and then my first job happened to be at Chalone Vineyard because they had an earlier harvest that would get me back to school at UC Davis before the start of Fall Quarter.

    I still make Pinot today for Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards and a few other brands, mostly based in Sonoma County. I do think there is something to Pinot Noir being a “reflective grape” and one that doesn’t take kindly to, dare I say, a lot of manhandling. Happily, passion- my major prerequisite for being a great winemaker- is genderless!

  2. I cover only wines with certified organic or Biodynamic vineyards. I’ve (only subjectively so far) noticed there are a higher than average number of women winemakers involved in those wineries. I’d be interested in knowing if anyone has ever looked at that correlation.

  3. I swear there are more than 12.5% of the winemaker population here in Santa Barbara County that are women. Me? I make mostly Bordeaux, but yes….do get my Pinot fix in early in each harvest!

  4. Karen-Thank you for the posting. I was rather surprised that the percentage of women winemakers in the North Coast is so low.
    To comment on your question “Do women choose Pinot Noir or does Pinot choose them?” I did not choose Pinot Noir but I did choose Sonoma. Upon graduating from UC Davis I decided to look for positions in wineries located in Sonoma County. I gravitated towards it’s genuine and honest farming and epicurean communities. Considering a large percentage of Sonoma County acreage is planted to high quality Pinot Noir, it was likely my first winery job would be in a Pinot Noir house. 10 years later, at Anaba Wines, I am still working extensively with this finicky grape and still loving Sonoma County…where we don’t take ourselves too seriously but we do take grape growing and winemaking very seriously.

  5. How and where women are employed in the wine industry is an important and worthwhile topic, but I’m sorry to see it addressed here in the context of more female stereotyping.

  6. Thanks everyone for these comments. I agree with many of you and were amazed that the number of female winemakers is actually so small… hence “how far we have not come.” Still, great wine is indeed genderless as Alison says….
    As for pinot noir, what woman–what person– wouldn’t be seduced by the silkiness, tenderness and comfort of great pinot?

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