Commentary: Why the lack of women winemakers in Washington?

By on October 17, 2016
Ashley Trout

Ashley Trout is a Walla Walla winemaker who runs Vital Wines and March Cellars. (Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Richard Olsen-Harbich of Bedell Cellars recently wrote an article published in the Huffington Post about the great strides that women have been making over the past decade within the wine industry. It is a terrific article written by someone who seems to be a kind man. I hope, for his winery’s sake, that he has hired some fantastic female employees.

Thank goodness for kind men. I have launched my career with the help of kind men in much the same way that I hope my grandson will launch his career with the help of kind women.

But the wine industry doesn’t need nice men. It is laden with them. It needs women.

According to Lucia Albino Gilbert and John Carl Gilbert of Santa Clara University, approximately 10 percent of all California wineries have female winemakers. Only 4 percent of women winemakers own their own winery while 47 percent of men do, and the gap continues when you look at the number of winemakers who work for multiple brands, sitting at 1 percent of female winemakers and 11 percent of male winemakers.

Matt Kettmann of Wine Enthusiast points out that the Santa Barbara wine growing region is ahead of the gender gap curve where a whopping 20 percent of their winemakers are women.

For a country that is approximately 50 percent female, these numbers should shock. They shock me.

Of the nearly 900 wineries in Washington state, roughly 7 percent have women winemakers, according to my count, and it doesn’t seem to be growing quickly. The question remains, why?

As a female winemaker, I am disadvantaged. I am 5-foot-3 and weigh 120 pounds. This means I can’t pallet-jack two full pallets of case goods, six full barrels or punch down day-old Cabernet in a two-ton fermenter bin. But that’s about all I can’t do. For those three tasks, I find creatures who can. They are everywhere. They are called 22-year-olds.

As a male winemaker, my husband is also disadvantaged, yet his disabilities don’t have a simple and readily available solution. When he arrives at a vineyard, he is often left to load his own truck bed with bins of picked fruit. This he does and moves on. I, on the other hand, find that men come out of the woodwork to do this task for me. I have no idea why. I’ve been driving a forklift for half of my life, but if they want to do this for me, I’m going to hop on my phone and figure out what the weather patterns look like for the next five days and try to get ahead of the curve.

As a male winemaker, my husband has a sea of other men to compete with to find a spotlight within the media. There are no such problems in my world. The media is a female winemaker’s friend.

There are special wine menus for female winemakers, winemaking symposiums dedicated to female winemakers, and scholarships within schools for women where none exists for men.

I’ve been given fruit contracts early in my career by both female and male vineyard owners who simply wanted to make sure at least one woman was working with their fruit, both for societal purposes as well as to see what the difference might be (better, of course).

Time and time again, my day is made easier by the world at large, and I don’t deserve it.

So where are the other women who inexplicably haven’t hopped on the gravy train?

Of the wine jobs recently offered on www.winejobs.com, only 20 percent of the applicants were women.

Women aren’t showing up. For two reasons: 1) wineries and 2) women.

The first problem has the easier solution. Large wineries hire people who have experience, which comes from small wineries, who don’t hire many people and, when they do, they opt to hire someone who can sanitize bins and push a 3-stack of full barrels, i.e., young men. Small wineries need to take it upon themselves to open the sliding glass door between the tasting room, accounting, lab work, inoculations, bin sanitization, trucking, cellar tracking, fork-lifting, racking and bottling. Hire women. One percent of my job is inconvenienced by the tasks I am not physically able to achieve.

Women deserve entry-level winery positions

Ashley Trout

Ashley Trout, a Walla Walla Valley winemaker, argues that Washington needs more women winemakers. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Entry level positions need to be more open to women. Until they are, there is no way for us to get our foot in the door. I get calls monthly from women who are trying to find a crack in the door, and it isn’t there.

The second problem is more complex.

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls who Code in New York, pointed out during a recent TED talk that we expect boys to fail and fail often. They are more frequently pushed into competitive sports; they are expected to be slow crawlers, walkers, talkers, and slower in school studies. From the beginning, we expect boys to fail and to get back up again. According to Saujani, most girls are taught to avoid risk, and to be perfect. We raise our boys to be brave.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s research echoes this sentiment. Her study from the 1980s showed that confronted with difficult tasks, bright girls were quick to give up. The better their IQ scores, the faster they were to give up. Let me repeat, the higher the IQ, the more quickly they gave up. Bright boys, however, were “energized” by a difficult task and were more likely to double their efforts. By this point, they’ve spent their whole lives “getting back up.”

If there were ever an industry based on risk, it’s winemaking. Nature doesn’t care if you made the right pick call, selected the best row in the right vineyard, chose the correct yeast strain (if any) or created an oxygen-rich environment at the correct time. As a winemaker, these decisions are made once and only once, and if you make the wrong one(s), everything continues with or without you. Winemakers can’t choose to be winemakers for easy vintages and stay away during the vintage where it rains every day until the first frost comes a month early. Winemakers have to stand there like an idiot during that vintage too. For a gender possibly riddled with fear of failure, winemaking looks like a horrid, sticky, insomnia-inducing endeavor that doesn’t pay well.

I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

To ride the chaos of harvest is to feel the adrenaline, risk and rush of nature in ways that few people ever get to experience. The proof of accomplishment in physical exhaustion completes a day, proves a day, in ways that I can’t imagine other professions do. There are days you get home and you know for a fact that you couldn’t have done any more because you can barely move. You’ve used every part of your body, your ability to smell, taste, feel and hear, because there isn’t time to make enough decisions any other way. You work through these months, until the powers that be finally hand you reprieve in the form of the first frost. You put what is left of your creations to bed for the winter, clean up after yourself, take a shower and hope that a great five-course meal paired with some aged Cabernet Franc, Malbec or Pinot Noir lies in your near future — and that you won’t have to make it.

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About Great Northwest Wine

Articles authored by Great Northwest Wine are co-authored by Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue. In most cases, these are wine reviews that are judged blind by the Great Northwest Wine tasting panel.

11 Comments

  1. L.M. Archer

    October 18, 2016 at 10:14 am

    Gutsy article. TY for opening a crack in the slider…shout outs to groundbreakers like Marie-Eve Gilla of Forgeron and rising stars like Mary Womack of Damsel Cellars…

  2. Jamie

    October 18, 2016 at 11:55 am

    Sorry for a long response, but this speaks to me so much! As a woman in wine production (who cringes at 99% of articles about women in wine), I think this article is a standout. Finally, someone talking about the nitty gritty, day to day experiences of being a female winemaker, with a sense of humor even!

    I have always thought it a weak excuse to not hire women because of the physical nature of the job. Like the author says, only 1% of my job is affected by my slight build, and I would argue that there are plenty of “slight” men in the business who also require help doing certain tasks. Not to mention, most women are stronger than they look. Can’t tell you how many times people have been surprised by what I CAN do.

    Why are there fewer women in wine production than men? Yes, the entry level job issue is a huge part of it. The fact that women tend to give up easier on difficult tasks…yes, I’ve seen it happen. Not to mention that men come running to take over whenever a woman appears to be struggling in the slightest. I’ve experienced that too. There are so many unconscious biases working against women here. During my first couple harvests, I saw male interns with as little or even less experience than me, being selected for forklift training, while I was passed over, along with all the other female interns. The guys hadn’t asked to be trained; they were just chosen, somehow, as the select interns who would be allowed to drive. How is a woman supposed to work her way up in the industry if she is not given the same opportunities as any man?

    One thing the author fails to mention too, is retention of women. Perhaps I’ve been unlucky in this regard, but all the little biases, the things that seem inconsequential on their own: they become exhausting when piled on year after year. Always being selected for grape stomping because I’m a girl, and being made a spectacle because of it. Getting passed up for higher-level tasks during harvest because they’ve just “always had a guy do it”. Getting called out and patronized by interns every time I get on a forklift, or do a punch down, or dig out a tank. “Yeah, work those muscles, haha, you go girl!” That time a male custom crush client said to me “You all [the interns] are so hot this year.” That time another male client tickled my lower back while I was bending over to put on my work boots. That time my boss told me that I almost wasn’t hired as a cellar hand, because they doubted my skills as a female. That time when the head winemaker explained to the interns “I mean, we usually think of winemaking as kind of a ‘man’s job’.” (“You know what I meant”, so it was fine, right?) That time a maintenance guy called me “the hot girl” in front of my [all-male] team. That time my boss said he wasn’t sure about a new employee of ours because she had too firm a handshake for a woman.

    All these things, with seemingly a new one every week – at some point, they might just give you a sense that you don’t quite belong. So yes, I agree. We need more women in wine. And most importantly, people need to understand that the lack of women is not some unsolvable mystery, as so many authors would have you believe. There are reasons. Tangible problems. That I hope we can all make an effort to solve.

    • M

      October 19, 2016 at 12:37 pm

      This is by far the most relevant response. It is exactly the type of stories that you recount above that are crucial to the understanding of this problem. The tickling of the lower back is especially cringe-worthy.

      Signed,
      Another young female winemaker

  3. Kendall Mix

    October 18, 2016 at 9:49 pm

    Over the years, I have hired several women into entry level positions in the wine industry, either as lab techs or enologists. Both at large and small winemaking operations. I have worked with many more others. Paula Eakin, Holly Turner, Melanie Krause, Katie Nelson, Ali Mayfield. All of them are winemakers today!! I don’t think the situation is as bleak as it is portrayed here.

  4. Jake Thompson

    October 19, 2016 at 6:31 am

    How about rewarding jobs to those people who are most qualified? Be it man or woman?

    Crazy!

    • Alaina W

      October 21, 2016 at 8:07 pm

      I’m glad you got the point of this article! We (female winemakers) are not asking for any favors, we’re just asking for a fair share.

  5. Kay Bogart

    October 19, 2016 at 7:59 am

    Great article – thanks for your thoughtful account of how being a female impacts your professional life every day; both the good and the not-so-good. I’m going to keep this in my files as an excellent resource for winemaking students.
    Maybe things are beginning to change, thanks to young women and men like you and your husband. Wish we’d addressed this years ago.

  6. Paul Vandenberg

    October 19, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Yes, we need fewer “white guys” making the nation’s wine. Far to few super tasters for one! We really need more diversity in wine critics. Name one under fifty and not ” white”.
    I think the nurture issue is a player, 75 % of my student interns have been female, all are still working in wine. Do our females prefer being team players in larger operations?
    And , of course our cultural expectations that chefs, winemakers, etc., are male.

  7. XX

    October 22, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    As a woman in an cellar position – yes, getting more women into entry level cellar positions and harvest intern jobs is key (not just lab/enologist, TR, sales, admin, etc.). I had to go through an extra round of being interviewed as a woman b/c of same doubts mentioned. Got paid less initially too. And get some different task assignments on a regular basis (presumably) because of it. But I still consider myself lucky to be here at all (though I know I shouldn’t feel “lucky” since I am qualified and work my ass off). I feel like I continuously need to prove myself, not just for me, but so that I don’t ruin it for other women looking to get hired in the future.

    Guy co-workers, don’t run over or hover over me if I am struggling to lift/move something. I will figure out a way to do it. And if not, I will ask for help. Owners/managers – think about height/size in basic stuff – like do you store things needed daily on a top shelf or wall mount that only those 6ft+ can reach without having to get something to stand on? Is all of your wet weather gear size men’s XL/XXL? Do you have extendable tank brushes so shorter people can still clean large tanks? Any one thing isn’t a big deal, but when multiple things a day remind you that you don’t ‘fit’ it can be frustrating. Don’t imply that I might be afraid of, or put off by, certain dirty or tough tasks – I wouldn’t have taken the job if I was. (Versus joking with the male staff how the task will make a man out of them.)

    But also a thank you to all of the people I have worked with so far who have given me chances and treated me just like any other person, male or female, who was part of a team trying really hard to make good wine. And to the winemakers I have seen hire ‘non-traditional’ folks for cellar jobs (women, people or color, older, etc.). For some, I know it was a big deal and a shift in their past thinking to give me/us a chance. I am really excited and happy to be in the industry. When I make it into a winemaker position one day, I promise I’ll do the same.

  8. Pingback: Roundtable discussion with next generation of women winemakers - Great Northwest Wine

  9. Sarah Dukes

    November 23, 2016 at 12:46 am

    In today’s generation I can see that women have equal opportunity in our society. Great article Northwest Wine, it would an eye opening for the wine industry makers to hire women.

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