Women in Wine: Systematic Exclusion & the Success of Tenacious Women

Since early wine history, women have been systematically excluded from power. Yet despite the barriers to their participation, tenacious women have been making their mark on the narrative of wine since it was first discovered. While advancements in equity and inclusion have been made, particularly over the last 100 years, there is still much work to be done. By examining the nature of systematic exclusion—and the lessons of strong-willed women who succeeded despite the obstacles—we can gain insight into contemporary challenges and design a path forward to create a more equitable and dynamic world of wine. This article primarily focuses on women in winemaking and wine business ownership, although not without recognition of the many levels of contributions women have made across the industry.

While today most countries involved in wine culture enjoy legal systems that provide equal treatment under the law for men and women, gender hierarchy is deeply engrained, and women are disproportionately underrepresented in most higher-level business positions throughout the wine trade. Per the American Association of Wine Economists, wineries independently owned by women make up only 5% in California and Oregon and only 3% in Washington State. This disparity is even greater for people of color. In 2021, Washington State surpassed 1,000 bonded wineries, but only 2 are owned by Black Americans, both of whom are women (Lashelle Wines is owned by Nicole Cotton Camp, and Frichette Winery is owned by Shae Frichette in partnership with her husband, Greg). Yet prior to recent years’ reckonings with sexism and racism, there seemed to be a false sense among people in the Western world that the equity battle had been won.

Historical Origins

The success of a patriarchal society requires that men control the bloodline, which in turn governs inheritance and property ownership in a trade-based economy. Per Gerda Lerner, a historian and the author of The Creation of Patriarchy, the origin of this type of societal structure may go as far back as the beginning of agrarian societies about 12,000 years ago. However, there seems to have been a significant increase in patriarchal hierarchies from about 3,500 BCE, when Western societies began to formalize trade and document the exchange and succession of wealth. Based on archeological research conducted by Patrick McGovern and his team from Pennsylvania State University, it was also around this time that the wine trade, and the societies that engaged in it, began to move throughout the Mediterranean.

Ironically, it is not difficult to imagine that a woman might have been the first to discover wine’s mysterious ability to transform the mind and to, albeit haphazardly, make wine. The female members of Paleolithic societies were typically the gatherers, so we can imagine a woman collecting grapes, forgetting about them in the corner of her cave, and only discovering them again several days later, frothing and bubbling. Although this discovery might have been terrifying, we can also imagine that Paleolithic people were not quick to waste food. So she drank the ghastly liquid and found herself transported to a mysterious realm of her psyche where, as Hugh Johnson puts it in his book The Story of Wine, her cares were banished. She must have also felt that she had communed with some diviner world. Inevitably, she would have shared this experience with her cave-mates, and they would have sought to repeat the experience over and over. In time, they brought the magic of wine to others, refined the process of wine production, and developed trade, eventually prompting connoisseurship.

McGovern has identified the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in present-day Armenia and the Zagros Mountains in present-day Iran as among the first places where wine was produced, between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago. The ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer (which began around that same time) is widely considered the first major civilization in human history, as well as the first wine-trading culture. In Sumer, women were the tavern-keepers, which was a very important job—so important that the world’s first recorded female ruler, Queen Kubaba of Sumer, who lived about 5,000 years ago, was a tavern keeper. She was remarkably popular, and legend has it she reigned benevolently for 100 years.

Wine scholar and historian Rod Phillips theorizes that the quest for wine may have played an integral part in the development of early settled societies in the Western world, and to whatever degree this is true, wine’s political and economic influence throughout the arc of Western history is undeniable. Given wine’s power to banish our cares, its ability to generate wealth and stability through trade, and its status as a valued food item, it makes sense that some people would seek to keep to themselves the power, privilege, and prosperity it provides. Early wine cultures were quick to define who could make, trade, and drink wine. Rules proliferated. In ancient Greece, the notorious wine party known as the symposium was exclusively for men; in ancient Rome, the convivium was more of a banquet, where women were allowed to attend but were excluded from the drinking afterparty. In ancient Egypt, exclusions around wine fell more along the lines of class than sex, and women were recorded as both drinking wine and taking part in the wine trade. The elite of both genders drank wine, but the lower classes drank beer. While most information about the Etruscans (the wine culture that predated the Greeks and Romans in the Italian Peninsula) comes from the accounts of the Greeks—their mortal enemies—if we examine these accounts alongside the art the Etruscans left behind, we can infer that in Etruria, men and women may have enjoyed equal rights in most aspects of society, including property ownership and wine drinking. Certainly, from the first documentation of wine, people have been grappling with the power it holds and evaluating who will—and who won’t—be included in its bounty.

As the wine trade moved out into the Mediterranean and gained economic importance for empire building, it became more important for men to control jurisdiction over inheritance and wealth, which meant controlling women and their sexuality. It appears to have been the Greeks who first completely cut women out of power, and the Romans modeled their empire on the effective methods and beliefs of the Greeks before them. 

Yet even as women have been excluded from wine, for as long as humans have been documenting their world, an iconic connection between wine’s transformative powers and femininity has run through wine culture and mythology. During the Greco-Roman period, wine, which had previously been governed by multi-tasking agrarian goddesses, got its own dedicated male god, known as Dionysus to the Greeks and Bacchus to the Romans. Dionysus/Bacchus was a gender-bender, and although he straddled the line between masculine and feminine, in the end, the wine god insidiously helped to put wine into the full domain of men. This trickery is best chronicled in Euripides’s The Bacchae, a tragic theatrical piece that served as effective propaganda for the control of women, presenting their drunkenness and sexuality as an aberration and danger to society. Not coincidentally, it is during this period of Greek history that Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, gave up her seat on Mount Olympus to Dionysus, relinquishing the domains of the home and fertility to men. Only when wine arrived firmly in the sphere of men, in the golden age of Rome, were women allowed to drink again, in codified moderation. In fact, by the height of Rome’s power, everybody drank, which resulted in the most prosperous wine trade the world had yet seen—with men decidedly holding the purse strings and profit.

Powerful Women Emerge

As the age of Rome and the gods of antiquity gave way to the age of feudalism and Christianity in Medieval Europe, the hierarchy of a male God became the male line of priests and kings, and women become a virtual extension of property, rarely recorded by any name other than those of their fathers or husbands. In noble circles, girl children were powerful pawns for the merging of wealth and property through marriage. Yet despite these restrictive cultural confines, some strong-willed women managed to leave their mark on wine.

One of the women whose life impacted the world of wine the most—even if vicariously—was Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1152, Eleanor, probably one of the wealthiest and most powerful women of the entire Middle Ages, married Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, who soon after became the King of England. This union placed nearly a third of France’s territory—including Bordeaux, its most important international port for the wine trade—under English rule. This ignited a feud between the English and the French that lasted for hundreds of years and impacted many of the great wines of the world in complex and fascinating ways. When war and trade embargos complicated British trade with Bordeaux, for example, the quest to replace the Brits’ beloved claret led to transformative advancements in the trade of Sherry and influenced the birth of Port.

Catherine de’ Medici is another such woman, traded through marriage between noble families at the age of 14. Best known for the massacre of Huguenots in the 16th century, she was manipulative, cruel, and ruthless. Yet the world of food and wine may be able to attribute several very interesting things to Catherine’s rule. Catherine is fabled to have brought her entire kitchen entourage to France when she arrived from Italy. The presence of her chefs at court, with their delicate sauces and use of refined Italian cooking techniques, is credited as greatly influencing the cuisine of France. She is also believed to have introduced the fork to the French, who had previously been stabbing rustic slabs of meat with their knives. 

Further, it may be from the time of Catherine that Cabernet Franc was first brought to the Medici’s Tuscan hunting reserve, Barco Reale. Today, Barco Reale is the location of the Carmignano DOCG, which was the first Italian appellation to require the use of the Cabernets (Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon can be used interchangeably and must be included between 10 and 20% in both Carmignano DOCG and Barco Reale di Carmignano DOC). While Cabernet Sauvignon probably arrived in the post-phylloxera era, the presence of Cabernet Franc is fabled by locals to date all the way back to the time of the Medicis, a claim backed up by the inclusion of the grape in the original appellation.

Laws and Loopholes

Feudal Europe was extremely inequitable, not just for women, and while the French Revolution is lauded for transforming France and influencing the world toward a free, fair, and equal society, these values only applied to men. The Napoleonic Code of 1805, considered the most progressive legal document in history up to that moment, was based on Roman codes, which gave men full authority over women. The Napoleonic Code accomplished many good things: it eliminated feudalism, supported religious tolerance, and standardized the legal system. Yet it made women invisible, depriving them of individual rights and tethering them to their husbands or fathers in every way, including virtually eliminating their rights to demand men take responsibility for illegitimate children, abuse, or sexual assault. 

The aspects of the Napoleonic Code that discriminated based on sex were only reformed in the second part of the 20th century, which means that women in France, and all the countries that based their laws on the code, had to fight against an unseen enemy to accomplish anything until very recent times. Inheritance law stated that “property shall be evenly distributed amongst legitimate heirs,” but because, in a separate part of the Napoleonic Code, women were assigned as wards of either a father or husband, the only two avenues to property or business ownership lay in being a widow or a spinster. These complicated rights of succession not only fragmented vineyard ownership (most famously in Burgundy) but also made it so that women were excluded almost completely from the realm of wine. 

In the post-Napoleonic age, some women found themselves in a position to own property or run a wine business through the loophole of being widowed. The region of Champagne has been at the front of every war on French soil since the dawn of European history, and wars make widows. Thus it happened that Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot found her opportunity to help shape Champagne, perfecting the process of riddling, or gradually turning Champagne bottles to move lees sediment into the neck of the bottles for disgorgement. Today, she is commonly referred to simply as Veuve, or “Widow,” Clicquot, referencing only her relationship to a man who played no role in her accomplishments.

There were many other scrappy and dynamic widows of Champagne, so much so that the idea of the widow became a marketing trademark of the region. Lily Bollinger, who ran the Bollinger house for several decades, is known for her famous quote: “I drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” Louise Pommery, also a widow, was relentless in her pursuit of quality and can be credited with producing the very first Brut Champagne.

Inheritance through the death of men became the primary way that women ended up in positions of power in the wine business up until the 1970s, not only in France but in the United States as well. For example, in 1880, in Sonoma County, California, Ellen Mary Stewart (for whom the town of Glen Ellen is named) had to petition the courts to let her run her winery business after the death of her husband. In 1904, Isabelle Simi, generally considered the first female commercial winemaker in the United States, found herself in charge of the family winery at the age of 18 after both her father and brother died from a flu outbreak. She would go on to safely navigate her winery through Prohibition without shuttering its doors. 

For a woman of color in the mid-1800s in America, it was nearly impossible to be self-sufficient in business and influential in the growing wine industry. But Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was known for having planted European varieties on her property, Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen, wielded significant power as a real estate mogul and entrepreneur. To achieve this, Mary Ellen had to enshroud herself with mystery, sometimes passing as white, or even portraying herself as a housekeeper or cook. Mary Ellen was an abolitionist and helped many women of her time be safe and self-sufficient in the wild era of the California Gold Rush. The fact that European vines were planted on her ranch makes her a viticultural pioneer in America, although most of the details are obscured by history. 

In a system with barriers to women inheriting property, it has been more pragmatic to groom women for office and management support roles in the winery. It remains very rare to meet women who learned winemaking from their fathers or were sent to school by their families to study enology. Even so, since the late 20th century, this has become much more common. Today, inheritance may be the most important way for women to break into the world of winery ownership and winemaking. A number of famous and historic families around the world currently have daughters at the helm. These women include Véronique Boss-Drouhin (winemaker at Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune and Domaine Drouhin in Oregon), Saskia Prüm (owner and winemaker at S.A. Prüm in the Mosel), Elisabetta Foradori (owner and winemaker at Azienda Agricola Foradori in Trentino), Luisa and Anna Maria Ponzi (of Ponzi Vineyards in the Willamette Valley), Gina Gallo (partner and chief winemaker at E. & J. Gallo), and Kathryn Walt Hall (proprietor and winemaker of Hall Wines in Napa Valley and Walt Wines in Sonoma). Women coming into winemaking through family ties may not seem radical today, but in the context of history, this is notable progress. 

New Pathways Through Education

In the 1960s, women who did not come from winemaking families began to pursue careers in wine through formal education. Icons such as MaryAnn Graf and Zelma Long (both of whom had tenure at Simi Winery), along with Merry Edwards (who would go on to establish her namesake winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County), were among the first women to study wine and food science formally at the University of California–Davis. These women and others like them were trailblazers who followed their passion and curiosity to develop their careers in wine on their own terms. The 1970s and ’80s saw more and more women choosing winemaking as a career, but most found that they were either the only woman or one of just a handful in their class in school. 

The 1980s is a mere heartbeat away from the present in the arc of wine’s story, and yet the idea of a woman starting a winery was virtually unheard of when Cathy Corison decided to open a winery of her own in 1987 in California’s prestigious Napa Valley. Even after receiving a master’s degree in enology from UC–Davis and holding esteemed positions like lead winemaker at Napa Valley’s Chappellet Winery, people told her she would never succeed. Today, of course, her achievements and widespread influence are undeniable. Kay Simon is another female leader who graduated with a degree in enology from UC–Davis. Kay became the assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1977 and went on to found Chinook Winery in 1983 in Yakima, Washington, with her husband. Through her inspiring wines and her participation in scholarship efforts as well as other philanthropy, Kay continues to be a catalyst for other women to thrive in the American wine industry. These winemakers and others like them have paved the way for an era in which more and more women are choosing to work in wine and demanding that the industry be more welcoming and equitable—not only for women but also for others who have been historically excluded from the industry.

Looking Forward

Since the beginning of recorded time, patriarchy has designed the subordination of women through laws and cultural structures that have kept women from not only positions of power and influence but also intellectual and creative communities. Women have had to struggle against both the outer structure of exclusion and the inner biases that are the cultural heritage of the Western world.

Today, many of the legal barriers to women’s inclusion in the wine trade have been removed, but the damaging systemic obstacles remain. Although it is more widely possible and acceptable for any person to study wine, viticulture, and enology, to work as a winemaker, or to own a wine business, it is essential to remember that this relative freedom is a direct result of the vigilance, collaboration, and partnership of people of all genders who have been committed to greater equity and inclusion over the last 100 years. There is still much to be done to achieve a truly inclusive world of wine, and the urgency to push for this goal has never been greater, precisely because that goal is in sight for the first time since the Greeks—or maybe for the first time in the history of the world.

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