March–Women’s History Month—reminds us of how far we have NOT come. According to the American Association of Wine Economists, only 9.8% of California wineries have women winemakers. This, even though the first women graduates out of the enology program at the University of California at Davis—Mary Ann Graf and Zelma Long–graduated in the mid 1970s. The place 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 versus beverage wine which accounts for their higher representation in “luxury wine appellations” like Sonoma and Napa. 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 next Wine Bible, I came across a study that found 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 10% of all winemakers. One question seemed obvious. Do women choose pinot noir? Or does it choose them?
I asked Lynn Penner Ash who, in 1988, became the first female winemaker in Oregon, 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.”