The title is cringeworthy for most of us women who work in wine. After all, in 2023, why should this be a special subject? The very fact that women are still singled out as a topic for discussion shows that we still have a way to go to claim our place in this industry. This year’s theme of International Women’s Day is Equity and while great strides have been made over the last thirty years to reach equality in the wine business, there is still a lot that can be done in the wine industry, and other business to achieve equity.
When I left university, my wine-loving father forbade me to enter the wine business telling me that it was no place for women (I had already proved that I could taste by being part of a winning team in an inter-university blind wine tasting challenge). This was in the mid-1980s.
How the situation has changed! When I became a Master of Wine there were not even 20 MW women ahead of me. Today, women have often overtaken men as successful candidates. The rate of change has been rapid but so logical that today it doesn’t seem strange to any of us female members of the business.
So instead of getting bogged down about women having softer, gentler styles of winemaking or that their tasting and smelling senses are honed through the genes of their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers who barely left the kitchen, let’s have a look at why the long overdue presence of women in the wine business came about and why it is no longer necessary to write articles on ‘Women in Wine’.
The opening up of the door happened for a variety of reasons that coincided with each other: first a generation change where the children, both boys and girls, of winemakers in the 60s and 70s who had grown up on the burgeoning new domains, naturally stepped up to the plate to take succeed their parents. There had been an egality of siblings in the vineyards and cellars so that naturally continued.
Secondly the internet has made information so much more accessible. Women can have direct access to wine merchants, restaurants, and wineries so they can enquire about job and study opportunities easily. There is a certain anonymity which makes the first steps into the business so much easier. No longer do women need to rely on the male-dominated senior members of the wine trade to gain access to their hallowed world.
Thirdly the opening of wine courses throughout the world, not only through universities agricultural colleges and technical schools but also through international wine courses such as the ubiquitous WSET has enabled young people to prepare themselves for the wine business before they launch themselves. Studying wine became an acceptable part of a woman’s secondary education. Below is an early image of the UC Davis in California’s Viticulture and Enology department after prohibition in the 1930s. Look at how resolutely male it was. By the 1980s, women were being admitted as peers to their male colleagues.
At the ISVV in Bordeaux, Professor Axel Marchal says that the number of women working towards their enology degree in Bordeaux is now higher than men (648 compared to 552 out of 1200 students) for the years 2012 to 2022. The rise of women students in many other subjects that were formerly seen as being reserved for men (Engineering, Biochemistry, Computer Programming for example) has given women confidence to hold their own.
There is now a duality, a yin and yang between men and women working together in the vineyards and the cellars. Both can bring different talents to the table and there is no pre-defined role between them. There is no longer a hierarchy, a condescendence between the sexes. In fact, those women who are making their names in the wine world – Mathilde Grivot in Vosne Romanée, Diana Snowden in Morey St. Denis and Napa and Claire Lurton in Pauillac (to name just a smattering) – are championing personal causes from biodynamics to biodiversity from climate change to gender equality, not even giving another thought to women’s role in wine. Quietly, efficiently and gradually, they have carved out places for themselves and as many of them told me as I talked about this piece, their hope as we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, is that there will be no more articles about Women in Wine in the future. Women have claimed the right to equity in the wine world.
Fiona Morrison MW is Managing Director of Thienpont Wine, an international wine merchant and négociant and with her husband, Jacques Thienpont, runs their three Bordeaux estates, Le Pin in Pomerol, L’IF in Saint Emilion and L’Hêtre in Castillon. She is the author of 10 Great Wine Families and has written essays for our Anthology Series (On California, On Champagne, On Bordeaux).