Where Are All the “Rebel” Women Winemakers?

Despite strides made in greater numbers of women working as winemakers—many of whom are leading the conversation in their respective regions—the faces of wine’s fringe and counter-culture movements have remained disproportionately male. Are things (finally) changing?

women rebel winemakers illustration

For those who follow wine media, it can sometimes feel as though there are only a few story types. One of the most seductive frameworks? That of the outsider, or “bad boy,” who has come to disrupt the boring wine world. Wine writers love this conceit—the lone wolves, the Davids come to slay Goliath—because it makes for compelling storytelling.

As wine writer Jon Bonné—who chronicled the new California wine scene in his 2013 book—wrote in an email, these “bad boys” seem to come in two main archetypes: “The ones who are interested in cultural shakeup,” he says, “and the ones who see it as a smart posturing move that the marketing department would approve of.”

But given the Team Blazer and Khakis attitude that permeates wine culture, it doesn’t take much to earn the title—nearly anything greater than one standard deviation from the status quo is enough to fall into transgressive territory. Bordeaux winemakers Jean-Luc Thunevin and Bernard Magrez earned rebel status the 1990s when they made wine from outside the establishment’s terroir; California’s Fred Franzia was knighted as such for finding financial success with Two Buck Chuck. And still other men have been described as “bad boys” or “rebels” for being “honest,” “shrewd” or, simply, “denim-wearing.”

What “bad boys” are, it would seem, is anti-establishment and outspoken—often leveraging their outsider status to noisily carve a niche in the commercial market.

What they aren’t, traditionally, is women.

Despite the existence of pioneering, rule-breaking women winemakers, they rarely get described as rebellious. And while the bad boy era of wine seems to have quietly petered out—perhaps paralleling similar narratives in the literary, music and art worlds—new counter-culture wine movements (natural wine, New California) have taken up the anti-establishment mantle.

And yet still, even with a more nuanced definition of “rebel,” very few of the celebrated winemakers in these scenes have been women. So, why are there so few “rebel” women winemakers? Or, perhaps the question should be: Why aren’t we hearing about them?

One answer to this question may be the most obvious: There just aren’t that many women winemakers overall. Only around 10 percent of the winemakers in California and Oregon are female. And once we get into the statistics for anti-establishment winemakers, that 10 percent figure begins to look like a high-water mark. The 2016 In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) roster of 26 wineries features just two wineries with head female winemakers. (Raw Fair, an exhibition of natural wines in Europe, fares better—partly because the roles in family wineries tend to be less delineated—with around one-third of their 150 producers listing a female vintner.)

This isn’t to say that women aren’t involved in the wines represented at these events or wineries. If we expand the search criteria beyond the role of the winemaker to include assistant winemakers, vineyard managers and those on the sales or business side of the operation, the numbers begin to look better. (And perhaps too much significance is placed on the specific role of the head winemaker in general—it takes a team to make a successful brand—but that doesn’t explain away the disparity of gender in the head winemaker role itself.)

Given women’s outsider status when it comes to winemaking, it’s odd that where women winemakers seem to have found high-profile notoriety—at least in the U.S.—are in places that feel anything but rebellious. A generation of women have found success by playing to the rules of the establishment. Large commercial wine producers like Beringer, Cakebread and Domaine Carneros, among many others, all have longtime female winemakers. Heidi Peterson Barrett stewarded upstart Screaming Eagle into an establishment favorite. Helen Turley and Helen Keplinger, two celebrated California women winemakers, both have won many accolades and high scores from big wine media. (There are a number of examples outside the U.S.—Susana Balbo for one—of this kind of commercial success as well.)

All of these women are rebels in their own right for making inroads in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Perhaps part of the problem is that we aren’t all that far away from the moment in which these women broke through. For a long time the rebel narrative for women hinged on belonging—in order to disrupt the status quo, you first have to get in the building.

The cultures that have sprung up around consumption of these types of wine—the glossy-mag-reading collectors, the bro’d-out young gun sommeliers—reinforce these narratives by recommending wines and winemakers who look like themselves, or who they want to be. When we don’t allow women winemakers to access that rebel narrative, we’re cutting off a potentially lucrative market for them.

Rebel status, it turns out, may also be a problem of perception. While other women of that wave of female winemakers have ended up quietly disrupting the wine landscape, such as Lalou Bize Leroy in Burgundy and Cathy Corison in Napa, they don’t tend to get classified as rebels.

The same is true of a new generation of young women who have emerged as thought leaders in their respective regions—Arianna Occhipinti in Vittoria, Angela Osborne in the Santa Barbara Highlands, Elisabetta Foradori in Trentino, among others. They too tend not to attract the same sort of rebel narrative that their male counterparts do.

Rachael Lowe, sommelier of Chicago’s Spiaggia, who created an nearly all-women wine list for Café Spiaggia, says that up-and-coming, anti-establishment women winemakers may have trouble attracting press attention not only because their production levels are low, but because many don’t display the showmanship that men helming similar projects tend to. “I think women’s personalities can be whatever they want; however, many choose not to act this way outwardly still,” says Lowe, noting that many women don’t adopt “the ‘who gives a fuck’ [quality] that certain men have.”

Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier of Rouge Tomate, agrees, cautioning that the way that many women express their passion or off-the-beaten path ideas is likely more subtle than their male counterparts, making them harder to recognize. Citing winemakers such as Occhipinti, Foradori and Burgundy’s Fanny Sabre, she says, “They are leading their revolution and independence in what seems to me a more discreet yet as subversive way.”

One reason it’s worth teasing out our reluctance to allow or encourage women into the rebel camps—aside from rooting for parity—is that becoming a self-styled rebel has historically been an incredibly effective sales tool for men. To go back to consumer theory 101, when we buy wine, we don’t just buy it for taste—we buy it because we like to think that it tells us a story about ourselves. Expensive and rare wine—the expense account wines that lay in dark cellars awaiting bait-and-capture from the big whales—tells us that we’re masters of the universe. Virtuous wine—the organic, fair-trade, made by small-farmer wines—tells us that we’re responsible and good. Anti-establishment wine—bottles made by disruptors, the rock ‘n roll, red-pill-in-the-Matrix wines—tells us that we’re smarter than the rest of the consumers who get suckered by flashy scores and faux chateaux.

The cultures that have sprung up around consumption of these types of wine—the glossy-mag-reading collectors, the bro’d-out young gun sommeliers—reinforce these narratives by recommending wines and winemakers who look like themselves, or who they want to be. (Just one such example of this type of thinking: In a recent roundup of recommended natural wines from “forward-thinking restaurants,” only one woman winemaker made the list, and she was chosen by a female sommelier.) When we don’t allow women winemakers to access that rebel narrative, we’re cutting off a potentially lucrative market for them.

But we might be at some sort of tipping point, at least in terms of visibility of rebel women winemakers in the media. In the last year, notable profiles of Osborne (Wine Enthusiast), Oregon’s Brianne Day (Eater.com) and Leah Jørgensen (San Francisco Chronicle), as well as Vermont’s Diedre Heekin (New York Times), all appeared in high-profile publications. And Occhipinti, a longtime media favorite, was included in a roundup of rebel winemakers for GQ.

What is interesting about this crop of winemakers is how different “rebel” looks when it’s worn by a woman. Talk of uplifting community or bringing a spotlight to up-and-coming grapes and regions is common, as well as an intense focus on their own projects rather than attempts to fit themselves into a larger, more epic narrative—a sense of being not so much anti-establishment as not-of-the-establishment.

That’s why it may be more important to recognize that “rebel” can come in different shades, and, even with the increased press attention on upstart women winemakers, that there are still other hurdles ahead. Angela Osborne notes that she tends to get put into the “earth mother, yogi, shanti-shanti camp” compared to the “anti-establishment punky” scene that men with similar projects get filed under, which, she says, “is hilarious considering how diametrically opposed those two images are.” And that Occhipinti profile in GQ focused less on her winemaking prowess and unique projects and more on her “irresistible” looks.

In some ways it makes sense that progress moves at a glacial pace in the wine world: Wine’s timeline is measured in annual harvests and vintages; the turnover for winemaking jobs is slow. But perhaps we’re finally moving into an era in which we’ll be able to run stories on different types of women winemakers rather than just calling out women winemakers in general, or note that “rebelliousness” can take the shape of quiet subversion. And for these young rebel women winemakers, and the generation to follow, that time surely can’t come soon enough.

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FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • Randy Caparoso

    Interesting piece, but here’s my take: it’s not a question of “where are the women ‘rebel’ winemakers?” It’s “where are the writers (print, book industry, blogosphere, etc.) in their coverage of the numerous extraordinarily talented women growing and crafting wine all these years?”

    Why, for instance, do you not see very little written on Angela Osborne and her laudable devotion to the Grenache grape? Helen Keplinger labored in shadows for years before finally getting recognition — but what about longtime craftsmen like Pamela Starr, Julie Johnson, Mia Klein, Sabrina Rodems, Lynn Penner-Ash, Jillian Johnson, and on and on? When do they get their cover-of-the-Rolling-Stone moment?

    That is to say: there are numerous, powerful, brilliant, ground breaking winemakers out there who happen to be women, but tend to be overlooked for whatever reason. A lot of it is because by nature they aren’t as flashy as many of their male counterparts, or because they don’t make “big” or “out-there” wines (a lot of writers tend to confuse weirdness with “cutting edge”). And of course, this is not to say that their work deserves more attention than that of their male counterparts. But many of them they do deserve their due.

    If you look at a lot of what many of these women do, they are, in their own fashion, quite the “rebels.” You have to be, when you’re successful at a job that requires you to be twice as good as men in order to just get there.

  • Marcus Goodfellow

    No offense but I love Kelley Fox’s beautiful Oregon Pinot Noir. She’s a peer and I don’t spend time worrying about whether she’s a rebel or that she’s a female winemaker. Pinot Noir is a very difficult grape and her wines are great, which is what matters to me. Maybe, just maybe…women like Kelly don’t go rebel because they don’t need to. I like to think that here in Oregon, they’re in an industry that just appreciates good work and one in which there is no doubt that women are every bit as capable and talented as men.

  • hi! the link to the Eater round-up of natural wine restaurants is not working, fyi. fantastic piece (I replied on my blog, rachelsigner.com, since you linked to two of my articles).

  • Susan E. Ulbrich

    My two Italian favorite female Italians are Dora Forsoni (Sanguineto) and Giovanna Tiezzi (Pacina). You can watch them in action in the new Nositer documentary, Senza Trucco.

  • Susan E. Ulbrich

    And how about Isabelle Legeron?? She’s a goddess!