Our recipes and stories, delivered.

Can a Wine List Help Narrow the Gender Gap?

In spite of a legion of talented women winemakers, wine's gender inequality persists. Jon Bonné on how the wine list at Tartine's new outpost is working to quietly battle gender inequality, and why showing rather than telling may be the best way forward.

Nearly everything at the Manufactory, Tartine Bakery’s latest project in San Francisco, is designed to be noticed. The massive Heuft oven, for instance, purchased to further refine one of the world’s most desired loaves of bread. Or the custom Heath ceramics or the stark, wood-and-bone-white look from L.A. firm Commune.

Less obvious, and intentionally so, will be the intent behind the wine list, set to debut when dinner service begins next month. At least half of the 30-odd selections will be made by, or come from wineries co-owned by, women. But it won’t be mentioned anywhere, which is precisely the point. The list is meant to stand on its own, without comment—no different from Tartine Bakery doing away years ago with “organic” notations for its menu items.

It’s not uncommon today for a wine list to look through a particular prism: Natural-wine rosters are manifest, and in 2016 it’s even permissible to compose a selection almost entirely from two underdog grapes. Vinny Eng, Director of Operations for Tartine, has even done something similar before, building a beverage roster at Bar Tartine full of sour beers and Hungarian wines that became one of San Francisco’s best.

But a list that reflects gender balance? Other restaurants have attempted such things before, and some, like Chicago’s Cafe Spiaggia, opted for a similarly low-key approach. However, few food people have the sheer star power of Tartine owners Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson; whatever they do draws national attention. What’s more, the Manufactory’s location in San Francisco puts it at the doorstep of California wine country, a place still in need of a few good lessons on the topic.

The new wine program, which Eng assembled, is less overtly about “girl power” than an ongoing discussion between Prueitt and Eng about what you might call “normalization.” Even today, winemaking remains a profession largely dominated by men, which means that sommeliers—even leading female sommeliers—still select and sell wines mostly made by men. We see these kinds of gender shortfalls when it comes to industries like art and music, and most definitely Hollywood; wine is no exception.

“When we had this conversation not long ago about the wine list, I was mortified with myself that it was not even on my radar, the aspect of having female producers on there,” Prueitt tells me. “I couldn’t even believe my blind spot.”

As it turns out, the Manufactory is an ideal place to explore this imbalance. While restaurant kitchens still tend to be dominated by men, professional baking is a field increasingly populated by women. “Over 50 percent of my staff are female,” says Eng. “And it’s important to mirror those qualities in every aspect of the operation.”

So what does a gender-balanced list look like? In this case, Eng has chosen from a roster of generally exceptional winemakers: Californians like Mary ElkeRyme’s Megan Glaab and Wei Chi’s Erin Pooley; Champagnes from Chantale Bara of Bouzy’s Paul Bara and Marie-Noëlle Ledru; Rioja from Mercedes López de Heredia; Corsican wine from Camille-Anaïs Rauost at Domaine Maestracci. There’s Marie Thibault in the Loire, Anne-Sophie Dubois in Beaujolais and Heidi Schröck, who’s not only one of Austria’s most accomplished winemakers but who also runs the collective 11 Women and their Wine. They are joined by equally competent men, like Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard and Dominique Belluard in the Savoie. But as Eng puts it: “I’m not going to print them in pink. Because that means they’re still separate. In my mind, they’re not separate.”

A number of wines fall into a trickier category: husband-wife teams, including Pascal and Evelyne Clairet of the Jura’s Domaine de la Tournelle, and Johanna Jensen and Jack Roberts of Napa’s Keep Wines. Tricky because it can be hard, at times, to determine just whose hands are making the wine (versus managing the company and other important jobs). This, too, reflects one of Tartine’s realities: While Robertson and Prueitt have jointly contributed to Tartine’s current fame, Prueitt has also directed much of her energy over the past eight years to raising the couple’s daughter Archer. “When you have a child, there’s that part of visibility, or invisibility,” she says.

Just as third-wave feminists have the right to contemporary role models, shouldn’t the same hold true in winemaking?

As for California, while it’s otherwise a mostly progressive state, it still lags in developing a deep roster of female winemakers—at least of the sort with opportunities to make their own wines under their own names. I’ve had to admit, for several years now, that even the New California remains astonishingly dude-heavy. The gender gap is all the more stark because other aspects of the industry have made enormous progress—not just in California, but everywhere—with ever more women working as sommeliers and retail buyers. The entire business of selling wine today would largely fall apart if not for growing ranks of women marketers and executives.

But ultimately, wine is about growers and makers: the people who prune in the vineyard and crush grapes and rack barrels. And that work is still largely perceived, uncomfortably so, to be a man’s world. Or, as Glaab put it to me recently, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, ‘But, you don’t actually make the wine.’”

What is it about California that makes progress on this so difficult? I’ve been hearing theories for years: the tough economics of running a small business, for example, magnified by the challenge of raising a family. There’s also the fact that a very narrow rebel narrative drives much of modern California—not just winemaking, but tech and many other corners. And that “badass” mythology can be tricky when it comes to women winemakers (or engineers, or whatever). With full apologies to Halt and Catch Fire’s Cameron Howe, many women would prefer to focus on great work, rather than fighting the powers that be. And even if that narrative of rebellion isn’t invoked, it’s hard to talk about female winemakers without a dose of exceptionalism creeping into the conversation. Well-intentioned articles still often make a big, wide-eyed deal of the fact that women are making wine at all.

For that reason, it’s all the more important that Tartine’s approach is to avoid the exceptionalism. Yes, California has shortfalls to address, but the best solution may be to shine a light on the female winemakers doing great work as though it were the most normal thing ever.

Certainly, now is the time. A band of talented women has finally begun to capture the same sort of attention that male winemakers have long enjoyed. It includes current stars like Glaab, Napa’s Helen Keplinger and Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace. It also includes an increasing number of emerging talents making wine elsewhere—often as assistant winemakers or in similar roles, while developing their own projects, like Pooley (a harvest manager at Larkmead), Joanna Wells of Model Farm (Kutch), Jessica Boone of Lumia (winemaker at Passalacqua), Martha Stoumen of Elizia (Broc Cellars) and Jaimee Motley (Wind Gap), to name a few.

That they’re following the same career path their male counterparts have, working their way up at small wineries, is important. After all, California has for decades had talented women studying viticulture and enology, but often they’ve seemingly ended up making wine for hire for someone else, occasionally for smaller wineries but frequently for big ones, as with Jennifer Wall, the winemaker for Gallo’s massive Barefoot label. The few organizations that perform the much-needed task of encouraging women in the wine industry similarly display a bias toward big, corporate winemaking and sales. Still other successful women winemakers often found success by crafting either the sort of highly manipulated, offend-nobody wines that find little traction on today’s better wine lists, or wines made less in the mold of contemporary tastes than in the mold of the bro-ish cult wine era.

While those achievements have been important, they haven’t represented the cutting edge— which is where attention is paid. To draw a parallel to the tech world: It’s one thing to hire female engineers, quite another to have women founding and funding companies of their own.

This new wave is also crucial because, too often, the conversation about women making wine in California drifts back to names and achievements from 20 years ago—pioneers like Zelma Long or Cathy Corison or Geneviève Janssens, winemaking director at Robert Mondavi Winery, who began making Mondavi’s Opus One wines in 1989. Their contributions have been enormous, and it is hard to imagine how much thicker the glass ceiling was for them. But just as third-wave feminists have the right to contemporary role models, shouldn’t the same hold true in winemaking?

What’s even more puzzling is that, while California has lagged, the Old World seems to have done much better—even in France, where equality prevails amid a pervasive casual chauvinism (especially among natural-wine bros). In Burgundy, a current generation of female talent like Anne Gros, the Mugneret-Gibourg sisters and Cecile Tremblay has risen without much ado, perhaps made easier by the earlier ascendancy of Lalou Bize-Leroy and Anne-Claude Leflaive. No different in Alsace, where Catherine Riss tends her own steep vineyards (without part of her left arm, no less), or in the Loire, where you can find not just Thibault but Monique and Tessa Laroche of Savennieres’ Domaine aux Moines and dozens more. Or in Italy, where Elisabetta Foradori, Arianna Occhipinti and Maria Teresa Mascarello are a high troika of greatness. Or Schröck in Austria, and so on.

I’d argue that the Europeans got there by taking the nothing-to-see-here approach that Tartine has chosen—letting the world see the great results of hard work. It is also the approach followed by winemakers like Glaab, whose talent should have been evident to anyone paying attention for much of the past decade. Despite growing up in a household of balanced gender roles (her mother was an Air Force firefighter and, Glaab says, “the mechanic of our house”), she found herself in a world where actually proving that you could do the hard work wasn’t enough to overcome the bro culture of the cellar.

And so, after “the gazillionth time of coming across someone who was in complete disbelief” at her skills, Glaab (who runs Ryme with her husband Ryan) quietly launched @ladies_in_wine last month, an Instagram account meant to document the routine and unglamorous side of winemaking.

I figured she might have some thoughts on the real roots of California’s bias, and when we talked last week she offered an assessment that went beyond all the usual tropes of work-life balance, which in California usually revolve around the difficulty of simultaneously raising kids and growing a winery business. In her view, the bias is more nuanced and ingrained, whether it’s that there’s nearly “zero mentorship,” in her words, to something as intangible as the case that any aspiring female winemaker has to make during an interview that she can handle the physical tasks of the job—just the sort of argument that’s held back (though decreasingly so) women firefighters.

“You get judged right when you walk in the door: your size, your stature, how clean [your clothes are]. It’s a no-win situation,” she says. “I remember being stressed about what I was going to wear, which is not something Ryan ever had to worry about.”

Glaab had the good fortune to seek an apprenticeship with Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards, another pioneering winemaker—who, like Glaab, is petite and who faced similar questions about her ability to do the physical work. (Curiously, Prueitt discovered that her sister Caitlin, a distiller in Oregon, faced similar difficulties in the spirits world.)

That sort of institutional bias is hard to undo. It requires that people actually see women doing the work—hence Glaab’s project—until it all feels completely normal. And that’s why Tartine’s approach may ultimately be the smartest way to go about it. We all know women make wine well. To make it something exceptional ends up boxing in the very winemakers who’ve worked hard to prove that wine is no longer a man’s world.

Related Articles