WOMEN WINEMAKERS ARE FINALLY MAKING SIGNIFICANT INROADS
March is Women’s History Month, so we’ve decided to feature women winemakers in the Monthly Amaro Wine Club. Again, similar to our February edition on wine made by couples (for previous Wine Club selections and literature, click here), we are focusing on the winemakers themselves in lieu of the winemaking, but of course we won’t ignore the winemaking component altogether.
Before highlighting the exceptional women winemakers who produce the three wines that comprise this month’s wine club, we will discuss the general topic of women in the wine industry. It probably comes as no surprise that women are sorely underrepresented, and equally unsurprising that this has nothing to do with inherent ability and professional skills and training. Although there are examples of women who have run wine estates as far back as a couple of centuries (Champagne houses are a particularly prominent example), there hasn’t been a meaningful influx of women into the wine industry until only a decade and a half decade ago. That said, inroads have been significant enough that there are now highly respected, seasoned women winemakers from whom we can hear meaningful anecdotes about the topic of women in the wine industry. In particular, we found the article in Wine Enthusiast, “Meet 10 Trailblazing Women Leading the Wine Industry Forward,” to be particularly informative as its 10 interviewees are from varied backgrounds and geographies.
Among the Wine Enthusiast interviews there was some predictable consensus, notably that there is still an uphill battle for women newcomers in an industry that has a longstanding fraternal network. Another theme was that women are hard pressed to be taken seriously in the physical part of the industry, that is, in the vineyard and in the cellar. As a result, women who succeed in this respect prove themselves by working long hours and doing extra physical labor. Also, again predictably, every one of these seasoned professionals still encounter situations in which buyers and other professionals in the industry on a first physical encounter assume that a male colleague or staff member nearby are the winemakers. On this note, it is not surprising that women are making much faster progress entering the non-viticultural side of the industry, as export managers, in communication and marketing departments, in quality control, etc.
Geographical differences also appear to be a thing. In the US, women appear to be entering the industry at a larger volume than their European and South American counterparts. Four out of the five of the American women interviewed in the article even mentioned noticing less difference in how they were treated in the cellar and vineyards among male counterparts who were at the same age, level of experience, and training as them, signalling a groundshift.
However, interestingly, this may be a regional phenomenon even in the US as those who reported this groundshift were winemakers in California, Oregon, and Washington, while the interviewee from Long Island, Kelly Urbanik Koch, of Macari Vineyards, noted that in the Eastern United States, it was still quite difficult to get a foot in the door as a woman, and that there was less of a percentage of woman winemakers in the east than even in other parts of the world.
It appears that American women also tend to enter a winemaking career through academic degrees and professional training programs more so than through family and/or inheriting an estate. Meanwhile, the interviewees from Europe who grew up on estates professed to be accepted more easily in winemaking networks than women in Europe who entered the industry through degrees and professional training. One interesting anecdote was telling; Elena Pozzoloni, of Tenuta Sette Cieli, earned a degree in viticulture and enology from the University of Pisa where she specialized in vineyard diseases. She found that teaching the “old men” in Italy best practices to avoid vineyard diseases was an impossible task as they were uninterested in accepting advice from a young woman. So Elena traveled the world and discovered more open-mindedness and less cultural rigidity before returning to Italy with a proven track record.
Andrea León, of Lapostolle Wines in Chile, gives yet another interesting geographical/cultural nuance. While also approaching winemaking academically, with a double major in economics and oenology and viticulture, she felt easily accepted working in vineyards in Chile as she was surrounded by other female laborers, and she even worked two harvests while pregnant. Instead, she felt the gender barricades on the trade side of the business where there was a macho South American social network culture that did not welcome women.
So what can we say about the difference between the actual wine that men and women produce? Among the 10 professionals interviewed in Wine Enthusiast, there were opinions that women tended to be detail-oriented, maybe more attuned to subtleties and nuances, and more aware of their surroundings and able to see a bigger picture, all of which relate more to the creative “gut” aspect of the winemaking process as opposed to the scientific process. But Kelly Koch and Elena Pozzolini both eloquently voiced opinions that more or less mirrored the consensus of the 10 interviewees:
Kelly: "winemaking is such an individual thing and that many differences can be attributed more to personality than gender.”
Elena: “I think women have a different approach, are perhaps more detail-oriented, but everyone has their own style that contributes to great, unique wines.”
ASLINA WINES – NTSIKI BIYELA
Ntsiki in a photograph in a New York Times article about her, entitled "South African Goes From Never a Sip to Vineyard Fame"
Ntsiki Biyela is South Africa’s first professional Black female winemaker. She grew up in Mahlabathini, a rural village in KwaZulu Natal on South Africa’s Eastern Cape with absolutely no exposure whatsoever to the wine industry. Ntsiki did not even drink wine. After finishing high school in 1996, she spent a year working as a domestic worker during which time she furiously applied for scholarships to continue her education on the university level to take advantage of the relatively recent end of apartheid to secure a professional career, an unheard of accomplishment for a black woman just a decade earlier. Many applications later, she was offered a scholarship, sponsored by South African Airways, to study winemaking. Although she knew nothing about the industry, she did not hesitate to take the offer as she had no financial means to pay for any type of degree program in higher education, and she was open to any avenue that would give her the possibility of entry into the professional world. Not only had she never tasted wine, but she did not speak Afrikaans, which is the language in which classes at the university were conducted.
Nevertheless, by pure force of will, she graduated in 2003 with a BSc in Agriculture (Viticulture and Oenology) at Stellenbosch University and joined a boutique winery, Stellekaya Wines, in 2004, where she found that she was a natural and that she loved the industry, working her way up to junior winemaker. In 2017, she founded her own brand, Aslina Wines, and today she is paying forward her incredible success, and improbable career in an industry that she didn’t even envision as a professional possibility, as a member of the Board of Directors of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy. The organization provides wine-industry training and development for young South Africans in the Cape Winelands. Ntsiki also employs the women in her village to make marketing materials for her, and she has plans to develop this business initiative further to increase the employment opportunities of Black women.
Ntsiki in her element
Featured Amaro Wine Club wine from Ntsiki: Aslina Chenin Blanc (Skin Contact)
VARIETALS: 100% Chenin Blanc
Ntsiki named her line of wines, Aslina, after her grandmother who she credits as being the largest inspiration in her life, teaching her to never stop trying to achieve, and to bring up people around her with her achievements. Amaro Spirits & Wine actually carries another label from Ntsiki that is a Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy Bordeaux blend that is called Umsasane, which is the nickname of her grandmother Aslina.
But back to the wine in your wine club box, the Chenin Blanc grapes were handpicked in February 2021, then crushed and left on their skins for a few days before being pressed and the juice fermented, after which it was racked and left in the tank, not to be bottled until October 2021. As a result, you are going to experience a white wine that is rich in character with a bit of tannin from the skins and aging.
FOOD PAIRINGS: Spicy Asian cuisine, heavier fish dishes, poultry, Mexican cuisine, baked ham, Peking duck, pork medallions
BENAZZOLI – CLAUDIA AND GIULIA BENAZZOLI
Giulia (left) and Claudia seven years ago, just six years into their venture.
Claudia and Giulia Benazzoli are sisters in a 4th generation family of winemakers. In 2009, they peeled off a slice of the family business for themselves in vineyards in the regions of Lombardy around the the shores of Lake Garda, including the appellation of Bardolino. They later expanded to nearby Veneto across the lake and the Valpolicella appellation. They envisioned their venture as an enterprise with a “female language,” a female sensibility, if you will. Their tagline is “Made by Women” (fatto da donne), with an emphasis on products that “speak” with a feminine tongue, with a combination of strength, gentleness, sensuality, and passion.
They started with three types of wine, a DOC Pinot Grigio di Venezia (white), a DOC Bardolino Chiaretto (rosé), and a DOC Bardolino red. All three are defined by label designs depicting imaginary women who are rendered by a local artist friend (Stefano Torregrossa – Onice Design), and each woman/label has a name and a personality to capture the essence of the wine: Agata (Pinot Grigio), Tecla (Chiaretto), and Dafne (Bardolino). They have since added six labels to their portfolio, including two DOCG Amarones.
Amaro Spirits & Wine had the pleasure of meeting one of the sisters, Claudia, in person, when she visited the United States, and better than that, she poured wine for an in-store customer tasting event of the sisters’ first three wines in April 2019. Depicted in the photo is Claudia outside the store next to our sandwich-board sign advertising her event, with Agata in hand.
Claudia Benazzoli in April 2019 next to the Amaro Spirits & Wine sandwich-board sign advertising her tasting event with the Agata in hand
"Dafne" is meant to depict young woman who wants to grow up but is afraid to lose her light-heartedness. She’s active, dynamic, determined, and full of joy
Featured Amaro Wine Club wine from Claudia and Giulia: “Dafne” Bardolino
VARIETALS: 80% Corvina, 20% Rondinella
The varietals in this wine from the sisters follow the classic blend of the Bardolino appellation in the region of Lombardy, Italy, which are also defining varietals in the Valpolicella appellation right across the lake in neighboring Veneto. The Benazzoli sisters characterize Dafne (see her depiction on the label in the photo during Claudia’s trip to NYC in April 2019) as a young woman who wants to grow up but is afraid to lose her light-heartedness. She’s active, dynamic, determined, and full of joy.
FOOD PAIRINGS: chicken dishes, turkey dishes, Bayonne ham, beef tataki, tuna steak, swordfish, salmon, pizza, young, light, and creamy cheeses, and lightly smoky cheeses, e.g., asiago, brie, port salut, feta, mozzarella, ricotta, provalone.
KITÁ WINES – TARA GOMEZ
Tara (right) with her wife Mireia Taribo
Tara Gomez is from the Santa Ynez Chumash tribe, on whose land in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, California she cultivates her vineyards. She is the first native American, let alone Native American woman, winemaker producing wine for a commercial market, and she is also a proud member of the LGBTQ community. Gomez’s tribe financed a college education for her at Fresno State during which she interned at Fess Parker Winery and after which she worked for J. Lohr, in Paso Robles, for nine years before returning home to her land to “pay it forward” by starting a vineyard and being its head winemaker. Although this wine is her and her tribe’s project, she also makes wine with her wife, Mireia Taribo, who was born in Catalonia, Spain.
Tara approaches winemaking from the point of view of science and a love of terrain and plants. She says that as a child she was fascinated with chemistry. Kitá means “our valley oak” in the tribe’s language of Samala. As part of her chemistry background, she is obsessed with what she can accomplish with aromas in the winemaking process. At the same time, she wants her wine to be made with minimal input, so the “chemistry” she employs is within the bounds of what the land, plants, fruit and yeast allow. As an example of how she balances land and chemistry, the estate controls rodents and insects with natural predators by constructing perch poles to attract hawks, and boxes to attract bats and owls. She also created a pomace-to-compost program where everything outside of the juice that is taken from the grape is returned to the land and incorporated back into the soil.
In 2021, Tara won “Winemaker of the Year” by VinePair and was named an advisor to the James Beard Foundation Legacy Network Foundation.
All this said, we have a bit of sad news. The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash tribe decided that it was halting production and closing down the winery and tasting room of Kitá Wines. The announcement came in February, so at the time that this newsletter is published, we do not have any additional news on why it is being closed, other than this official statement by the tribal chairman:
“The tribe, with a focus on diversifying our investment portfolio, has made the business decision to leave the wine industry at this time. Tara Gomez successfully produced award-winning wines while telling the story of our tribe to a new audience. We thank Tara for the years of dedication and hard work she poured into Kitá Wines, and we congratulate her on cementing her legacy as a top-flight Native American woman winemaker. Thank you to all of you who enjoyed and supported Kitá Wines throughout the years.”
However, as alluded to earlier, Gomez and her wife founded their own wine label, Camins 2 Dreams. The couple work with Gruner Veltliner and Syrah to produce red, white, and rosé wines, and they have a tasting room in Lompoc, the same town in which the Kitá tasting room was located.
Tara in the vineyards of Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, California
Featured Amaro Wine Club wine from Tara: Spe'y Camp 4 Vineyard
VARIETALS: 55% Grenache, 20% Carignan, 25% Syrah.
Spe'y means "Flower" in the native language Samala and reflects the elegance and a aroma of a wine that otherwise could easily be heavy handed given the rich varietals and long growing season of southern California. But Tara handles the fruit with a light hand and allows the components of the grapes that are outside of its juice to contribute ingeniously to the end product.
The grapes are destemmed and kept whole and 15% are fermented whole cluster. The wine then sits six months on its lees with weekly batonnage, and then 30% is aged in new French oak and 70% in neutral French oak for 2.5 years, and then an additional 9 months in the bottle before release.
FOOD PAIRINGS: grilled, stewed, and braised meats, game, cassoulet, spicy Asian dishes.