Category Archives: Musings

What is it like being a woman in wine?

Before everyone cringes and has the “OMG we’re going over that dead horse again” reaction, just hear me out.

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to lead a red wine blending seminar at the Women for Winesense Grand Event in Geneva, NY.  We had a good time and I feel that the 17 people who attended got a sense of what we, as winemakers, go through on nearly a daily basis.  The stress of finding the right mix, the impatience and nervousness of waiting to see how a blend is received and for a few, the joy of triumph as their blends were selected as the top few.

After the blending seminar, our small group rejoined the rest of the conference goers for a lunch with a key note speech by Karen MacNeil.  Her talk focused on what it means to be a woman in the wine industry.  She made several interesting comments during the talk, many of which I agreed with and others that made me wonder if she was right.  One such topic including pointing out that women have yet to really reach parity with men at the top management of major companies.  While the facts are undeniable that men maintain the majority of senior leadership, I have to question if it is truly a failure of companies to recognize and promote women or if it is more ourselves as women shying away from roles beyond a certain level.  MacNeil also seemed to believe it was women holding ourselves back.

She also read a quote only referencing a well known woman winemaking consultant stating that that woman had found that the most successful women winemakers tended to dress more masculine, have short hair or hair pulled back, and adopted a “manly” attitude to better fit in.  The quote seemed to be saying that this particular woman felt that maintaining a womanly demeanor was instant career suicide in our industry.  Being a woman who likes to get dressed for the occasion whenever possible, I didn’t exactly agree with this concept.

This got me thinking about my time in the industry and what I have encountered.  I learned quickly during my time in Napa that at public events if I dressed up, particularly in heels, nearly everyone assumed I was either sales or marketing.  Therefore I adopted a habit to dress up from the waist up and jeans and vineyard boots from the waist down.  This look, while odd, got the point across to most people.  My husband even mentioned at one point “Why don’t you just dress like a winemaker?”  I laughed and  responded, “I am a winemaker. Therefore, however I dress is dressing like a winemaker!”

“Why don’t you just dress like a winemaker?”  I laughed and  responded, “I am a winemaker. Therefore, however I dress is dressing like a winemaker!”

I’ve had more than one occasion where I’ve been spoken over in a meeting, had my opinion dismissed, or been completely ignored.  I’ve even been told that I don’t know what I’m talking about from a male colleague and I’ve been told that my passion is dangerous by a female colleague.  I’m not sure either would have said the same to a man.  I was told by someone, after I had my son, to not bother sitting the MW exam that year due to the natural shrinking of a woman’s brain which occurs during and after pregnancy. I’ve also been mentored by some of the most generous people in the industry both male and female.  These people have given me advice on my career even if what was in my best interest would make their lives more difficult.  It is these mentors I hope I can become more like.  I strive everyday to be less like the former colleagues and more like the latter.

In the end, I’m not convinced it is a male vs female issue anymore.  I think it may be more those who are self confident vs those who feel threatened.  The lack of women in leadership may be because the women who would be most qualified are making a choice to maintain some level of work life balance.  It may be that those women who can have it all, are choosing to have it all by still being routinely home for a family dinner every night rather than storming the global business world.

I’m always trying to run the gambit of how things will be perceived to avoid labels of being “soft” or the dreaded “B” word.

So what is it like to be a woman in the wine industry?  I can only speak from the perspective of a winemaker.  It’s being aware that the clothes you wear project an image of who you are to people who don’t know you. Having to pick outfits with care balancing a desire to appear feminine with socially acceptable norms for winemakers wear, particularly for industry events.  Being in meetings waiting patiently for a moment to speak with the hope that you’ll have a voice when the time comes. Pouring wine for people, knowing full well that they had no idea you are the winemaker behind it, while mentally arguing with yourself about how pompous you would sound if you just said “I’m the winemaker.”  Always trying to run the gambit of how things will be perceived to avoid labels of being “soft” or the dreaded “B” word.  Just assuming that you’ll always end up making some one mad just by existing where ever you happen to be and trying not to take it too personally.

That is what it’s like being a woman in the wine industry today.

En Vogue: Misconceptions About Natural Wines

The subject of natural wines is a very subjective one.  Who defines what “natural” means?  One winemaker’s “natural” wine is another winemaker’s concocted swill all depending on where one stands on the strictness of what the definition of natural is.  While Organic and Biodynamic are easier to define due to their respective certification programs, they are still so misunderstood by the vast majority of consumers that there are completely misinformed beliefs being circulated by the general populace.  I have a passion for Biodynamic wine growing.  It is my dream to one day have my own Biodynamic vineyard because I truly believe there is something special in these types of wine. It is sad that most people don’t understand the differences between conventional, organic, and Biodynamic farming however, I was excited to see, over the holidays, that a mainstream publication, Vogue, decided to tackle this subject (Read the full story here).  I had hoped that the writer would have demonstrated a sound grasp of all three methods and could dispel some of the myths that are out there.  Unfortunately, it was yet again riddled with blatant misunderstandings and errors.   The title alone made me cringe.

No Chemicals: This Is the Most Natural Wine You Can Drink

No Chemicals.  Really?  Can someone please let the common man know that everything.  LITERALLY EVERYTHING is made up of chemicals.  Wine is no exception and is generally made up of the following CHEMICALS.

85% Dihydrogen Monoxide (That is water for the folks who missed the class in High School chemistry on chemical naming)

13% Ethanol (or the alcohol part of the drink)

1% Glycerol ( A sugar alcohol compound that adds viscosity and mouthfeel)

0.4% Organic Acids (Tartaric, Malic, Lactic, Citric, Succinic, etc..)

0.1% Tannins and Phenolic Compounds ( Color, Texture, Mouthfeel)

0.5% Other Chemicals

The great infographic was found at Compound Interest and they dive much further into this topic for red wines if you really want to geek out.  I think their estimation of the average alcohol is probably a little low hence the changes to my list above.

Assuming I give the article the benefit of the doubt about the Chemical issue…

(because after all, those of us who know wine, know this person was referring to the 3 classes of chemicals that fall into Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fungicides), the second sentence made me groan.

“Composting instead of using pesticides?”

These two actions are not interchangeable or on an either/or type of set up.  Composting is the process of turning organic waste and other natural matter into nutrient and beneficial, microbially rich soil amendments.  Using Pesticides is the process of using a chemical to kill a desired pest or range of pest.  You can do both or neither but they are not directly connected.  The author may be referring to the Biodynamic preparations which DO need to be put through the process of composting in various containers (cow’s horns, stag’s bladders, farm animal skulls, etc.) using different herbs or ingredients for at least one season before they can be added to a spray to either be applied to the soil or directly to the vine.  It should be noted that elemental sulpur (a Chemical) is used as a fungicide and is allowed in Organic, Biodynamic, and conventional viticulture.  Hopefully this clears up the misunderstanding of the second sentence of the article.  Reading on…

“Fermenting with native yeasts? Such practices were the domain of eccentrics and hippies.”

AND everyone prior to 1857 when Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast were actually what was fermenting the wine.  Personally, I love a good native ferment, however you have to have extremely clean and healthy fruit to have it go well.  Not everyone is blessed with such great fruit particularly at the value or premium end of the wine market.  Usually the “native” yeasts used today in most wineries are some form of a cultured yeast that was released into the microflora before the winery decided to start doing “native” ferments.  Of course that also doesn’t take into account that a wide number of popular strains of cultured yeasts were just native yeasts that were identified for particularly good characteristics and produced for everyone to purchase.

“The philosophy behind this grassroots winemaking movement is to let Mother Nature do most of the work in the vineyard and to intervene as little as possible in the cellar. In other words: no chemicals on the grapes and as few additives as possible in the bottle.”

Trust me.  Viticulture is working with Mother Nature but she doesn’t do jack when it comes to working in the vineyard beyond blessing a grower with good weather or bad.  Biodynamic and Organic wine growers work HARD.  These growers have to be constantly vigilant looking for problems.  They have to walk they rows everyday to assess vineyard health. The effort it takes to keep up with a lunar calendar, alone, is not for the faint of heart.  If we left it up to Mother Nature, the vines would be climbing trees instead of trellises and the birds would make off with whatever fruit the vines were able to produce.  The very fact that we have decided to train a vine takes it out of the realm of natural and into human intervention.  The sentence in the article sounds great but it does make it sound like these types of wine just make themselves.

Then I got to these two sentences and it made me want to hurl my phone across the room…

“Modern winemaking relies on ingredients like commercial yeasts and enzymes to ferment the wine, as well as additives to deepen its color, enrich its texture, boost its acidity, and sweeten its taste. What’s more, pesticides and herbicides have become commonplace in the vineyard. Many vintners spray their grapes not only to kill pests and disease, but as a routine preventative measure even when nothing at all is wrong with them.”

Chemicals are the second highest cost in vineyard management next to labor.  No one in their right mind, conventional, organic, or biodynamic just sprays the vineyard because nothing is wrong with it.  Generally the spray is because an infection has been spotted or because a crazy storm is coming and you know if you don’t spray you will lose your entire crop to mildew.  Yes, it is preventative in most cases because if you wait until something is wrong, you are too late and the quality of wine will suffer.

The article goes on to quote Catherine Papon-Nouvel of Clos Saint-Julien in Bordeaux, Elisabeth Saladin in the Rhône valley, and Thiébault Huber, in Burgundy who all explain their rationale for their preferred growing methods quite beautifully.  Their passion is clear, as are most growers and winemakers who follow these strict methods of making wine.  It was a moment of great joy for me to read after the initial misconceptions in the article.

Then we delve back into the rest of the article.

“Natural wines can be funky,” says Caleb Ganzer, head sommelier at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, the New York outpost of a Paris bar. As in: earthy, floral, redolent of mushrooms. “They can be briny or tart. Sometimes they’re fizzy. Unfiltered wines can be cloudy. Or they can taste just like conventional wines. You’ve probably had one without knowing it.”

This is my main problem with “natural” wines.  It’s the thought of the end consumers that they have to accept flaws in the wine because they were made naturally.  Well made Natural Wine should taste as good or better than conventionally made wine. Otherwise it is just flawed and it was the winemaker’s choice to let it be flawed.

I appreciate a strong philosophy but when philosophy becomes Dogma and it leads to a drop in quality then what’s the point of your philosophy.

There.  I’ll get off my soapbox now.

If you want to read a great article about Organic and Biodynamic wines please click here for Winerist.com’s comprehensive descriptions.

Last Minute Gift Ideas for the Wine Inclined

I have a confession to make.  I do not have my Christmas shopping finished yet and here it is, only 4 days left until the big day and I’m running out of time.  Unfortunately, the people I still have to buy for are not wine inclined so this list will not help me but maybe it will help you with those who are on your list.  If you haven’t read last year’s Dos and Do nots of gift giving for wine lovers, that is a great place to start.

Luxurious Tea and Coffee

Whenever you have winelovers, generally you have foodies; people who love tastes and flavors.  Let’s face it, most of us drink something besides wine during the day.  Splurging on very high end tea or coffee is a great way to show the winelover in your life that you care about their tasting experiences.  Some of my favorites (and my husband’s favorites since I don’t drink coffee) are below.

The Splurge-   Bi Tan Piao Xue Tea –  I fell in love with this blend of green tea and Jasmine flowers in China.  It is so amazing and delicate with a heady Jasmine nose. 

The Lovely – Lord Bergamot  – Bergamot is one of my favorite flavors and this avant garde take on Earl Grey Tea is a must try.

The Budget-  Stash Christmas Teas -These are relatively new to me but I have fallen in love with both the Christmas in Paris blend and the White Christmas blend.  Perfect for stocking stuffers!

The Splurge – JBC Coffee Roasters –  If you are going to splurge on coffee, this Wisconsin roaster took the title of making the best coffee of 2015 from CoffeeReview.com.  While the current champion is out of stock it will be back in January according to the website.

The Lovely – Finger Lakes Coffee Roasters – This local (to us) coffee roaster has become one of our house favorites since moving back. With a wide selection, they have something for everyone (who drinks coffee of course!).

The Budget – Starbuck’s Christmas Blend –  This is an all time favorite and one which I tend to give as a gift around Christmas time.

Wine Related Jewelry and Accessories

I’m not talking the crazy wine glass earrings or the purse made out of wine corks but very nice, reasonably priced accessories which have a “colored” past.

Olive and Poppy – This is a great online boutique run by a friend of mine which was DSC00336.JPGrecently listed on Martha Stewart’s hostess gift list with their cuff links made from barrels.  From the recycled wine barrel bracelets to the fun “Terroir” themed necklaces, they have everything a wine lover could wish for.

Dessin Creations – Here is another fun jewelry artist making really nice necklaces and bracelets out of wine bottles.

Cigar Aficionado

There is a very close relation among wine loving men to cigar loving men and often they overlap.  Here are two of my favorite gift suggestions* for the cigar lover.

The Splurge – The Emperador by Imperiali Geneve – This caught my attention immediately with their stunning movie (which if you are trying to market any luxury good you should watch because epic doesn’t even begin to cover it). This is the result of Swiss watch designers deciding to make the most amazing cigar box the world has ever seen.  I’ll have to leave it up to the cigar lovers to determine if it lives up to the video.

The Budget – Lotus Jaws Cigar Cutter –  This highly reviewed cigar cutter boasts large sized finger holes as well as a serrated blade to cut cleanly and smoothly.

The Hostess

After all, we cannot forget the men and women who make the holidays possible right?  We will be hosting 9 people total at my house with all our family plus ourselves.  Some simple host/ess gifts make the holidays a little bit brighter and easier.

The Splurge – Classic Silver Plated Serving tray from G&G Mercantile.  Because everyone eventually needs to serve more than three drinks at a time and it is so much more elegant to serve it from a tray.  Looking for a little less of a splurge but still a splurge? Check out their Copper Julep Cup.  

The Lovely – This simple olive dish makes a great addition to any host/ess kitchen and solves the problem of where to put the pits and can double as a small chip and dip bowl.  Another alternative is this attractive olive wood salt box.

The Budget – Cheese knives are something that the host/ess cannot live with out.  This simple set makes a nice gift if they do not already have one.  Another great cheese accessory is the cheese marker. These from Crate and Barrel are simple and elegant.

There you have it! Hopefully you have some good ideas and can go forth over the next 4 days confident that you can find something for every wine lover on your list!

*To be clear, I don’t smoke nor do I condone smoking.