Although wine making dates back 8,000 years, over the centuries, progress has been made in grape growing, vineyard management and wine making. But, the one thing that has remained static is the position of women in the wine industry. History shows a male dominated wine industry where the role of women was traditionally relegated to behind the scenes, such as caring for the family, marketing the wines or working in the lab.
In the US, half of the graduates in California’s top enology programs are women and we see more women winemakers owning and running wineries today. However, regardless of this, according to Wines Vines DATA, women hold the lead winemaker position at less than 10% of the California wineries polled. If this is the situation in the US where there is gender equality, what is the situation in the “Old World” of Europe, and specifically French wine production, where culture and family traditions still abound?
On a recent trip to France, while traveling to the Loire Valley and Bordeaux, I did not expect to see women in lead roles at the wineries. I thought that I would meet women who were responsible for the marketing and would take us on the tours. Or perhaps, we would meet the daughter of the family winery who would tell us how she runs the marketing, while her brother is the winemaker. I was pleasantly surprised to meet four female winemakers during my travels that are at the helm of their wineries. Whether through inheritance, marriage, or studies, these hardworking women with a drive to succeed are making strides in the wine industry, and more importantly, creating delicious wines.
First Stop: Loire Valley
Juliet Monmousseau, Bouvet-Ladubay, Samur (Loire Valley)
Bouvet-Ladubay is a sparkling wine house in the Loire Valley that began in 1851. While Bouvet was acquired in 2006 by the world’s largest group of alcoholic beverages, the UB Group, based in India, the day to day management is still controlled by the Monmousseau family, who purchased Bouvet in 1933.
Juliet Monmousseau is the family’s fourth generation working at the winery. Initially, Juliet didn’t intend to go into the family business. After studying design, she worked in film distribution in Paris, and then as an independent publicist. Six years ago, she decided to return to the family business, currently working under her father, Patrice Monmousseau. Juliet holds the position of Deputy Managing Director, overseeing the publicity, press relations, and export markets around the world. With a background in art and film, she marries these worlds with wine by organizing Bouvet-Ladubay’s participation in many film events, including the Cannes Film Festival, as well as oversees the Bouvet-Ladubay Art Concept, a center for contemporary art that they created.
Juliet’s father, Patrice, is the Chairman and Managing Director for the brand, and continues to oversee the blending the wines. He learned this from his father and has continued the tradition by teaching Juliet how to taste and trust her palate. Currently they work side by side when blending the wines, however, when he decides to retire, she is prepared to continue the family tradition.
Wendy Paille, Domaine Pithon-Paille (Loire Valley)
Originally from South Africa, Wendy Paille spent years working as a sommelier, before she took the leap to become a woman winemaker. Later, she moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to be near her sister and worked in a local wine bar. Wendy eventually took a General Manager position at a local winery where she met Joseph Paille, who was interning there for 18 months. They fell in love, and she returned with him to France where they began their own winery.
Over the five years that Wendy has spent in the Loire Valley, she has worked diligently to be accepted, not just as a foreigner to the area, but also as a woman in the vineyards. Living in a small town, being accepted by locals is important, and at first, they were a little leary.
Here was a tall, blonde, South African who happily got her hands dirty working in the vineyards-not a typical role for women. The woman’s role was typically to be the backbone of the family, supporting the men, like Wendy’s mother-in-law. But Wendy prefers the physicality of working in the vineyard. And, she noted that in France, she does far more manual labor compared to South Africa and America, where day workers are hired to help during harvest. But, this laborious work is what she loves. “If I was doing another job this hard and didn’t have a glass of wine at the end of the day, I’d change jobs.”
Gwénaëlle Croix, Domaine de la Pepiere (Loire Valley)
Gwénaëlle Croix joined the team in 2014 and is the newest member at Domaine de la Peperier which was started by Marc Olivier in 1984. After working in the food industry, Gwénaëlle was looking to connect with the earth and making wine was the answer. In partnership with Marc and Rémi Branger, who became a partner in 2011, the three winemakers have varied experiences and are diverse ages but came together to collaborate and make wines that are organically farmed and that represent the terroir of the area.
Next Stop: Bordeaux
As we traveled from Loire Valley to Bordeaux, I wondered if we would meet any female winemakers on our next stops. Similar to the US, at the University of Bordeaux, 40% of the students passing the enology course have been women. Nevertheless, most have ended up in labs and sales positions due to pre-conceptions that women do not have the physical strength and mental stamina to work in the vineyards and winery. But, even though most of the female students don’t end up making wine, a few of them do. In fact, some of the Top 100 wines in the world are created by women winemakers, including Phillipine de Rothschild of Mouton Rothschild, Sandrine Garbay of Chateau d’Yquem, May de Lencquesaing of Chateau Pichon-Lalande and Corrine Mentzelopoulos of Chateau Margaux. And, on our final day in Bordeaux, we met another female producer, the first woman winemaker in Bordeaux who had not been born into the business.
Valerie Vialard, Chateau LaTour Martillac (Bordeaux)
Valerie Vialard has been the winemaker at Chateau LaTour Martillac for 25 years. Originally from Graves, Valerie does not come from a wine family. She grew up riding her bicycle through the vineyards, and enjoyed tasting and smelling the aromas of the area. After high school, she wanted to work with perfume, but enjoyed chemistry and biology, and chose to study enology at the University of Bordeaux. After receiving her diploma, Valerie explained that it was challenging to find a job, so she went back to school to study sales, marketing and communications. Winemaker Denis Dubourdieu, a professor of oenology at University of Bordeaux, knew her talent, and called her one day to ask if she wanted to actually make wine, or if she wanted to work in marketing. Her desire was to make wine so she interned at a couple wineries in 1988 and 1989. In 1990, she joined Chateau LaTour Martillac as the winemaker.
Valerie described how other Chateau owners questioned the hiring of a woman, and claimed she would have babies and would not be able to handle the workload. However, over the last 25 years, Valerie has proved the naysayers wrong. She has not missed one harvest, and managed to have two children in the process, all while making high-scoring, well-regarded wines.
These women winemakers are just some of a growing number of women making headway in the French wine industry. While many barriers have been broken down and progress has been made, I look forward to the day that we won’t have to search so hard to find female winemakers around the world.