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Women Who Shaped the History of Wine

Women have been marginalized from power ever since early wine history. Despite these barriers, women have been making a difference in the wine industry’s history ever since its inception. While progresses have been made in equity, inclusion, and the distribution of wealth over the past 100-years, there’s still much to do. It is possible to gain insight into the nature of systematic excluded and learn from strong-willed women who overcame all obstacles and set out a course for creating a more dynamic and equitable wine industry. This article will primarily focus on women involved in winemaking and wine company ownership. However, we must acknowledge the many contributions made by women across the industry.
While most countries involved in wine production enjoy equal legal treatment, there is still a deep-rooted gender hierarchy that keeps women from high-ranking business positions in the wine industry. According to the American Association of Wine Economists in California and Oregon, women own 5% of wineries and 3% of those in Washington State. This disparity is more pronounced for people of color. Washington State now has more than 1,000 bonded wineries. But only 2 are owned in Washington by Black Americans. Nicole Cotton Camp owns Lashelle Wines, while Shae Frichette is the owner of Frichette Winery, which she shares with Greg. Prior to recent reckonings on sexism, racism, there was an illusion among Westerners that the equity battle was won.

Historical Origins

A patriarchal society is successful when men control the bloodline. This determines inheritance and property owners in a trade-based economic system. Gerda Lerner is a historian and author of The Creation of Patriarchy. She believes that this type of societal structure can be traced back to the 12,000 year old beginning of agrarian societies. From around 3500 BCE onwards, Western societies began to document trade and formalize the succession of wealth. This led to a noticeable increase in patriarchal hierarchies. Patrick McGovern and his team at Pennsylvania State University have found that this was the time when wine trade began and that societies engaged in it moved throughout the Mediterranean.

Ironically, you can easily imagine that a woman may have been the first person to discover the mysterious abilities of wine to transform your mind and make wine. Paleolithic societies’ female members were often the gatherers. Therefore, we can easily imagine a woman collecting grapes and forgetting about them in her cave until later. Then, she would froth and bubble them again. Although it was frightening, this discovery can be seen as a reminder that Paleolithic humans were not quick to waste food. The ghastly liquid was consumed by her and she felt transported into a mysterious realm of the mind, where her worries vanished. Hugh Johnson, in his book The Story of Wine, describes how Johnson described it. She might have also felt she had contacted a diviner realm. This experience would have been shared with her cave-mates who would have wanted to replicate it repeatedly. They brought the magic of wine into the lives of others, refined wine production and created trade. This eventually led to connoisseurship.

McGovern has identified both the Caucasus Mountains, present-day Armenia, and the Zagros Mountains, present-day Iran, as being among the first places in which wine was produced. This is between 6,000 and 71,000 years ago. The Sumer Mesopotamian civilization is widely considered to be the first significant civilization in human history. Sumer had women as tavern keepers, which was an extremely important job. The world’s first recorded female ruler, Queen Kubaba from Sumer, lived around 5,000 year ago. She was very popular and is said to have reigned benevolently for over 100 years.

Rod Phillips, historian and wine scholar believes that the search for wine played a significant role in the development early settled societies in Western Europe. Whatever the truth of this theory, the impact of wine on politics and economics throughout Western history is undisputed. It is understandable that some people would prefer to keep the power, privilege and wealth wine provides. Wine has the power to banise our worries and generate wealth and stability via trade. Wine-making and wine trade were regulated in the early wine cultures. Rules proliferated. Rules were developed. In ancient Egypt, wine was more about class than sex. This is why women were both allowed to drink wine and take part in the wine trading. The elite of both sexes drank wine and the lower classes drank beer. The most detailed information on the Etruscans (the wine-growing culture that predated the Greeks of the Italian Peninsula) is derived from the accounts of the Greeks. But, if you examine the Etruscans’ art alongside these accounts, it becomes clear that men and women in Etruria may have had equal rights to all aspects, including property ownership and wine-consuming. Since the very beginning of wine, people have been trying to understand its power and who will get it.

As the wine industry expanded across the Mediterranean and gained economic prominence for empire building and expansion, it became increasingly important for men that they control inheritance and wealth. This also meant that women were subject to their sexuality. It seems that it was the Greeks who were the first to remove women from power. The Romans took the Greeks’ effective beliefs and models and built their empire around them.

However, women have never been allowed to make wine. For as long as humans have been documenting our world, the mythology and wine culture have created a link between wine’s transformational powers and femininity. Wine, which was previously ruled by multi-tasking goddesses of the land, gained a dedicated male god in the Greco Roman period. This Dionysus/Bacchus to the Greeks and Bacchus for the Romans. Dionysus/Bacchus were a gender-bender. He straddled the line of masculine and femininity, but in the end the wine god insidiously helped wine become fully men’s property. The Bacchae is Euripides’s tragic dramatization of this trickery. Euripides presents the story in Euripides’s The Bacchae. The piece acts as propaganda for women and presents them as an aberration and danger to society. Not by chance, Hestia the goddess of hearth gave up her position on Mount Olympus and was replaced by Dionysus. Hestia also lost the domains for fertility and the home to men. Only in the golden age and Rome was wine firmly in men’s sphere that women were allowed to drink again. In fact, all people drank by the heights of Rome’s influence, which resulted to the most lucrative wine trade the globe had ever seen. Men held the purse strings and made the majority of the profits.

The Rise of Powerful Women

The age before the advent of Christianity and Rome was overshadowed by feudalism and Christianity in Medieval Europe. With the ascendancy of a male God to the male line, priests and kings became the hierarchy and women became an extension of property. Rarely are their names listed other than those of their husbands or dads. In noble circles, girls were used as pawns to merge wealth and property by marrying. However, wine still has its place despite cultural limitations.

Eleanor, a woman whose life had the greatest impact on the world of wine–even vicariously- was Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor, possibly the most powerful and wealthy woman of the Middle Ages was married to Henry Plantagenet in 1152. Henry Plantagenet became the King after a short time. This union put nearly a quarter of France’s territories, including Bordeaux (the most important international port in the wine trade) under English rule. This caused a long-lasting feud between France and England that would impact many of the best wines of the world in fascinating and complex ways. British trade with Bordeaux was hampered by war and trade embargos. For example, the British sought to replace their beloved claret, which led to significant advances in Sherry trading and ultimately to the birth and development of Port.

Catherine de’ Medici is another example. She was 14. She is most well-known for her 16th century massacre of Huguenots. Her manipulative, cruel, and ruthless nature made her a notorious figure. Catherine’s rule could be attributed to many things, including the worlds of food and wine. Catherine is believed to have brought her entire cooking team to France from Italy when she arrived. France’s cuisine is greatly influenced by the presence of her chefs at court. They are known for their delicate sauces, and Italian cooking techniques. The French also believe she introduced the fork, which was a change from the way they used to slice meat in rustic ways with their knives.

It may also be that Cabernet Franc arrived at Barco Reale, Medici’s Tuscan hunting reserve. Barco Reale is today the home of Carmignano DOCG. The Carmignano DOCG was the first Italian appellation which required the use Cabernets. Cabernet Sauvignon was probably introduced to the region in the post-phylloxera era. However the existence of Cabernet Franc has been claimed by locals to be a result of its inclusion in the original appellation.

Women and Wine – Loopholes & Laws

Feudal Europe was inequitable not only for women. Although the French Revolution has been hailed for turning France around and encouraging the world to have a free, fair, equal society, this revolution only applied to males. The Napoleonic Code of 1805, the most advanced legal document in history, was based primarily on Roman codes. These codes gave men all authority over women. The Napoleonic Code was a great success. It ended feudalism and supported religious tolerance. It also standardized the legal system. But it made women invisible. It stripped them of their individual rights, tied them to their parents in every way, and even eliminated their rights to demand that they take responsibility for any illegitimate or abused children or sexual assault.

The Napoleonic Code had aspects that discriminated on the basis of sex. They were only changed in the second half the 20th century. It meant that women in France and other countries that used the code as their law base had to fight an unidentified enemy to make any progress until very recently. Inheritance law states that “property shall equally distribute amongst legitimate inheritors.” However, since women were designated as wards by either their father or husband in a separate portion of the Napoleonic Code only two avenues existed for business ownership or property ownership: widows and spinsters. These complicated rights of succession caused vineyard ownership to be fragmented, as seen in Burgundy. It also led to women being excluded almost entirely from the wine world.

Post-Napoleonic women could own property and run a business in wine through the loophole of being widowed. Since the dawning of European history the Champagne region has been at the forefront of every French-French war. BarbeNicole Ponsardin Clicquot, a woman who helped shape Champagne, discovered her chance to do so by perfecting the process known as riddling. This is the process that gradually turns Champagne bottles to allow for lees sediment to be moved into their necks for disgorgement. She is now commonly called Veuve (or “Widow”) Clicquot. This refers only to her relationship with a man that had no part in her accomplishments.

There were many other bubbly and active widows in Champagne. So much so, that the term “widow” became a common marketing symbol for the region. Lily Bollinger ran the Bollinger household for many years and is best known for her famous statement: “I drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I am sad.” Sometimes, I don’t drink it when I am alone. It’s an obligation when I have company. If I’m feeling hungry, I can indulge in it but I only drink it when I feel full. I never touch it unless I feel thirsty. Louise Pommery (also a widow) was relentless in her pursuit to quality and is credited for creating the first Brut Champagne.

Inheritance by the death of men was the most common way women got into positions of power within the wine industry up to the 1970s. Ellen Mary Stewart (for which Glen Ellen is named in Sonoma County) was forced to petition the courts in 1880 to be allowed to manage her winery after the death her husband. Isabelle Simi (generally considered to be the first female commercial winemaker) took control of her family’s winery in 1904. She was just 18 when her brother and father were both killed by a flu epidemic. She would navigate her winery successfully through Prohibition without ever having to shutter it.

It was difficult for a woman from color to make a living in America in the mid-1800s. Mary Ellen Pleasant, who had planted European varieties on her Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen was an entrepreneur and real estate mogul. Mary Ellen had the difficult task of hiding her identity. She was sometimes portrayed as a white woman or as a housekeeper. Mary Ellen was an advocate for abolition and helped many women survive the California Gold Rush. Even though most of the details are lost in history, the fact that European grapes were planted on her ranch makes Mary Ellen a pioneer in American viticulture.

In a system where women cannot inherit property, it was more pragmatic to groom women for management roles and other support roles in the winery. It is very rare to see women who learned winemaking from the fathers, or who were sent to school to study enology by their families. This has become more common over the past 20 years. Inheritance may be the best route for women to enter the winery and winemaking industry. Numerous famous and historic families in the world have daughters at the helm. Veronique Bourss-Drouhin, who is the winemaker in Maison Joseph Drouhin In Beaune in Oregon and Domaine Drouhin In Oregon), Saskia Prum (owner/winemaker in S.A. Prum) Elisabetta Foradori (winemaker in Azienda agricola Foradori n Trentino), Luisa Ponzi (of Ponzi Vineyards), Gina Gallo (partner/chief vinomaker at E. & Walt Wines), and Walt Wines (Walt Wines in Napa Valley) and Walt Wines (Walt Wines), and Walt Wines (Walt Wines in Sonoma Valley), Kathryn Walt Hall (proprietor Walt Wines), Kathryn Walt Wines (winemaker of Hall Wines to Sonoma Valley and Walt Wines), as well as well as Walt Wines in Sonoma Valley, Walt Wines), Kathryn Walt Wines (Wat Walt Wines), Hall Wines in Sonoma Valley), Hall Wines in Sonoma Valley). This is an important step in history that may seem a little unusual today.
Education has new paths

In the 1960s, women from other wine-making families pursued formal education to become winemakers. MaryAnn Graf (and Zelma Long, both of whom were tenured at Simi Winery), as well as Merry Edwards, who would go on and establish her nameake winery at the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County (which she also studied at the University of California Davis), were among the first women informally to study wine and food sciences. These women and others who were like them set the standard for women in winemaking, pursuing their passions and pursuing their dreams. Many women made winemaking a career in the 1970s, 1980s. Most of these women were either the only ones or among a small group of students in their school’s class.

The 1980s are only a pulse away from the present. But the idea of a woman setting up a winery was not something that had been considered when Cathy Corison set out to start her own winery in Napa Valley, California in 1987. Despite obtaining a master’s of enology degree from UC-Davis as well as holding high-ranking positions at Napa Valley’s Chappellet Winery and Chappellet Winery lead winemaker, many told her she wouldn’t succeed. Her influence and achievements are undeniable today. Kay Simon is another female leader that graduated with a degree of enology from UC-Davis. Kay was Chateau Ste’s assistant vintner. Michelle became the assistant winemaker at Chateauste in 1977. In 1983, she founded Chinook Winery in Yakima with her husband. Kay continues her role as a catalyst for other women to succeed in the American wine business through her inspiring wines as well her participation in scholarship initiatives and other philanthropy. These women winemakers, along with others like them, have made it possible for more women to choose winemaking and for the industry to be more inclusive and equitable for everyone.
Looking Forward

Since the beginning, patriarchy has subordinated women through laws and cultural systems that have kept them out of high-ranking positions and influential areas as well as from intellectual and creative communities. Women have had struggled against both the Western’s outer structure of exclusion as well as the Western’s inner biases.

Many of the legal barriers that had prevented women from participating in the wine industry are no longer there. However, systemic problems remain. It is possible for anyone to study wine, viniculture and winemaking. But it is still difficult to start a business or work as a winemaker. This relative freedom is only possible because of the partnership, collaboration and vigilance of people from all walks of life who have worked together to achieve greater equality and inclusion in the last 100 years. We still have much work to do before we can achieve an inclusive wine world. The urgency to push for this goal is unmatched.