Women Winemakers Uncork Their Experiences

April 2, 2008

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Get a group of women together for a panel, and it’s bound to be a chatty time.

Get a group of women together for a panel — along with 10 different wines to taste — and a good time is guaranteed for all.

Such was the case at the “Women in Wine” seminar at last weekend’s first annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine event. Winemakers Carissa Chappellet of Chappellet Winery, Pamela Starr of Crocker & Starr, Celia Masyczek of Corra and Hollywood & Vine, Stephanie Putnam of Far Niente Winery, and Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards shared their passions and experiences breaking into what had long been a man’s world.

Starr had planned to go to dental school. Wong once wanted to be a cheesemaker. But like the rest of the women on the panel, they found themselves drawn to winemaking.

As Starr said, “I found I really liked transforming fresh fruit into something transcendent.”

Most of them started working in winery cellars, an often back-breaking position that required them to prove their physical might by dragging 100-pound water hoses, or shoveling out huge tanks.

At the first winery she worked at, Masyczek found herself the only woman in the cellar. “It was very physical. The barrels were heavy. Most tasks were two-person jobs, and nobody ever wanted to be my partner because they were afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold up my share of the work.”

Finally, she found a novel way to win over her male counterparts.

“I started reading the sports pages every morning,” she said with a laugh. “Even though I wasn’t into sports, I could talk to them about who scored in what game. That’s what finally broke the ice to be a member of an all-male team.”

Do they ever think that wine reviewers — which some industry insiders still consider an old boy’s network — overlook wines made by women?

Starr said she sometimes does a double-take when she sees the scores for some wines that she knows are far better than what they were ranked. “Numbers can be helpful as guides,” she said. “But sometimes they do a disservice. And sometimes it does make you think that men are more comfortable with other men.”

Still, Wong believes there is a benefit to being a woman in a world where so many big-name male winemakers try to tailor their wines specifically to the palates of influential male wine reviewers.

“I think women have more freedom to make different wines,” she said, “because they’re outsiders already.”

So do women in general make a different style of wine than men?

None on the panel thought so. “It’s easy to generalize that women make softer wines,” said Emily Wines, a Master Sommelier at the Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco and a moderator on the panel. “But that’s not true. We could easily do a seminar featuring many powerful wines made by women.”

Still, those in the audience agreed the wines tasted that day all shared a certain elegance and finesse. Just like the women themselves.

Here were the wines tasted:

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