A book review of “Women Winemakers: Personal Odysseys”

by  |  14-05-2020

We’re at a point in time, where anyone who pulls out the “Some women in wine!” listicle on International Women’s Day needs to be shamed. Actually I take that back, they need to be pilloried now that Lucia Albino Gilbert and her husband, John C. Gilbert have released a proper reference on this very subject. Their book, “Women Winemakers: Personal Odysseys” is a well-researched, detailed text that covers key women in various wine regions throughout the world by letting them speak directly with their own voices.

When it comes to tone, don’t be expecting an action-packed narrative tale about how various women all banded together, hijacked a the world’s basket presses, reprogrammed the bottling lines, and took out their oppressors. While I can envision this as the Hollywood version directed by Michael Bay (having grown up as a gymnast, Cathy Corison can surely lob a hand grenade accurately to 100m), the Gilberts have taken a much more mild-mannered approach and letting all the winemakers interviewed speak in the manner of a film documentary set to text.

The structure is overall laid out a bit like an academic research thesis wherein they provide the background on the initial women to start making wine. This has all been set in the second half of the 20th century given that before, it was just a male dominion. You can search around if you want to see some of the idiocy that was thought to happen to wine if women entered wine cellars.

They then follow up by how women in winemaking developed over the next decades by talking to women in several other countries outside the US (although California is the main region due to the origin of the project being a website focused there), including Catalunya’s Penedès (Marta Casas at Parès Balta) and Priorat (Daphne Glorian and my friend, Maria Sangenís.) And then they end by talking to women who came into winemaking during this period and ask them to contrast how it’s a very different situation than it used to be.

What was interesting is that in the early years, the women who went into winemaking, while maybe receiving disapproval from their parents for their career choice (hardly confined to winemaking or even to only women) seemed to just be regarded by their peers as, “Oh, a woman making wine. We just hadn’t really thought of it before but if you want to do it, sure, have at it.” This was undoubtedly aided by the redefinition of gender roles and gender equality in the workplace that started taking place in the 1960s–although, 60 years later, it’s clear there’s still massive work to do as seen in places like Georgia, but not only.

There are some nods to there being men who didn’t approve and who may have been outright hostile. But these pioneering women were able to pivot to work with those who didn’t have issues with their being women and were eventually able to form their own crews and mentor more women into the profession.

It was all quite interesting to read as I’ve been involved in wine at a time when encountering women winemakers is nothing but normal. Even fathers are now having their daughters take over family wineries, which was one of the largest hurdles to get over as it was always the son as the “inheritor” of everything.

Indeed, there still are a good number of organizations (especially in France) for “femmes du vin” but they now seem like they’re just there to support each other when needed as opposed to having to put up an active, continued fight for women to be in the cellar. At least that’s my impression and ideally hope.

All in all, it was quite interesting to hear from women who came of winemaking age during this period. As it’s just been in the last few decades, not only are these key women still alive, but many are still making wine so it was a perfect moment for the Gilberts to get firsthand accounts as a number of them start shifting into retirement and a new generation is taking their place.

I will admit that the text is a bit dry at moments as it’s structured more academically, which isn’t a coincidence as both the authors are professors and scholars. But, at 219 pages, it works very well to provide a base of information (including very useful charts and analysis) as opposed to the narrative kind of approach to the subject. But, if you want a book that documents this quite large shift in wine production over the last 50 years, I can think of no better source.

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Please also see the Complete List of Wine Book Reviews

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