Women in Wine: A Story of Resilience

A tenacious woman is unstoppable. Examples abound of women who have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles across several industries throughout history to succeed. This narrative remains present for women in the wine industry. To put it frankly, female winemakers remain overwhelmingly outnumbered by their male counterparts. Nonetheless, strong women have worked relentlessly to establish an equal footing in our industry.

In this article, we will give context to the female experience in the global wine industry and highlight some of the notable women in the American wine industry, including a woman who is absolutely vital to our business. As always, we appreciate any feedback and discourse as the journey towards equality for women in the wine industry is something that will require a unified effort from all who see the value.

 

History Lesson #1: Women & Inheritance Law in the United States

What was the nature of the exclusion of women in wine? It’s easy to forget that many of the property rights women in the United States expect in 2022 were not afforded to our grandmothers, regardless of our age today. Women were unable to own property until the 20th century, vineyards included. Due to state and federal property laws, inheritance through the death of men (husbands, fathers, or brothers) was the main avenue through which women became owners of their own wine businesses until the 1970s in France and the United States.

A few women are on record for fighting the courts to obtain ownership of properties. Here are a few examples:

  • In 1880, in Sonoma County, California, Ellen Mary Stewart petitioned the courts to let her own the winery business when her husband passed.
  • In 1904, Isabelle Simi, the first female commercial winemaker in the United States, ran the family winery at the age of 18 after her male family members died during a flu outbreak. She tenaciously kept the winery running through the Prohibition period.

Under inheritance law, the property of an estate is to be distributed to legitimate heirs equally, but since women were assigned as wards of either their husband or father, their right to inherit was eliminated unless all-male family members passed away. In addition to fragmenting vineyard ownership (most notably in Burgundy, France), these complicated succession laws excluded most women from the wine business. In this way, the historical absence of gender equality has directly impacted the ability of contemporary generations of women to access the benefits of longtime ownership of the fertile land established by previous generations, family or not.

One’s ethnic background added another, and arguably more substantial, obstacle for a woman to succeed in the wine business. In the post-slavery era of 19th century America, it was nearly impossible for a woman of color to run any business, let alone in the growing (property ownership-dependent) wine industry. A viticultural pioneer in America, Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was renowned for her European grape varieties, combined her penchant as real estate mogul and entrepreneur with her fascination with wine. She helped many women, some of color, to become self-sufficient during the California Gold Rush era. Besides that, there is not much record of women of color in leadership positions in the wine industry until Victoria Coleman became a founding winemaker for Mario Bazán Cellars in 2004.

 

History Lesson #2: Strategic Judicial Exclusion

Long before vineyard ownership became a vehicle for economic importance and empire-building, men saw the value in prioritizing judicial control over inheritance and wealth. The history books suggest that the Greeks eliminated women from political and economic power and the Romans followed suit. The Romans are credited with developing the framework for modern Western civilization.

Continuing on to the age of Feudalism and Christianity in Medieval Europe, the hierarchy of a male god became the male line of priests and kings, and women became a virtual extension of a man’s property. Women have rarely been recorded for posterity by any name other than those of their fathers or husbands. Yetdespite these restrictions based on cultural traditions, many strong-willed women managed to create a lasting impact on the trajectory of the wine industry.

 

Tenacity Meets Exclusion: Modern Pioneers

Exclusion, however, does not break the ties that women have with wine. There is a deeper connection between wine’s metamorphic powers on their drinkers and femininity, as seen in history and mythology through the ages.

Cathy Corison
First woman to open a winery in Napa Valley

Cathy Corison, the first woman to open a winery in California’s prestigious Napa Valley, only managed this incredible feat in 1987, barely 35 years ago. For context, the first known winery in the United States opened in 1839, roughly 1.5 hours away from New York City.

Kay Simon
One of the industry’s first woman winemakers

Kay Simon represents another important source of women’s leadership. She graduated with a degree in enology from UC–Davis and became the assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1977 and went on to found Chinook Winery in 1983 in Yakima, Washington, with her husband. By encouraging other women in the American wine industry to thrive through her inspiring wines and her philanthropy, Kay continues to empower other women to pursue a career in wine.

The winemakers mentioned above have paved the way for women to work in the wine industry and demand that it become more welcoming and equitable—not just for women, but for individuals who have historically been excluded. We are proud to contribute to the vibrant trajectory of women leadership in the wine industry. Our own Heidi Bridenhagen has taken the metaphorical baton and continues to run the marathon of female leadership today.

 

Our Tenacious Woman of the Wine Industry: Heidi Bridenhagen 

Heidi Bridenhagen, head winemaker at Dough Wines
Heidi, our tenacious woman of the wine industry

Heidi Bridenhagen earned a B.S. degree in biochemistry at the University of Colorado at Boulder and started her first job after college with Jackson Family Wines as an intern in the lab. Relying upon her six months of experience she gained while exploring the wines of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, she worked hard and became the third Head Winemaker at MacRostie Winery & Vineyards in 2013. She found a passion for wine and focused on a path to get the knowledge she needed to succeed. As of 2020, women represent 14% of California’s head winemakers and Heidi is regarded as one of the state’s most prolific, gender aside.

Heidi describes her approach to winemaking as “intentional.” She builds complexity in wines by performing numerous micro-ferments. Despite the hard, labor-intensive work of these micro-ferments, she believes in the value of doing so. Heidi has received over two hundred 90-point scores at MacRostie Winery and presently crafts the wines at Dough Wines together with a diverse group of chefs and beverage professionals, all alumni of the James Beard Foundation’s Impact Programs, to create the most food-friendly wines possible.

Heidi is also a member of the Sonoma County Vintners Trade Education Committee, where she works alongside other notable growers and winemakers in an effort to educate and advocate on behalf of the county. More than two hundred years ago, when Ellen Mary Stewart petitioned the courts to let her own the winery business in Sonoma County, Heidi continued in her stead, advocating for the wine industry, and for other budding women enologists and winemakers.

 

Tenacity Overcomes Exclusion

The exclusion of women in leadership positions in the wine industry has its roots in the property laws that discriminated against women and laws that arose out of the male urge to control resources. Change is futile without adjustments from the instigators. We are seeing this at the legislative and cultural level, although we do have a ways to go to truly level the playing field. Fortunately, brave women in wine have resisted exclusion and created space for themselves. When tenacity meets exclusion, women winemakers prevail and inspire us with their passion and determination for the perfect blend of wine. We are thankful for the women of the past and congratulate our own Heidi Bridenhagen for her historical impact.

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