What happens when you get a celebrated winemaker, a viticulture scientist and academic, a journalist, a Master Sommelier and a professional wine judge together at one table? Well, even though they’re all females, we don’t expect they’ll chit-chat away about their latest finds on Zappos.com …unless they’re comparing workboots to walk the vineyards.

If you’re expecting a bit of mud-slinging from the female winemaker who didn’t like a review from the female journalist or a medal score from the female wine judge – all while the female scientist points to the wrong clone in the wrong soil, and the female sommelier identifies an off food and wine pairing – this isn’t “Jersey Shore” or “Jerry Springer.” While it might make for a dramatic evening, the Women for WineSense style is far more akin to “Oprah” than to grand opera.

The State of Women in Wine

Considering that women purchase 75 percent of wine in the United States, you’d think there’d be more women winemakers in the business. But according to research conducted by Dr. Lucia Albino Gilbert, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, less than 10% of California wineries have a woman in the position of lead winemaker. Statistics on the number of women executives working in wineries are even harder to come by.

Why are there so few women in the upper echelons of the wine business? Perhaps we’ll gain greater insight to that question from one of these Women in Wine panelists who’s already attained the pinnacle of success in the wine business:

Dawnine Dyer spent 25 years as Winemaker at Domaine Chandon. Her tenure at Chandon was marked by the introduction of many original sparkling wines and wine styles, taking the best of both a rich tradition and a promising appellation. Along with her husband, Bill, she now consults with Sodaro Estate Winery and is a partner in the new venture, Meteor Vineyard. She is active in the Napa Valley Vintners Association — and most importantly, works on Dyer Vineyard. Now both of them can frequently be found working in the vineyard, topping barrels and finally packing orders of Dyer Cab for shipment. Between the two of them they hold degrees in Philosophy, Biology, and Enology — all three come in handy from time to time.

Dr. Carole Meredith finally left her day job in 2003. For 22 years she was a professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. She survived the long commute between Napa and Davis by means of books on tape and a lot of cappuccino. In addition to teaching courses, she conducted research in grape genetics. Her research group used DNA typing methods to discover the origins of some of the greatest old wine varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, and most recently Zinfandel. She and Steve Lagier now devote their time to their 84-acre Mount Veeder property (only a small portion is planted to vines), tending their 1880’s olive grove, their Lagier Meredith Vineyard and deporting their rattlesnakes. Dr. Meredith is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Chevalière de l’Ordre du Mèrite Agricole. To top it off she was a 2009 Inductee of the Vintners Hall of Fame.

Andrea Robinson is one of only 17 women in the world to hold the title of Master Sommelier and the first woman to be awarded Best Sommelier in America.  She is the author of 4 top-selling wine and food books including Everyday Dining with Wine, which won the prestigious IACP cookbook award.  She is also a 3-time James Beard Award winner, an honors graduate of The French Culinary Institute, and the Sommelier for Delta Air Lines.  In addition, after 3 years of searching, testing and tasting, Andrea has unveiled the Holy Grail of Wine: her ground-breaking wine stemware series called The OneTM: one perfect white wine glass and one perfect red wine glass to optimize all wines. They are beautiful, affordable, break-resistant and dishwasher safe. And since they perform better than even the grape-specific glasses, they solve the problem of needing to add a wing to your house to have the right glasses for your wine. And for Andrea’s picks on what to sip from The OneTM stems, check out her Andrea’s Buying Guide app for the iPhone.

Deborah Parker Wong, AIWS, is Northern California editor for The Tasting Panel magazine where she reports on the global wine and spirits industries with an emphasis on domestic trends. In addition, she contributes frequently to Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, Cheers magazine, Sommelier Journal and writes a lively drinks column for Examiner.com. Deborah holds a marketing degree from San Francisco State University and was awarded the Wine and Spirits Education Trust’s Diploma in 2009. She lectures for SOPEXA USA and is a professional wine competition judge. Her affiliations include the Wine and Spirits Education Trust as an Associate of the Institute of Wine and Spirits (AIWS), the London-based Circle of Wine Writers and the Wine Media Guild of New York.

Moderating the discussion of these Women in Wine will be Tina Caputo, Editor-in-Chief of Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine. Before joining the magazine in 2008, Caputo spent five years as the managing editor at Wines & Vines magazine. She began her career at the Wine Institute, and went on to work in public relations/communications for international wine importer Maisons Marques & Domaines USA. Throughout her career she has written about wine as a freelancer for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Harpers Wine & Spirit (UK) and Decanter. Since 2007 she has been a monthly columnist for Wine Review Online.

Advantages for Women and Wine

Do these women, who have achieved great success in their wine careers, believe they have an edge over their male counterparts in the wine industry? (You’ll have to attend WWS’ Women in Wine event on Sept. 20 to hear what they have to say.)

We’ve heard the claims that women have a better palate than men. In Lettie Teague’s recent Wall Street Journal article, Men Are From Cab, Women Are From Moscato?, she recollected “the wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., he told me something that I have never forgotten. ‘My wife, Pat, has a much better palate than I do,’ he said. (Was it really possible that the most influential wine critic of the modern age was a mere runner-up to a woman named Pat?)” She also delved into a few more facts about women and wine in recent research: “Women tend to prefer less carbonation in their wines and are usually more sensitive to bitter flavors than men. They also prefer slightly sweet wines. I’d certainly heard that last one often enough—and seen the sort of wines that marketers created in response.”

Wines such as Mommy Juice and Mommy’s Time Out are two such brands that have seen great commercial success by targeting women consumers. Further, rather than create a whole new second label targeting females, Chateau Ste. Michelle recently kicked off a marketing campaign targeting women, as described in Andrew Adam Newman’s recent article for the New York Times, “Marketing Wine as a Respite From Women’s Many Roles.” Fans are encouraged to participate in a Facebook competition, What’s Your Chateau?, recounting specifically how each associates a “time or place during the day where you’re able to become You again” with Chateau Ste. Michelle.

With all this targeting of female wine consumers having resulted in their collective purchasing power of 75 percent of the U.S. market, you’d think we’d find more women in the wine industry itself! The good news is that women in the industry are making great strides in their careers.  In Wines & Vines’ “More Women at Acclaimed Wineries” by Kate Lavin, she reported in July that “half of the graduates of California’s top enology programs are women.” As any woman with more than a few vintages under her belt will tell you, there weren’t many women in formal wine studies programs a mere two decades ago.

In April, Tom Wark looked at the Status of Women in Wine, and recounted this from WWS’ co-founder and winery owner Michaela Rodeno, “I was lucky and got my first real wine job with a man whose management style was so hands-off, bottom-up, and free-wheeling in the startup of Domaine Chandon that I did get a chance to do just about anything/everything, learning as I went. Such fun! When it was my turn to be the boss (at St. Supery), I was grateful for the open-ended opportunities I’d had and carried on by hiring smart people who didn’t necessarily already know how to do the job I had in mind for them.”

For Rodeno, however, all does not necessarily look perfectly rosy for women in the industry. She went on to forecast, “With the increasing consolidation taking place now at the producer level, I fear that wine industry opportunities, especially for women, are shrinking.  Large corporations tend to (a) have male-dominated leadership, (b) stratified organizations that make advancement challenging and even formulaic, and (d) prefer to hire proven executives.  All of these make it harder for women to rise to the top — though some do.”

Women and Leadership

With these challenging circumstances, is there any good news for women wishing to carve out their own careers free of the encumbrances described by Rodeno? Over at the Careerist, Vivia Chen reported in April that “It’s Official—Women Trump Men on Leadership.” In her article, Chen states that in “a study of over 7,000 leaders in an array of occupations, women outperform men across the board, from forepersons to senior managers. In the category of top management (including executive and senior members), for example, women got a 67.7 percent rating for being effective leaders versus 57.7 percent for men.”

Will that news open more doors for women? Hard to say. Others, like Amelia Ceja, commenting in Tom Wark’s report, see positive signs for women building careers in the wine industry: “As president and marketing director of Ceja Vineyards, I travel throughout the United States, and I’m asked frequently ‘What do you do at Ceja Vineyards?’ No one ever thinks I own Ceja Vineyards because I’m a Latina woman! There’s still so much to be done! There are more women working as viticulturists, winemakers, wine marketing directors, and presidents of wineries than before! Opportunities are opening up in these fields!” She notes, however, that the story is different for female minorities: “There are no barriers to the advancement of women in the wine industry today as long as you’re white! If you’re a Latina vintner, you have to work twice as hard!”

Mapping a Woman’s Road to Success in the Wine Industry

Navigating a route to a successful career in the wine business for women is often far more hazardous than their male counterparts’. From taking a break to raise children (equivalent to a stuck fermentation to your career) to the gender gap (reduced yields per paycheck), women face a number of challenges rarely encountered by men.

In 2010, a woman was still earning only 77 cents to a man’s dollar in the United States, according to the most recent statistics. In California, it was closer to 85 cents to a man’s dollar.

Second, while women have outperformed men in leadership skills, far fewer of them have attained the positions of rank to use them! Why? As Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman report in their Harvard Review Blog post, “Gender Shouldn’t Matter, But Apparently It Still Does,” they concluded that “when it comes time for promotion, some — many — highly qualified women are being overlooked.” The reason? Males still dominate the upper levels of management and don’t promote them. Further, in their original post, “Are Women Better Leaders than Men?” they stated an influencing factor: “chauvinism or discrimination is an enigma that organizations (and the business culture) should work hard to prevent.”

Piling on the challenges to those faced in the workplace, many women seek to have it all, from successful career to happy home life with family. Most of our panelists either are currently or have already juggled child-rearing duties alongside wine career duties.

It was, in fact, our other co-founder’s daughter (then also Frog’s Leap co-founder, Julie Johnson) who asked her mother after school one day: “Mommy, why are you poisoning Daddy?” that spurred both Ms. Johnson and Ms. Rodeno to found Women for WineSense to dispel this rumor being promoted by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) at that time.

Not only did Ms. Johnson have to face an uphill climb as a rare woman in the upper ranks of the wine industry, but she had to explain her choices (and correct mis-perceptions) about wine to her children (as if raising them wasn’t hard enough!)

Can Women Have It All?

Clearly, from the many multi-generational family wineries that now dot the North Bay, many women in the wine industry have successfully juggled the demands of career and family. Recently, however, women at or near the glass ceiling have begun to wonder if they really can have it all.

In Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent Why Women Still Can’t Have It All for the July/August 2012 issue of Atlantic Magazine, the former first woman director of policy planning at the State Department discusses candidly her angst over pursuing such a high-profile career while her teenage sons clearly needed more attention from her. Juggling family and career was a double-edge knife which, on one side, brought about the derision of colleagues wondering if she lacked commitment to her career when she chose a child’s ballgame over a weekend business conference. On the other side was her concern that she was short-cutting her career when she took time for family.

Vintage Rules!

In the wine industry, the ebb and flow of family and work moves around harvest, for which the timing isn’t always perfect. Nevertheless, unlike most other non-cyclical industries, eventually both harvest and the school year can both dovetail and clash depending upon the weather conditions and children’s ages, making for a routine women in the wine industry can juggle with greater dexterity.

Do the competing demands of a career and home squelch women’s dreams of making it big in the wine business? Are the sacrifices women make to obtain their personal and professional goals too laden with obstacles to have it all? Can she go from cellar rat-ess to Mistress of the Cellar with finesse?

Stay tuned! You’ll have to attend Women for WineSense’s Women in Wine event on Sept. 20 at the Napa Valley Museum to learn how our panelists and moderator answer these questions and many more about their own careers and lives in the wine business!

Wondering how it all got started twenty-one years ago?

Here are a few comments from founders Michaela Rodeno and Julie Johnson: “We were in a conference in Sonoma and during a break there were three or four of us standing around complaining about all the negative press the wine industry was getting, and how frustrating it was that none of the wine industry organizations were doing anything about it,” said Rodeno. “Just then Julie and I looked at each other and said, ‘we could do something about it.'” Their first meeting, held at the Robert Mondavi Winery, drew some 80 people.

“Our main goal then was to set the record straight. The information that was coming out was all wrong, all negative,” said Rodeno. “And we all knew, intuitively, that it wasn’t correct. So we set out to get ourselves educated and started sharing what we found with policy makers and other people in the industry. And pretty soon, the people in the industry who had money and the resources started realizing that they weren’t going to be struck by lightning if they stood up for wine.”

Rodeno said the name Women for WineSense was picked because a lot of the negative press was directed toward women, but the moniker ended up with a deeper significance. “We didn’t realize it then, but it turned out to be a very powerful name. Naming ourselves was one of the hardest things we had to do.” Some in the group thought the name was too exclusionary, even though men were, and still are, welcome. “Right away we found it was a good name, it really sounded like a more powerful force than we really were. It was remarkable. It sounded like some powerful women’s organization.”

Twenty-one years later, there are now chapters across the country from Oregon to New York and from Virginia to Texas. Here’s a bit more background on our two founders:

Julie Johnson

Julie Johnson, WWS Co-Founder

Julie Johnson, WWS Co-Founder

Co-Founder of Women for WineSense,‘Wine-grower’ of Tres Sabores

Johnson has been recognized as one of the nation’s pioneer activists of socially-responsible winemaking and has been consulting in organic winemaking for the past three decades. In 1981, she, along with her first husband John Williams and partner Larry Turley, founded the environmentally-friendly Frog’s Leap Winery.

She moved to her 35-acre ranch on the western benchland of Rutherford in 1987. Zinfandel grapes were already planted on the property and were soon harvested for Frog’s Leap Winery, where she directed the sales and marketing programs while maintaining her career as a public health nurse until the arrival of her first child.

Along with Michaela Rodeno, CEO at Supery Winery, she established Women for WineSense in 1990. Additionally, she held a previous position as the President of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) and is a member of Rutherford Dusty Society and Napa Valley Vintners. Her wines have been recognized by Robert Parker, Douglas Wilder of VinFolio, The Wine Enthusiast, James Gordon, The New York Times, as well as numerous others.

From 1999 through 2001 she was a Fellow in the California Agricultural Leadership Program. Meanwhile, the old barn at her Rutherford ranch had been converted into a small winery, Cabernet had been planted, and the vineyard had received certification as a California Certified Organic (CCOF) Farm.

Julie decided to change gears and develop her own label, using the distinctive estate fruit so close at hand: the Tres Sabores “Three tastes” project was born. In 2004, Julie released her first estate Cabernet Sauvignon: “Rutherford Perspective,” which joined her estate Zinfandel, Tres Sabores, Rutherford and her quaffing blend, ¿Porqué No? in the marketplace. In the spring of 2006, the first Tres Sabores white wine: Farina Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc was brought to market.

Currently, she’s taking great delight celebrating a renewed family life with husband Jon Engelskirger, consulting winemaker (and combined, their six children!). Ongoing, she is pursuing winemaking as a vocation, as well as advocating for her passions as a past President of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP), and as a member of the Rutherford Dust Society, the Napa Valley Vintners, CCOF and Napa Zinfandel Trail. 

Michaela Rodeno

Michaela Rodeno, WWS Co-Founder

Michaela Rodeno, WWS Co-Founder

Co-Founder of Women for WineSense, former CEO of St. Supéry

Michaela Rodeno recently retired as St. Supéry’s CEO after 21 years. She had previously been the VP/Marketing for Domaine Chandon. She is one of the leading women in the California wine industry and a strong advocate for wine-related issues.

Rodeno co-founded Women for WineSense and served on the boards of California’s Wine Institute and the Napa Valley Vintners Association. She is a founding director and past chair of the Wine Market Council, served as chairman of the Meritage Association from 1999-2005, chaired the Napa Valley Wine Auction twice, and recently joined the board of the Napa Valley Destination Council.

A director of Silicon Valley Bank since 2001, Rodeno currently chairs its compensation committee. She is often invited to speak at conferences. She holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and speaks fluent French. She and her family own Villa Ragazzi, a Napa Valley winery with a first vintage of 1988, and 60 acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley, where she lives with her attorney husband Gregory. Their two children are university graduates.