Women confront gender gap in wineries’ executive suites
When she took over as president of Domaine Carneros in 1987, Eileen Crane was one of the few women to lead a North Coast winery. At the time, Michaela Rodeno was president at St. Supery Vineyards and Winery in Napa; the rest typically served in various roles at their family-owned wineries.
“It never occurred to me that I could be a CEO of a winery,” said Crane, who switched careers in the late 1970s from a path in academia.
Beginning as a tour guide at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, Crane worked her way into the sparkling winery’s lab and then up to assistant winemaker. She was recruited to become winemaker at Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards in 1984, and ended up managing construction of the Sonoma winery that was completed within 14 months. The French wine family Tattinger noticed Crane’s abilities and brought her over to start its Domaine Carneros sparkling house in Napa County.
The 69-year-old Crane has seen some advances for women climbing the corporate ladder in the wine industry. “I certainly see a lot more women in executive positions, particularly around marketing,” she said. “There are number of women winemakers.”
But the wine glass ceiling has not been shattered and much work remains, Crane contends. Overall, she would give the industry a grade of B-minus for its promotion of women into executive ranks and key positions.
Nonprofit groups are attempting to play a greater role in the campaign to achieve gender parity in the $34 billion retail wine industry, where women represent?60 percent of consumers and 80 percent of the buyers.
Women of the Vine and Spirits, a New York-based group, has sponsored an annual symposium the past four years in Napa that has served as a premier networking event for women looking to advance in their career. Women for WineSense, founded in 1990 by Rodeno and vintner Julie Johnson, holds wine education and networking events, most notably through its 10 local chapters across the country. Its Sonoma/Napa chapter has 200 members.
And two years ago, Sonoma-based Wine Women was formed with a hyperlocal focus on frequent networking and events, with 50 different forums planned through the rest of the year to help spark debate on the subject.
“The wine community is tight-knit. Jobs and careers often advance based on who you know and with whom you have a relationship,” said Marcia Macomber, a co-founder of the group.
Data show the dearth of women in top winery positions. Women occupied only 21 percent of the senior executive positions at 175 wine businesses surveyed last year by Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute.
By comparison, ?23 percent of the senior leadership positions at the top 1,000 U.S. companies by revenue are held by women, according to an analysis by Korn Ferry, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm.
“It’s definitely gotten better than a decade ago,” said Liz Thach, SSU’s Distinguished Professor of Wine and Management, who also noted a lack of overall research pertaining to winery management. “It’s still an issue.”
To be sure, the industry does have women in high-profile roles such as Stephanie and Gina Gallo at E&J Gallo Winery of Modesto, the largest wine company in the United States; Barbara Banke of Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa; and Carolyn Wente of Wente Vineyards in Livermore. A crop of entrepreneurial women also are flourishing at a smaller, boutique level - including Nicole Abiouness at Abiouness Wines in St. Helena, Delia Viader at Viader Wines in Deer Park and Susie Selby of Selby Winery in Healdsburg.
But those gains have been made against decades of wine being a male-?dominated industry as the fine wine market emerged in the North Coast during the late 1970s. Some of that gender imbalance is traditional given wine is an agricultural product and the vast majority of vineyard workers are men. Likewise, cellar work has historically been a male vocation, given the strength needed to move heavy barrels and operate heavy machinery.
Selby said she found out firsthand when she worked in a tasting room early in her career and learned to drive a forklift to be able to retrieve wine cases when stock got low. That skill later helped her become a warehouse manager overseeing male workers.
“I think the traditionalism of the industry is really a barrier that other industries don’t have,” said Selby, who has operated her boutique winery as a sole proprietor since her father’s death in 1997.
Women winemakers have made tremendous strides, led by Merry Edwards, who in the 1970s helped put Mount Eden Vineyards in Saratoga on the map of wine aficionados and later started her own winery in the Russian River Valley. Still, one 2015 academic study reported only 15 percent of lead winemakers were women.