Grape Goddesses

What do some of our best local winemakers have in common? Two X chromosomes.

By Otis Rubottom May 19, 2009 Published in the March 2006 issue of Portland Monthly

With due respect to James Brown, when it comes to making wine, ours is not a man’s, man’s, man’s world after all. A look at the preeminent producers in Oregon viniculture confirms that the ladies of the Willamette Valley have no trouble keeping pace with the gents. And since March is Women’s History Month, it’s a fitting moment to celebrate the contributions of winemakers like Lynn Penner-Ash and Amy Wesselman to Oregon’s constantly fermenting reputation.

Worldwide, wine has long been a male domain, complete with oversize egos and glass ceilings. But a growing number of women–especially in the United States–are separating themselves from winemaking’s lees, inspired in part by the successes of colleagues like California’s Merry Edwards (the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2004 Winemaker of the Year) and Helen Turley (winemaker for premier labels such as Marcassin, Colgin and Bryant Family).

While there are no hard statistics on the total number of women vintners in the state, the Oregon Wine Board estimates that less than one-tenth of Oregon’s 300-plus wineries have women at the helm. That’s a small population considering the available pool: Last year the undergraduate enology and viticulture program at the University of California-Davis turned out 18 female graduates, or about 40 percent of the 2005 class. Still, the relative impact of this contingent is impressive. In both 2004 and 2005, four Oregon wines were included in Wine Spectator‘s annual list of Top 100 Wines; women (Ponzi Vineyards’ Luisa Ponzi and Penner-Ash) crafted two of them.

Penner-Ash, who graduated from UC-Davis and worked her way up at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley before being recruited by Willamette Valley’s Rex Hill Vineyards, has long been in the vanguard of the state’s vini-gyns. From 1988 to 2002 she served as the flagship winery’s head vintner, garnering awards and helping fix Oregon’s growing status as a source of serious pinot noir. "I was welcomed, but I was also a woman coming into a tight-knit, developing industry with a fancy degree. I needed to be diplomatic," says Penner-Ash, who currently offers pinot noir, viognier and syrah from her eponymous label that routinely sell out shortly after their release.

While quick to smile, Penner-Ash is a no-nonsense character with a serious and focused approach to winemaking. Although hesitant to make generalizations, she thinks many women have a unique set of attributes that help them when it comes to the challenges of crafting a wine. "Women are detail-oriented and generally better at multitasking than men," she says. "We tend to have a methodical approach. Women think out their work day from A to B to C."

Moreover, the fairer sex may possess certain natural assets suited to crafting vino. Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, has shown that females have a better sense of smell than males, and that more "supertasters"–people genetically blessed with more taste buds and therefore more sensitive palates–are women.

You don’t have to tell that to David Autrey, who along with his wife, Amy Wesselman, makes up Westrey Wines in McMinnville. "Women show a greater sense of balance in winemaking that you don’t really see on the whole with men," he says. "Winemaking can be such an ego-driven industry, and if you’re true to the idea of wine being tied to a place, then a sense of humility and judicious restraint in terms of intervention is crucial. I see that more with women than with men."

"The idea of balance is what I love about this work," agrees Amy Wesselman, whose philosophy degree from Reed College is reflected in her vocational outlook. "I’m drawn to the mix of working outside and in, mentally and physically, communally and solitarily. Women tend to look for balance in their lives, and that mixture in winemaking is incredibly appealing." Wesselman acknowledges that there is a dearth of female counterparts, though. "Perhaps because we don’t have the allure of a big university program like UC-Davis, women think there are fewer opportunities in Oregon. But the quality of the community is tremendous here."

In testament to this community spirit, neither Wesselman nor Penner-Ash considers her rise in a traditionally male-dominated field to be particularly noteworthy or marked by profound obstacles.When asked about the unique challenges of being a female winemaker, 20-year Oregon veteran Patricia Green offers a similar reply: "I don’t know. I’ve never been a male winemaker."

Which suggests that, to the good fortune of oenophiles, Oregon’s women vintners manage to take their wine more seriously than they take themselves.

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