Career Tips from California Women Winemakers

Lucia Albino Gilbert, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
Santa Clara University

So you want to be a winemaker. What do you need to consider in embarking on this possible career path? What does it take to be successful? What are possible stumbling blocks?

The career paths for both female and male winemakers are challenging and demanding, but the fact that the field remains male dominated presents additional challenges to women who wish to achieve this goal. For these reasons, we sought input on these important questions from some fifty successful California women winemakers from the various wine regions of the state. The women with whom we had conversations craft their wines in wineries of various sizes throughout the state and vary in their career pathways and family backgrounds. Some were both winemakers and winery owners. However, the women were all similar in their passion for their work and their willingness to share their experiences and advice with others who are considering winemaking as a career or seeking to advance in their career as a winemaker.

Summarized below are the themes that emerged from their responses. In the first section we summarize their responses about the path to becoming a winemaker. In the second section we summarize their thoughts on the characteristics they believe best describe a competent/successful winemaker. Overall, there was a great deal of consistency in their responses.

Section One: Advice for women who are considering winemaking as a career or seeking to advance from their current position in the wine industry:

1. Education.
A clear theme was that a science background and a degree in a relevant area of science is important, preferably a degree in enology and viticulture. Getting your foot in the door/progressing in your career will likely be harder if you do not have a formal degree. Larger wineries require a science degree; smaller wineries are more open to not having a degree.

2. Experience is multifaceted and includes working harvests, cellar work, and lab work.
Harvest and volunteer work experience

Volunteer work experience in any area of the wine business is useful in finding out if this is the field and career for you. One needs to get a foot in the door, and harvest is a good first step to find out if there is a good match with your interests and abilities. If there seems to be a good match, it would be important to participate in crushes at different wineries, including international locations. By working in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, you can do at least two crushes each year.

Cellar experience
Cellar experience is clearly important, but it is still more difficult for women to have access to cellar work for reasons associated with tradition and gender stereotypes. Nonetheless, increasing numbers of women today are gaining cellar experience and many are learning it on the job (see section below on lab experience).

Women's (and men's) size and strength vary greatly, and this calls for different strategies for accomplishing cellar work effectively. Smaller women (and men) think strategically about how best to use their physical strength and size to accomplish what needs to be done in the cellar. For example, they are more likely to use the principles of physics in moving heavy equipment rather than resorting to brute strength. One also needs to remember that organizational and management skills are valuable in the cellar; cellar work is not only about dragging hoses and moving barrels. Finally, it is important for women to learn how to drive a forklift, as this seems to be an important criterion for earning respect among co-workers, in particular those holding cellar positions who are affectionately referred to as "cellar rats".

Laboratory experience
Although laboratory experience was viewed as important, many of the winemakers we spoke with mentioned that women run the risk of getting stuck in the lab. A rule of thumb mentioned was one should not be in the lab for more than five or six years. Also noted was the importance of making yourself available and showing interest in other areas, such as bottling, ordering, and cellar work, while working in the lab and to give your all when given these opportunities.

3. Work Ethic.
Work ethic was noted as crucial. This is not an "8 to 5" career path. A can-do attitude and persistence were mentioned as particularly important. It was advised not to think that anything is beneath you; be eager to learn more, and be ready to jump in with both feet.

4. Networking.
The importance of networking was emphasized in our conversations with women winemakers. One can develop a network by attending conferences and staying in contact with one's cohort at the college/university one attended. Another way to expand one's network is to become a member of a wine-tasting group. It is advisable to get into more than one tasting group and to taste with people who are more knowledgeable about wine than you.

5. Mentors.
Having a mentor is important. Apprentice under someone whose wines you admire and let that person know that you are a person worth investing in. Use your network to identify possible mentors.

6. What one brings in the way of personal qualities is also crucial. The six personal qualities mentioned most often are those listed below.
♦  A solid palate.
♦  Creativity.
♦  Confidence. Enthusiasm. Passion that other people can recognize.
♦  Determination. Thick skin.
♦  Willingness to get your hands dirty.
♦  Willingness to work hard, learn, get as much knowledge as you can.
♦ Ability to run with challenges, think, and risk making a mistake.

7. Vision, Focus, and Persistence.
It is important to have a vision for where you want to go and to identify the strengths you have to get you there. Determination to be successful is key. Take initiative, ask for opportunities that increase your knowledge and areas of experience. View yourself as an equal with men and hold your ground. Demand the respect you deserve.

A clear theme in the advice we heard is that there are always roadblocks that need to be navigated. Do not give up when one is encountered (yes, it can get discouraging). Do not be intimidated. "You cannot be a cry baby." One needs to persist and not lose focus. It is important to stay true to yourself and your vision. If you hit a roadblock, be proactive. Find someone you can talk to.

8. Do Not Stay Too Long.
One can stay in the same position too long. Make sure you're getting valuable work experience. If you're bored, ignored, stonewalled, or overlooked for a promotion, it's time to go. A fork in the road is difficult. This is a place to seek input. Mentors and members of one's network can be helpful here.

9. Home and Work.
Super women do not exist. One needs to be organized and prepared for choices that need to be made. It is crucial to have a supportive partner who understands your work, and a supportive network to assist with family life, especially during crush. In addition, you need to know your own priorities, e.g., you and/or your spouse may make a decision not to travel as much when your children are small.

In short, a science background, a creative mind, and experience are crucial. A strong work ethic, a desire to learn, and taking initiative are important, as are mentors, loving your work, and being true to your beliefs. It was also noted that there are more opportunities in areas where the wine industry is growing.

Section Two: In this second and final section, we share those characteristics the winemakers with whom we talked thought best describe a competent/successful winemaker. Nineteen characteristics are listed below, but very few, if any, individuals possess all nineteen characteristics!

Key characteristics that describe successful/competent winemakers include the following (listed in alphabetical order):

We wish you well in your career.
Lucia and Jack

Posted July 2012