amy bess women owned wineries

Women make up more than half of all wine consumers in the United States, driving wine trends and the overall market. Yet while the wine industry needs women to survive, the winemaking industry has remained mostly male-dominated. In California, a state responsible for about 90% of U.S. wine production, only around 10% of head winemakers are women. In Washington, that number drops to around 7%.

Changing these statistics isn’t an easy task, and there isn’t one magic solution. For one, cultural change takes time, and gender barriers don’t fall overnight, even when momentum is moving in the right direction. As if to prove this point, in a New York Times article published in 1985, it was estimated that by the 1990s, a third of West Coast winemakers would be women. Institutionally, that change has come to fruition: in 2015, half of the graduating class from the enology and viticulture program at UC Davis was female, up from about one-third in 1999. But at the winemaking level, there is still a significant gender gap, one that’s mirrored in other industries like coffee and food.

Amy Bess Cook is looking to change that. Cook is the founder of Woman-Owned Wineries, a site that’s dedicated to cataloguing and showcasing woman-owned wineries, as well as a wine club featuring wines exclusively from woman-owned wineries. Cook’s goal is not only to get women winery owners more exposure, but to give them yet another business platform.

We caught up with Cook to learn more about the project.

amy bess women owned wineries
Amy Bess Cook. Photo by Michole McConville.

What inspired you to launch Woman-Owned Wineries?

I wanted to offer a way for people to align their spending with their values, and for women to reclaim power in a practical way. So I built a simple directory of wineries owned by women. It’s all evolved from there.

A tidal wave of stories has poured forth from women this past year. Since then we’ve been talking about how to make change. While these talks can be helpful, I don’t believe anything truly changes until we put more women in charge.

Melinda Gates said recently, “When money flows into the hands of women, the whole world changes.” Someone else said, “Finance is the final frontier of feminism.” When we wake up to this reality and spend in a way that empowers women, we may have a whole new world.

In that spirit, I offer this directory of woman-owned wineries to help put dollars in the pockets of women business leaders. The project is growing to include a wine club, which you can join here. When the effort is strong enough, I hope to set up a fund for other female wine entrepreneurs. None of these steps alone will solve the problem, but maybe it’s a start.

You started the online directory to focus on the winemakers in your region of Sonoma, but you are now expanding it to be a nationwide directory. At what point did you realize that you had started a project that would be bigger than you originally intended?

I made the decision early on to start in my own backyard, in Sonoma County.  Not only did it feel overwhelming to consider a wider geographic area, but we’d just had the wildfires in our area. So it made sense to focus on the local community.

Once the directory launched, I began to see the positive response and again let myself imagine expanding. Around the time the first winemaker interview was published (in November 2017) support really seemed to be mounting. By mid-winter, I knew I would follow through with my original vision.

While I did the initial work alone, I definitely felt backed by a “tribe” of wine lovers, loved ones, and like-minded colleagues. So the effort has been driven as much by that collective energy as by my own vision. The national list would never have materialized so quickly had it not been for the support of another directory-based organization, MAIA.community. They generously offered data, which we (me and two assistants) edited and refined.

My takeaway? We go further when we cooperate, rather than just compete.

As a woman, how has your personal experience been in the wine industry? What struggles have you come up against? What successes have you had?

I love the wine world. I love the way the hard work changes you to your core, the way ceaseless hospitality transforms you into a more generous person, the way constant smelling and tasting fires up all your senses. I love it all enough to voice some of my concerns and try and make it better.

Many people get into wine because they romanticize it. They come to wine country to “live the dream.” But I came in the midst of the recession, newly divorced, super broke, and working as a freelance writer. To make extra cash on weekends, I rolled up my sleeves and started pitching in at a winery.  I got into this business out of necessity and have never had starry eyes about it.

I wound up helping to run that same winery for eight years, tending to nearly every aspect of the business. I also did contract promo work for other wineries and wrote for a few wine publications. I was able to make wine for my own brand, using the profits for social causes. This range of experiences gave me a solid, hands-on overview of the biz.

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You ask about struggle, and I think struggle is sort of intrinsic to this industry. A little struggle is good for the vines. It can be good for us too, yes?  Nine times out of 10, I have relished the struggles I’ve encountered in the wine business. We are privy to a beauty in this work that can be transformative. For several years, I lived on hospitality worker pay and roosted in an RV trailer. Struggle? Yeah, it was definitely a struggle—and I did it for the love.

The main problem I’ve witnessed is power abuse. This seems traceable to the money divide. Wine is a luxury industry, so there’s copious cash flowing, but not everyone gets a fair share. Those who make less money are more vulnerable to abuse, whether sexual or otherwise. Blue collar laborers, interns, and hospitality workers are especially susceptible; women and people of color even more so. Those who speak up face threat of retaliation, weaponized litigation, and violence.

It sounds like an imaginary monster of a problem. Yet it happens right under our noses. Many of us, so well trained in hospitality, are too polite to speak up.

My path in this industry has surely had its twists and turns, but I relish the adventure. I’ve been lucky to have had support from so many generous, talented, big-hearted people. I like to think of all that kindness I’ve known, and try to pay it forward.

Besides owners, what are some of the other ways that women take part in the wine industry that we might not think about?

Women participate in every aspect of the wine industry. This was not always the case, but in the mid-to-late 20th century, a few trailblazers made it more common for us to see women working everywhere from the cellar to the fields to the corporate suite. I am personally grateful to those who have made it easier for other women to work more freely in this industry.

The SF Chronicle just wrote about the increase in women vineyard workers here. Wine Enthusiast just did a piece on women in wine here (one of many that have been penned lately). It’s encouraging to see women’s hard work get more attention, and perhaps (?) this will lead to greater respect in the workplace.

In my view, it’s no longer entirely novel to see women doing the physical labor of winemaking or viticulture in the United States. It’s more novel to see them in charge, whether rising through the ranks as lead winemaker or head viticulturist, or (especially) owning their own winery. So when I see companies that let the leadership of women shine, those are the companies I want to support.

amy bess women owned wineries
Angela Osborne of A Tribute To Grace. Photo by Jason Osborne.

What are some of the assumptions that women winemakers are up against when it comes to their work?

To be clear, I don’t claim to speak for women winemakers. I have never worked as a full-time winemaker. Yet I can share observations gleaned from ample time working in the cellar and vineyard.

The most fundamental assumption comes when wines are being poured and presented. Time and again, women are thought not to be the winemaker. Even when they claim their rightful title, it’s assumed they’ve had plenty of help (i.e., that they hired a consulting winemaker).

I remember being so proud and happy to be named assistant winemaker on a wine project that I conceived and helped execute. When I first presented it alongside our company owner, we stood together and counted the number of times sales reps turned to ask him questions, even though I was pouring. He wanted them to credit me—he knew I’d worked hard on that wine. But I was wearing a skirt and lipstick, and those reps just couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of me in the cellar.

If this blatant disregard frustrated me, then I can only imagine how it must make women feel who have been perfecting their art for decades.

There also seem to be lingering doubts about whether women can capably handle the physical labor of cellar work. When women do work in the cellar, some (some) men seem to think it’s cute—but would never regard us as equals. They certainly don’t want women giving orders. And few will talk about sexism in the cellar, because it’s perceived as bad vibes. Women are supposed to go with the flow, be cool, and keep our mouths shut. “There’s no crying in baseball” so to speak.

Some other assumptions can work either for or against women:

  • Where physical labor is concerned, women are perceived to be slower, but more thorough. I knew an older and highly respected woman winemaker who drove the forklift very, very slowly—but more accurately than anyone. This was in contrast to some of the hotheaded young male interns I watched, including one who got rowdy and dented the side of the building with the forks.
  • Relatedly, while male picking crews typically work very quickly, all-female picking crews are favored in certain parts of the world for their accuracy.
  • A lot of scientific study has been conducted on who actually makes a better winemaker. It’s widely concluded that women have more sensitive palates.

While some of these assumptions seem to work in women’s favor, I think such generalizations can be as dangerous as they are helpful. In a certain light, they can trap us into benevolent sexism. Whether you ascribe to them or not, it helps to remember that everyone brings something to the table and deserves to be taken seriously in the workplace.

amy bess women owned wineries
Jennifer Richardt of Raft Wines. Photo by Ben Coffman.

What can we as consumers do to challenge these generalizations and change some of these perceptions?

It seems the very best any of us can do is to pick up the mirror and look at our own selves. What thoughts and preconceptions do we carry that hurt other people? How can we act with more care and compassion? We’re all jerks sometimes. We’re all contributing to the problem—which is disheartening, until you realize that we can all contribute to a solution, too.

As consumers, we can vote with our dollars. We can give our money to companies that need and deserve it more. One basic tenet is to try and consume less, but better. That’s why the WOW directory was created—to make that easier.

There are so many reasons to support women in business, some of which are laid out on our website. If you remember just one, make it this: Women only received 2.7% of venture capital in 2017So when a woman gets all excited about her winery project, she is likely to be blocked by the boys’ club of venture capital. This is true, no matter how wildly talented she may be.

That woman will instead wind up working for a man. While that may be okay on some level, it will inevitably mean she works under policies—ranging from family leave to contraception coverage to harassment issues—on which she was not consulted. This puts women in a position of danger.

What to do? Buy from women. Fill their pockets. Give them power.

It’s easy to think of gender equity as simply the benefit of the individual benefit of the woman, but there are so many communal benefits. When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we will see from better supporting women? And what do we risk if we don’t?

I love this question. It’s often overlooked that gender equity is good for everyone.

“Social sustainability” is not a phrase that rings familiar with very many of us. I wrote about it here last fall. We tend to focus on environmental and economic sustainability while ignoring social factors. Treating people well has rewards, whether those people are employees, community members, or vendors.  

The management consulting firm McKinsey has reported that gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to outperform companies rated in the bottom quartile of diversity. They also assessed that the global economy could be between $12 trillion and $28 trillion larger in 2025 if gender gaps were reduced or eliminated. I would definitely consider that a “communal benefit!”

In terms of how gender equity might affect winemaking itself, I think that’s hard (but not impossible) to parse. Certain studies have studied gender in relation to risk and innovation, which can be two important factors in winemaking. Supposedly, gender balanced teams are more innovative. Does that mean more women in wine equals more interesting developments in winemaking?

I’m not qualified to comment on that, but it’s fun to think about.

amy bess women owned wineries
Angela Osborne of A Tribute To Grace. Photo by Jason Osborne.

Who are some women winemakers who are working with more natural methods that you are excited about?

I recently had the opportunity to meet Megan Bell of Margins Wine, and her Chenin Blanc rocked my socks. I love that her project is based on sourcing from vineyards “outside the margins” or on the fringes. I’m a sucker for the fringes.

I deeply appreciate Jennifer Reichardt of Raft Wines for her boundless positivity and commitment to community. She makes a fine Viognier. I’m curious to taste her other wines.

Angela Osborne’s A Tribute to Grace is a personal classic. I tasted her Grenache for the first time out of a shiner very early in my career, not knowing what it was. It was the first wine that ever brought tears to my eyes.

I am still exploring and discovering natural wine.  I’ll be spending time on the East Coast this year, and I’m so excited to explore more unconventional women winemakers outside of California.

What do you see as the future of women in wine?

I want to tell you that it’s bright, but I honestly don’t know. We have a lot of work to do. I see more women in the biz organizing, which seems promising. But I don’t believe anything will actually change until more women are in charge. So, let’s support their businesses and make sure they have every opportunity to advance.

Thank you. 

Learn more at the official Women Owned Winemakers website, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook