Highlighting the Women of Washington State Wine

By: Becky Garrison

A media luncheon of Washington winemakers hosted by the Washington State Wine Commis-sion during Feast Portland 2019 featured presentations by Rachael Horn of AniChe Cellars, Mari Womack of Damsel Cellars and Kent Waliser from Sagemoor Vineyards. This luncheon afford-ed a glimpse into the bounty of Washington State’s vineyards and highlighted the contributions of the state’s women winemakers.

  According to the Washington State Wine Commission, women constitute about 8% of total winemakers operating in Washington state. Given that women account for 57% of wine volume consumed in the U.S. (Nielsen Spectra 2015), why does this industry remain male-dominated? In an attempt to shed light on this question, Horn and Womack, along with a few other Washington state-based women winemakers, offered their perspectives regarding making inroads in the in-dustry.

Mari Womack, Damsel Cellars (Woodinville, WA.)

  When Mari Womack transitioned from the restaurant to the wine industry, she saw herself as a blank slate. “I didn’t feel there were any barriers for me coming into the wine industry, other than my lack of experience and knowledge about the subject.”

  After a stint working as assistant winemaker to Darby English at Woodinville, Washington’s Darby Winery, as well as managing its tasting room, Womack set off in 2012 to make her own wine. She chose to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. “As there isn’t a predominant varie-tal in Washington State, there’s ample room for people to experiment and implement their own style of winemaking,” Womack said.

  In Woodinville, she’s encountered a number of male allies looking for diverse perspectives, with a push towards supporting women and minority-owned businesses. Along those lines, more women appear to be designing tours specifically geared towards helping women winemakers. With more women’s voices impacting and telling the story of wine from different and original perspectives, she sees the industry becoming more diverse.

  To bring about long-lasting transformative change, Womack stresses promoting diversity in her hiring practices. “You have to see it to be it.”

  She believes female winemakers must do what they can to promote the visibility of their busi-nesses and make sure their own hiring practices are inclusive and expansive. “We just don’t see enough of it. I recommend searching for qualified candidates via different avenues and programs, as well as mentoring other women,” she said.

  Even though hers is a boutique winery, though events like Taste Washington, Womack can con-nect on a large scale with vendors and consumers beyond her immediate vicinity. Also, by par-ticipating in Feast Portland, a food festival that highlights the bounty of the Pacific Northwest food and beverage culture, she became aware of the expansive nature of the Portland food scene and was able to get her wine introduced to several restauranteurs. 

  When tasting rooms shut down due to Covid-19, Womack observed how women winemakers could utilize digital media to partner with women’s groups and produce virtual wine tastings with a women-centric focus. “I don’t think we considered that customers don’t have to come to our tasting room and physically meet us in order to have a very meaningful experience. They can order our wine in advance, taste it in a virtual setting, and then become a really loyal follower at that point,” Womack said in an interview with The Grapevine Magazine

Rachael Horn, AniChe Cellars (Underwood, Washington)

  When Rachel Horn tried her hand at fermentation in 2008, her focus was on making wines that would pair well with the foods grown in the Columbia Gorge and surrounding environs. The re-sults were reflective of her favorite European wines–blended wines with a regional focus.

  Hence, she entered this industry with no concept of any gender bias. She attributes this attitude to her upbringing and the competent, intelligent women in her social group capable of making their dreams happen. “I was like, ‘I’m going to make wine because that’s what I want to do.’”

  As the only winemaker in the Columbia Gorge at this time, Horn found she lacked access to mentors and support from the all-male winemakers in the region. Also, many growers, all men, had no interest in selling fruit to her. In her estimation, they treated her as though she was engaging in a cute little hobby. “After I was called ‘sweetie’ a few times, that lit a quickfire under my ass. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll show you.’”

  Eventually, she found a vineyard that would sell her fruit. This vineyard was owned by an Amer-ican who had worked for two decades in France and was more accustomed to working with women in the wine industry. However, she still faced difficulties in purchasing equipment. Even though Horn visited vendor booths at trade shows with fellow women winemakers with the in-tention of spending $100,000 on equipment, they were ignored as the vendors focused on the males entering their booths.

  Furthermore, she found that her wines received a lower rating whenever she presented them for a tasting under her name. If she entered her wines in a blind tasting, her scores would go up by about seven points. This discrepancy proved her point that wine is gender-neutral. “Wine doesn’t care if you’re a female or male making it.”

  This lack of support also drove Horn to mentor other women looking to enter the industry. She found herself to be a person who asks questions such as, “So, we formed this new committee. How many women, people of color and queer people who represent our industry are on this committee?” In this quest, she does not seek preferential treatment for her wines because she is a female winemaker, but to have a fair shot selling her wines at the same price point as male winemakers producing similar wines.

  For those looking for more diversity at their wineries, Horn recommends identifying their demo-graphic and designing marketing materials to attract these consumers. “It’s kind of the Field of Dreams thing that ‘if you build it, they will come.’”

  Also, Horn said events like Taste Washington enabled her to truly understand consumers’ inter-ests. “When I went to Taste and stared creating relationships with people, these barriers didn’t melt away, but they were certainly lowered.”

Making Connections Regionally and Nationally

  Kerry Shiels, winemaker, Côte Bonneville in Sunnyside, Washington, felt fortunate to grow up with a mother who decided to start her winery along with many of the pioneering people in the Yakima Valley, such as Sara Spayd, Kay Simon and Marie Eve Gilla. “When my mom decided to start our winery, quality, consistency and continuous improvement were important attributes, and remain so to this day.” These women winemakers and viticulturists motivated her to get her graduate degree in Viticulture and Enology from the University of California Davis and work around the world before returning home.

  Jody Elsom, winemaker and owner of Elsom Cellars in Seattle, benefited from making connec-tions with local women winemakers. In particular, her interests lie in the rise of women getting their hands dirty by hanging out in the vineyard and the cellar. She recalled that when she started in the industry, she would show up to vineyards in her minivan to purchase fruit with a newborn baby and pregnant with another one. The vineyard manager would come up to her van and knock on her window, suggesting that perhaps she took a wrong turn. “It was an interesting experience for me being in that situation. I was a single mom and had to take my kids with me,” Elsom said.

  She found support with the Sisters of the Vinifera Revolution, a group of women based in western Washington who serve as a resource for female winemakers trying to break into what she describes as the “good ole boys club.” “The camaraderie has really grown, and it’s like we’ve cre-ated our own little support network–bouncing these stupid questions off of one another without feeling stupid.” 

  Elsom also benefited from bringing together female business owners from other industries and exposing them to SOVR’s wine and what they’re doing. “We all can see we have similar chal-lenges regardless of our particular industry.”

  Like Elsom, Anna Schafer, winemaker at àMaurice Vineyard in Walla Walla, Washington, found it challenging to make wine while young and pregnant, and then after having a newborn. Since her father and other male growers supported her, Schafer did not perceive her role as a winemak-er as unique. She credits her fellow winemakers in the Walla Walla Wine Alliance as wanting her to succeed, being supportive and willing to help. “If you’re there to listen, people are there to help you,” Schafer said.

  Holly Turner, winemaker at Three Rivers Winery, also found support among her fellow winemakers in the Walla Walla AVA. She, too, acknowledged the challenges still inherent in the in-dustry. “I’m pretty sure most women in the wine industry have a bit of feisty grit that has gotten them to where they are today.”

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