Photo credit: Meg Tipton

(Editor’s Note: The following op-ed was written by August Deimel, winemaker at Keuka Springs Vineyard)

Last month I attended an event celebrating the contribution of alumni from my undergraduate alma mater, St. John’s College, to the wine industry. During a panel discussion that was part of that event, a woman in the audience asked a question that seemed to catch the panel very much off guard. She asked why, of the seven people who were being featured that weekend, there was not a single woman.

The panel searched half-heartedly for an answer, but the questioner went away clearly unsatisfied. She was referencing the gender breakdown of the group in the room, but she could just as easily have been referring to the wine industry more broadly. Despite the tremendous contributions to the industry of transcendent winemaking talents like Cathy Corison and Helen Turley in California or women like Nancy Irelan and Marti Macinski closer to home, winemaking in America generally — as well as here in New York — remains very much a man’s game.

It’s time to acknowledge that this is the case, acknowledge that it is a problem, and for those of us who work in the industry to commit to rectifying it.

Stereotypes run deep, and the stereotypical winemaker is still a man. Nearly everything about the job of a head winemaker makes us, consciously or unconsciously, think a man should be doing it. The job is physical, involving hard manual labor. There is no industry in America that involves manual labor where women form anything like a majority. It is easy for some people to imagine that women would be unable or unwilling to keep up with the, sometimes demanding, physical requirements of the job. Having worked with numerous women in the cellar, I promise you nothing could be further from the truth yet this view persist. The job requires leadership. A winemaker, particularly once you start working in larger wineries, spends a good deal of her day giving orders to other people. We as a society still, despite the women serving as CEOs, as university presidents, and in high government posts, have trouble seeing women as strong leaders. We do not support them when they are assertive and display ambition, dismissing them as “shrill,” or (and this is mostly applied to girls but I have seen it hurled as an insult to grown women in the workplace) “bossy.” The wine industry can succumb to the same thing, accepting women in lower level posts and being somehow unable to imagine them advancing farther.

The roadblocks that face a woman who wants a career making wine are sometimes not simply the subtle stereotypes and assumptions people will make about her but occasionally rise to the level of outright discrimination. Two incidents I have witnessed personally (for the record, neither occurred in New York State – though there’s no reason to think they couldn’t have): I once applied for a job and in the phone call where I was offered an interview I was told directly “You are not the most qualified person who applied. A few girls applied with more experience but I think I need a man in this job.” Needless to say, I never worked there. I recommended a friend for a job once and after singing her praises the only response I got from the potential employer was him asking me “but is she willing to drag hoses?” She was, of course. But not for him.

Obviously the fact that women who have equal qualifications as their male colleagues often have a harder time advancing through the winemaking ranks is morally wrong. But for its own sake the wine industry needs to recognize that it will only reach its true potential if it takes advantage of the talent available to it. Studies show that companies with greater gender equality in the workplace are more effective and more profitable. It makes intuitive sense, of course. If one dismisses half the population as potential employees, what is the likelihood that one will be consistently hiring the best person for the job?

While there are only a few women currently serving in the Finger Lakes as head winemakers, the talent pipeline is notably full. There is a generation of young women who are poised to take up the leadership of this industry. The number of women who, very quietly but very surely, have been critical to the success of recent vintages at top Finger Lakes wineries is impressive. Head winemakers tend to get all the credit, but a good Assistant Winemaker is incalculably important to a winery. And a few of the current and recent Assistant Winemakers in the Finger Lakes like Julia Hoyle (Sheldrake Point), Meagz Goodwin (Red Newt), Sarah Gummoe and Lindsey VanKeuren (Fox Run), Meg Tipton, Tia DiMartino and Rachel Hadley (Keuka Spring), Alexandra Doniger (Hector Wine Company), and Beth Witt (Anthony Road) are amongst the winemaking professionals I fully expect to soon be running wine cellars themselves and setting the direction of winemaking in the area for decades to come. Our success as a region may in part depend on how well we support women like these in their careers and take advantage of what they have to offer.

Not everyone will be willing to accept that this is an issue and some people will surely not appreciate its being pointed out. But we won’t make progress as an industry by pretending to be gender blind. Workplaces and industries that refuse to acknowledge that gender is a defining issue for all of us are often those with the worst inequalities.

Let’s not fall into that trap and instead speak plainly: We have a problem. And we must address it openly. We should consider what stereotypes keep us from seeing women as winemakers and we should find a way to change those misconceptions both in ourselves and in those around us. We must be conscious of celebrating the contributions of the women who are in this industry already and supportive of those who wish to enter it. And when we do achieve a greater degree of gender equity in the cellar, I have little doubt that we will make better wine and we will be better people for it.