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Do Female Winemakers Need A Soapbox?

Chicago eateries and bottle shops are quietly embracing more equitable representation of female vintners. Should they say it out loud?

Proxi beverage director Jennifer Wagoner is one of a growing number of somms and buyers in the city pushing for gender parity in winemaking.   Photo: David Turner

Last year, Proxi and Sepia beverage director Jennifer Wagoner was pulling California wine bottles as part of a routine regional update of Proxi’s wine list when she noticed something intriguing.

“I kept going for certain wines that I felt were very beautiful, and I noticed quite a few were made by women or had a prominent female voice,” the sommelier says.

On a research trip to Alsace-Lorraine that summer, Wagoner met and sampled wines from members of Femmes de Vins, a collection of nine regional associations representing 250 women in France’s winemaking regions, including the Rhone Valley, Champagne, and the Loire Valley. She left inspired, already thinking about the focus of her next bottle update: Rather than showcase another geographical corner of the world, her fall 2018 list would focus on women.

Wagoner amassed about 40 bottles either made by women or from wineries with women in prominent roles — from two sisters in Veneto making organically grown, estate-bottled prosecco to a high-altitude Bordeaux blend from husband-and-wife winemakers in Lebanon. She figured she’d feature the theme for a few months, but Proxi’s wine list remains female-centric, evolving into a larger study of women’s voices in wine.

“I’ve always been drawn to the story aspect of wine,” Wagoner says. “Learning the history and culture of a place and equating that with food and wine is incredibly exciting to me.”

Erin Carlman Weber of All Together Now  Photo: Carolina Mariana Rodríguez

A few miles away in Ukrainian Village, Erin Carlman Weber, a self-described feminist and partner at café and bottle shop All Together Now, took a more explicit approach to female representation on her wine list: She sourced half of the eatery’s 150-odd bottles from women-led wineries.

“I never wanted to have a soapboxy, screaming-from-the-rooftop mission, but as I began thinking about the kind of business I wanted to run and how to incorporate my own values, female winemaker representation was an obvious thing we have control over as owners and buyers,” Carlman Weber says. “It doesn’t seem like a radical notion to feature wines with 50 percent female leadership when women make up half the world’s population.”

It wasn’t easy building out All Together Now’s inventory. The business favors minimal-intervention wines — a world where vintages vary widely and small-batch wines go out of stock quickly without easy analogs for replacement. And when Carlman Weber tried to apply the same representation to the beer program, she couldn’t find enough female-led breweries.

Even in the wine world, female vintners remain a minority in almost every winemaking region worldwide.

“I’d say Napa and Italy have led the way as far as female representation goes,” says Chicago-based sommelier Belinda Chang. She points to lauded Tuscan winemakers like Alessia Antinori — who, with sisters Albiera and Allegra Antinori, will inherit one of the world’s oldest and most respected wineries, Marchesi Antinori — and Donatella Cinelli Colombini, who helms the 31-year-old Associazione Nazionale Donne di Vino della Grazia, an association of female winemakers, wine growers, restaurateurs, shop owners, and journalists that now has 750 members. Additionally, in 2016, Cinelli Colombini opened Casato Prime Donne, Italy’s first winery run solely by women.

In Napa, female vintner powerhouses like Pam Starr (Crocker and Starr Wines), Helen Turley (Marcassin Wine Co. and Turley Wine Cellars), and Cathy Corison (Corison Winery) have paved the way for younger generations. Still, of California’s more than 4,000 wineries, only about 10 percent have lead winemakers who are women, according to the American Association of Wine Economists.

With more than 20 years in the industry and a James Beard Award under her belt, Chang recalls being one of the few women helming the iconic beverage programs at fine-dining restaurants like Charlie Trotter’s and The Modern in New York City. Back then, she was repeatedly featured alongside fellow Chicago master somm Alpana Singh (then at Everest) in articles, touting them as the top “female wine pros to watch.”

“During that time, the same women were in all those stories, and always spoken of or written about as if they were an anomaly or something strange,” she says.

Now, Chang cringes at the thought of being showcased based on gender rather than judged by the quality of her product.

“I would love if articles like that would never be written again. Even back then, I was like, ‘This is dumb! I want to be in the articles with the guys! I’m just going to be better than they are and get on the New York Times or San Francisco Chronicle wine tasting panels, and not because I’m a woman, or because I’m Asian,’” she remembers. “That’s all you can do, though — crush it and lead by example.”

She acknowledges that optics and mentorship are crucial for historically marginalized groups. As a longtime beverage director and shepherdess of iconic, leather-bound wine bibles, Chang made a point to amass all-female beverage teams. Now, as a marketer, event planner, and educator, she conceives events like hosting the Donne di Vino for her annual “Pre-Prom” party before the James Beard Foundation Awards.

From this year’s Pre-Prom Party on May 6 (from left to right: Carmela Cieri of Colli di Lapio Winery, Campania; Elena Revello from Revello Winery, Piedmont; and Jenny Battaglio from Marengo Winery, Piedmont)   Photo: Light Leak Pictures

However, as a buyer, Chang struggles with representation for representation’s sake.

“When you also have to factor in quality, drinkability, vineyard pedigree, and price point, it’s a huge responsibility that I take very seriously,” she says. “If all other things are equal, I’m always going to choose the woman. But I put the onus on her to be the best and push her art. Then, I will 1,000 percent support her in every way.”

Cub Dimling, a partner at natural wine shop and bistro Red & White Wines in Bucktown, takes a similar “deliciousness over dogma” viewpoint at the retail level. She feels responsible for the experience people have when they take home a $30 bottle of wine they’ve never tried before.

“I do feel like I’m very interested in representation, even just for the sake of representation, [but] it’s easier to do that in the bar, where we can offer the story to people as they’re tasting the wine,” she says. “When you take a bottle home and want it to be thing you were looking for, which is mainly delicious, I struggle more with filling the shelves with women-made wines for the sake of doing it.”

In that sense, independent, ideologically driven shops like Red & White have already done the heavy lifting: Their patrons trust that they cultivate inventories with those values in mind. Indeed, a lot of younger oenophiles are drawn to natural wine in part because they see their purchasing decisions as a projection of their cultural and political identities. By breaking away from the dynastic boys’ club model of traditional winemaking, natural winemakers have inherent rebellious appeal.

“Natural wine favors a more straight-to-the-source approach and has people thinking more about the individuals making the wine,” Dimling says. “Just drawing attention to the production process — to the fact that a woman, or a gay man, or a person of color made this wine — reminds people that there are human hands behind the process.”

But someone has to decide to bypass a sure thing in favor of something new and perhaps different. Carlman Weber’s unequivocal pursuit of more equitable representation opened her eyes to producers she wouldn’t have otherwise discovered; the same went for Wagoner, though she arrived there more circumstantially.

Being first and foremost in the hospitality business, however, the women acknowledge that they walk a fine line between pleasure and preaching.

“People are coming to us to have a good time, not be told how to live their lives. I don’t want to make it a shouty thing [but] more a healthy level of awareness to get people thinking about supporting female producers,” Carlman Weber says.

“We’re just trying to quietly weave our values into the way we do things. Maybe we need to be a little louder.”

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