Skip to content
Home » Women and Wine – Historical Origins

Women and Wine – Historical Origins

Women have been consistently excluded from power since early wine history. Despite all the obstacles that prevented them from participating, women have made their mark on the history of wine since its discovery. There have been significant improvements in equity and inclusion over the last 100 year, but there is still much to be done. Examining the causes of systematic exclusion, and the lessons learned from strong-willed women that have succeeded despite all odds, can help us understand the current challenges and create a roadmap to make the wine world more fair and dynamic. Although this article is focused on women in winemaking and winebusiness ownership, it doesn’t ignore the many contributions women have made throughout the industry.

Although most countries involved with wine culture today have legal systems that allow equal treatment of men and women under the law, gender hierarchy is still deeply embedded and women are underrepresented in high-ranking positions in the wine trade. The American Association of Wine Economists reports that wineries owned by women only make up 5% of the total wineries in California and Oregon, and 3% in Washington State. This gap is even worse for people of colour. Washington State has over 1000 bonded wineries. In 2021 however, only 2 of these are owned or controlled by Black Americans. (Lashelle Wines was owned by Nicole Cotton Camp and Frichette Winery by Shae Frichette. Greg is her husband. But, people in Western countries had a false sense that the equity war was won before recent years’ recognitions of sexism.

Women and Wine – Historical Origins

To be successful in patriarchal societies, men must control the bloodline. This in turn controls inheritance and property ownership in a trading economy. Gerda Lerner, a historian who is also the author of The Creation of Patriarchy explains that the origin of this type of societal structure might be as far back at the dawn of agrarian societies around 12,000 years old. However, patriarchal hierarchies seem to have increased since about 3500 BCE, when Western societies began formalizing trade and documenting the exchange and succession. Patrick McGovern from Pennsylvania State University conducted archeological studies and found that it was around this time that wine trade and the societies that participated in it started to move across the Mediterranean.

Ironically, one can imagine that a woman could have discovered wine’s magical ability to transform the mind and made wine. Paleolithic women were the most likely to gather grapes. So we can see a woman gathering grapes, forgetting all about them in her cave and finding them again days later, bubbling and frothing. While this might have been frightening, it is also possible to imagine Paleolithics were not quick food squanderers. After drinking the awful liquid, she felt transported to a mysterious part of her psyche, where all her cares disappeared, according Hugh Johnson in his book The Story of Wine. She may have felt that she was communicating with a higher power. It was inevitable that she would share this experience with her cave-mates. They would want to repeat it again and again. Over time, they shared the magic and craft of wine, developed trade and became connoisseurs.

McGovern has identified the foothills the Caucasus Mountains of Armenia and the Zagros Mountains of Iran as places where wine was first produced between 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. The Sumer ancient Mesopotamian civilization (which was established around the same period) is widely recognized as being the first major civilization in human historical history. It also marks the beginning of wine-trading culture. Sumer was home to women as tavern-keepers. This was an important job. Queen Kubaba of Sumer was the first woman to rule the world. She lived approximately 5,000 years ago. She was extremely popular and, according to legend, she reigned benevolently in her 100-year reign.

Rod Phillips is a wine historian and wine scholar. He believes that wine’s role in the development and establishment of Western civilizations is important. Wine’s ability to extinguish our worries, its ability generate wealth through trade and its value as a food item makes it easy to see why some people would want to preserve the privileges, power and prosperity it offers. Early wine cultures defined who could make, trade, or drink wine. Rules proliferated. Rules were created. Exclusions from wine were more based on class than sex in ancient Egypt. In fact, women were recorded drinking wine as well as participating in the wine trade. The elite of both genders could drink wine while the lower classes could have beer. Although most information about Etruscans (the wine culture predating the Greeks in the Italian Peninsula), comes from the accounts written by their mortal enemies the Greeks, we can infer from these accounts that Etruria may have been a society where women and men had equal rights in almost all aspects of society including property ownership and wine consumption. People have been pondering the power of wine since its inception and deciding who will be included in its bounty.

As the wine trade expanded to the Mediterranean and gained economic significance for empire building, men became more concerned with controlling inheritance and wealth. This meant that they had to be able control women and their sexuality. It is believed that the Greeks were the first to completely remove women from power. The Romans then adapted the successful methods and beliefs of the Greeks to build their empire.

Even though women were excluded from wine, a connection between wine and its transformative powers has existed for as long time as humans have been documenting the world. The Greco-Roman period saw the creation of a dedicated male god for wine. Previously, it was governed and controlled by multi-tasking agrarian goddesses. Dionysus/Bacchus could be described as a gender-bender. Although he was not able to distinguish between masculine or feminine, the wine god helped insidiously bring wine into the full realm of men. The Bacchae by Euripides is the best account of this manipulation. It’s a tragic theatrical piece that serves as effective propaganda for controlling women. It presents their drunkenness as a danger to society and makes sexuality seem threatening. It’s not coincidental that Hestia, goddess of hearth, gave her seat on Mount Olympus, to Dionysus. She also relinquished the domains and fertility of the home and to men. Only after wine became firmly within the realm of men during the golden age, was it allowed for women to drink again in a controlled manner. At the height of Rome’s power everyone was allowed to drink, which led to the largest wine trade in history, with men holding the purse strings, and the greatest profit.
It is a time when powerful women emerge

The age of Rome, the gods antiquity, gave way to Christianity in Medieval Europe’s age of feudalism, Christianity in Medieval Europe, and the hierarchy of a man God became the male lineage of priests and monarchs. Women were a literal extension of property and are rarely listed by other names than their fathers or husbands. The power of girl children was used in noble circles to help marry wealth and property. However, despite the cultural constraints, some strong-willed females managed to make their mark on wine.

Eleanor de Aquitaine, one of the women who had the most impact on wine’s world was one of those women. Eleanor, probably the richest and most powerful woman in the Middle Ages married Henry Plantagenet the Count de Anjou in 1152. Henry became the King soon after. This union saw nearly a third France’s territory, including Bordeaux, the most important international port for wine trade, under English rule. This created a conflict between the English & French for many centuries. It had an impact on many of the most famous wines in the world and was a catalyst for a long-lasting feud. Trade embargos and wars made British trade difficult with Bordeaux. The quest to replace the Brits’ beloved claret resulted in significant improvements in Sherry trade, and the birth of Port.

Catherine de’Medici was another example. She was 14 years old when she married into noble families. Her most famous act was the murder of Huguenots in 16th century. She was manipulative and cruel and brutal. Catherine’s rule is credited to many fascinating things by the world of food & wine. Catherine is said to have brought her whole kitchen crew to France after she returned from Italy. It is believed that the French cuisine was greatly influenced by Catherine’s chefs, who brought their refined Italian cooking techniques and delicate sauces to court. It is believed that she introduced the fork to French cooks, who were previously able to cut rustic pieces of meat with knives.

Additionally, it is possible that Cabernet Franc may have been brought to Barco Reale in Tuscan, where it was first used by Catherine. Barco Reale, today, is the site of the Carmignano DOCG. It was the first Italian appellation to call for the use Cabernets. Cabernet Sauvignon may have been introduced in the post-phylloxera era. However, locals claim that Cabernet Franc dates back to the time when the Medicis included the grape in its original appellation.
Loopholes and laws

Feudal Europe had a very inequitable history, not just for women. While the French Revolution is celebrated for its ability to transform France and influence the world toward a free and fair society, it only applied to men. The Napoleonic Code of 1805 is considered to be the most significant legal document of history. It was based on Roman codes which gave men absolute authority over women. The Napoleonic Code did many good things. It abolished feudalism, supported religious tolerance and standardized the legal system. However, it made women invisible by denying them individual rights and tethering their husbands to them in every way. This included virtually eliminating their rights for men to take responsibility for their illegitimate children, sexual abuse or assault.

The Napoleonic Code, which discriminated on sex, was only reformated in the second decade of the 20th Century. That means that France’s women, as well as all other countries that were based their laws on it, had to fight against an invisible enemy until recent times. Inheritance law said that property would be evenly divided among the legitimate heirs. But because the Napoleonic Code also gave women the right to be wards of either their husbands or fathers, there were only two options for business or property ownership: being widowed and a spinster. This complicated succession law not only left vineyard ownership fragmented (most notably in Burgundy), but also meant that women were virtually excluded from the world of wine.

Many women became widowed in the post-Napoleonic period and were able to purchase property or run a winery. Since the beginning of European history, Champagne has been at front of every French war. And wars make widows. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot stumbled upon the opportunity to help shape Champagne. She perfected the process of riddling, which involves gradually turning Champagne bottles to allow lees sediment to settle in the neck. Today, Veuve, or “Widow,” Clicquot is often referred to as she was, and this refers only to her relationship to a man.

There were many other dynamic, scrappy widows in Champagne. The idea of the widow was a regional marketing trademark. Lily Bollinger, who managed the Bollinger House for many decades, is well-known for her famous quote: “I drink champagne whenever I’m happy and sometimes when I feel sad. Sometimes, I just drink it alone. It’s mandatory when I have company. It’s my obligation to drink it when I’m hungry. I don’t like it when I’m not hungry. Otherwise, I don’t touch it – unless my thirst is satisfied.” Louise Pommery was also a widow and was determined in her pursuit for quality. She can be credited as the original producer of Brut Champagne.

Women were often able to get into the top positions in the wine business through their fathers’ deaths, which was the main way they got there. Ellen Mary Stewart, for whom Glen Ellen is named, was a widow in Sonoma County in California in 1880. Isabelle Simi (18 years) was the first woman to become a commercial winemaker in America. She took over after her brother and father died from flu. She would manage her winery through Prohibition and not have to close it.

In the mid-1800s, it was almost impossible for women of color to be self-sufficient and influential in the wine growing industry. Mary Ellen Pleasant was a notable real estate mogul and entrepreneur. She was famous for her European-style plantings on Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen. Mary Ellen had no choice but to conceal her identity, pretending to be white, or even acting as a housekeeper or cook, in order to achieve this. Mary Ellen was an abolitionist, and she helped many women to become self-sufficient during the wild era of California Gold Rush. While most of the details are obscured, it is clear that European vines were planted on her ranch.

Women cannot inherit property in an unjust system so it is more practical to train them to become winery management and support staff. It is still rare to find women who were either educated in winemaking by their fathers or sent to school by their families to learn enology. This is becoming more common in the latter half of 20th century. Women today may have to inherit winery property and winemaking rights. There are many historical and famous families that have daughters running the winery. Veronique Bousse-Drouhin is the winemaker for Maison Joseph Drouhin, Beaune, and Domaine Drouhin in Oregon. Saskia Prum is the owner and winemaker for S.A. Prum. Elisabetta Foradori is the winemaker and owner at Azienda agricola Foradori in Trentino. Luisa Ponzi and Anna Maria Ponzi are Ponzi Vineyards located in the Willamette Valley. Gina Gallo and Kathryn Walt Wines and Walt Wines and Walt Wines. While it might not seem revolutionary today to have women in winemaking because of family ties, it is significant progress when considered in the context historical.
Education is changing:

Women from non-winemaking families were encouraged to enter formal education in the 1960s and pursue careers in winemaking. MaryAnn Graf, Zelma Long (both of which had tenure at Simi Winery), and Merry Edwards (who would establish her winery in Russian River Valley of Sonoma County) were some of the first women who studied wine and food science at the University of California Davis. These women and others were pioneers, who pursued their passions and set their own goals for their wine careers. Women chose winemaking as a career in the 1970s and 1980s. But most women found they were not the only one or a small number of other women in their classes at school.

The 1980s are just a few years away from the present, but the idea that a woman could open a winery was practically unheard-of when Cathy Corison started her own winery in Napa Valley in 1987. Despite completing a master’s degree and holding prestigious positions such as lead winemaker at Napa Valley’s Chappellet Winery Winery, people warned her that she wouldn’t be successful. She is an undeniable influencer today, and her achievements are undisputed. Kay Simon is another female leader who received a degree from UC-Davis in enology. Kay was appointed assistant winemaker at Chateauste. Michelle founded Chinook Winery, Yakima, Washington in 1983 with her husband. Kay continues to inspire women through her inspiring wines, and her involvement in scholarship efforts and other philanthropy. These winemakers and others have opened the door to a new era of women working in wine. They are demanding greater equality and welcoming more women into the industry, not just for women, but also for people who have historically been excluded.
Looking forward

Since the beginning of time, patriarchy has created the subordination and control of women through laws that and cultural structures. These have kept women out of positions of power and influence as well as intellectual and creative communities. Women have had the toiling battle against both the Western culture’s cultural heritage and its outer structures of exclusion.

While many of the legal hurdles that hindered women’s entry to the wine trade are now gone, there are still systemic and detrimental obstacles. While it is easier and more acceptable to study wine, viticulture and enology and to work in the wine industry, it is important to remember that this relative freedom was a direct result the collaboration, collaboration and partnership of all genders over the last 100 year. Although there are still many things to do to make wine more inclusive, the need to push for that goal is greater than ever.