Fall Wine

Where Are Washington's Woman Winemakers?

Our state makes more wine than any other except California, but female producers remain relatively scarce. The reasons may not be what you think.

By Allecia Vermillion October 7, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Seattle Met

Itä Wines owner Kelsey Albro Itämeri. Photo by Feed It Creative.

After a long day of bottling—just before they pick up their kids—Elizabeth Bourcier and Karin Gasparotti sit at the round table in the lab office at Cayuse Vineyards and trade stories about life as a woman who makes wine.

There’s the challenge of reconciling fixed childcare schedules and the all-in intensity of harvest. Stereotypes about women making delicate wines while men put forth the swaggering trophy cabs. Male colleagues who question your ability to meet the physical demands of moving hoses and digging out tanks. Early in Gasparotti’s career, a would-be employer asked during her interview if she planned to have kids. “Oh no, not a harvest baby!” gasps Bourcier in mock panic. Then she chuckles. “I had one.”

Bourcier’s voice may be soft, but her wines are commanding. As the resident vigneronne for Cayuse’s parent company, Bionic Wines, she’s made an impressive number of 100-point bottles in her career. Yet she’s no stranger to tasting groups where male counterparts dismiss her input on the wines they sample. “People talk over you. It’s really frustrating.”

Women have faced—continue to face—universal challenges in this field. And yet Washington poses a few hurdles all its own for female winemakers. We produce more wine than any state besides California. Send two women to the U.S. senate. Lead the way on issues like paid family leave and reproductive rights. Buy tickets to watch the Storm and the OL Reign. But when it comes to female winemakers—especially ones in the power seat—our numbers lag behind those of Oregon, California, and even Idaho.

Hard data is admittedly scant. Few industry organizations tally the gender of the individuals making wine. Others celebrate woman-owned wineries, though many female owners lend their talents to the marketing, the operations, or the finance side of the business. Many of the names in Washington are the wives of the person who got into this business to be a winemaker.

 

The Washington State Wine Commission works with the Alliance of Women in Washington Wine to keep an internal roster of women involved in the state’s wine industry. It’s not a comprehensive or official source, they emphasize—more a resource for two organizations who want to spotlight female contributions wherever possible. But if you break down the numbers, it shows 80 women hold winemaker or assistant winemaker jobs. Winnow it down to women who make wine and have their name on the door, and the number drops to 37. In a state with more than 1,000 wineries.

The Oregon Wine Board estimates women comprise 33 percent of the state’s winemaking force. “More than anywhere on the planet, I believe,” according to communications director Sarah Murdoch. The number of wineries in Oregon approaches 1,000—slightly less than Washington. In California, 14 percent of the state’s 4,200 wineries reported having a woman in a lead winemaking role, according to a 2020 study out of Santa Clara University. Idaho’s relatively nascent wine community—69 wineries and counting—include at least 15 run by women, including establishments like Ste. Chapelle, the state’s largest winery, and Cinder, considered the vanguard of Idaho wine.

Explanations for this gap are theories at best. Bourcier notes that Oregon and California’s wine industries began with significant influence from European transplants who hail from a more egalitarian wine culture of grandmas picking grapes and daughters taking over generational winemaking operations. (At Cayuse, Bourcier works for Christophe Baron, a native of the Champagne region.) Others point to the red state culture prevalent on the eastern side of Washington, home to most vineyards and wineries. “The good old boys,” as one female winemaker put it.

 

Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture runs its own winery, College Cellars. The 22-year-old program quickly gets its students’ hands dirty, pushing past the romance of winemaking to underscore just how much of this profession centers on proper—and repeated—equipment cleaning. Sabrina Lueck, the interim director of winemaking, was an early production mentor with the prestigious Bâtonnage Mentorship Program, which supports women in wine. The women who participate are “a total who’s who of women in production,” she says. Looking at these guides, already ascendant in leadership roles at some of the biggest names in Napa, she often thinks, “It would be hard to scrounge up that level of young-female-in-charge people in Washington.”

Sabrina Lueck, interim director of winemaking for Walla Walla Community College's Institute for Enology and Viticulture.

Sitting in her office just beyond the college’s tasting room, Lueck flips through her student rosters since 2011. The percentage of female enrollees has fluctuated over the years. And when a program admits maybe 20 students annually, it’s too small to translate those numbers to any meaningful percentages. But she sees a possible answer to Washington’s representation issues in a different set of statistics.

In Oregon and most of California, “it can be pretty prohibitively expensive to start wineries,” Lueck says. The ones that do operate on high-stakes ground like the Napa Valley “view themselves more like a commercial business and less like a passion project.” This means big operations with more staff roles that women can potentially fill—and often more corporate awareness around diversity and inclusivity.

In Washington, conversely, the 10 biggest wineries make up 84 percent of the state’s production. Which leaves 990-ish other wineries to fill in the rest.

It's funny to talk about anything being less expensive in Washington, land of the turbo-charged real estate market. But Chris Stone of the Washington State Wine Commission thinks this theory has credence. The organization assesses its DEI efforts in its annual report and offers training on this front to the state’s wineries. “As we all know, this industry has long been white male dominated,” says Stone. “We’ve all had our eyes open to the need to make those kind of changes.”

Expanding the breadth of people making Washington wine is certainly a worthy goal for its own sake. But back at Cayuse, assistant vigneronne Karin Gasparotti sees benefits in the glass when a variety of palates can participate in the process. “Diversity is great in the wine—everybody’s going to get something different.” 

 

Five identical buildings cluster in a semicircle not far from Walla Walla’s single-gate airport. Their architecture suggests a Fisher-Price version of a schoolhouse, each one painted its own shade of pastel. Inside the coral-colored one, the Itä Wines tasting room pours the sort of lighter-body wines, with a pronounced twinkle of acid, that have expanded the state’s wine profile in recent years.

Behind a black and white curtain, in the tiny production area, Kelsey Albro Itämeri follows the one-person passion project business model that built so many great Washington wineries. Itämeri has a degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She’s worked in politics, in television. She’s managed a bar and worked at a natural foods business. “Some folks have this big light bulb moment about making wine,” she says. Itämeri didn’t have a light bulb moment, but she did have parents who owned some property in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. The grapes on that property helped Itämeri edge into winemaking with test batches in her garage.

Since then she’s completed the Walla Walla Community College program and interned locally and in Burgundy. But she wouldn’t have her own winery, she says, if it weren’t for the building it occupies.

The Port of Walla Walla built this row of incubator wineries on its airport land to offer another sort of runway. Participants pay relatively low rent for a space designed for wine production and can stay six years. While the incubator isn’t specifically for women, or any other demographic, it does sand down the chief barrier for anybody who isn’t already affluent.

“You need capital to start a winery,” says Itämeri. “That’s just not a joke.” Grape bills and bottling fees can come due a year or more before a new winemaker will have anything ready to sell. Itämeri borrowed money from her in-laws. Itä Wines was born in 2019, but Itämeri’s creations already command impressive scores and an outsize amount of attention. Her incubator neighbors include Hong Kong native Fiona Mak of Smak Wines and Hoquetus Wine Company, owned by Robert Gomez, also a sommelier and musician. By the time the incubator’s current occupants complete their six-year terms, Washington’s wine landscape could look very different.

Things are already changing. When Devyani Gupta heard a Spanish winemaking family was adding a Walla Walla winery to its portfolio, she was swift to get her resume into the right hands. She grew up on sniffs from her dad’s wine glass and headed off to Whitman College to double major in psychology and Spanish. Whitman’s location in wine country was happenstance, but a few part-time jobs in tasting rooms helped Gupta “fall down the rabbit hole of curiosity.” At Amavi Cellars, her bosses noticed her interest and invited her to ride along on vineyard visits. The exposure helped her realize: “You can be one of these people making the wine; you could be out in the vineyard growing the grapes.”

Devyani Gupta, winemaker and viticulturist, Valdemar Estates.

By the time Valdemar, a fifth-generation enterprise out of Rioja, did break ground in Walla Walla, Gupta was working for Figgins Family Wine Estates—one of the first families of Washington wine—and in nearby vineyards during summer months. In 2019 she came on as assistant winemaker at one of the Walla Walla valley’s most high-profile new projects. Today she’s the head winemaker and viticulturist, fulfilling a goal of being the sort of winemaker who walks the fields, drags the hoses, and is “behind a desk for as few hours a day as possible.”

 Working with a larger company means multiple people offer input on each vintage. Valdemar considers how its wines play on the global market, not just the local one. And, crucially, a single person doesn’t make hiring decisions. “That’s a big benefit,” says Gupta. “You aren’t always aware of your own biases.”

Gupta took over the top winemaker role from Marie-Eve Gilla, perhaps the first time such a transition in Washington hasn’t involved any Y chromosomes. In 2021 Chateau Ste. Michelle, the state’s biggest winery, promoted Katie Nelson to head winemaker, the state’s highest-profile wine job. Two women with deep experience lead the Washington State Wine Commission board.

Sabrina Lueck recently left her post at Walla Walla Community College to work for German wine producer Weingut Keller. Maybe it’s not so much that Washington presents barriers that other states don’t, she muses as her final day approached this summer. “It’s just that change just happened faster in other areas.” One thing she doesn’t see changing is the preponderance of harvest babies. “Because they get made in the winter, when everyone’s bored.”


A Taste of What's to Come:

Meet the female winemakers changing the face of Washington wine. By Sean P. Sullivan

KATIE NELSON
VP winemaking, Chateau Ste. Michelle

Chateau Ste. Michelle produces more wine than most of the other wineries in the state combined. Nelson is the person who makes them, bringing to the position nearly 30 years of experience in the industry.

ELIZABETH BOURCIER
Resident vigneronne, Bionic Wines

Cayuse Vineyards and the Bionic Wines family offerings are some of the most coveted wines on the planet. They only continue to get better and better under Bourcier’s leadership.

MARI WOMACK
Owner/winemaker, Damsel Cellars

Like many, Womack was bit by the wine bug while working at restaurants. After volunteering at various Woodinville wineries, she became assistant winemaker at Darby before launching Damsel Cellars in 2013.

KATE MICHAUD
Winemaker, Double Canyon

Michaud’s winemaking experiences took her to California, Australia, New Zealand, and British Columbia before settling in Washington. Michaud has spent the last five years at Double Canyon, taking inspiration from Horse Heaven Hills fruit.

Portraits courtesy the individuals.

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