Women making wine in the esteemed Walla Walla Valley work the soil and schlep just like the men, balancing the demands of their craft with the rest of life.
In early June, over caramelized-onion frittatas, crawfish scrambles and a refreshing rosé at 26brix Restaurant, I sat down with eight women to talk about making wine in one of the world’s hottest wine regions — the Walla Walla Valley.
The players included Virginie Bourgue, Cadaretta and Lullaby; Debbie Hansen, Cougar Crest Winery; Mary Derby and Dawn Kammer, DaMa Wines; Marie-Eve Gilla, Forgeron Cellars; Lynne Chamberlain, JLC Winery and Spofford Station; Verdie Morrison, Morrison Lane; and Denise Slattery, Trio Vintners.
Responding to my questions via e-mail were seven other Walla Walla-based winemakers and/or winery owners: Anna Schafer, àMaurice Cellars; Annette Bergevin and Amber Lane, Bergevin Lane Vineyards; Nina Buty Foster, Buty Winery; Jill Noble, Couvillion; Ashley Trout, Flying Trout Wines; and Holly Turner, Three Rivers Winery.
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We quickly established that times have changed (for the better) for women in the industry. Gilla recalled having to “fight tooth and nails” to get into the winemaking-degree program at Dijon University in Burgundy, France, at a time when women weren’t even allowed in the barrel room. “Women are now freely accepted for the same studies, thank God!”
When asked about the physical task of winemaking, Hansen said she thought it was fairly gender-neutral. “But more than anything, industry attitudes, family-life conflict and spousal support (or the lack of) make the differences between how males/females are able to do the job.”
Chamberlain added, “There’s no difference; we are all schlepping.”
Kammer said her husband, Jack, a mortgage broker, “gets pulled in for heavy lifting and fetching cases of wine.”
“Can’t forget the forklift,” Turner said. “Where would we be without it?”
As for differences in styles, Gilla said, “Men look for the numbers and lab analysis. Women are more confident. If we like it, it’s good.”
When asked about the balance between work and their personal lives, Schafer shot back, “The barrels are my babies!”
Bourgue replied, “Winemaking is very consuming; you have to take some time for yourself so you can give back 120 percent.”
Noble took another tack. “My children are No. 1, and one of the big keys is that they have been very supportive.”
On the subject of equal pay for equal work, many of the women admitted they don’t take a salary (yet), a few estimated they earn about 30 percent less than their male counterparts, and others said their pay was equal.
But the question that provoked the most response was simply: Why do you do it?
To which Morrison answered, “I want to give my children the chance to continue the vineyard and winery if they want to.” Husband Dean’s family “lived and farmed where the vineyard is, and I like being part of that tradition and adding to it.”
Both Bergevin and Lane said they do it because it’s a way of life, and fun every day.
Trout’s passion was obvious: “Because I couldn’t do anything else. You get dirty, stained, blistered and smelly and change into a black-tie dress and discuss the biophysical properties of molecules’ wavelengths while drinking your craft. Better than a cubicle.”
Finally, why Walla Walla?
“There is no other place we could have done this. Walla Walla is a perfect setting to be able to think outside the box,” Derby said.
To which Slattery chimed in, “The bar is very high here. To play here you have to really play well.”
Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining.” Visit her blog at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Jackie Johnston is a photographer based in Eastern Washington.