Breaking The Wineglass Ceiling After years of toiling in the vineyards, women are rising to the top of California's luxury wine business.
By Eryn Brown Reporter Associate Karen Vella-Zarb

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Even in our gilded age, this spring's Napa Valley Wine Auction was amazing. Tickets to the four-day charity event, priced at $2,000 per couple, sold out within a week. The food was fantastic--salmon skewered on alder branches, local wild mushrooms, the first tomatoes of the season. Sculptors installed flame-shaped statues, made from hundreds of hand-blown glass spirals, at vineyards throughout the valley.

And the bids! A Silicon Valley executive bought a six-liter bottle of a "cult" cabernet sauvignon for $500,000. Another six-liter cabernet, in a sycamore-and-ebony box designed by Princess Margaret's son, David Linley, went to a woman in Santa Barbara for $220,000. (In 1999 the same wine, of a different vintage, in another royal box, sold for $55,000; in 1998, $28,000.) The auction raised $9.5 million for charity, up from $5.5 million last year. In every way the scale was exceptional, and people took notice.

What they might not have noticed is how many women were there making it happen.

Traditionally, high-priced auctions like the Napa Valley event have been all about men: earthy, broad-shouldered vintners shoulder to shoulder with wealthy captains of industry. Everyone's an alpha male, creating or capturing the ultimate cellar trophy. The bidding is competitive. The tasting is competitive. Who really knows his pinot noirs? Who flies the nicest jet? The women stick with the charities and the catering. They're more interested in finding a champagne to go with the beluga than a bordeaux to go with the Monet.

But at this year's auction, women were in the thick of things. Nancy Andrus, co-owner of Pine Ridge winery, chaired the event. That $500,000 bottle? Screaming Eagle, sold by real estate agent Jean Phillips and created by Heidi Barrett, one of the best-known and most sought-after winemakers in Napa. The $220,000 sycamore-and-ebony getup? Colgin Cellars, owned by Ann Colgin, a former art and antiques dealer. Until last year, Colgin's wines were crafted by Helen Turley, another famous woman winemaker.

What happened? Has there been a quiet revolution in the vineyard? There are certainly more women winemakers in the industry. Twenty-five years ago only about 5% of the students enrolled in the enology program at the University of California at Davis--the premier training ground for California winemakers--were women. By the early 1990s that proportion had shot up to 50%.

But the more significant trend has been the increasing prominence of women making and selling luxury wine, the stuff that costs $25 or more per bottle. That's the fastest-growing category in the wine business--expanding 25% year over year--and the one that's getting all the attention. No one tracks exactly how many women winemakers are involved in the high end of the industry. "There are women everywhere," says Vic Motto of the management consulting firm Motto Kryla & Fisher, "but they seem to concentrate in the luxury area."

Barrett and Turley are two of the biggest stars associated with "cult" wines, so named because their limited production, near-perfect tasting reviews, and sky-high price tags have inspired fanatical behavior among collectors (like $500,000 bids at auction). But there are a slew of other women winemakers crafting premium wines, including Zelma Long, Mia Klein, Merry Edwards, and Dawnine Dyer (often credited with creating the California sparkling wine). Women are also making strides in other areas of the wine business. Judy Jordan, Ann Colgin, Barrett, Klein, and Edwards all produce wine under their own labels. Long, Jordan, Michaela Rodeno, and Eileen Crane have supervised winery operations. Joy Sterling is playing a more prominent role in her family business. And outside California, women like Starwood beverage director Andrea Immer, Sotheby's wine department chief Serena Sutcliffe, and Clicquot CEO Mireille Guiliano are becoming increasingly powerful players in the business.

There are almost as many explanations for the recent success of women in the wine industry as there are varieties of grapes. Some say it's a function of discrimination--that women have to be exceptional to break into the business in the first place, so it's only natural that once they're in, they'll rise to the top. Others think women make great wines because they have more sensitive palates or are better with people. And still more say the wine industry is simply mirroring the work world at large. "It wasn't just the wine industry," says Ann Noble, a professor at Davis, "but a change in women's role in society."

Merry Edwards surveys her vineyard, a 24-acre tract near Sebastopol that she bought in 1995. In barrettes, glasses, and a baseball cap, she drives a John Deere Gator between the rows of vines. She yells "!Hola!" to the field crew and checks on the bloodied gopher traps her husband, who spends his days working as a State Farm agent, set out the night before. "There's nothing like waiting 25 years to get your own vineyard when you're a winemaker," she shouts over the growl of the motor. "I'm pretty excited about this piece of dirt."

It's been a long road. Edwards has been a winemaker since 1974, when she graduated from Davis. Though a few women had already broken into the business by then, Edwards found getting hired to be a challenge. "I had an interesting time getting my first job," she says. "People didn't think I could do the physical work." She eventually landed a winemaking job at the Mt. Eden winery, which required a lot of heavy lifting. Within months, Edwards says, her shirts didn't fit anymore. Her shoulders had gotten too broad.

She left Mt. Eden to help start the Matanzas Creek winery, where she quickly earned a loyal following. After the birth of her second son (she timed her pregnancies so that they wouldn't interfere with harvests), she switched to consulting, which gave her more flexibility in her schedule. "Winemaking is not an easy job to have with kids," she says. Now, at long last, she's launching her own wine, Merry Edwards Pinot Noir.

Edwards is one of those people who think hardship has pushed women forward in winemaking, that women have to truly excel if they have any hope of breaking into the business at all. "People think there are a lot of women in wine, because we're associated with the high-end, visible brands," she says. "But the statistics don't bear that out." Edwards thinks that fewer than 10% of working winemakers in California are women.

Delia Viader is a Ph.D. and single mother of four, born in Argentina, who makes and markets a cabernet blend--another cult wine--on mountainside property she owns in St. Helena. She agrees with Edwards: "As a woman, you have to be doubly good to get a job as a winemaker. It's not just handed to you." But Viader also believes that women make really good wines because they're better tasters than men, because their biology allows them to detect the elusive flavors everyone says you're supposed to find in wine--berries, papaya, oak, earth--and the subtle differences between grapes grown in different vineyards and harvested during different seasons. "Women are better," she says. "They can really pick up the nuances of a blend. I always work with a team, and I always include myself and at least one other woman. The whole team usually agrees on the general blend, but when it comes to the minute percentages, often only the women will really pick it up."

When Viader recently bottled her 1998 vintage, she made sure her winemaking consultant, Mia Klein, was on hand. Klein--who also makes her own wine, Selene, and who's known to have one of the best palates in Napa--doesn't really buy this better-taster business. "A lot of tasting is training," she says. "My ability to smell a chardonnay and say 'peach' comes because I'm practiced."

Heidi Barrett doesn't think taste buds have anything to do with gender either. Born into a winemaking family (her dad, Dick Peterson, was the winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards) and married into another (her husband's family owns Chateau Montelena), she also studied at the winemaking program at Davis, toiled in the fields, and did lots of lifting.

These days, like Edwards and Klein, Barrett works as a winemaking consultant, traveling between eight wineries (including Screaming Eagle), overseeing their vineyards and harvests, and creating and bottling their wines. She also makes her own wine, La Sirena, buying grapes from an assortment of vineyards and using winery facilities when she needs them.

Barrett says that she's "mostly a mom" and that "the winemaking fits in in between." Given her status, it's hard to believe. Still, at crush time, she says, it's the bare minimum--her house is a wreck, and dinner comes out of the microwave. Sometimes she puts her two daughters, 12 and 14, to work at the winery, giving them paddles to punch down grapes in the bins. On the days that five-ton gondolas of red grapes come in, she says, the girls "help" by inviting over friends, donning old clothes, and leaping, cannonball-style, into the massive vats. "But," she says, "they only get to do that with red grapes, which are more sturdy."

Barrett says she's surprised by the Screaming Eagle phenomenon. "It absolutely blew me away," she says of this year's auction. "I'm so glad I got to be there." But she gives herself credit where it's due: "I think the 1992 Screaming Eagle is one of the best wines I've ever made. The flavors are really pure. It's silky and rich. It's a big, lovely wine. It's delicious."

Another reason women have hit it big--especially women not on the winemaking side--is that wine is a people business. It's about image, about creating a market, about entertaining. That's what Joy Sterling thinks, anyway. Sterling's parents founded the Iron Horse winery, known for its sparkling wines, in 1976. Sterling signed on to help her folks with sales and marketing in 1985, after working all over the country as a broadcast journalist. "This is a great business for women to be in," she says, walking over the rolling hills of her family's estate near Sebastopol. "It's based on charm, on relationships, on entertaining."

Sterling, now Iron Horse's marketing director, tells guests that she's "the luckiest person in America." She shows them her family's beautiful homes and gardens, which are all on the vineyard estate--"We've got this Walton thing happening"--and regales them with tales of her winemaker husband's 100-mile horseback outings in the Sierras or of her own "1,200-pound lap dog of a horse."

It sounds like a fantasy life. But watching her work it, you begin to think that traveling half the time and entertaining three to five lunch guests a week isn't all it's cracked up to be. The day FORTUNE visits, Sterling is busy hosting a sommelier from Sedona, Ariz., and his girlfriend. When they leave, she slumps into a chair. "There is absolutely no division of life and work in our family," Sterling says. "You could conclude that we're always on, or that we never work. You're an ambassador even when you're out of town."

Women have been making inroads in the corporate world for a generation, and the wine industry is no exception. What's ironic is that many female wine executives--including Michaela Rodeno of St. Supery, Eileen Crane of Domaine Carneros, and Mireille Guiliano of Clicquot (the U.S. subsidiary of Veuve Clicquot)--work for French companies. By all accounts, getting anywhere in the French wine industry as a woman is virtually impossible unless your deceased father, brother, or husband ran the business first. "For a woman to be a CEO in France is unusual, but when these companies come over here, it's different," says Rodeno, a Davis graduate who has been running St. Supery for the past dozen years and who says she hasn't felt much discrimination personally. "Things that they wouldn't do at home, they do here. It's like being on the moon for them. When they're here in California, they act like the moon people."

"I wouldn't have this job if I still lived in France," says Guiliano, who's now based in New York City. Adds Crane: "I think they think women's lib in America is further along than it really is."

On a tour of the Napa winery where Domaine Carneros, owned by the Taittinger family, makes its sparkling wines, Crane stops in front of a photograph taken at the winery's opening party in 1990. Crane, wearing a sequined black dress, is standing with Claude Taittinger, his nephew Pierre-Emmanuel (who will likely take over the family business), and three other men. Crane laughs. "Everyone always wants to know: Whose wife is she?"

One of the pioneers in the California wine business is Zelma Long. The second woman to enroll in the winemaking program at Davis, in 1968, Long served as winemaker at the Mondavi and Simi wineries, eventually moving into the CEO slot at Simi with a mandate from corporate parent LVMH to rebuild the languishing brand. Long "narrowed and focused" Simi's product line, doubling production over eight years.

Everyone admires Long. Says Sotheby's Sutcliffe: "She's very important, because she made the jump from winemaking to corporate. It's very rare. She's an absolute master." Joel Quigley, executive director of Wine Brats, an organization that promotes wine drinking to people in their 20s and 30s, agrees: "Zelma Long is...she's way up there, on another level. She's goddess level!"

These days the goddess works out of a small, freestanding office next to her house, near Healdsburg. The place, filled with Tibetan art, backs on a garden and smells of fragrant wood. Long's new company, Zelphi, which she started with her husband, Phillip Freese, makes a sauvignon blanc in South Africa, and Long has taken an interest in African culture. There's a South African table in her office and a Nigerian gameboard that looks like a woman lying on her back. Long tosses a cozy (also purchased in South Africa) over a pot of green tea sitting on a tray next to a plate of English shortbread.

"If you speak or write about something, everyone automatically thinks you're an expert," Long says. She doesn't like to philosophize about her success in the corporate world, which she credits mostly to her single-mindedness. "Some people are really sensitive to their environments. Things just roll off me. I guess I have this focus."

As much of a trailblazer as Long was, she doesn't spend a lot of time fighting for equal opportunity in the vineyards. "People haven't organized," she says, "which I guess means it isn't really needed." Others disagree. "When you hire women, you get much better candidates coming through, because so many wineries won't talk to them," says one woman executive. "If I'm presented with equal candidates, I'll usually pick the woman. You have to do that to get role models out there."

For Heidi Barrett, being associated with a trend--the influx of women in wine--is one of the few things that seems to throw her. "I don't want people to talk to me because I'm a woman," she says. "I want them to talk to me because I'm good."