Swirling around in the back of my mind for some time has been the idea of writing about women and wine. After reading the story of a Champagne empire and the woman who ruled it, “The Widow Clicquot,” I decided the idea had aerated long enough.
March is Women’s History Month, and wine history is filled with influential women such as the Champagne widows, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin and Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery. After their husbands died, each of these women took over the reins of her family’s Champagne business.
The widow, or veuve, Clicquot proved herself an enterprising business woman. Through hard work and perseverance, she built her late husband’s fledgling Champagne business into one of the most successful Champagne houses of France. Barbe-Nicole is credited with three important contributions to the development of the Champagne industry:
“Remuage en pupitre” (riddling of the bottles to force the sediment to the neck0, internationalization of the Champagne trade and development of brand identity, fiercely guarding her famous yellow label, which survives today.
Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery’s hard work and diligence brought her late husband’s business to the forefront of the Champagne world. She is credited with developing the “brut”-style Champagne so loved by the English during the 19th century, which remains the most popular style today.
Another important Victorian widow of the wine world is Dona Antonia Ferreiro, who challenged the monopoly of English-run Port houses in Douro, Portugal. Ferreiro remains the dominant Port brand. Another widow is Australia’s Mary Penfold, who took over the reins of the family wine business after her husband’s death, making Penfolds into one of Australia’s leading wine producers.
Today, women can be found making great wine in every wine region. In France, Burgundy alone has more than 30 women winemakers, one of which is Lalou Bize Leroy, who inherited her father’s wine merchant business and a quarter of the most famous Burgundy domaine, the Domaine de Romanee-Conti.
In California during the 1800s, about 10 percent of the winemakers were women; today, the percentage is a bit higher, somewhere around 15-20 percent. Traditionally, women inherited wine businesses from their husbands and fathers, but many of today’s women winemakers have started their own businesses.
Women are moving into all aspects of the wine world, from winemakers to sommeliers, from marketing and hospitality to distribution, all fields previously dominated by men.
The term sommelier originally referred to privileged individuals who kept and maintained proper food and drink of the lords. Known as keeper of the key, these important positions were held by men. Today, sommelier relates specifically to the world of wine, and qualified women sommeliers are no longer a rarity.
Modern science tells us that women might be better suited to this position than men. Several studies have suggested that a large number of “super-tasters” — people blessed with double the normal number of taste buds — are actually women. Ladies, this is good news: It means you get to choose the wine from now on!
Actually, this is already happening. Research indicates that women prefer wine over beer and that women purchase eight out of 10 bottles of wine or about 80 percent of the wine consumed at home.
This makes sense because women still do a lot of the cooking and shopping, so they are more likely to purchase wine to pair with meals.
Women typically purchase wine based on taste preferences rather than brand preference, and they are also more likely to purchase a bottle of wine because it has a fun, cute or thematic label. And yes, ladies, we tend to spend less on a bottle of wine than men do.
We are also less likely to buy wine for investment or for long-term aging than our male counterparts. Women may not be known as collectors of wine yet, although this historically male hobby is being pursued by more women. Women enjoy wine as a way to make the ordinary a little more aesthetic.
Whatever the reason, women have definitely broken the glass ceiling of a realm previously dominated by men. We’ve come a long way, ladies, so pop the cork and toast all the women of wine both past and present. And while you’re at it, give yourself a nice pour, too.
Kathy Smith is a co-owner of Smith’s Liquor Gallery and the Independent Ale House in Rapid City, and is a certified executive sommelier.