Many of us start our workday with coffee. Elizabeth Grant-Douglas starts hers with Chardonnay. In a typical morning, she tastes 40 wines. And no, she isn’t tipsy by 10 a.m. (The secret on that later.)
As winemaker for La Crema, Elizabeth, mom of Malcolm, 4, is responsible for crafting the Sonoma Valley producer’s signature Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Part scientist and part artisan, she can tell in a 10-second mouth swish whether a wine’s fermentation is progressing properly and how its flavors are developing. She takes meticulous notes, and to remain clear-headed she takes care to spit out nearly every drop.
In the course of her career, Elizabeth has done plenty of gritty work: sorting grapes; shoveling leftover seeds, skins and gunk out of fermenters; sluicing clean every surface. Now head winemaker, she’s the one who presides over swanky wine-tasting dinners and travels the world to promote the label. For a girl who grew up in Canada, it’s heady stuff. “When I was young, I never thought this would be my future,” she says. “I thought to be a winemaker you had to be born in a château in France.”
Wine, Women and...
The French castle is not a prerequisite. And thankfully, being male is no longer one either. The wine tide has been changing,” says Karen Block, industry relations manager for the University of California–Davis’s viticulture and enology program. “If you talk to women who started back in the 1970s, they’ll tell you what a tough road they had to forge. The industry was male-dominated. Professors told them they wouldn’t get jobs.”
Though women are still under-represented, they’re not excluded. About 10 percent of U.S. wineries have female winemakers—12 percent in Napa and Sonoma, the industry’s American epicenter. (There are wineries, more than 8,500 with permits, in all 50 states.) Still, Lise Asimont, mom of Cassius, 12, and Lily, 9, jokingly calls herself an “alien” because she’s one of the few women running large-scale vineyard operations. As director of grower relations for the Francis Coppola Winery, she oversees cultivation on the Napa producer’s 43 acres and sources grapes from more than 100 growers.
It’s the antithesis of a desk job. In fact, Lise, who has a master’s degree in environmental horticulture, wears out a pair of muck boots each year tramping through vineyards to advise growers on pruning, thinning and irrigating. “I’m often making judgment calls on what the grapes need. This is a grower’s big paycheck each year, and it’s our name on the bottle,” she explains. “We have to trust one another. If there’s any hint of misogyny, I won’t work with them.”
A Convivial Career
Overall, though, the wine industry is remarkably collegial. Beyond the scenery or the foodie culture, there’s the fact that sipping wine makes for, well, happy customers. Sometimes too happy; on rare occasions you have to address a customer who’s been overserved elsewhere, says Dianna Novy Lee, co-founder with husband Adam of Sonoma-based Siduri Wines. Still, it’s the kind of profession where work blends into life, and vice versa. Staffers socialize after hours, trade bottles of wine and swap war stories. “Sometimes I feel bad for the non-industry people when we’re on vacation with a group of friends,” laughs Napa winemaker Anne Vawter. “All we want to talk about is wine.”
Anne produces her own label, Red Mare Wines, and consults for three other brands. Add in kids Adelaide, 6, and Elizabeth, 4, and the management of a horse farm in Calistoga, and it’s a jam-packed life. but she wouldn’t trade it. “I remember when I arrived at the viticulture program at UC Davis, I felt like I'd met my tribe,” she says. “I thought, If this what most people are like, this is a great path for my life.” Dianna, mom of Christian, 14, Amber, 10, and Truett, 7, agrees: “We all rely on each other. We share equipment, we share the workload, we sample each other’s grapes.”
There are few, if any, trade secrets in wine, so the focus is less on competing and more about banding together during hail in June or 105-degree heat in October. That’s when all that socializing pays dividends in goodwill: You can ask to borrow someone’s picking crew to get your grapes in before they turn to raisins. “Problems come up all the time,” says Lise. “You need to be able to think on your feet and turn on a dime when necessary”—and gather ye neighbors while ye may.
Mother vs. Mother Nature
Indeed, weather and environment can throw big curves. Grapes are fragile things—they can sunburn or shatter, raisin or rot. Cultivating them is a bit like raising children: hands-on, with lots of flexibility and judgment calls required. From late March to November, the work is relentless and often physical. If you’re in the winery proper (where the fermenting equipment is), comfortable shoes and extra clean clothes are a must. “People see wine in fancy restaurants, but we’re not a fancy industry,” says Dianna. “We’re casual people who aren’t afraid of getting dirty and sweaty.”
While Coppola Winery visitors enjoy the cafés, “lunch hour” for Lise usually consists of “shoving a burrito in my face while walking around a vineyard and talking on a Bluetooth.” She keeps a sharp eye out for snakes—mostly gopher snakes, though some vineyards have rattlers. Sometimes she has trouble sleeping because her head is spinning with to-do’s for the next day.
Even if you’re not working in field or winery operations, the job can be intense. Tasting-room employees stand for hours greeting people, pouring wines and hauling loads of glasses to industrial dishwashers. Many winery job postings include statements like “must be able to lift 30 pounds.” Dianna can drive a forklift and a flatbed.
Yet because so many wineries are family businesses, there’s often give- and-take for employees. The industry is downright mellow in January and February, when vines are dormant. Most of the year, Anne is able to condense work into the hours her girls are in school. She relies on sitters to cover the evening events where she needs to pour or present wines.
Then there’s the bin of toys and chalk in Honig Winery’s tasting room that helps keep the littlest Honigs—Sophia, 6, Lola, 4, and Sebastian, 2—entertained. Mom Stephanie travels about five days a month to market the business, trading off with husband Michael, the winery’s president. But sometimes work and life collide, says Stephanie, recalling being pregnant with Lola and schlepping Sophia in a stroller to meet with New York chefs and wine buyers. “Everybody bought wine that day,” she says with a laugh.
Crush Time, Crunch Time
The eight-week period when grapes are picked and pressed is known as crush. It’s a fitting description: visitors surge into Napa and Sonoma, filling up the tasting rooms, while production crews go into overdrive. Fourteen-hour days start pre-dawn, when the picking crews are out. (It’s ideal to harvest when the grapes are cool.) Then the fruit is sorted, crushed and siphoned into fermenting tanks. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Tons of grapes a day. Even the air smells jammy.
Moms call in child care reinforcements during harvest. Since Anne and husband Cameron are both winemakers, the grandparents move in with the family for three weeks to take care of the kids. Dianna signs her children up for extended day at school. They often eat breakfast in the car while mom tramps around the vineyard, sampling grapes to decide whether they’re ready to harvest. At the end of a grueling day, Dianna’s been known to pick up the kids in an 18-wheel flatbed loaded with several tons of grapes.
But despite the hours, effort and missed bedtimes, harvest is the most anticipated time of the year. “There’s a certain energy to harvest that’s magical,” says Stephanie. “You see the grapes hanging and heavy and beautiful, people out picking, the aromas. It’s magical.”
Lessons from the Front
Slather in the SPF.
Most industry jobs involve plenty outside of outdoor activity. Anyone working should load up on sunscreen.
Make like a dentist.
Keep toothbrush and paste on hand to clean up a purple grin. This is a particular hazard for cellar workers who regularly taste dark-hued, young wines.
Protect your palate.
Winemaker Anne Vawter avoids super-hot liquids. And certain foods (corn, artichokes, asparagus) make wine taste odd. Good to know anytime you order a nice bottle.
The scent of a wine is an important part of the experience. Winemakers shun fragranced cosmetics and detergents. And as a visitor, wearing heavy perfume to a tasting room is a no-no. Hmmm, the same might be true for meetings in small conference rooms.
Illustration by Nathalie Dion/agoodson.com