Talking to great women of the wine industry

3 March 2022

In Women's Day week, we approached some of the great women who work successfully every day in the world of wine. As crazy as it may seem, until very recently women were forbidden to enter wineries, as a kind of prehistoric superstition that has been slowly disappearing. However, there are still a few old leftovers from this absurd situation. There will come a time, hopefully sooner rather than later, when sense will prevail, a time when we will no longer need to talk about gender in the world of wine; this will be a time when professionalism will be the only valid justification when it comes to putting men and women at the head of a winery. It will be a time when we will only talk about people and it will be the same whether the work is done by a woman or a man, because we will only care about the results obtained and the work performed by each professional, whoever he or she may be.

Six women in wine talk to the Peñín Guide about how they have managed to carve out a niche for themselves in the world of wine, a world that until recently has been closed to women. Six examples of how to make normality the bottom line.

Paola Medina, touring the wine of Sherry

Paola Medina Sheldon (Seville, 1978) belongs to the second generation of the Medina family, which owns Bodegas Williams & Humbert. Paola joined the family winery in 2010, where she holds the position of Technical Director, Winemaker and Advisor.

As a woman, what was the hardest thing for you when you started in the world of wine? Did you ever feel that being a woman could be a hindrance to your career?

I have to say in all honesty that I have had a very positive professional development in this sense. From my beginnings in Ciudad Real to the present, as winemaker, technical director and advisor at Williams & Humbert Winery, both my passion for my work and my level of responsibility have grown. I always say that in our profession, it is the wine we make that has the last word. The wine should be the true protagonist and not the gender of the person behind it, since its production is also the result of the work of a whole team. It is precisely the team that surrounds me that I am most proud of: working with true professionals, people who carry out their work with total commitment, passion and dedication. 

When did you feel that the gender barrier was beginning to break down?

I have never felt that gender could be a problem in my work. I have not set limits for myself in my work as a winemaker. At Williams & Humbert we have always focused on capabilities, on skills, never on gender.  Gender has never been a limiting or influencing factor when deciding which professional should perform a certain job. In our wineries there are many women in positions of responsibility. From the "capataz" to many others related to winemaking and management. And this is something common in the world of wine in general. In fact, there are great women dedicated to the world of wine who, from many and varied fields, are doing a magnificent job.

What has been the greatest satisfaction you have had in the world of wine?

During this stage of my career in the family winery, my greatest satisfaction has been to be able to contribute, with my small grain of sand, to show the greatness of the wines of the Marco de Jerez. To be able to participate in the creation of such special wines, with processes such as biological and oxidative aging through a system both dynamic and static, showing all the elegance of the Albariza and making these wines visible are benchmarks. In short, to be able to contribute my small part to wines such as those from Jerez, which have a great history behind them, with enormous richness and versatility.

Victoria Torres, the outlook from the vineyards of La Palma

Victoria Torres is the fifth generation of a family of winegrowers and winemakers from La Palma. Her strength and fortitude have helped her to carve out a niche for herself in the world of wine based on an inspiration that focuses on traditional values and on trying to decipher the language of the vineyard.

As a woman, what was the hardest thing for you when you started in the world of wine?

It was probably transmitting and convincing people that I was a professional, autonomous, capable woman with my own vision and ambition. That I was not only taking over the family winery but that I was also focusing my work as a response to my own search and curiosity. In a rural environment and in an activity so closely related to the land, it was even more difficult to demonstrate all this, with the added bonus that I had not received any academic training. I was also confronted with the scant value that I believe has been attributed to traditional empirical knowledge, that in which viticulture marked the work and the result, based on a way of making wine that had not changed in the more than 100 years of history of the family winery and that for me was the coherent thread that made sense in my head. This conviction has been what has fueled my determination and made my life project possible and sustainable. 

Did you ever feel that being a woman could be a hindrance to your career?

I never really thought about it, as I believe that we live with these hindrances in any area of life. I see it as an internal motivation to change that reality. 

When did you feel that the gender barrier was beginning to break down?

When, as my work became more visible, I began to have the impression that it was generating genuine interest in my immediate environment. When I had the feeling that I was starting to convey more positive connotations about my local environment and my wines, I felt that I had gained respect for my work and dedication, and at the same time the wines began to transcend.

I have had the feeling that while there are many gender barriers, which we can all point out, many fall when you pass the numerous tests of confidence in your abilities, when you prove yourself. At least that has been my experience on the island of La Palma.

What has been the greatest satisfaction you have had in the world of wine?

The possibilities that open up for me on a human level the trust of older winegrowers, who decide to put in my hands the care of the vines that have accompanied them throughout their lives. To begin to understand that it is possible to have a small voice that can have a transforming impact on my environment. Accessing enriching and interesting networks in many ways. To collaborate with other people and to be able to live according to my life choice independently and following my own intuition and ideas.

Verónica Ortega, wines with a personal signature in the heart of Bierzo

Verónica Ortega is one of the young promises of Bierzo wine. Born in Cadiz, this Andalusian woman found in the vineyards of Bierzo the place to show a personal and non-interventionist vision of the local wine.

As a woman, what was the hardest thing for you when you started in the world of wine, and did you ever feel that being a woman could be a hindrance to your career?

At the beginning, when I started to enter the world of wine, when I was a student and later in my training period in France and other countries, even though for example in Burgundy there was still the old superstition that women should not enter the winery, (in fact some wineries were not used to include women in the winemaking team), it was not difficult for me, on the contrary, they were very generous with me in all the wineries I worked, I am sure that the attitude helps a lot and I suppose that I infected them with the enthusiasm that I lived, they treated me with much kindness ... I have very fond memories of that time, very exciting and enormously enriching.

Perhaps it was later, when I started my personal project when this became more difficult to manage, I don't know if it was because I was a woman or even more because of my youth, that it is necessary to have some character to be taken seriously, especially because we have to take into account that we work in rural environments, where older people are not used to seeing a young woman taking the initiative, or leading a group, but I have never felt it as an obstacle to my career.

 When did you feel that the gender barrier was beginning to break down?

In the wine world if we talk about female winemakers, sommeliers or wine critics, the gender barrier is more than broken down. It is in the rural sector, in the countryside where there is still a barrier, but it is difficult to change the thinking of older people, although with hard work and determination you win every game and even the least willing has to change his or her mind.

 What has been the greatest satisfaction you have had in the world of wine?

Undoubtedly the people I have been lucky enough to meet, to learn from them and who have always been willing to help me. I have been fortunate for that and that is something I will always be grateful to the world of wine.

Rosalía Molina, promoting the value of Manchuela

Rosalía Molina represents the strength, integrity and determination of a person who has given her life to wine and without whom the uniqueness and evolution of today's Manchuela wines could not be understood.

As a woman, what was the hardest thing for you when you started in the world of wine? Did you ever feel that being a woman could be a hindrance to your career?

What I found most difficult was that it seemed that I had to prove everything, that I had to justify myself so that my work would seem the same as that done by a man. When I went out as a spokesperson or as a professional or in charge of my project, it seemed that I was transmitting what someone had told me. When it came to showing or sharing the winemaking work, when it came to marketing it, it was sometimes even more difficult, depending on the country where I was going. Fortunately everything has changed a lot, but back then it was necessary to show that it was the woman in front of them who decided on prices without having to ask the "boss", and above all that I was not behind that table acting as anyone's secretary. I'm pretty stubborn, so I didn't feel that at some point I had to stop because I was a woman.  Thank goodness there were many more like me. Thanks to all of them, today it is no longer a burden and we don't have to prove ourselves more than anyone else.

When did you feel that the gender barrier was beginning to break down?

It has been little by little, I believe that women join forces among us even without even talking to each other. If you see that someone else has been able to do it, you go ahead and so on... until today there are so many women who are dedicated to oenology, holdings, marketers... I have three children, two boys and one girl, and all three of them want to study oenology, without thinking that because they are male or female one should do a certain job or another. We have achieved something together.

What has been the greatest satisfaction you have had in the world of wine?

The satisfaction for me is to see that I can live from what I am passionate about, to go every day to the countryside and feel that this is where I want to be and what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to. Our beginnings were very hard because we started from nothing, both materially and economically, and there were doubts about whether or not we could continue with it. A few years later, many nights away from the family and many hours of hard work, have led us here. This is my greatest satisfaction. Of course, if it had not been for all those who have supported us and trusted in our wines, it would not have been possible. It is an enormous emotion when you cross the world and see a bottle of your wine in some unthinkable place. All the effort and our passion is in there.

Marta Casas and María Elena Jiménez, the young vision in Cava and Penedès

María Elena Jiménez and Marta Casas, winemakers at Parés Baltà, represent the younger vision of the professional advancement of many women who with their effort and dedication have managed to carve a niche for themselves in the world of wine. Their testimonies are a breath of fresh air in the new era of wine in Spain.

What was the hardest thing for you when you started in the world of wine? Did you feel that being a woman could be a hindrance to your career?

Our case is quite different from the usual as it is a family winery.

Due to our scientific background (Marta - pharmacist and Maria Elena - chemical engineer) it was not difficult for us to study oenology at university and from the beginning we have had the support of our family to grow as oenologists.

Our fascination for the world of wine began with our husbands, because until we met them our paths were very different from the vineyard and wine. They knew how to pass on to us this passion for the vineyard and its expression in wine.

In addition, the patriarch, grandfather Joan, always encouraged us to follow his instructions in viticulture and winemaking in the way he understood nature best; the most natural wine possible. He gave us free rein to elaborate and continue treating the vineyard in an organic way, and later, when he left us, we got the spark to start the path of biodynamic agriculture.

Finally, our father-in-law, Joan, has always had full confidence in our work in all its directions, which says a lot about the character of the Cusiné family.

 When did you begin to feel that the gender barrier was beginning to break down?

We have assimilated it over time, as the differences are more noticeable as you evolve in the workplace than when you decide to enter it. In university we were about 25 students, 10 of whom were girls. Little by little, as we entered the world of wine, we have grown to the point of creating networks and even groups in which we support each other, such as Mujeres del Vino (Women of Wine) or CavaWomen.

We could generalise by saying that women are more sensitive and capable of picking up on details that men overlook. But after 20 years of sharing tastings with all kinds of people, we are more inclined to talk about people, without differentiation by gender.

What has been the greatest satisfaction you have had in the world of wine? 

Working with the vineyard and the wines is similar to the work of a gemstone polisher who recognises the value of the precious stone in front of him. For us, that precious stone is the grape, and we work in such a way that it can express its full potential and character.

We love to transmit sensations, emotions and the story behind each wine we make. To taste them and realise that each one has its own personality, and that thanks to grandfather Joan, we are now honouring his tireless effort, his years of suffering and also the unconditional support of his wife Rosa.

A family full of values, which they have passed on to us from day one and which we try to transfer to all the work of viticulture and oenology so that these wines can explain things to you at your table.

    Written by Javier Luengo, director editorial de Peñín