Female winemakers carve out a niche in Burgundy, France


Burgundy is one of the least progressive wine regions in the world, for better and worse. But even there, one old husband’s tale is finally being laid to rest.

To say that women have been discouraged from winemaking in Burgundy would be to underestimate the barriers. For many years there was a belief that if a woman walked into a winery, the wine would spoil. We’re not talking about a superstition from the Dark Ages either.

As recently as 2000, when Anne Parent and Virginie Taupenot-Daniel started their association of Burgundy’s women winemakers, Femmes & Vins de Bourgogne, they could find only six. That’s from a region with more than 4,000 domaines.

Today, membership is up to 45 — still tiny, but growing rapidly.

More important, those women are making outstanding wines. At this year’s Les Grands Jours, a biennial event in which almost every winery in Burgundy pours its newest wines for wine buyers, sommeliers and journalists, it was striking how good wines made by women were compared to their neighbors’. Even more striking was how few misfires they had.

“As a woman, you don’t have the right to make a mistake, ever,” Parent says. “You have to prove three times over that you are a good winemaker.”

Finally there’s enough evidence in the bottle to make men reconsider their prejudices against their daughters.

“My family has been in wine production since the middle of the 17th century,” Parent says. “I am the 12th generation, and the first generation of woman winemaker. It is the second French revolution.”

Parent has a brother, François, who a generation earlier would have been expected to take over the family’s vineyards around Pommard while his sister worked in sales when she wasn’t giving birth.

Instead, François split the vineyards with his sister, married the daughter of another prominent winemaking family, Anne-Françoise Gros, and combined his holdings with hers. This left Anne Parent and her sister Catherine with their own company, Domaine Parent, which is just how Anne likes it.

“Before, women had children and cooked and sold wine,” says Anne Parent, who studied law and worked in consulting before taking over the winery in 1998. “My mother was very good at selling wine. But they stayed out of the winery.”

One rock-star exception is Lalou Bize-Leroy, who became one of the highest profile women in the wine world when she became co-director of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC) in 1975. Though DRC soared to new heights — at least price-wise — under her leadership, she left after a series of family disputes and now focuses on her own company, Domaine Leroy.

Bize-Leroy is flamboyant and opinionated, perhaps necessary for a woman in a solo spotlight, and thus is somewhat of an outlier. The woman who really shattered Burgundy’s glass ceiling is quiet Nadine Gublin, who generally tries to answer all questions about her wines by pouring you a sample.

Gublin got her break in the late 1980s when Jean Prieur, then running his family’s estate, Domaine Jacques Prieur, decided to take a year to sail around the world. Like many women in Burgundy, Gublin had studied oenology, but unlike most she was using her degree at a negociant firm that worked with Prieur. She earned respect for her work and became technical director of the domaine.

In 1997, Gublin was the first woman named winemaker of the year by France’s leading wine magazine, La Revue du Vin de France.

“Certainly I was very proud,” Gublin says, while pouring a taste of her Puligny-Montrachet “Les Combettes.” (It is excellent.)

About that time, Philippe Senard was beginning to realize his son Mathieu might not take over Domaine Comte Senard because he had left university to work with orphans in Cambodia. (Mathieu eventually moved to San Francisco and co-founded Alter Eco, a fair-trade food company.)

“I asked my daughter if she wanted to work with me, and she said, ‘Why not?’” Senard says.

Lorraine Senard-Pereira studied oenology for three years, then worked with her father for four years.

Now, he says, she’s on her own in the winery. “She’s responsible for making the wine,” Senard says. “She changed the style of the wine. She’s making wine with a more feminine aspect. Something smoother, more balanced. The male wine, very tannic, was popular 20 years ago. But no more. The style of wine changes a lot as gastronomy changes.”

A gender-specific wine is an appealing idea, and Domaine Comte Senard’s wines are certainly supple, not always the case in the Corton area.

But saying that women make “feminine” wine is misleading: Anne Parent’s wines are pretty, sure, but they have good tannic structure. And it would be hard to call Clotilde Davenne’s wines from Domaine Les Temps Perdus “feminine”: They’re vibrant, intense and excellent. They’re also balanced. Is balance feminine? If so, that’s less praise for women than an insult for men.

“Men can make very fine, elegant wines,” Taupenot-Daniel says. “Women can make very powerful wine. It’s according to the person, man or woman. And it’s according to the wine.”

In California, some wineries use their winemaker’s gender as a sales point, though whether that’s because of a belief that women are better at winemaking or merely an appeal to female solidarity is hard to say. With Burgundy, however, the great majority of first-line customers — importers and wine buyers — are male.

“I think they don’t care if the wine is made by a woman,” Taupenot-Daniel says. “At the beginning, people were looking for a style of wine, an elegance. Now, if the quality is good, that’s it.”

One difficulty male winemakers don’t face is this: Senard-Pereira is pregnant with her first child, due during this year’s harvest.

“It’s considered good luck to have a baby at harvest,” she says. “I hope this is the next winemaker. Really I hope.”

She doesn’t yet know if it’s a boy or a girl. The next generation may be the first where it won’t matter.