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What about women in wine?


On International Women’s Day, Philip White seeks to clarify some misunderstandings about the first Australian Women In Wine Awards.

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“The numbers of women in the wine industry are dropping,” Oliver’s Taranga winemaker Corrina Wright said, “and in the 20 years that I’ve been in the industry they’ve almost halved. And I just don’t feel really good about that. Sitting back and wishing for it to change has simply not been working.”

Corrina made this speech at the first Australian Women In Wine Awards at Oliver’s in November.

My relationship with this recent movement didn’t start too well. A pity. A philogynist from infancy, I was always drawn to powerful women. Both sides of my family depended on very strong presumptuous women and I grew up in a tough country village run by tough lesbian graziers.

Having first read of the activist feminists of the ’60s in the waiting room at the dentists with my first stack of TIME magazines, I couldn’t wait to hit the city and get among them. The first three women I lived with were uncompromising feminists, activists, professional women who’d cut their own way through the jungle. They were all years older than me: I knew I needed training.

My high school geography exercise book from 1965 commences with my first precise notes on viticulture in South Australia. These make no hint whatsoever that the growing of vines was a male bastion. I naively felt the vine business was one which could be pursued by men and women alike.

Within a decade of taking those first wine notes, I’d watched and welcomed women begin the unending battle for equal pay for equal work; by 1980 I was mixing with female winemakers like Pam Dunsford, Alison Hodder and Ursula Pridham. I loved the way they stood up to the blokes and got on with it.

I hated male editors sending me out to chase snaps of female winemakers showing leg on ladders and gantries, or a glimpse of side tit leaning over barrels in the old blue singlet. Those newspapermen depended entirely on their wives to run their kitchens and feed them, so I was bemused that they found it novel to see women working in wineries which were basically bloody great kitchens. They just didn’t get it.

Thirty or so years later, I generally dismissed internet whispers about the Australian women’s wine movement doing something about matching shoes and wine. I wrote sourly of the lot who went for instant misogynist headlines by conforming to Woolworths’ primitive marketing ploy to flash some limelight on them as if the absence of a penis made a difference to what ends up in the bottle. I feared retrograde giggly girly business: the modern vinous equivalent of the amateur feminists who’d sit on the floor at parties screeching along to Melanie’s song about roller skates in the days when blokes were expected to show up for the Vietnam War.

Corrina’s speech was confronting and reassuring.

Milton Wordley, my photographer mate, first invited me to that inaugural awards event at Oliver’s, and did the driving. I confess to expecting more Melanie Safka than Patti Smith, but I took along my brace of champagnes for the ice bins and my pizza money, knowing that I’d probably miss out on both as I’d be working. We weren’t going for fun.

“This year I was judging at the Royal Perth Wine Show,” Corrina continued.

“The judges’ dinner was held at a male-only club and I had special permission to attend on the night. You know what? That’s just so shit. It just didn’t sit right with me. And I was able to lean on others in my network, like the other girls who created these awards with me, and I was able to be brave enough to say that’s actually not right and I boycotted the dinner.

“But it’s actually really hard for women. It’s really hard for the other women judging to do the same, because they’re really afraid that they’d never be asked to judge again if they cause a fuss. And you know it was a real emotional experience. It’s stupid. And I just want women to know there are networks out there.”

Dr Irina Santiago-Brown, vineyard ecologist and partner/co-winemaker at Inkwell Estate, McLaren Vale, won the inaugural Australian Women In Wine Awards Viticulturer of the Year, and Rose Kentish of Ulithorne was named Winemaker of the Year.

Everybody was really happy.

Winemaker Rose Kentish and daughter Lily.

Winemaker Rose Kentish and daughter Lily.

Last weekend I felt a touch of Corrina’s network.

Rose Kentish rang. She’d had a call from Corrina, whom I’d just visited. Once again Milton had taken me to Oliver’s Taranga – my first visit since the awards. While we chatted I suggested to Corrina that I’d like to talk at some stage to her and Rose about my thinking that their new movement might have given its first national winemaking award to somebody who actually makes wine in their own winery from grapes they’ve grown in their own vineyards with a name to match the one on the bottle.

Bacchus only knows how many very famous winemakers use consultants and hire access to wineries and buy fruit they don’t grow themselves. I remember Wolf Blass showing surprise that he’d got his first crusher and vineyards when he bought Quelltaler Estate in the early ’80s, and I promise you he was already a very famous and rich winemaker with more trophies in his trunk than anybody else in the game.

There’s nothing new or scandalous about any of this. It’s what happens. But as I’ve been writing about the importance of provenance in selling wine – especially expensive wine – and I can feel a vibe from the lasses’ camp that I’m mansplaining, best get this clarification sorted. At the risk of this being a bit of she-said-she-said-he-said, here goes:

I knew that Rose lived in the biggest house in the south, but had never heard of her going to the expense of owning her own winery. I also knew that she pays wineries in the north-west Mediterranean to make her wines from those parts and that the Ulithorne Vineyard that gave its name to her brand and won her the McLaren Vale Bushing Trophy in 2008 had been sold by her in-laws to Warren Randall before the Bushing Crown even hit her brow.

I admired the honesty she showed at that bonnie coronation: Rose was quick to have the male half of the royal spoils go on the head of her Australian winemaker and mentor, Brian Light. As opposed to her husband Sam Harrison, who was surfin’ at Cactus on the day. A painter, he’d designed the Ulithorne label. From her speech I left with little doubt that Brian had a fair bit to do with making the wine.

I mean, there he was standing with the crown on his head. I’ve always revered his winemaking, a sentiment made the more intense when I appreciate his serious eyesight handicap.

Anyway, Corrina called Rose, Rose called me, I wrote some questions for her to clear things up and she immediately responded in writing.

Rose makes the Australian Ulithorne wine at Longwood, Di Fabio and Haselgrove wineries from purchased grapes as well as from her vineyard near Kay’s Amery, where she hopes to build a winery. If things go according to plan, she’ll move her cellar sales and tasting room from her home in Middleton Mill to this new facility.

“Brian Light’s a mentor and a good friend,” she explained. “I see him like a musician might see an executive producer, or an actor sees their voice coach … I started making wine with him in an apprentice-type role 18 years ago. Now he assists me with technically difficult situations where I have exhausted all the usual solutions … I find that as I work on my own as a winemaker, I really appreciate having such an experienced person to taste and give feedback. He pushes me to improve my skills. I see many winemakers do this, and it is a benefit many winemakers have who work in teams in the larger companies. If you work alone, you can become very insular in your ideas and it can limit your personal and professional growth.”

Much like Wolf Blass the ‘master-blender’ depended on his lifelong shotgun rider, the genius winemaker John ‘The Ferret’ Glaetzer.

Rose’s Mediterranean wines, meanwhile, are collaborative works with families in Corsica and Provence.

“I can’t be there all year round,” she said, “so they check the juice for me and ensure that SO2 is maintained, and is racked occasionally etc., but other than that the decisions on picking times, processing and techniques in the cellar, making the final blends, are mine. I also return six months after vintage to do the blends and assist with the bottlings which, in both estates, is done on site.

“I have four teenagers and was feeling very pressured with all that 2015 had to bring,” Rose continued. “So there will be no 2015 French wines made by me. Sadly, this also meant that I had to turn down an offer to make my first Pinot noir at a domaine in Burgundy, a project I have been working towards for the last 24 months.”

As for me feeling a little uncomfortable at the women’s awards?

“The more that men celebrate women, and women celebrate men,” Rose concluded, “the better McLaren Vale, and the industry as a whole, will be.”

This bloke can’t agree more. I certainly need more training, and there’s lots of serious inequalities left to sort. Like that unforgivable equal pay business.

Let’s get on with it.

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