Camping with the Alphas
“Bone by bone, hair by hair, Wild Woman comes back. Through night dreams, through events half understood and half remembered...”
—Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
Last November, shortly after the election, I began hearing murmurings of a newly-formed group called Women in Wine, Central Coast. Their motto? “WIWCC ain’t nothin’ to fuck with.” Naturally, that made me curious.
I was told it was founded by McKenna Giardine, the enologist at Andrew Murray Vineyards in Santa Barbara County, though they were accruing members quickly from throughout California’s Central Coast, including Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. Communicating mostly via a Facebook page by the same name, they began to meet up for tastings and gatherings. So when Giardine reached out to me recently to invite me to a WIWCC-hosted overnight campout comprised entirely of women in the wine business…well, I could hardly say no. The campout was to be held at the Jalama Cañon Ranch, and the email invitation included the typical list of things to bring to a campground: comfortable shoes, warm clothes, head lamps, utensils—oh, and a good bottle of Italian wine, the theme of that evening’s tasting.
Driving directions arrived in my email box shortly thereafter, marking the way to Jalama Cañon Ranch. Located about six miles south of the western most tip of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation and just seven miles from Jalama State Beach, Jalama Cañon Ranch—or JCR as it is more commonly known among locals—is a remote, wind-swept stretch of land that is entirely off-the-grid. Natural springs feed this 1,030 acre spread, which includes an operating goat and cattle ranch as well as a small vineyard. And then there’s the campground itself—a collection of picturesque, rustic, small cabins, a fire pit and an outdoor dining area—all operated entirely by generators. Forget Wi-Fi or cell phone service.
After turning into the ranch’s drive way, I had to pull over a few times to read over the directions…stay left at the tractor, when you see a rock wall, stay to the right—that kind of thing. When I finally pulled up, the women were returning from a short hike, and starting to gather to eat and build what would become a large, hearty fire that burned well into the night.
After moseying on up to a rough wooden bar lined with an impressive selection of Italian wines, I poured myself a glass and hung out near a small battery-operated radio emitting singer-songwriter tunes. I asked Giardine why she started the group. “I started this group in November of 2016 because I felt that now, more than ever, we needed to come together as a gender and support each other,” she began. “It wasn’t necessarily about making a big splash or coming out guns-a-blazing on certain issues. It was more about making small changes that might improve our wine community. Truly, the WIWCC evolved into so much more than I thought it would ever be. All of these women were eager to jump on board and make this group what it is. It’s not really about who started it or who’s in charge of the group. The people involved are the ones who run the group by offering to host or bring a special bottle to share. That’s what makes the group keep going: the energy and the enthusiasm of its members.”
For just over a decade, I’ve belonged to a wine group that meets on a monthly basis. Over the years we’ve had between ten or twelve members at a time; all are winemakers save for one member, who is a chef, and me. I was the only woman around the table until just a couple of years ago when a woman winemaker joined our group, so I was curious to ask these women if they found it different to taste with an all-women group rather than with men. Tara Gomez, who is the winemaker at Kitá Wines, located in nearby Lompoc, tells me, “I feel that when tasting with women, we tend to be more detail-oriented in the sense that we’re breaking down every layer of a wine; we discuss it, and we ask questions. We’re there to support each other and we have great respect for each other. We see ourselves as equal rather than trying to dominate one another.” Winemaker Gretchen Voelcker, who owns her own brand, Luna Hart Wines, adds, “I am fortunate to have a great group of male friends in my career. For the most part, I find it to be not that important a difference. I really feel that tasting as much as possible with as many people as possible is such a great way to strengthen your abilities as a winemaker. I do feel that when tasting with just these women, though, we tend to share more experiences in reference to the tastings, as well as a bit more emotion, which I quite enjoy.”
Laura Roach, who recently launched her own brand, Loubud Wines, adds, “It's empowering to be surrounded by like-minded, passionate, hardworking women in the same industry and region. The fact that we can get together each month and discuss funky wine styles and learn about historic wine regions, while sitting in local wine cellars, is absolutely refreshing and amazing! Most of us are young and still getting established in the Central Coast as winemakers, so this is our chance to expand our minds beyond our current understanding of the wines we individually produce [mine being primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay], taste different varieties and styles, and learn from each other.”
Quite a few women I met on this evening own their own brands, and I’m inspired by their fearless sense of entrepreneurship. Natalie Siddique, who owns Outward Wines, tells me she’s “heavily drawn to making long-term projects come to life. I’m infatuated and fueled by the ongoing processes of ideation, problem-solving, and creativity inherent to any entrepreneurial venture. There’s something so magical about bringing a new experience for people into the world that you’ve created from start to finish, and what better medium for this than wine? For me, it’s really not about the outcome, but rather the ebb and flow and subtle progress that keeps it exciting and engaging.” Jalama Cañon Ranch’s own Vallarie York, who oversees their hospitality and tasting room in Lompoc, says, “I think wine isn't an industry for those who are not fully invested in it. You have to have the vision for how it will be and that is an investment of time, work and dedication to your craft. That dedication creates an ownership which breeds the spirit of entrepreneurship.” Gina VerKamp, who hopes to transition away from the dental field and into wine full time, is currently studying to be a sommelier while also working part-time at the nearby Palmina Winery tasting room. “I would like to start my own label next year,” she tells me, “and I value the expertise this group has to offer. Most of the women in the WIWCC are winemakers, and everyone has their own style, and that makes it fun because you get exposed to so many points of view.”
As the early evening temperatures drop dramatically, and the sun sets behind the mountains surrounding us, we all start to gather near the BBQ pit where Gomez and her winemaking wife, Mireira Taribo, who met in Taribo’s homeland of Spain, command the grill with confidence and humor. The pair is known for their barbequing talents and have come equipped with a Yeti cooler full of sausages, chicken, tri-tip and cold beer. I ask Taribo if it’s different being a woman winemaker here in the United States than in Spain, where she was a winemaker for a number of years. “In Spain, winemakers are not as willing to share information with each other as they are here, where everybody is more open and wanting to learn. The fact that the wine industry is newer here than in Spain [or Europe in general] makes it less secretive.” And indeed, throughout the night, as we gather around the fire to eat, women are sharing stories about everything from cellar and farming practices to dates-gone-bad or their messy boyfriends or husbands. Amid much laughter and conversation, stories begin to emerge about gender discrimination in the wine industry.
“Gender discrimination is inevitable for a woman in this industry,” says Jeanette Ortiz, the enologist at Sea Smoke, in nearby Sta. Rita Hills. “I don’t necessarily say that as a negative; it simply comes with the territory. We have to fill a lot of ‘man’ jobs like operating heavy equipment and machinery, being able to use tools to fix things, and rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty with some manual labor. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a truck driver look at me sideways when I jump on the forklift to unload his truck, or been asked if I’m ‘allowed to be driving that thing’ in reference to the big box truck we use. I actually see it as a positive in that you can really blow people’s minds by doing things that they never thought a girl could do.”
One of the younger enologists shares a candid story, but asks that her name be withheld. “I consider myself very lucky to have worked with very supportive men in and out of the wine industry. However, I experienced what I considered to be gender discrimination a couple years ago for the first time ever in my working adult life. A new male employee joined our small production team, and all of a sudden I was not included in any of the winemaking anymore. I no longer received any to-do lists and was left out of the production meeting emails and tastings that I had previously been included in and helped create. It went on for about three months until I confronted this individual and simply asked him ‘what his problem was?’ In a calm, collected, and respectful manner I asked him if he was excluding me because I was a woman, because I was part of the family that owned the winery, or both? I told him that we had never operated this way in the past and I was not going to let him push me out of a position that I was fully capable of doing and had been doing for years before he arrived. He was very embarrassed, stuttered a lot and turned beet red. He apologized profusely and said he had not intentionally meant to exclude me. I do not believe that for one minute, but I feel proud that I stood up for myself, and in a round-about way, for other women in the wine industry. He is now engaged to a woman in the wine industry, and it was only when he started dating her that he completely stopped being a dickhead at work.”
Olivia Wright, of Paso’s Epoch Estate, feels she is finally in an environment where she doesn’t experience gender discrimination. “This is a very common problem, I think, for women in the wine industry. Mostly it’s snap judgments and off-handed comments that you eventually learn to brush off. The discriminatory issue that has had the biggest impact on my career is that it can be extremely difficult to find opportunities for certain types of work as a woman. When I was starting out, I found plenty of opportunities for tasting room work. However, when I wanted to get hands-on experience in the cellar, I was told flat-out by many employers (or prospective employers) that they don’t like to hire women for physical roles because they aren’t strong enough or would just get themselves hurt. Now any winemaker, male or female, knows that being capable in the cellar is crucial to your success in wine production. If you can’t rack a barrel or drive a forklift, you’re probably not going to make it very far at a California winery. I had to jump around from job to job until I found employers who would give me a fair shot at this type of work experience.”
And how do these women feel about working specifically within California’s wine industry? “The wine industry in California is established,” says Katy Gaffney of Sta. Rita Hills’ Spear Vineyards & Winery, “and that is the best and the worst thing about working in wine here. There's a precedent for it; you aren't reinventing the wheel in any way. People don't do a double-take when you bring a California wine to dinner. Creativity and expression is encouraged because we can grow just about anything out here, and manipulate it into exactly the kind of wine we want. It's awesome. On the other hand, you end up fighting a lot of those preconceived notions that get fixed into people's heads. ‘Not Napa,’ or ‘Napa 20 years ago when it was still small…’ comes out of everyone's mouths all of the time. People are still doing new, interesting and creative things here, but I feel like it's easier to get drowned out because there's so much of what's expected or known going on all of the time.”
When asked in which ways it’s different working in the California wine industry, say, versus in the French wine industry, Alice Anderson, who is the Assistant Winemaker at Tyler Winery, says, “As I have lived in worked in both the ‘Old World’ and the ‘New World,’ I can confidently say that working in the California wine industry is awesome. There are so many great universities in California spitting out smart students by the hundreds. This makes it competitive in the work place and only those truly interested in the whole process stay in this line of work. It is well known that the wine industry isn't very lucrative, so those who are still slaving away doing way more than what they are paid for truly love what they do.”
Tymari LoRe, the assistant winemaker at Kitá, adds that “being in the California wine industry is extremely exciting in this day and age. The industry continues to evolve. We are learning from our past and making changes to farming that are revolutionizing the way we make wine. California is unique when it comes to wine. Most major appellations in the world are limited to what they can grow and where. In California, we have a diversity of not only winemaking styles but also varietals planted within each region. In Santa Barbara County alone, we have the largest transverse mountain range on the west coast, which allows for many microclimates and an elegance that is associated with longer hang-times.”
Later into the evening, the conversation turns raucous and a few bottles are knocked over. Someone breaks a wine glass. Jokes are told and cookies are passed around. It’s going to be a long night and the women gathered around the now roaring fire are not even close to migrating towards their cabins, so I quietly gather up my notebook and sweater and make my way to my car. As much as I want to rally and stay up all night with this entertaining, intelligent and congenial group of people, I’m also too neurotic to share a room with anyone but my wife. As I pull away from the campground, I look in my rearview mirror and see the darkened silhouettes of women mingling, laughing and raising a glass here and there.
Was tasting with the WIWCC different than tasting with the mostly all-male group I’ve been in for just over a decade? Ultimately, not really. The men I’ve shared so many wines with are genteel, strong and inquisitive, much like these women. But I did notice that throughout the night, the women with whom I tasted mentioned flaws in wine much less often than my male friends, and that intrigued me. I enjoyed tasting for the positives in a wine, rather than searching for its faults. That impulse to want to search for what might be beautiful or interesting about a wine lead me to anthropomorphize for a moment: If I were a glass of wine, I’d prefer to be observed for my differences, rather than judged for my weaknesses. I thought about that a lot on the drive back home.
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