Say Cheers to Female Winemakers

In Israel, women are making slow but steady inroads into the male-dominated winemaking industry. Now if only they can get Israelis more interested in drinking wine.

Grape news: The wine industry, a field that was once the exclusive province of men, is seeing more and more capable women join its ranks.

In Israel, there are now at least 20 female vintners, in both boutique wineries as well as the big names of Barkan, Dalton and Golan.

Any pooh-poohing of these numbers is just sour grapes. The facts speak for themselves: Female winemakers are on the rise, as are the number of female sommeliers in leading Tel Aviv restaurants. The ladies, at long last, are learning to love their wine.

Six female vintners and one senior female agronomist sat down together to dish on femininity, wine, and the future of the industry. They came to our chat straight from the vineyards, some of them even wearing their juice-stained work clothes from the grape harvest.

The seven women were Lori Lender, owner and vintner of the Zafririm Winery; Lina Slutzkin, owner and vintner of the Kadma Winery; Roni Saslove, owner and vintner of the Saslove Winery ; Shoshana Vizan, owner and vintner of the Shoshana Boutique Winery; Orna Chillag, owner and vintner of the Chillag Winery; Lin Gold, vintner at Ella Valley Vineyards; and Michal Ackerman, an agronomist representing the Tabor Winery.

We sat down at Juno Wine and Food on De Haas Street in Tel Aviv. Over some bottles and some bites of cheese and crackers, they were chatty and open. The more we tried to tiptoe around the cliches of gender and femininity, the more we found that the subject, like a fine bottle, simply begged to be uncorked.

The ladies all agree on one thing: When it comes to good grapes, gender is irrelevant.

Saslove is the youngest of the bunch. She is the daughter of a renowned vintner and grew up worshipping wine. Lender came to the field from the world of editing. "Wine is creation," she says.

Slutzkin has a husband who works in high-tech. For Vizan, winemaking offered a fresh start after her divorce. First she tried to brew beer, but "beer didn't grab me the way wine did," she says. “The grape and its touch, the sensuality and spirituality in it, and the metamorphosis it undergoes – there’s nothing like it. Every grape harvest is a new birth. It’s a kind of motherhood.”

I ask why wine is perceived as something so masculine, and Ackerman, one of only two agronomists working in Israel's wineries, jumps in.

“There are a lot of misperceptions about wine here. In France or Italy, you can always find women sitting with a glass of wine. It's part of a culture that doesn't exist here, not for men and definitely not for women," she says.

The group agrees that the lack of that culture has kept women out of the industry.

"In Israel there’s a feeling that you have to have knowledge,” says Saslove. “Women often apologize for not being knowledgeable about wine.”

“But they don’t say that just about wine,” Slutzkin adds. “They say it about every field.”

Q. But it’s true that there are fewer women vintners. We also see that women drink less wine.

“That’s just like the fact that there are fewer female chefs than male chefs. It’s about societal roles. It has nothing to do with wine,” says Chillag.

The growth of female oenophiles, then, is part of a larger trend.

“Over the past few years, we’ve been hearing about more women vintners because we’ve been hearing more about wine in general,” says Saslove.

We've also, Chillag says, become more modern in our thinking.

“There’s an outdated idea that a young woman has to keep her innocence and not lose her head,” she says. “As if drinking wine would turn her into a loose woman.

That’s the reason women drink less, but that’s changing. Look at what’s happening in this bar. Who’s sitting here? Women.”

The storied work-family conflict, the women all agree, is overrated. Female vintners actually have a leg up on their fellow careerwomen, because in their industry the busy season only lasts from two to four months.

Old stereotypes die hard, though, as Lender knows all too well. When she and her husband visit wine expos, customers flock to her husband and walk right past her.

"For the men, I'm like an ornament," she says.

Vizan, who is a one-woman show, flaunts her independence. “They ask me, ‘What, are you here alone? What, you’re the one who makes the wine?’” She says. "And I say, 'yes, I make the wine.'"

Hitch your wagon to a vineyard

The wine industry is not for the faint of heart. It takes patience and tenacity to commit to a job where grapes can take four years to appear on a vine.

“All the women here have a lot of patience, and in this industry men and women alike have to have a lot of patience to live with the unexpected without getting immediate gratification,” Ackerman says.

“It’s an industry where there’s never a dull moment, and you’re learning all the time,” adds Gold. “Even when you think you know everything, you get an upside-down harvest with rain at the beginning of October.”

Gold has only been working in the field for 18 months. This year is her first harvest.

“I’m sure that some men raised an eyebrow when I took on the job. There are a few who can’t look me in the eye because they think I’m some little pipsqueak, but people have been supportive, too.”

The bottom line is wine

The men of Israel's wine industry have been supportive, the women all say, because gender aside, winemakers are all looking hoping to push Israel's grapes on a skeptical public.

“I think that if I were to contact a vintner, he’d help me without giving it a second thought,” Gold says.

Male or female, Israeli winemakers are united by a common goal. “Everybody wants Israelis to drink more wine,” Saslove says.

“Everybody talks about wine, but they don’t drink wine,” Ackerman adds. “In Israel, people drink less than they do in Europe and America. We want people to drink more wine, and more Israeli wine.”

It's time for Israeli drinkers, she says, to tune into local bottles.

“The Israeli wine industry has reached a point where we can compete at a world-class level. Anyone who says that the prices are too high should know that for the product and the quality he’s getting, the price is fair. Israelis need to understand that when they buy wine in the supermarket for NIS 30 and have a hard time deciding whether to get a French wine for the same price, the Israeli one is higher quality.”

Q. But as far as the public is concerned, Israeli wine is more expensive.

“Everything has already been said about that. The raw ingredients are expensive," Ackerman says. "So are the barrels and the labor. Most wineries haven’t raised their prices over the past few years. It’s well known that restaurants make their money on wine and alcohol, and the time has come for the restaurant owners to calm down. If we look at quality as well as price, Israeli wine is a lot of times better than the wine from abroad. A lot of restaurant owners look down on Israeli wine and think that wine from Burgundy is the best on earth, and they push it just because of its reputation.”

Q. So what to do?

All the women offer the same answer: Bypass the supermarket, and buy directly from the wineries.

Saslove sums it up. "In an era when everybody is talking about slow food, buy the products you eat and drink within a radius of 100 kilometers from your home. That's good for everybody.”

Oren Ziv