Women behind the wine
Mission to promote industry’s historic female winemakers
UNTIL recently Mary Penfold, whose name adorns Australia’s most prestigious wine, had almost been lost in history.
The English winemaker started working in the wine trade when she moved to South Australia with her husband, Christopher, in 1844.
But according to wine historian Fleu Lankesheer, the rest of Mary’s story isn’t well known.
Fleur said Mary is typical of early female winemakers, who have received little recognition, having largely been written out of her own story.
“When Mary and her husband moved to South Australia from Britain she was the one who planted vines because her husband was a doctor and busy setting up his new practice,” Fleur said.
“She was also the one who made all the wine. At one stage Mary Penfold was making a third of all wine coming out of South Australia.”
Mary is not the first woman to be obscured from view in the history books, which have tended to celebrate men in the wine industry.
But Fleur is on a mission to promote Mary and other early female winemakers.
Fleur developed a passion for wine when she used wine tastings as an excuse to get out of the hotel room when she was travelling for business.
She was working as a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company involved in cancer drug development – a job that took her around the world.
“I’ve always had an interest in wine so I used wine tasting to get out and see parts of the world I was visiting,” Fleur said.
“If I was in San Francisco or Silicon Valley I would go to Napa Valley or Sonoma.”
In 2015 Fleur decided to do a PhD on the historical, social and cultural impact of British women on the port wine industry in Portugal during the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I knew I didn’t want to make wine but I still wanted to be involved with and promote the industry,” Fleur said.
After wondering why women were seldom included in wine history books, Fleur decided to investigate the role of women in winemaking history.
“I knew they must have been involved because winemaking has continued through so many wars, so who was making the wine, if not women?” Fleur said.
“I wanted to look at the lives of women from the 17th century onwards and see what they were up to and what role they had in winemaking.
“I thought it would be great to focus my research on stories people had never heard of.”
As it turned out, many of the world’s first winemakers were women.
“Women’s contribution just wasn’t documented like men’s,” Fleur said.
“Like all history, things are slowly changing so everything doesn’t just focus men’s contribution – it’s the same for the wine industry.”
Fleur is one of just 50 wine historians across the globe, and was initially going to write a historical fiction novel about women in wine, until she realised there was no research to base her book on.
“I needed answers for the questions I had, and it turned out I had to answer them myself,” Fleur said.
As part of her research Fleur travelled to Portugal, England and Scotland for three months to dig up old records.
“In Porto in Portugal, the streets haven’t changed very much over the years, so I was able to literally walk in the footsteps of those first winemaking women,” she said.
Fleur has recently moved from Brisbane to Rutherglen, in North East Victoria, as executive officer of Winemakers of Rutherglen, a body that helps promote the region’s wine industry.
Her next move is to publish an article on colonial women exhibitors of Australian wine at international wine shows.
“It examines and documents women who were exhibitors and award winners of Australian colonial wines on the international and intercolonial exhibitions,” Fleur said.
Mary Penfold was one of those women. She exhibited her wine in Paris in the 1800s at only the second international wine show ever held, and went on to enter her wine in six more shows.
Fleur hopes to raise awareness of Mary’s work and the work of other Australian female winemakers by nominating them for the National Biography Award.
“Until I started digging, I was unaware that Mary Penfold was the Penfolds winemaker, and that’s the most significant winery in Australia,” Fleur said.
“If I can help find a way to recognise her contribution to the company, given Penfolds is the most widely understood wine brand in Australia, it is important.”
Fleur said several prominent female winemakers were active in her Rutherglen wine region, including Jen Pfeiffer, Christobelle Anderson, Mandy Jones and Jan Milhinch.
Wine Australia will host the Australian Women in Wine Awards 2017 in London on September 26, and Fleur believes awards such as this can help draw attention to women in the industry.
She said the number of women in Australian wine was estimated to be about eight to 10% of the total workforce and in some areas that number was actually in decline.
“Overall Australian women are entering the industry in greater numbers, but they are not staying and are leaving to pursue other careers,” Fleur said.
“Women don’t realise how much women in Australia and Britain were involved in the beginnings of the industry,” she said.
“There are still so many women in this industry and people need to know that.”
Winemaking has continued through so many wars, so who was making the wine, if not women?
— Fleu Lankesheer
WOMEN AND WINE: Fleur Lankesheer is a wine historian doing research into the role of women in winemaking across the world, with a focus on Portugal and Australia.
Mary Penfold. Source: Penfolds Portrait Historical Copies.