Winemakers breaking the glass ceiling
WHEN MOST of us think of a winemaker, we imagine a stooped old French man c o m p l e t e with walrus moustache and black beret. Winemaking seems like a mystic profession, with secrets passed down from father to son from time immemorial. Or is it from father to daughter?
The world of wine has moved on since Lucille Ball crushed grapes with her bare feet. Stainless steel vats have joined handcrafted oak barrels as the tools of winemaking, as the craft has become a multi-million-pound industry. Some things remain the same — the careful selection of grapes to create a delicate balance of flavours is what makes winemaking an art. But some things change — and the male dominance of the field is one of them.
Around 50 years ago, MaryAnn Graf became the first women to graduate in viticulture and oenology from the University of California Davis, the world’s top school for winemakers. In the 2015 graduating class, women made up 50 per cent of the cohort.
While more women are coming up through the ranks, worldwide only 10 per cent of winemakers are women. A serious disparity, when 57 per cent of wine globally is drunk by women. But one country is pushing forward, obliterating the glass ceiling for women winemakers — Israel.
Israel has been the surprise success story of the wine world in recent years. Casting off its image as a maker of basic wines for sacramental purposes only, Israel has gained the respect of wine lovers worldwide. It now boasts its own international wine festival, the TerroVino competition, which this year drew 448 entrants from 30 countries.
Tali Sendovski, from the Golan Heights Winery, was the first female winemaker in Israel. She never intended to be a one. “I fell into it as a career. My family moved to the Golan region and with a degree in biochemistry myoptionswere slightly limited. I spent two years working Yael Sandler: ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ at a dairy farm before moving to the Golan Heights Winery.”
The winery was just starting out and Sendovski was brought in to set up the laboratory.
“I knew more about drinking wine than making it when I first arrived at the winery, but I fell in love,” she says. It’s a long-running love affair; nearly three decades later, she’s still at the winery, specialising in Cabernets, Chardonnays and sweet red wines.
The winemaker’s job involves monitoring every stage of the process, from choosing when to harvest the grapes, to the fermentation to blending the product of various vineyards.
Sendovski takes a parental pride her “newborn” wines and is hard pushed to name a favourite. “If I had to choose one, I’d say the Blanc de Blancs. There are few Israeli sparkling wines and it’s been very successful.” Her 2011 Yarden Heights sweet dessert wine won a gold medal in the 2014 Decanter world wine awards, competing against samples from around the globe.
As the first female winemaker in the country she has seen many others working their way up the ranks and has enjoyed her professional life so much that she would recommend it to other women as a career choice.
Yael Sandler is at the beginning of her career. Until recently she was working at the Binyamina winery, after returning from four years of study at the University of Adelaide, Australia. There is no viticulture programme at any Israeli university, soIsraeli winemakers all have to study abroad.
Sandler grew fascinated by wine when she was working in a restaurant. “I wanted to have a deeper understanding of how this magical beverage was made,” she says. “This is what pushed me to pursue a career that has become my greatest passion.” Sandler is undaunted by the possibility of a glass ceiling, saying “These days you see more and more women winemakers, as well as women filling other positions in the wine industry; sommeliers, marketing managers, winery CEOs and more.” Although s o me t a s k s involve physic a l l a b o u r — moving heavybarrels or harvesting grapes b y h a n d — she says that “where there is a will, there is a way.” The only limitation she can imagine as she embarks on her career is juggling children with long hours.
During the harvest, winemakers are required to work unconventional, extended hours, sometimes starting at 4am. “I’m sure you can work it out either by having a supporting husband or a great nanny,” she says.
Sendovski says that “Israeli wine making is always moving forward. It’s very innovative. With winemakers leaving to study, when they return to Israel they bring home the best techniques the world has to offer.”
“Wine enthusiasts are always looking for something unique to drink,” says Sandler. “Hopefully Israel offers something that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Her greatest wish for Israeli wines is that “one day someone in the UK will be able to pick up a glass of wine, sniff, swirl, taste it and say: ‘yes, this is an Israeli wine’.”
With more people discovering the quality of Israeli wines, the future is bright.
And with more and more Israeli women being employed at the highest levels of winemaking, Israel is leading the way in gender equality, to the benefit of wine lovers everywhere.
Tali Sendovski: recommends winemaking as a career choice for women