Monday, February 12, 2018

Wowing It with Women Winemakers

March 8 is International Women's Day, and its organizers call it "a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity." Of course in Santa Barbara County, we like to celebrate everything with a party of sorts, especially if wine can be involved. So that explains the genesis of the Women Winemakers Dinner to be held at the K'Syrah Event Center in Solvang (and a tasting event prior, in a closed down street, of all things--you can buy a ticket for the whole grand evening or just for the tent tasting).

It turns out Santa Barbara County has a higher percentage of female winemakers than most wine areas in the world. I decided to ask Karen Steinwachs, winemaker at Buttonwood Winery and one of the planners for the event, why she thought that was. "It's probably the same reason we have fewer winemakers here, no matter what gender, without formal degrees in enology," she theorizes. "The somewhat 'maverick' nature of the valley allows and embraces people moving outside of their defined roles. And because we are not (yet) locked into a corporate wine ownership, assistant winemakers, cellar masters, heck – tasting room people – are often given a chance to make their own wine. This blossoms into those folks either heading out on their own, or having the benefit of their own label while still working at their 'real' job, like what I do with Buttonwood and Seagrape. Yet, we have some of the state’s women pioneers – who also fell into this from another field. Kathy Joseph [of Fiddlehead Cellars], Lane Tanner [of Lumen Wines], Denise Shurtleff [of Cambria Estate Vineyard & Winery]."

I couldn't help but ask about the seemingly simplified shorthand of calling wine styles masculine or feminine. "A more ethereal and delicate Pinot Noir is described as feminine, and a big, bold chunky Zin masculine," Steinwachs says. "Doesn’t bother me really. It’s difficult to describe wine – everyone’s senses are so different. To me, comes down to whether you love it, like it, prefer not to have that one."

Since this is the second year of the Women Winemakers Dinner, I queried about the highlights from last year. "It was so celebratory and joyful!" Steinwachs recalls. "Although somewhat a political statement being on International Women’s Day, everyone just so enjoyed the company. As Supervisor Joan Hartman paraphrased 'instead of building a wall, we need to set a longer table.'"

That doesn't mean there wasn't room for improvement this year – in fact more room was one of the keys for round two. "It was a little chaotic with wine and dinner service, and it oversold so quickly that we are trying this year to accommodate more guests, more winemakers, and more price points so that we donate even more to the Women’s Fund of Northern Santa Barbara County (we gave just over $6000 to them last year)," Steinwachs says. "All proceeds go to the charity, with all wine, winemaker time, chef time, and most rentals and some of the menu ingredients themselves donated."

Then there was the issue that since all the chefs are women, from Brooke Stockwell at K'Syrah to Cynthia Miranda at the Lucky Hen Larder to Theo Stephan at Global Gardens, and more, and all the winemakers, of course, are women (pretty much all the SBC women winemakers, from those already mentioned to Morgan Clendenen from Cold Heaven, Sonja Magdevski from Casa Dumetz, Angela Osborne from A Tribute To Grace, Tara Gomez from Kitá Wines, Clarissa Nagy at Nagy Wines, etc. etc.), some men felt somehow unwelcome. "I was a little worried last year that our messaging was off and that men didn’t believe they were invited," Steinwachs admits. "A survey showed that most understood it was open to all genders, but many women felt comfortable coming to this solo. An interesting thing…."

Steinwachs couldn't be more excited for the event. "To me, this is what wine does," she enthuses. "It brings a lot of different people together, and when one sits down at a table with wine – sometimes world peace can ensue. As Kathy Joseph said last year, 'Stop the rhetoric and pass the Pinot!' People are still talking about last year. No pressure on us to make it even more enjoyable this year!"

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