September 18, 2020
By Lucia Albino Gilbert and John C. Gilbert
“Our oft-cited 2011 study reported that only 10% of California wineries had a woman in their lead winemaker position. Our 2020 follow-up study indicated a modest but significant increase to 14% over the past nine years.1
The career paths of women who moved into lead winemaker positions since our 2011 study, whom we call California’s Next Generation Lead Women Winemakers, illuminate important patterns of underlying change. These patterns hold promise in leveling the ‘playing field’ for California’s women winemakers.
For this article, we identified sixteen ‘Next Generation’ women winemakers whose career paths illustrate one of three patterns. Two of the three reflect increased opportunity within what has been a traditionally male-dominated field:
- The first lead woman winemaker appointed following mentorship by a senior male winemaker at the same winery, and
- The first woman winemaker hired into a lead winemaker position at a prominent winery.
A reaffirming third pattern was also identified among their career paths:
- Women winemakers who own their wineries or who work as independent consulting winemakers while also developing their own label.
First Lead Woman Winemaker Appointed at a Well-Known Winery Following Mentorship by a Senior Male Winemaker at the Same Winery
Although not everyone needs a mentor to be ‘successful,’ mentors are known to be important to career development. Mentors help their mentees develop a vision for themselves, learn important skills and knowledge, and gain self-confidence.
Important illustrative examples come from the career paths of two pioneering women winemakers—MaryAnn Graf, California’s first lead women winemaker, appointed winemaker at Simi Winery in Healdsburg in 1973, and Jill Davis, at the time California’s youngest lead woman winemaker when appointed at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma in 1983 at age 27. Both were mentored by the esteemed André Tchelistcheff after his retirement from Beaulieu Vineyard in 1973. They described his mentorship as an intensive and supportive experience and central to their career success.
Six of our Next Generation lead winemakers were mentored by a prominent senior male winemaker. Unlike Graf and Davis, however, these winemakers were mentored by a long-time male winemaker for a position at that same winery. It is not unusual for winemakers to continue in their role for many years, especially at family-owned wineries, and to seek exceptional young talent in filling positions that can help secure the winery’s future. Implicit gender bias, however, may make it more difficult for women to successfully compete for these positions. That these successful long-time winemakers at prominent wineries, all men, identified, hired, and then entered into a mentoring relationship with highly qualified young women destined to be appointed as the next winemaker represents an important shift in a male-dominated industry.
The six winemakers are presented in order of when each winery was established to provide some context for the winery’s history, the mentoring, and the winemaker’s appointment.
Heidi Bridenhagen, MacRostie Winery and Vineyards, Healdsburg, Sonoma County.
Founded in 1987 by Thale and Steve MacRostie, with Steve as its first winemaker, Heidi Bridenhagen became its third winemaker in 2013.
Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Heidi loved the outdoors, math, and science. She earned a B.S. degree in Biochemistry from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2006 and then spent time traveling through wine regions in Eastern and Western Europe. She knew on her return that she wanted to pursue a career that combined her scientific expertise and creative skills.
Following a number of harvest and lab experiences in California and New Zealand, Heidi joined MacRostie in 2011, ironically the same day the MacRostie’s sold it. Not knowing what this would mean for her career path, her interview experience with Steve, who later became her mentor, was reassuring. According to Heidi, ‘We spent a few minutes discussing my qualifications, why I thought MacRostie would be a good fit, etc., and then he said, ‘It sounds like you are more than qualified for the job, but who are you and what do you like to do in your free time?’ We ended up talking for over an hour. . . It made me realize that this would be more than just a job, but a family where I could grow in my career.’
In December 2013, the winemaker at the time decided to leave. Heidi laid out her 1-, 3-, and 5-year plans for the winery and became the next winemaker at the age of 27! She continues to work closely with Steve.
A dynamic and gifted winemaker, Heidi consistently receives high scores and accolades for her wines. She does as many as 130 small fermentations each vintage from which to craft the winery’s noted Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
These six young winemakers have in common their mentoring relationships with long-time winemakers who recognized and nurtured their talents and abilities, and in one case, even following a change in ownership. The wineries themselves are among California’s long-established wineries in Napa and Sonoma, with all dating back to at least 1987.”