Many of us carefully consider the origins of our eggs, vegetables or meat, but what about our booze? We’re generally (sometimes appropriately) more interested in getting the cork out, or bottle top off than pondering the amount of time it took to carefully cultivate grapes and turn them into wine.
Luckily, there are plenty of clued-up women working behind the scenes around Australia doing the thinking for us – and producing some of the best beverages in the world while they’re at it..
Take top winemaker Gill Gordon-Smith. Although she dabbled in other careers – being a Qantas flight attendant, for one – her first job was in the cellar and at the cellar door of Settlement Wine Company, and she’s since come full circle, launching her own wine label fall from grace in 2009.
“I love everything about wine and have always been fascinated by grapes and the process of turning them into wine,” Gill explains. “It connects you with the earth and the land.”
Last year, figures hovered at around 9 per cent for the female representation of formally-trained winemakers in Australia and at around 38 per cent for owner-operated, female-led vineyards.
“I believe you make wine with your head and your heart. It’s not about your gender, but women are outnumbered in the industry,” Gill admits. “Working for yourself is hard in any business but it provides flexibility, and I get to work with wine and passionate people.”
While numbers are on the rise, Gill believes mentoring is “vital” to growing the trend further in the industry.
“I have been lucky to have had some wonderful mentors, both male and female, like Mark Day from Koltz Wines, who is always there with honesty and doesn’t hold back, and Justin Lane definitely supported me when I started this journey and encouraged me to trust my palate.”
For Gill, that self-trust was her main challenge in taking a grape from vineyard to bottle.
“The biggest challenge is, and was, myself, feeling confident in making good choices and getting the timing right in the vineyard,” Gill says.
Jodie Armstrong from McLaren Vale’s Sew and Sew Wines, founded in 2004 with a tonne of Pinot Noir, agrees. Along with the challenge being “short of stature”, which makes leverage when opening particular fittings difficult, as well as the physically demanding tasks of plunging and raking fruit very difficult, there was a “huge mental hurdle” to her work.
“Self-doubt often results in me worrying if I have done the right thing by my wines,” Jodie explains. Although, like anything, a good amount of experience has helped to quell those fears. “Having spent over 20 years managing and consulting in numerous vineyards, I do not suffer from the same lack of confidence when growing grapes.”
At the heart of the grape-growing community is the passion and dedication of the women makers that results in both “healthy competition” as well as a strong sense of connectedness (when they have the time, that is).
“All of us are flat-out trying to make it to the end of each day and keep all the balls in the air [meaning] that there is limited spare time,” Jodie explains. “We are all supportive of each other and have a wonderful time when we catch up, it just doesn’t happen often enough.”
If there’s a noticeable difference between male and female winemakers, there’s even less of a female community in the beer brewing industry. Agi Gajic, head brewer at Sparkke, a craft brewing company that gives 10 per cent of funds to four key organisations supporting social issues like gender equality and refugee acceptance, is one of only three female Australian head brewers under 30. What’s the toughest part of her work as a brewer?
“Getting my foot in the door,” Agi explains. “Once I’d finally done that, I faced long hours, odd hours, physically and mentally demanding work.”
“It’s all so worth it, though. I wouldn’t take back a single second.”
Considering the smaller numbers of women working in beer brewing results in “not much of a community”, Agi also, unsurprisingly, considers mentoring indispensable to her success in the industry.
“[Mentoring is vital], especially as a female because there are less of us around,” she explains. “The work can be quite overwhelming when you first start and there is constantly so much to learn, so having a mentor is extremely beneficial.”
Agi herself “goes out of her way” to both gain knowledge from more experienced brewers, but also to “pass those insights onto anyone interesting in learning.”
For these women, who will gather together at Tasting Australia’s Heroine Soul to Glass event along with more than 20 other female beverage boss ladies, it seems their dedication to their job goes beyond the hours of nine to five.
“Winemaking is not just a job, it’s a life,” Jodie says. “It has taught me that success is not the amount of money I have, but that it is the shared moments, the contact with nature and that every day I get out of bed, something new and challenging will happen.”
Tasting Australia’s Heroines Soul to Glass event is on Friday 5 May, 5pm at the fall from grace (Aldinga, Fleurieu Peninsula) vineyard. Have a look at other events at Adelaide-based food and wine festival Tasting Australia here.