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Women winemakers evolve Golden State's iconic viticulture

By Laura Burkehart 08/03/2018

Gender parity in the workplace is a hot topic these days – including in California’s iconic wine industry. The state’s viticulture community is experiencing an awakening of sorts as enterprising leaders seek to amplify the message.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women constitute 22 percent of the beverage manufacturing workforce. More than 50 percent of the hospitality industry is female, and statistically women buy more wine than men. Yet only 23 percent of high-level positions in the industry are held by women, according to a survey by Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute.

After eight years of employment at a boutique winery in Sonoma County, Amy Bess Cook redirected her skills as a writer and industry professional into a project aimed to promote women in wine. WOW, which stands for Woman-Owned Wineries, was born out of her desire to tell the stories of women breaking boundaries in the industry and to help raise awareness of their contributions.

Primarily serving as a directory of woman-owned wineries, WOW aims to advocate for women entrepreneurs, tell their stories and make their products easily accessible. Out of around 4,000 wineries in California, 400 have women as lead winemakers. Four percent of women winemakers in the state own their own wineries, but according to WOW Sonoma’s website, “Proportional to their representation in the field (9.8 percent women versus 90.2 percent men), more women head winemakers (23 percent) than men (14.1 percent) are listed in the acclaimed wine reference book 'Opus Vino.' "

The takeaway? Women are making good wine, and Cook is helping people find and get their hands on it.

Cook decided to leverage her background as a travel writer and love of storytelling to heighten the profiles of women she met while working in the wine industry.

“I have always loved to unearth untold stories and to help talented, creative people share their work with a wider audience,” she says.

The idea occurred to her last year as the #MeToo movement was erupting across the state, followed by the Wine Country wildfires last fall that compelled Cook to launch the project even sooner.

"Along the time I had been brainstorming all of this, the wildfires came," Cook says. "It seemed natural to do something that would help the community. Given the dramatic drop in tourism after the fires, calling attention to local businesses with a winery directory made sense."

"I started in my own backyard of Sonoma County and launched within a month of the disaster. In spring of 2018, I expanded the directory to include wineries nationwide.”

Recognizing women’s efforts in the wine industry and supporting initiatives that promote woman-owned businesses can lead to increases in both active tourism and what could be called “tourism in absentia” or “distance tourism” — people outside the state joining California-based wine clubs and buying other merchandise online.

When asked what her grandest goal for WOW is, Cook is thoughtful.

"The power of a good referral network cannot be underestimated," she says. "In this profession, we have prime opportunity to refer guests and colleagues to reputable woman-owned businesses. My hope is that the Woman-Owned Winery directory can encourage that to happen more frequently."

Visit WOW online to learn more about supporting woman-owned wineries in California and across the United States.

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