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Glass Bottles, Glass Ceilings

How Women of the Vine breaks barriers in the alcohol beverage industry

Women of the Vine

In 2005, New York City-based tech marketing guru Deborah Brenner took a trip to Napa that would change her life—and the role of women in wine—forever. During her tour of the area’s famous wineries, she discovered how male-dominated the wine industry is. She even learned of several cases where a winery made a conscious decision to omit a female winemaker’s name from the label due to concern that female-led production would negatively affect sales. This resonated with Brenner, who had worked her way up in the similarly male-dominated tech industry.

“My journalist background kicked in and I started researching women pioneers in the wine industry,” Brenner recalls. When she discovered a paucity of literature on the topic, she left her corporate life behind to write “Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste, and Enjoy Wine.”

It was through this book, released in 2006, that Brenner first met Cynthia Lohr, the daughter of famed winemaker Jerry Lohr and former VP of marketing for J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines.

“Deborah literally cold-called me in 2007 and asked if I would consider holding a book signing for her,” Lohr remembers. The two hit it off and stayed in touch through the years as Brenner strove to find new ways to fulfill the mission of her book: to tell the story of women winemakers.

Cynthia Lohr

Cynthia Lohr

Woman of the Vine: Cynthia Lohr

Woman of the Vine: Cynthia Lohr

It has always been important to Cynthia Lohr to advance based on her hard work and talents rather than her family name. That’s what led her to explore beyond the security of the J. Lohr San Jose Wine Center after college. She built a successful career in strategic marketing—including a stint in PR for Yahoo!—and developed a powerful knowledge base in helping brands tell their stories.

Only after she found success on her own did she have the desire to return to J. Lohr in 2002 to help her family winery tell its story. In 2010, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named J. Lohr “American Winery of the Year,” in no small part due to Lohr’s expertise. She also pioneered online sales and marketing, as well as forged a philanthropic partnership with the National Breast Cancer Foundation to help fund mammograms for women in need.

“I can’t express enough how important it was to develop knowledge of marketing and public relations outside of J. Lohr,” Lohr explains. “When I came on board, I had a fresh pair of eyes, and expertise that helped advance our business.” Just as Lohr’s path to a career in the wine industry followed more of a zigzag than a straight line, so too did her father Jerry’s pursuit of wine- growing and winemaking.

Hailing from a South Dakota farming family and a true man of the soil, Jerry moved to California in the late-’50s to pursue advanced degrees in civil engineering at Stanford. While operating his own successful building and development business, he set aside time for his burgeoning passion: winemaking.

“My first exposure to the wine industry wasn’t until we started taking weekend family field trips to Arroyo Seco in Monterey County where we planted our first vineyards,” Lohr remembers. “Only then did I understand that this was a passion project for my father.” Neither Lohr nor her parents had any idea that this passion project would become a powerful award-winning brand producing 1.5 million cases of wine annually.

Initially, Brenner decided to create a Women of the Vine wine label, for which winemakers she’d written about in the book collaborated on signature bottles. When this proved financially untenable, she returned to her marketing roots to serve as a consultant to wineries until she came up with an idea.

“I wanted to celebrate these incredible women in the field, especially when you look at statistics of women consumers of wine—we are the largest consumers, yet we don’t know about our sisters in the industry,” Brenner explains. Searching for guidance, she reviewed old emails from female winemakers sharing their stories until she had a realization. “What I really needed to do was give women in the wine industry a forum to support and mentor each other.”

In 2015, Brenner sold out the inaugural Women of the Vine Global Symposium in Napa Valley with 500 attendees. When many of the participants and sponsors asked for ways to keep lines of communication open throughout the year, Brenner answered by conceiving a year-round alliance.

90-PERCENT of the country’s wine is produced in California and 10-PERCENT of those wineries have lead female winemakers.— CYNTHIA LOHR, trade and brand advocate, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines

Women of the Vine Alliance officially launched in September 2015, and the second annual symposium in April 2016 drew 650 attendees. Recently, Brenner also decided to expand the scope of Women of the Vine to include both the broader beverage world—since the male-dominated spirits and beer industries thirsted for forums, too—as well as their male counterparts.

“We absolutely welcome men of the vine to join us,” Brenner says. “This is something we’re doing together—bringing men to the table with us to create change.”

One of the key figures at the Women of the Vine table is, not surprisingly, Cynthia Lohr. Brenner asked Lohr to join the Advisory Board in part because of her important role in shaping the organization, and in part because she’s one of a handful of women who co-own large wineries. “There may be a lot of women co-owners in boutique wineries, but I could count on my hands the ones at J. Lohr’s level of distribution and production,” Brenner says.

Lohr is passionate about using her involvement with Women of the Vine to increase the number of female winemakers in the industry. “90-percent of the country’s wine is produced in California and 10-percent of those wineries have lead female winemakers,” Lohr explains.

J. Lohr

The J. Lohr Paso Robles Visitor Center

Among that 10-percent is J. Lohr’s own lead winemaker of white wines, Kristen Barnhisel. Lohr affirms that J. Lohr hired Barnhisel because she was the best person for the job, not because she was a woman. Yet the company—with facilities in San Jose, Monterey, and Paso Robles and sustainably farmed estate vineyards concentrated in the latter two growing regions—is thrilled to help improve the prominence of females in winemaking. “The more women we can have in leadership positions, the better it is for the industry,” Lohr says.

Woman of the Vine: Kristen Barnhisel

Woman of the Vine: Kristen Barnhisel

Winemaking has taken Kristen Barnhisel all over the world. But before she made wine herself, Barnhisel watched her parents make wine. Her mother, a microbiologist at Simi Winery, and Zelma Long, the winemaker at Simi, served as Barnhisel’s mentors and role models in her pursuit of a career in winemaking. But it wasn’t the science of wine that sealed Barnhisel’s fate as a winemaker herself. Rather, she was moved by the power wine holds over people during a trip to Italy during college.

“I saw how wine is enjoyed in an everyday sense, how it brings people together,” Barnhisel says. “It made me appreciate a whole different side of winemaking—creating something that can gather people around the table and be a conduit for conversation.” After that realization, Barnhisel earned a master’s degree in enology from UC Davis and went on to gain experience at wineries in South Africa and throughout California.

Before joining J. Lohr in 2015 as the lead winemaker of white wines, she had the opportunity to work under some inspiring female winemakers such as Zelma Long, Milla Handley, and Sandi Belcher. “Just learning how these women—these wonderful pioneers—had the courage and fortitude to become winemakers was very important in my path,” Barnhisel says. “It solidified that this was the direction I wanted to take, and it’s a wonderful place to be.”

“I would say that the statistic is likely to grow toward 20-percent in the coming years,” Barnhisel adds. “People are more open to women winemakers than ever before.”

While changing perception remains important, Brenner, Lohr, and Barnhisel insist it’s also about encouraging women to consider career paths in the wine, beer, and spirits industries, and ensuring that they have mentors to guide them. And that’s where Women of the Vine comes in, with its discussion forums, job board, trainings, networking events, and annual symposium.

But it isn’t just about advancing women in the world of wine, beer, and spirits—it’s also about making better products for all to enjoy. “Women naturally approach things very differently than men,” Brenner says. And isn’t it in the best interest of wine-lovers to have bottles diversified through different skill sets and perspectives? As the demographics of the alcohol beverage industry evolve thanks to female-forward wineries like J. Lohr and the work of Women of the Vine, we can’t wait to see what we taste in our future glasses.

You can learn more about Women of the Vine and upcoming events—such as industry nights, forums, and “Women in Business” dinners hosted by local restaurants—at womenofthevine.com.

For more information about J. Lohr Vineyards & Wine, visit jlohr.com.