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Ladies of the Vine: Loudoun’s wine scene welcomes women winemakers

Jen Shailor of Bluemont Vineyards is one of roughly a dozen female winemakers in Loudoun County, home to the most wineries of any county in Virginia. Times-Mirror Photo/Rick Wasser
Two winemakers at Breaux Vineyards were hard at work at the serene Purcellville property last winter when in strolled a salesman hoping to capture a new client for his line of corks or pumps or whatever it was. The gentleman walked right up to Ben Comstock, Breaux's assistant winemaker, and began his spiel.

Poor sales rep. He didn't stand a chance. The guy was pitching the wrong man.

In fact, he shouldn't have been pitching a man at all.

“I didn't want to burst his bubble,” Heather Munden, Breaux's chief vintner, recalls on a busy Saturday in March. “To this day, I still don't think he knows I'm actually the winemaker.”

After crafting wines in Sonoma County and traveling the globe du vin, Munden has come to grips with consumers' faulty presupposition that a savory bottle of wine was surely crafted by a man. With two decades worth of experience in the vines, the Left Coast native doesn't get flustered by such prejudices, and by no means do they have her considering another career.

“I like dirt between my toes,” the self-professed farm girl says, adding, “granted, I also like when it washes off and I can wear cute shoes.”

A rainbow spotting from Bluemont Vineyards in April. Photo By/Trevor Baratko

A changing game

In an industry dominated by men, women are increasingly driving Loudoun’s wine game. More than 10 ladies are either head vintners or assistant winemakers in the county, and they are crafting some of the top juice in the state.

Among the best: Munden, who landed at Breaux in spring 2014; Lori Corcoran at Corcoran Vineyards, one of the originals in the Loudoun wine game, crafting whites and reds at her Waterford farm; Maggie Malick at Maggie Malick's Wine Caves just down the road from Breaux; Jen Shailor at Bluemont; Bree Ann Moore at Loudoun Valley Vineyards; Jenny McCloud, "queen of the Norton" at Chrysalis Vineyards; Karen Reed at Leesburg's Dry Mill; Vicki Fedor with her husband Mark at North Gate; and assistant winemakers Katie DeSouza and Katell Griaud of Casanel, Jordan Spencer of Stone Tower Winery and Meaghan Tardif at Fabbioli.

Heather Munden

The formal awards and distinctions bestowed on these vintners and their wines are too numerous to note. Fedor's Meritage at North Gate, McCloud's work preserving the legacy of the Norton grape, Fabbioli's tantalizing tannat … the list goes on.

Given the history of wine crafting and wine culture, we wondered what challenges, if any, women vintners face on account of their sex? What advantages? And do they feel any animus coming from male counterparts?

Several of the women said, being in the minority, they feel they have to prove themselves not only to male colleagues, but also to the market as a whole.

“As a younger woman in the industry I think you have to work harder to gain recognition for your talents,” Shailor of Bluemont explained.

“That doesn’t bother me. I plan on continuing to learn, work hard and let my wines speak for themselves. I hope that I can set an example for women who are considering a career in the industry to go for it and not let these dynamics be intimidating.”

That notion of having to “one-up” male vignerons was also touched on by Lori Corcoran, who has been tending Loudoun County vines since 2002.

“Men can just naturally be a little more intimidating than women,” she noted. While not meant to disrespect men in the industry, Corcoran said being around women associates provides an extra sense of camaraderie and collaboration. There's warmth and comfort sparked from women sharing similar struggles, similar successes.

Maggie Malick is the vintner at Maggie Malick Wine Caves north of Purcellville. Times-Mirror/Jonathan Taylor

Defying perceptions

At Casanel, just outside Leesburg, DeSouza says a major obstacle facing women in the industry is the perception they're weak.

“Can you really move those barrels by yourself, or reach that seven-foot sample valve without using a step ladder, or lift that 50-pound bag?” DeSouza rhetorically posed. “The answer is always yes. It might take me a few extra minutes and with some extra elbow grease, but my father always taught me you can't ask someone to do something unless you yourself have done it first. Being a female winemaker has taught me to be extra resourceful.”

Resourcefulness is a trait winemakers everywhere pride themselves on, but especially in Virginia. Because Loudoun County and the commonwealth are fairly new wine regions, most winery operators are keenly aware of expenses, bottom lines and possible waste; this, too, may give women a leg up in the industry, considering the long-held notion that women control the checkbook.

More importantly, however, is patience. And that's a quality that seems to give women artisans a major advantage in producing quality juice.

Lori Corcoran

“I think we're more detailed-oriented. We're more patient. You know, this is a business of patience,” Munden reasoned. “It's like, sit around and wait, do your work, wait, do some more work, wait. You have to wait until the grapes are ready and wait until the bottle is ready.”

The veterans Munden and Corcoran both pointed to studies that show women have better palates than men, a third possible advantage for women when it comes to testing new blends, putting the finishing touches on a star vintage and all-out overseeing production.

Forget the glamour

As for the taxing hours and buckets of sweat? The women seemed to revel in the challenge.

“I love the hard physical work,” Shailor noted.

Munden downplayed the strength requirements and grunt-work of her profession, saying, “it's not that bad,” while Corcoran conceded the demanding labor is what likely deters many women from entering the field.

“It's hard work, a lot of physical activity. It's not for everyone. Being a winemaker isn't nearly as glamorous as everyone suspects,” said Corcoran, echoing a common refrain from those who have devoted their careers to the vineyards.

When it comes to the thrill of the trade, the intrigue of the process – that's something that doesn't seem to distinguish men and women winemakers. Vintners, male of female, consistently tout the dual nature of wine making – the blend of being both artist and scientist.

“Winemaking is very scientific but it’s also an artistic creative craft,” Shailor said. “Having a background in art caused me to naturally be captivated by the field. Now that I am a winemaker, I could never imagine doing anything else.”

This story originally appeared in the spring edition of LOUDOUNER. Contact the writer at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or on Twitter at @TrevorBaratko.


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