Letters from Lodi

An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.

Randy Caparoso
March 23, 2022 | Randy Caparoso

The women winemakers of Lodi (part 2 — are male winemakers from Mars and women winemakers from Venus?)

Continued from The women winemakers of Lodi (part 1)

The differences between the sexes

Salary discrepancies and gender/job pigeonholing are as much a part of the challenge of today's women winemakers as they are for women in all American industries. This does not preclude the basic fact recognized throughout the wine industry: That lead women winemaker, where they are to be found (an estimated 14% of winemakers in California), are incredibly skilled. A lot of this skill, it would appear, is built into the DNA of females.

When you go online, to begin with, you are bound to come across articles alluding to the fact that women make great winemakers because the sensory abilities of women in general are more finely attuned than that of men. That is, the average woman is capable of smelling and tasting a few more things than the average man, hence giving women a leg up in the sensory department.

There are plenty of professional opinions on this hypothesis (see MacNeil, Who Has Better Wine Tasting Abilities?), and it has also been demonstrated in objective studies (see the Technical University of Madrid study reported in The Drinks Business). However, I would contend that there are factors that are even more significant when making comparisons between male and female winemakers.

Focused wine tasting at a Lodi ZinFest.

Women, as evidenced by their current dominant presence in all institutions of higher learning (see ForbesThere Are More College-Educated Women Than Men In The Workforce), tend to be more studious than men. This is a key factor in winemaking since the occupation is considered both an art and a science. Whether you are a man or woman, heightened sensory abilities — which are as much mental (since it's the brain that processes and stores sensations) as physical — certainly enhance artistic abilities. But it is also no coincidence that many of our country's finest winemakers are known for their meticulous, detail-oriented approach to their science. Many (actually, still most) of them are men; but as a group, scientific rigor is practically a defining feature common to women winemakers.

I think, though, that gender differentiations are even more fundamental than that. On a social or cultural level, women tend to be more empathetic, and men more competitive (from among the numerous studies, see Empathy: Gender effects in brain and behavior). By "empathy," in this case, I mean women's demonstrably stronger disposition toward understanding and sharing the experiences of Nature, not just the emotions of other people. In the world of wine, Nature entails vineyards, grapes, and all aspects of terroir, a "sense of place" or grape origin. This is not to say that there are no men with strong empathetic instincts, or that there are no highly competitive women. But generally speaking, these are the predominant gender-related behavioral patterns that have evolved in societies around the world. 

Lodi's Dr. Stephanie Bolton with the discarded arm of a +100-year-old Lodi Zinfandel.

Therefore, when you look at wines in general, wines crafted by women winemakers tend to have more emphasis on balance and subtlety, whereas more aggressive, pedal-to-the-metal wines typify wines made by men. Powerful and intense wines invariably "score" higher, since under "blind" wine tasting circumstances, absent background information likely to skew favor towards restrained sensory qualities, critics and judges invariably award points on the basis of more-is-better.

Does this put women winemakers at a disadvantage in competitive circumstances? Yes and no. Wines produced by men may chalk up higher scores; but because of instincts borne out of empathy, wines crafted by women typically exhibit a complexity from the standpoint of prioritizing the nuance of grape and terroir.

It sounds like a stereotyping, but you expect a wine handcrafted by a woman to favor the expression of vineyard origin over raw power, whereas among men this expectation is an exception rather than the rule. To be more specific, rather than gobs of big fruit and oak qualities more likely to impress a wine critic, a female-made wine often possesses quieter yet more varied qualities of floral, herb, earth, and/or mineral notes, and is typically more multifaceted (as opposed to monolithic) in fruit-related expressions, with or without oak nuances. 

Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis leading a tasting at a past Lodi ZinFest.

These markers have recently become more of a positive, based upon evidence that major influencers and gatekeepers, such as wine competition judges and restaurant sommeliers, have been gravitating more towards conceptions of wine that can be characterized as subtle or restrained, and often strongly earth-toned. Of course, this evolution wouldn't exist without a growing groundswell of consumers preferring the same thing. That is, wines typical of an instinctively empathetic approach to grapes and terroir; many of which, mind you, are now being made by cutting-edge male winemakers, yet have also been long associated with the winemaking approach of women.

Needless to say, the empathetic instincts of women, in general, are played out in the marketplace, where wine is purchased and consumed. For male enthusiasts, wine can be as appealing to the intellect as it is to the senses (when you think of the term "wine geek," you usually picture a man), which is why men consume a good 40% to 45% of the wine in the U.S.

Wine, of course, also serves a culinary purpose — it is enjoyed with food by both sexes. For female consumers, however, wine is even more than that: It is much more of a social beverage for women than it is for men. It doesn't take a genius to understand that socializing explains why women traditionally purchase and consume considerably more wine than men. Any woman would tell you that, in the company of other women, the more socializing is done, the more bottles are emptied.

Wine lovers at a past Lodi ZinFest.

In a recent conversation with Dee Yates, a Lodi photographer, she pointed out this obvious fact:

Take a look at any tasting room, on any day, and what do you see? At least 75% or 80% of the people standing around are women. Go to any big wine event, like Lodi Wine & Chocolate Weekend, and what do you see? More than 80% of the people are women, many of them gathered in groups of all-women. If you see a man, it's because a woman has dragged him along. It's women who check out the events on social media, they're the ones who buy the tickets, and the men are there so the women can have their fun.

Lodi's leading women winemakers

In each of these lead winemakers' own words:

Kathy Stonum — Owner/Grower/Winemaker, Stonum Vineyards

My journey to becoming a winemaker began forty-two years ago when my family purchased 16 acres on the east side of Lodi and planted Zinfandel grapes. Although my career at the time was as an educator, my connection to the vineyard and farming was my passion. In 2006, with the idea of showcasing grapes from Lodi, my brother and I made our first Estate Zinfandel, and so a new chapter began.

My winemaking philosophy is simple yet exacting: to create wines with finesse and balance using a light touch and minimalistic intervention, allowing the true character of the fruit and terroir to emerge. To accomplish this, I believe you must stay fluid — open to the challenge of experimentation and new learning. My current project, THE KMS COLLECTION, highlights single-vineyard, small-batch wines made from Lodi grapes. The thrill of discovering vineyards and establishing relationships with the growers brings me full circle in my journey, back to where it all began — in the vineyard.

Susana Rodriguez Vasquez — Head Winemaker, Peltier Winery

I revel in the entire process from vineyard to bottle. I came from a family of agronomists, but am always inspired by my love for the outdoors and the excitement surrounding harvest. When I first started my career, I had no idea that winemaking was in my future, but it has been a natural progression and became my true passion. There’s infinite knowledge to gain in my craft, and every vintage is a chance to challenge myself. As I learn more about each vineyard, I understand how best to show the vineyard personality and cultivate my winemaking style.

Melinda Kearney — Owner/Winemaker, Lorenza True Rosé

I am a 30-year wine industry veteran with a parallel focus on sales and marketing and, now, 14 years of rosé-making. I started as a restaurateur and made the natural transition to the wine industry, immersed in all facets (production, office, sales) of a small winegrowing estate in Napa Valley.

I tap into my palate from a perspective of balance and make my rosé have an affinity with food. The original goal of Lorenza in 2008 was to produce a Provence-style rosé from old vines in the sandy soil of the California Delta. Rosé fermented in stainless steel is a transparent medium for early-picked fruit. Rosé shows off when made from well-farmed and meticulously sorted fruit, and benefits from moderate yield. Gnarled old vines are stable and enhance the age-ability of this style of rosé, and this is what I have found in Lodi.

My greatest joy? Being on a tractor during a harvest night. There is a magical sense of connection with the vines as they give up their fruit under the night sky.

Bettyann Spenker — Owner/Winemaker/Cheesemaker, Spenker Winery

Most people have more than one career or passion during their lifetime. Science has always been one of mine. My formal education included soil microbiology, plant pathology, and chemistry. I also discovered that I love teaching. Within weeks of arriving in Lodi for a teaching job, I was invited to a home winemaking party at a local vineyard owned by Chuck Spencer. Scientist meets Farmer, a match made in heaven, and love at first sight. 

I immediately loved Lodi, too, a charming little city surrounded by amazing agriculture: vineyards, orchards, dairies, and other crops. And the soil here! I’d spent some years researching soil microbial ecology, then the breakdown of herbicide residues in soils, and also disease controls in berry fruits. And my interests in soils and ecosystems dovetailed precisely with the Lodi growers who were developing sustainable practices and programs before “sustainable” became an everyday term.

After marrying Chuck, I did a quick and long study of winemaking, specifically Zinfandel. Of course, the applicable transfer of knowledge about microbiology and chemistry to winemaking allowed us to receive accolades for our wine, and to continue to develop wines that reflect the contributions of the soil and vine management. It has been a humbling and delightful career to live and work here in the Lodi wine region.

And then the page turned once more, to the microbiology and chemistry of... cheese making [Spenker Winery is now also a local farmstead goat cheese producer!].

Please look for our next blog post, The women winemakers of Lodi (part 3 — our incredible up-and-coming talent)

Lorenza's Melinda Kearney during the pre-dawn harvest of Lodi's Bechthold Vineyard (Cinsaut planted in 1886).



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