This last year which ever ‘chai’ (above ground barrel cellar in Bordeaux) I visited, there were woman everywhere busy at work racking wine from one barrel to another, moving barrels to clean them, taking samples from vats, pumping over wine from the bottom of the vat to the top. The usual cellar work you may say but what was different was this work, usually the domain of men, was being done more and more by women in Bordeaux. I have seen particularly during this year’s harvest (2016) women hard at work alongside their male colleagues on both the right bank in the châteaux of St Emilion (Figeac, Canon la Gaffelière) and Pomerol (Gazin) and left Margaux (Lascombes, Marquis de Terme) next to St Julien (Camensac) St Estephe (Phelan Segur). Female oenologists, technical managers and cellar masters are running teams of men in what was a bastion of masculinity – 50 years ago ‘the fairer race’ were banned from cellars for fear of ‘turning the wine’. And why not! as my 15 year old daughter would say, and I could not agree more.
Women have always been abundant in the vineyards pulling out the old cut branches from last year’s growth (tirer le bois) once the pruner has passed by and selected which branch to keep for the oncoming year. Then placing them in the middle of the vine rows to be mulched into the soil as a sort of compost. Or to be tied together into neat bundles to be dried and then used to burn and cook on ‘aux sarments’ the traditional entrecôte à la bordelaise with raw finely cooked shallots.
Women too have traditionally been responsible for a number of the different jobs in the vines such as the lifting of the wires once the vine leaves and shoots start going haywire, or the pushing off of the extra shoots that sprout and sap the vines energy (debudding or ébourgeonner, empamprage), or the removal of extra leaves that cover the grape bunches (deleafing or éffeuiller), or the green harvest where superfluous bunches of grapes (I am sure the vine does not agree) that are badly positioned in the canopy or too close to another, are removed.
Of course too women have played a key role at harvest time in the picking in the vineyards of the grape bunches low down on the short stumpy Bordeaux vines that hang just above the warm soil and they have always been the queens on the sorting table picking out any loose leaf, beetle or green, pink or rotten berry.
Here are a mix of names of woman (no order) in Bordeaux that I have come across in my 25 years here in Bordeaux and who have helped to change the picture and who today hold important roles;
Sandrine Garbay (Yquem), Paz Esperjo (Lanessan), Françoise Langlade (Blanquefort VitiVini College), Claire Villars Lurton (Ferrière, Haut Bages Liberal, la Gurgue, Domeyne – Margaux, Pauillac, Margaux, St Estephe), Céline Villars Foubet (Chasse Spleen and Camensac, Moulis and Haut Medoc), Marie-Laure Lurton (la Tour de Besson, Villegeorge, Margaux and Haut Medoc) Delphine Barboux (Lascombes, Margaux), Virginie Sallette (Ducru Beaucaillou – St Julien), Valérie Vialard (Latour Martillac, Pessac Leognan), Hélène Génin (Latour, Pauillac), Caroline Frey (la Lagune), Marielle Cazaux (la Conseillante, Pomerol), Dominique and Frédérique Vayron (Bourgneuf, -Pomerol), Marie and Sylvie Courseulle (Thieuley, Entre deux Mers), Juliette Bécot (Beausejour Becot, Joanin Bécot, St Emilion, Castillon), Berenice Lurton (Climens)….
A special mention to two phenomenal women of wine who are no longer with us; Bernadette Villars of Chasse Spleen Moulis (taken from us way too early in 1992) and just recently the sad loss of Mary Novak at the age of 87 ‘pioneer wine vintner’ of Spottswoode, Napa Valley. Different continent, same spirit.