Sunday, January 18, 2009

As director of production and distribution at Denver-based Dazbog Coffee Co., Michelle Cleveland felt utterly unfulfilled.

There was no room to advance up the ranks of the family-run Dazbog. It was time for Cleveland to make a big change. So she turned to an area she loved: wine.

Cleveland already had flirted with the idea of becoming a winemaker. And she knew local winemaker Bill Donahue, owner of Evergreen’s Creekside Cellars.

“I told Bill I was going to quit my job some day,” Cleveland, 41, said.

Eventually she did just that, saying farewell to Dazbog in 2005. She took a job as a “cellar rat” at Creekside, receiving pay in the form of wine.

She also studied winemaking, taking a graduate certificate program through the famed Enology & Viticulture Department at the University of California at Davis.

Today, Cleveland is Creekside’s winemaker.

She’s among the growing ranks of female winemakers in Colorado and nationwide. According to the state-run Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, at least nine of Colorado’s 74 wineries have women handling the winemaking.

“More and more it’s a trend,” said Doug Caskey, the board’s executive director.

Small surprise, some might argue. It’s an open debate, for example, whether women are better suited for the job.

Some studies have shown that women have more tastebuds than men and that more women are so-called supertasters with a bigger sense of taste.

That said, winemaking was considered the exclusive domain of men a generation ago.

Bill Nelson, president of WineAmerica, a trade group representing the nation’s wineries, said winemaking has presented the same type of challenges for women as other skilled professions.

He cited law, medicine and top corporate jobs as also posing significant glass ceilings throughout time.

“Winemaking has pretty well shattered that ceiling,” said Nelson.

Some of the nation’s most highly acclaimed winemakers are women: superstar California vintner Helen Turley, winemaker for several of California’s most prized labels; Napa Valley winemaker Cathy Corison, who has her own eponymous winery; and the pioneering Zelma Long, Robert Mondavi’s chief enologist in the 1970s. Long later was CEO of Simi Winery in California.

Long, in particular, “made it easier for other women to become involved,” said Nelson.

But if you’re thinking of becoming a winemaker in Colorado, don’t expect to become a millionaire.

“Starting off at more than $30,000 to $40,000 a year is pretty optimistic. To expect more than that as a full-time winemaker is unrealistic given the size of our industry,” said Caskey, of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board.

He also noted that only about eight of the state’s winemakers actually are employed by the winery. The winery owners typically make the wine themselves.

Across the nation, men still dominate the ranks of winemaking. But a significant number of women aim to fill those ranks.

At the UC Davis Viticulture & Enology Department, women account for a hefty proportion of the students.

“Our population is 40 percent women and 60 percent male,” said Judy Blevins, academic program adviser in the department.

In Colorado, female winemakers range in age from their late 30s to their 70s.

The state’s pioneering female winemaker is the seventysomething – she won’t give her exact age – Joan Mathewson, winemaker at Terror Creek Winery in Paonia.

She’s been in the business for more than a quarter century, having first studied winemaking in Switzerland while overseas with her husband.

It was during that overseas period, in Africa, that Mathewson decided she wanted to get into winemaking once she and her husband arrived back in the states.

“We just decided we wanted to make European-style wines when we returned,” said Mathewson, who trekked to numerous European wine cellars and vineyards during her overseas stint.

While studying winemaking in Europe, Mathewson met just one or two other female students involved in the program.

She didn’t know any in Colorado, however, when Terror Creek secured its winery license in 1992.

Told that several other women make wine here today, Mathewson responded: “Really? My gosh!”

“I think it’s really great,” she added. The winemaker then explained why she didn’t know there were that many.

“I’m really absorbed in what I’m doing.”

At the helm

Here are the nine women who handle the winemaking at Colorado wineries.

– Jackie Thompson

Boulder Creek Winery, Boulder

Age: 51

Years in the winemaking business: 6

– Joan Mathewson

Terror Creek Winery, Paonia

Age: “In the 70s.”

Years in the winemaking business: 26

– Michelle Cleveland

Creekside Cellars, Evergreen

Age: 41

Years in the winemaking business: 4

– Debra Ray

Desert Moon Vineyards, Palisade

Age: 45

Years in the winemaking business: 3

– Nancy Janes

Whitewater Hill Vineyards & Winery, Grand Junction

Age: 46

Years in the winemaking business: 5

– Marianne “Gussie” Walter

Augustina’s Winery, Boulder

Age: 48

Years in the winemaking business: 12

– Jenne Baldwin-Eaton

Plum Creek Winery, Palisade

Age: 38

Years in the winemaking business: 14

– Barbara Maurer

Graystone Winery, Clifton

Age: 64 (“and wanting to retire”)

Years in the winemaking business: 9

– Padte Turley

Colorado Cellars Winery, Palisade

Age: 52

Years in the winemaking business: 20

– Rocky Mountain News