Virginia Slims, a top-selling brand of cigarettes in the US, ran a highly successful advertising campaign from 1968 right through to the 80s. For more than 25 years, magazine and billboards across the country bore the image of a powerful-looking woman with a cigarette in her hand and the bold tag line: 'You've come a long way, baby'. Replace the cigarette with a glass of wine, and this could be the perfect image for the huge strides women have made in the world of winemaking over the past 30 years.
When that the Virginia Slims campaign was launched, the concept of a woman making wine was pretty much unheard of - especially in the macho atmosphere of Franco's Spain. But 1968 was also the year Maria Martinez, now head winemaker at Rioja's Bodegas Montecillo, began a postgraduate degree in winemaking. “I was studying philosophy and I started working in a winery to make some money to support myself,” says Martinez. “I fell in love with a wine, a fantastic Rioja from 1928, and it made me want to change career. My mother, in particular, was disgusted with me when I made the move - she and my father wanted me to be a university lecturer.”
|Martinez already had the exam grades necessary to win her a place on the winemaking course at Valencia University.
She was, naturally, the only woman studying the subject. She graduated in 1970 and began her career as a winemaker. “In those days the culture was very different to today,” she says. “Wine was a man's job: it certainly
wasn't what a nice girl should be doing - and it wasn't the recognised opportunity it is nowadays. I had to fight hard to get any respect.”
Martinez moved on to Bordeaux, where she worked for the Cordier family at their properties in St Julien and the Haut-Médoc. On her return to Rioja, her growing reputation as a winemaker won her a job at a big bodega, where she acquired a reputation for making top quality, ripe, fruit-driven wines.
A medium-sized fish in a large pond, Martinez jumped at the opportunity offered her by the Osborne family in the mid-70s to head up a team of winemakers at their newly purchased Bodegas Montecillo, where she still works today.
|A scientist by training, Espejo was unfulfilled by the thought of spending her days isolated in a lab, so she went travelling after graduation. She was on a voyage of
exploration, hoping to discover a career that would allow her to work in a natural environment, travel and meet people. While she was in France, a casual conversation led to a growing interest in winemaking, and she
signed up for a postgraduate course at Bordeaux University.
"My first contact with winemaking was a tasting at the university," she says, "but I immediately felt at home. I still feel that winemaking chose me rather than the other way round - and the fact that it has done so makes me feel incredibly lucky."
On graduating, Espejo worked with flying winemaker Peter Bright in Spain and Australia, then taught winemaking for a while before moving on to make wine for Bordeaux négociant Calvet in 1997 before taking up the reins at Cordier in 2003.
"Len was always inviting people to come and work at the winery and forgetting to tell David," she laughs,
"but luckily for me, four people had gone off sick just as I turned up, so I was welcomed with open arms."
Undaunted by the hard physical labour involved in winemaking, Wilson initially had problems adapting to the creative demands of the job. "I just couldn't get my head round the way your decisions in the field come out in the glass," she says. "I thought it would be science first and tasting after, but I soon found out it was the other way round, which I thought was extraordinary. Even if you like eating good food, you don't make commercial decisions based on how your sauce tastes unless you're a top chef."
Her fascination with such paradoxes led Wilson to stay on in the world of winemaking, and she and Rothbury's former winemaker, David (who she later married), now make wine on their own estate, Lowe Wines, which is based in the up-and-coming Mudgee region.
|As part of her course, Rose had to do a vintage somewhere and ended up on the night shift at Yalumba. After a second vintage at the winery, she was offered the job
as assistant winemaker to Geoff Linton and, when he moved on in 1995, Rose took over responsibility for both sparkling and whites wines, but has focused exclusively on the whites since 1998.
"I'm responsible for all the whites, but my focus is mainly on Viognier and Riesling," she says. "The company has been making the Pewsey Vale Riesling since 1969, so it is very important to make the style consistent, but with Viognier we started from scratch. It's my passion - we look to the Rhône wine Condrieu for inspiration, because its great wines are worth idolising."
Rose may well idolise the wines of Condrieu, but she is very much an Aussie girl at heart, and is aware that the forward-thinking attitude of Australians has been an advantage to her and her fellow women winemakers. "Being a woman has certainly not hindered my career," she says. "There's no prejudice in Australia - it doesn't matter whether you are a man or a woman, as long as you can do the job."