When Forbes interviewed six women in the wine industry last year, interviewees weighed in on misconceptions about females in the industry. Samra Morris, winemaker at Alma Rosa Winery in California’s Sta. Rita Hills AVA, answered that one misconception is that women are not able “to do heavy duty jobs in the cellar.”
On the other side of the country, Women in Wine NJ—led by Victoria Reader, assistant winemaker and vineyard manager at Amalthea Cellars in Atco in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA—is on a mission to dispel that misconception and ensure women receive skills training so they can perform the heavy duty jobs in the cellar and the vineyard they’re more than capable of handling.
The Need for a Women in Wine Group
In 2021, Reader launched the organization as a place for women involved in the New Jersey wine and grape growing industry to come together and participate in a dedicated, supported, and educated community. Women in Wine NJ is open to any woman in any job in the industry, not just those who work in the vineyard or the cellar. The group is made up of tasting room employees and managers, winery owners, winemakers, and vineyard workers. They welcome any woman who works at any of New Jersey’s 60 plus wineries or standalone vineyards. Membership is free.
“I had been going to a lot of vineyard meetings, winery meetings, and informational seminars at Rutgers, and I found that there really weren’t that many women,” says Reader, explaining why she created the organization. “If there were more than just me, it might have been one or two. I would get comments about certain things I was wearing. It felt uncomfortable at times being the only woman, or one of few women, at these meetings.”
When she was in professional groups, she was often the only woman and frequently found herself cut off when trying to speak.
“I felt alone, but I knew that I wasn’t alone,” says Reader. “So I asked around to women that I knew in the industry and I saw that there was a want and a need for a community like this.”
When it comes to training and skills, Reader thinks that the lack of practical, technical skills holds women—and others—back in the industry, but she knows it can be difficult to get that training. Some women told her they were too nervous to ask their male counterparts to teach them. Forklift skills were among the skills many women said they wanted to learn that would help them do their jobs more efficiently. Reader scheduled forklift and tractor training as the first free training for the group.
“The training provided a safe space for women only, so they could ask questions, learn, and be in a comfortable spot,” says Reader. “They could learn from women who were there to make them comfortable and feel safe.”
The Benefits for Members
One of the women who took part in that first training was Victoria Louie, general manager at Cream Ridge Winery in Cream Ridge.
“We get deliveries all the time, but I didn’t know how to use the forklift,” says Louie. Since the training, she’s had occasion to use it and intends to continue to sharpen her forklift and tractor skills.
“We are a very hands-on winery,” Louie says. “Yes, I’m in the office, but if I need to go to the vineyard for a day or two, being able to know how the machinery works will be huge.”
Last month, Women in Wine NJ held its first meet and greet for the industry and the public at the headquarters of the Garden State Wine Growers Association in Haddonfield. Before the event, the group scheduled a skills training session—a blending trial. Five of the group’s members, including Reader and Louie, came with white wine—not yet in bottle—from their respective wineries’ 2022 vintages. Armed with beakers, glasses, and spit cups, they blended Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cayuga in various percentages.
After eight different trials, one blend stood out for its pleasing aroma, taste, and acidity. A small number of bottles will be produced from the chosen blend and will become Women in Wine NJ’s first exclusive wine.
For Louie, the blending trial was an eye-opening learning experience.
“I started in the vineyard before I was 18, and started serving when I was 18, but I’ve never been on the winemaking side,” she says. Sitting in on the blending trial and seeing how it’s done—how just a small tweak to the percentages of the grapes added can make a difference in creating a balanced wine—will now be something she can draw on while talking with tasting room visitors. Not only will she have some technical info to share, but she’ll also have a story to share.
“People like to hear stories behind the wines,” Louie says.
Benefits of group membership go beyond skills training, of course.
Member Steph Waters, sommelier, owner of The Wine Jawn, LLC, and wine bar tasting consultant at Sharrott Winery in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA in Hammonton, joined the group to “network, collaborate, and partner with like-minded women.” She also joined to help spread the word that New Jersey is a “hidden gem” wine region.
Her number one goal in the industry is to promote and create opportunities for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the wine industry, and Waters sees the Women in Wine NJ group as a way to help achieve that goal. She also sees the group as a force to change the image of wine from being “exclusive to inclusive,” and a way to “ensure everyone can be their authentic self in an industry that is white male dominated.”
Although she’s been unable to attend any training sessions so far, she has attended some of the group’s meetings and is encouraged by how the group gives women a chance to be “heard, shine, and get involved.”
“We all come from different backgrounds within the wine industry, and this group elevates [women in] all aspects of the wine industry, from the vineyard to winemaking to the tasting room,” she says.
What’s Next for Women in Wine NJ
Dormant pruning training is the next session topic for the group. Seasonal machinery training—cleaning the sprayer, maintenance on the tractor and lawnmower, and more— will happen sometime in the spring.
In March, the organization is planning a dinner and wine pairing for Women’s History Month as a fundraiser. If all goes well, Reader plans to debut the white wine blend created at the blending trial during the evening.
The group has momentum and Reader hopes what’s happening in New Jersey can encourage women in other regions to create similar programs.
But, she also wants people to know it was slow-going at the start. There were times early on that she was discouraged by low participation in the group, but she decided she was going to do it for just one other person or 100 other people. She persisted and it paid off. At January’s meet and greet, about 55 people showed up to discover what the group is all about.
“Don’t get discouraged,” Reader advises others who would like to start a regional organization for women in wine. “Keep pushing and find a small group of women, or just one woman, who is as passionate as you are.”