Panel looks at women’s roles in Okanagan wine industry

An awkward silence followed moderator and wine author John Schreiner’s question.

He even prefaced his query with: “I hope this isn’t a misogynistic question.”

Then he asked the panel of three at the Women of Wine luncheon: “Is it different being a woman in the wine industry?”

“Yes, it’s a misogynistic question,” said an only half-joking Ann Sperling, winemaker at Kelowna’s Sperling Vineyards.

“I’m a woman winemaker, so I don’t know what it’s like to be a male winemaker.”

Fellow panellist Sandra Oldfield, the CEO of Tinhorn Creek Winery in Oliver, gamely took over.

“There’s an equal number of men and women passionate about wine in this industry,” she said.

“But, I think the industry is more flexible because of women.”

When Oldfield started as Tinhorn Creek winemaker 20 years ago, she was one of only a few women in that role.

Now that she’s been promoted to CEO, she’s one of the few bosses in the industry.

“Since I’ve always been one of the few, it doesn’t bother me at all,” said Oldfield.

“But I would like to see more women winemakers, women in the cellar, women in the vineyard, women CEOs and women winery owners. The culture is changing, but it will take more of a conscious effort in hiring and succession planning for it to be completely equal.”

The panel and Schreiner spoke to a mostly-female crowd of 200 as part of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural Women of Wine lunch Tuesday at the Kelowna Yacht Club.

Elaine Triggs co-owns Oliver’s Culmina Winery with her husband, Don, who’s been in the wine industry for 35 years, previously with Jackson-Triggs.

“I got into this industry later in life (a decade ago) and I think it’s well-suited to women,” she said.

“I know great women in the cellar and vineyard, making wine and in sales. Our daughter, Sara, is our sales and marketing manager.

“Because there are so many facets to this industry, I don’t think men or women are necessarily better suited to certain jobs. Like everything, it comes down to individual personalities.”

The three women on the panel all agreed the Okanagan is a phenomenal winemaking region.

“It’s a really special place,” said Sperling.

“We’re so far north, yet with the perfect climate to grow the widest range of grape varieties. The consumer is also very engaged in B.C., so there’s enormous potential.”

Being off the beaten track also tends to attract wine workers who want to make a difference in a small region by having a hand in unique wines.

Many varieties, and being a tiny wine region by global standards, also creates one of the Okanagan’s biggest challenges.

“It’s difficult to market internationally, especially for a new winery like Culmina with wines at a higher price point, because the Okanagan is small and we have so many varieties,” said Triggs.

“We’ve been told we should concentrate on one variety, like New Zealand does with Sauvignon Blanc, to become better known. But, I don’t think that’s the solution either.”

British Columbians support the industry by buying and drinking most of the wine produced.

However, Oldfield said other provinces are prime expansion markets and governments should give up the antiquated laws that prevent wine from crossing provincial borders.

The women also applauded Okanagan College for developing a two-year viticulture technician course because it’s so important to train talent locally.

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