Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Young female enologists prepare to take over Santorini, Greece

Boutari enologist Ioanna Vamvakouri in a Santorini vineyard at sunset
One striking feature of the 10 wineries on Santorini, Greece is the profusion of young female enologists. Fully half of the wineries have a woman age 35 or younger who may not be in charge yet, but has great winemaking responsibility.

In fact, Santorini may have the most overqualified tasting room staffers in the world, as many times the person pouring your samples has an enology degree. There are just that many enologists to go around.

Women have made great strides in the wine industry in many places in the world, but in Greece, it's a very recent phenomenon, says Ioanna Vamvakouri, enologist for Boutari. "Five years ago there was only one girl that worked at Sigalas," she said. "After that I came, and after that three more came." On a relatively small island, that's a tidal wave.

The winemaking team at Gaia. Owner Yiannis Paraskevopoulos (2nd from right) teaches enology and hires his best students.
 L-R: Iliana Sidiropoulou, Konstantina Sidiropoulou, Paraskevopoulos, Aris Sklavenitis
George Athanas, owner of All About Greek Wine, says many Greek women have entered enology school because they see good employment opportunity in a industry low on sexism, and are responsible for much of the vibrancy of the industry nationwide.

Vamvakouri says Santorini is still a better place for female graduates than the mainland.

Gavalas enologist Margarita Karamolegou
"When I first went to work for a winery in Athens, they said, 'You have to put on a skirt and sell some wines'," she said. "They couldn't imagine that I could make wine. That's why I had to leave for France to make some studies. I think that happens everywhere."

Vamvakouri studied in Montpellier and Toulouse and worked for a winery in Cahors. He husband got a job at Santo Wines, Santorini's giant co-op. When she applied to work at the Santorini winery owned by Boutari, one of the nation's best respected wine companies, she said "they saw my CV and told me to come right away. I don't think it has anything to do with women or men."

Greece has a history of male-dominated culture. Women couldn't vote until 1952, and dowries weren't eliminated until 1983. But Athanas says that, like in Japan, women hold the power of running the household and are more respected than their numbers in positions of responsibility might indicate.

However, Vamvakouri says, "As a woman, you have to work much more. You have to prove you are better than a man."

She also says the situation of overqualified enologists exists throughout Greece, where these days any job is a good job. "If we have 100 winemakers, 10 to 20 are making real wine work," she says. "The rest are in sales."

I will say by observation that on Santorini at least, deciding who makes the wine and who staffs the tasting room seems to be a meritocracy. I saw male enologists selling tastes while young women explained their barrel regimen.

Whatever they're doing, it's working: Santorini makes some of the best, most distinctive white wines in the world today. My column in Palate Press this month is about the native grape Assyrtiko, one of the most interesting grapes in the world: read it here.

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Portland Charcuterie Project said...

great article.. I really enjoyed visiting some of the wineries on Santorini on my visits there, although I really preferred the whites at most places.

Have you been to the island of Paros? they're making some pretty good reds there and the people working at the wineries are friendly and know their stuff.

It's really neat to see the way grapes are grown there, in little holes to protect them from the sun..different terroir, different techniques :)

W. Blake Gray said...

PCP: With you on the whites. Great whites, the reds are not fit for export. They have indigenous red grapes that a few wineries are experimenting with, but so far the results are not of international quality.

I have not been to Paros. Always something to look forward to.

Steve Stevens said...

It's been six or seven years since I tasted Greek wines, but I remember it being difficult for me to relate to them. I only recall the whites and being left with the word "chemicals" in my brain. Petrol, in particular.

As good as the wines might be, do you think their flavor profiles could be tough for U.S. palates to process? Speaking very generally, of course.

W. Blake Gray said...

Steve: Much has changed in Greece in that time. Give them another try.

Peter Work said...

We also love the Asyrtiko and Athiri from Santorini. Good alone as well as blended. Prefer no oak. From the Nemea area there are some nice Agiorgitiko (red) and Moschofilero (white) wines - Skouras does a good job. We visited with their enologist about five years ago and it was: a twenty something girl!

Peter Work said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Work said...

We also love the Greek varietals. During our many trips there we tried a few and have a decent wine cellar in our house in the Cyclades. We love the Asyrtiko and Athiri from Santorini - by them selves or blended. I prefer no or little oak. From Pelopones-Nemea the Agiorgitiko (red) and Moscofilero (white) can be interesting. Skouras does a great job and when we visited with them some years ago we were greeted by their enologist who was; a 20 something girl!

Christopher said...

Great post! I fell in love with Assyrtiko when on my honeymoon in Santorini and have been trying to find it from exporters stateside with little luck.

I brought back a few bottles and every time my wife and I opened one we were instantly transported back to one of the most beautiful places on Earth!

Unknown said...

it was great experience to taste all type of wine while visiting your beautifull island Santorini..hope to visit there soon again