The Women of Swiss Wine

By most accounts Switzerland is a pretty good place to be a woman. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—through its annual Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI)—Switzerland ranked first with the fewest impediments to gender equality (8.1%), ahead of next-in-line Denmark (10.4%) and third-place Sweden (10.5%). That’s pretty good company considering Scandinavia’s reputation for progressiveness.

But SIGI statistics don’t tell the whole story.

While a Swiss woman is less likely to be sexually assaulted or to suffer domestic abuse than women from elsewhere, when she is assaulted the criminal code is not always her friend. Despite being a signatory to the Istanbul Convention, which modernizes and expands the definition of sexual crimes against women, Switzerland clings to an outdated definition of rape that includes the affirmative defense of consent. Here’s where things get sticky: unless there is physical violence, threat, or coercion, consent can be inferred from mere silence or acquiescence. In other words: He Said, She Said becomes a viable defense.

On the economic front, the Swiss constitution guarantees women equal pay and equal opportunity in the workplace, but as many Swiss women know, the reality is often different—on average, women are paid 20% less than men for the same work and a woman’s pathway to the executive suite is often impeded or blocked by unspoken social mores. According to the data, women bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities even when working full-time—paternity leave is rare and state-assisted daycare is means-based with a fairly high threshold. This often means the lowest paid partner (remember the 20% less part) becomes the caregiver.

Swiss women have equal rights in marriage and divorce (the constitution again), but are routinely subjected to “marriage contracts” or prenuptial agreements, which are encouraged by the state. The reality is, such contracts often benefit the party with the most assets. Women are frequently under-represented in contractual negotiations—if there are any—and often leave a marriage with the minimum.

In other words, the appearance of equality does not always result in equality.

Back in the day, Switzerland was one of the last of the developed nations to confer voting rights on women. As late as 1971 women could not vote in national elections nor run for office. It took several progressive cantons in 1959 to extend local voting rights and it took the Federal Supreme Court to force the last holdout, Appenzell Innerrhoden, to comply with federal law in 1991. Absurdly, one of Switzerland’s first female MPs, Elizabeth Blunschy, was denied local voting rights in her native canton of Schwyz despite being an elected member of the National Assembly.

The Pioneers

Like many developed nations Switzerland struggles with reality versus the allure of flattering statistics. Culture, tradition and engrained biases all play a role in how people treat each other. The role of women in wine is no different.

The history of women in the wine industry is a short one. 1954 was the year Françoise Berguer integrated the State School of Enology and Viticulture (Changins) with the help of her insistent father, proprietor of Clos des Gondettes in Geneva. By the time she took over the family’s vineyards in 1973 she was one of Geneva’s most colorful characters with a hand in several narratives, including wine, art and politics. She was a founding member of the women’s association Nous Artisanes du Vin (née, Artisanes de la Vigne et du Vin) and continued to be active until her recent death in August. The association has become a breeding-ground for female leadership in the industry. She presided over Gondettes for nearly fifty years and deserves substantial credit for sustaining Geneva’s connection to the old Alpine varieties altesse and mondeuse.

At the same time, her contemporary, Erna Burgener, was making waves in Valais; first, as an unwelcome student at the business school in St. Maurice, then, as the canton’s first vigneronne. After the death of her father, she and her brother divided responsibilities for the family business. She took the restaurant and vineyards where she learned the art of hospitality and the peculiarities of local viticulture. In time, she became an essential resource and consultant to many other growers in Valais, all while bridging the gap between the chemically-dominated mid-century and the more sustainable practices of today. She was an early champion of the production intégrée methodology.

The Next Generation

From these nourishing roots sprang the next generation of women with still more pioneering work to do.

In 1983, after a brief flirtation with African adventures, Madeline Gay was named chief enologist at the largest wine producer in Switzerland, the cooperative Provins in Sion. Needless to say she was the first woman to hold the position. During her thirty-five year tenure she brought much needed technical assistance to member-growers, re-invigorated native varieties, raised the quality and brand awareness of the co-op’s wines, and was instrumental in the creation of Provins’ crown jewel vineyard, the Clos Corbassières.

Her friend Corinne Clavien-Défayes was equally ground-breaking. In 2008, after an already distinguished career, she was named the first female chief enologist for the canton of Valais with responsibility for all the canton’s vineyards and winemaking facilities. She is a stout defender of the Valais AOC and is a go-to resource for viticultural issues while working closely with the canton’s agricultural school, Châteauneuf.

Slightly younger than Gay and Clavien-Défayes but older than the Now Generation is Marie-Thérèse Chappaz, one of Switzerland’s few international superstars. Her legacy, apart from a stellar line-up of wines, will be her contribution to biodynamic viticulture under near impossible conditions and for setting the highest bar possible for future like-minded winemakers. She emphatically shuts down the argument that women do not belong in the wine industry. She is also a perfect role model for the next generation as the number of her successful disciples will attest and she’s one of the most thoughtful and humble people one could meet.

The Now

Most Swiss, male or female, enter the wine industry through the process of succession. Land is a precious commodity in Switzerland and vineyards are jealously guarded and handed down over generations. It’s not unusual to find a continuous line of succession that spans fifteen generations or more. Why this process of inheritance doesn’t result in more female ownership is a real question. Proof is in the numbers: land ownership, or control over land by women is the second lowest in Europe at 6.5% (the Netherlands is at 6.1%) followed by several third-world countries (FAO Gender and Land Rights Data Base).

This reality does not bode well for wine start-ups led by women. Despite this, there are a few success stories.

Romanian-born Valentina Andrei, a disciple of Chappaz and Jacques Granges of Domaine de Beudon, came to Switzerland for university studies but fell in love with the vintner’s life. She created her eponymous winery from scratch, cobbled together some vineyards, and now makes some of Switzerland’s most exciting wines. She works biodynamically, like her mentors, making pure, focused wines from a small basket of varieties that excel in the Mediterranean-to-Continental transition zone of lower Valais.

Another is Isabella Kellenberger, who, along with her husband Stéphane, is also an entrepreneur-type with no previous experience in the wine business. Their winery, Vin d’Oeuvre, is notable for its far-flung parcels strung along the length of the valley from Visperterminen to Fully—that’s about as far east and west as you can get in Valais. Like Andrei’s wines, I find Isabella’s to be pure and focused with perhaps a bit more richness. Isabella is another member of the Nous Atisanes du Vin.

The last of the entrepreneur-class is Irene Grünenfelder of Jenins in Graubünden. A journalist by trade, she came to wine after a visit to Bourgogne and with no experience planted a vineyard on a piece of land owned by her in-laws. She is entirely self-taught and is one of my favorite producers in Switzerland with three excellent cuvées of pinot noir and two thoroughly modern renditions of sauvignon blanc and pinot gris. She’s barely fifty years old but has twenty-three vintages in the books. A recent retrospective of her first twenty vintages of Eichholz pinot noir was met with acclaim.

The Heirs

None of this means succession is easy and without struggle. Creating your own brand and personal style can be a difficult task when, as a young winemaker, there are two older generations still involved and looking over your shoulder.

Take Catherine Cruchon at Domaine Henri Cruchon, a young thirty-something who is poised to take the reins of this celebrated winery in Vaud. On one visit, we tasted together with her grandfather, Henri, who spoke about how proud he was of Catherine and how she was perfectly suited to move the domaine forward. He has a good eye. She is whip-smart, well travelled, and full of ideas to transition the entire property to biodynamics (about half of it is already certified) with an eye to the full expression of each parcel.

Her neighbors, Noémie Graff and Mélanie Weber will also have a lot to say about the future of Vaud and its wines. Both are more chasselas dependent than Catherine while Noémie has a soft spot for pinot noir. It will be interesting to see how chasselas evolves under their watch. Noémie seems to be the more adventurous of the two but they are both fixtures in the winner’s circle of local wine competitions.

Anne Müller of Yvorne is slightly older and more established and is best known for her biodynamic pinot noir and minerally chasselas. If there is an emerging theme with Switzerland’s women winemakers it’s with the farming—mostly low-impact, organic and biodynamic.

The young guard is also well represented in Valais. Madeleine Mercier is not only adding to the family legacy at Domaine Denis Mercier, she is the new president of the prestigious Mémoire des Vins Suisses organization and a member of Nous Artisanes du Vin. She is highly respected by her peers and, I might add, the mother of twins. Mercier’s wines are among the great wines of Switzerland and the emphasis on native and traditional varieties is one reason why.

Madeleine’s good friend, Sandrine Caloz, is doing the same after succeeding her father and grandfather as winemaker at Cave Caloz in Miège. This is a family enterprise that is grounded in the vineyard, one of the first organic vineyards in Valais, thanks to father Conrad’s progressive outlook. They own numerous small plots around Miège and on the Les Bernunes slope near Sierre. Sandrine is bringing precision and freshness to all the wines in her portfolio with some natural-leaning new projects. She is part of the Junge Schweiz-Neue Winzer collective and a member of Nous Artisanes du Vin.

Two of Geneva’s most influential women are good friends and neighbors in the small village of Dardagny. Sophie Dugerdil and Emelienne Hutin are often seen together at tasting events around the canton. They are both excellent ambassadors for Geneva’s wines and both are members of Nous Artisanes du Vin. Sophie’s vineyards are certified organic and Emilienne works biodynamically.

In the Trois Lacs region there are a number of well established women with deep family roots in the wine trade. Two of them, Anne-Claire Schott and Marylène Bovard-Chervet, are members of Junge Schweiz-Neue Winzer. Schott is the more cerebral of the two with a delicate touch and an artist’s sensibility. She is beginning to work more in the natural vein with excellent results. Bovard-Chervet seems more down to earth and her wines reflect a certain solidity. The one exception is an ethereal gewürztraminer (traminer) that is a house specialty and the signature grape of Vully.

Two others, Sabine Steiner of Bielersee and Chantal Ritter-Cochand of Neuchâtel, bring experience and visibility to their respective regions. Sabine is best known for her excellent chardonnays which are part of the Mémoires des Vins Suisses stable. She should be better known for her chasselas and pinot noir as well. A visit to the family winery is a delight with one of the great views in all of Switzerland from its tasting room window.

Ritter-Cochand has long been active with women-in-wine groups as an early member of Nous Artisanes du Vin. She is one of the most visible women in Neuchâtel and one of its most consistent winemakers.

For whatever reason, the German-speaking cantons seem to have fewer women bosses than in Swiss Romande but Nadine Saxer and Nadine Besson-Strasser of the Zürich region are very highly regarded and youthful enough to influence the market for decades to come. Besson-Strasser along with her husband Cédric are champions of biodynamic viticulture and one of the rare wineries to be certified in both Switzerland and France. They are also among the most tenured of all biodynamic producers in Switzerland. Stephan Reinhardt in the latest issue of The Wine Advocate rightfully praises Weingut Besson-Strasser for their wonderfully eclectic portfolio and previously underrated pinot noirs.

Saxer has a similar portfolio — a nice mix of local varieties and interesting blends — but she works with a lighter touch. Her wines are fresh and bracing with a subtle crystalline aspect. Nadine’s husband, Stefan, is the winemaker at Weingut Aagne in Hallau and it may be only a coincidence that the wineries share stylistic similarities.

Another of my favorite winemakers in Switzerland is Annatina Pelizzatti of Jenins in Graubünden. She is the quiet, pensive one in the group. That’s OK, because her wines speak volumes. She is best known for pinot noir but I am invariably taken with her pinot blanc and chardonnay. Her use of oak on the whites is spot on, always well integrated, and a positive element on the texture of her wines as they age. There is painfully little of the whites so they may continue to fly under the radar.

And then there is Cristina Monico, the head winemaker at the excellent Fattoria Moncucchetto in Lugano. She is one of the most recognizable figures in Ticino and a bundle of charm and energy. She is also one of the most learned on the terroirs of Ticino as a member of the scientific committee that studies it. I love her sinewy, high-energy merlots which are distinctly different than many of the soft, pillowy merlots common to the region. I expect to see her with her own winery one day as she exudes that entrepreneurial spirit.

This is only a partial list of some of the most notable women on the scene today but you can be sure there are others. Missing are the female scientists, journalists, historians, behind-the-scenes professionals, executives, and just plain farmers.

To all of them, thanks for doing what you do to make Swiss wine the best it can be.





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