Female winemakers celebrated: Uncorking ladies with top noses

Samantha Connew chairs the Sydney Wine Show judging panel - the first woman to fill that prestigious role.
Samantha Connew chairs the Sydney Wine Show judging panel - the first woman to fill that prestigious role.

FORTY-THREE years ago a feisty 22-year-old Pam Dunsford became the first woman admitted to Roseworthy Agricultural College's winemaking course.

Undeterred by being told no winery would employ a woman, she joined 180 young male students at Roseworthy and was shielded from what was deemed to be her "testosterone-pumping" classmates by being accommodated in the college's infectious diseases ward.

Women have made great progress in what has been a notoriously blokey industry.

Despite many barriers, Dunsford graduated from Roseworthy, won winemaking positions with major companies, became the first Australian female winemaker to serve as a wine show judge and retired in 2006 after spending 19 achievement-filled years heading the Chapel Hill operation at McLaren Vale.

Today women are numerous in wine degree courses and increasingly among the high achievers of the wine industry.

In the Hunter we have such shining examples as First Creek chief winemaker Liz Jackson, Pepper Tree chief winemaker Gwyn Olsen, Tulloch Wines chief executive Christina Tulloch, 2011 Hunter Valley Wine Awards Viticulturist of the Year Liz Riley, and Samantha Connew, creator of her own Stargazer wine brand and chairwoman of judges of the Sydney Wine Show - the first woman to fill that prestigious role.

Nationally there are Sue Hodder, chief winemaker of Wynns Coonawarra Estate, top Wolf Blass Wines red winemaker Caroline Dunn, Vanya Cullen, winemaker and manager of Margaret River's prestigious Cullen Wines, and leading food and wine author and television personality Lyndey Milan, who is chairwoman of the Sydney Wine Show committee.

Women have made great progress in what has been a notoriously blokey industry, but it's not good enough for The Fabulous Ladies' Wine Society.

The society, which describes itself as "Australia's wine community for women, providing a fun, feminine and slightly tongue-in-cheek look at the world of wine", is organising the inaugural Australian Women in Wine Awards to turn the spotlight on the achievements of women in the wine industry.

The four award categories are for winemaker of the year, viticulturist of the year, owner-operator of the year and workplace champion of change.

Entries, which can be lodged on womeninwineawards.com.au, close next Tuesday, October 6, and winners will be announced on Tuesday, November 17. Rather than holding a single capital city gala night, organisers are initiating individual functions in each wine region. Regional groups can register their event online via the awards website.

The awards will be judged by six leading female wine industry figures - Jane Thomson, the chairwoman, founder and managing director of The Fabulous Ladies' Wine Society; Samantha Connew; Jeni Port, wine writer and 2014 Wine Communicator of the Year; Corrina Wright, chief executive and winemaker, Oliver's Taranga; Toni Carlino, wine marketing, independent consultant; Jenny Houghton, viticulturist and owner of Maygars Hill Vineyard.

Jane Thomson says estimates put female participation in the wine industry at between 8 and 10 per cent and some areas, like viticulture, numbers are in decline.

"For decades we've been wishing and hoping to see a significant rise in gender diversity in the Australian wine industry," she says. "Unfortunately, wishing alone hasn't worked.

"The Australian wine industry needs positive female role models and leaders. With these awards we hope to highlight a few more of them."

BY any measure Hunter-based Australian Women in Wine Awards judge Samantha Connew is a trail-blazer.

New Zealand-born and the holder of a Canterbury University Bachelor of Law and Arts degree and a Lincoln University winemaking degree, she gained international winemaking experience in Spain, Italy and Oregon, in the United States,  and then began a 10-year term at McLaren Vale’s Wirra Wirra winery.

As senior winemaker there she was judged the International Red Winemaker of the Year at the 2007 International Wine Challenge Awards in London.

She came to the Hunter in 2010, winning wide acclaim with her Tower Estate wines and worked for two years as manager of the Hunter Node of the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), which provides world-class research and advisory services to the Australian wine industry.

She then set up her own Tasmania-sourced Stargazer brand. 

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