A Viniferous Sisterhood of Women Winemakers

Making wine (as opposed to marketing, selling or writing about it) has long been a male domain. But Jersey’s female head vintners are changing that.

Julianne Donnini of Auburn Road Vineyard & Winery in Pilesgrove—one of New Jersey’s four female head winemakers—has won numerous awards.
Julianne Donnini of Auburn Road Vineyard & Winery in Pilesgrove—one of New Jersey’s four female head winemakers—has won numerous awards.
Photo by Jauhien Sasnou

In 2006, The Borgata in Atlantic City hosted a Women in Wine evening that featured two dozen female winemakers, vineyard owners and sommeliers from as far away as California and Italy—but none from New Jersey. This wasn’t so much an oversight as a reflection of the state of things.

Fast-forward to last May, when the Garden State Wine Growers Association (GSWGA) hosted its first Meet the Women of NJ Wine event. The guests of honor were three female head vintners: Julianne Donnini of Auburn Road in Pilesgrove (Salem County); Regina Villari of Villari in Deptford (Gloucester); and Audrey Cross-Gambino of Villa Milagro in Finesville (Warren). Back in 2006, only Cross-Gambino was making wine, though it was not released until 2007. The other two wineries had yet to open.

As it happens, New Jersey did have another budding female winemaker in 2006. Lorre Allen of Southwind in Deerfield (Cumberland) planted her first vines that year and opened in 2012. The former French teacher had learned winemaking through seminars, reading and experimenting. She specializes in Bordeaux styles, though her best seller is a sparkling sweet red.

“Though it’s a predominantly and historically male industry,” Allen says, “women’s nurturing nature helps in the development of something as primitive and connected to nature as winemaking.”

All four follow in the footsteps of New Jersey’s first female head winemaker, Mimi LaFollette, who, with her husband, John Summerskill, opened LaFollette Vineyard in Belle Mead and was featured in Wine Spectator in 1989.

But they share something that LaFollette, who died at 90 in 2008, probably never had: “kind of like a sisterhood,” as Cross-Gambino puts it. “Whenever I meet a young woman coming up in the field, I’m thrilled.”

According to Villari, “Talking to others, you hear their trials and tribulations and don’t feel so alone.”

Cross-Gambino says she was buoyed by the elevation last year of Valerie Tishuk, manager and event planner of Four Sisters Winery in Belvidere (Warren), to vice-chair of the GSWGA board. In December, Tishuk will become chair and serve the standard one-year term.

For all that, Cross-Gambino says that promoting women’s oenological abilities and contributions “isn’t some kind of feminist mission I’m on.” Indeed, Villari, Donnini and she say they’re grateful to the entire New Jersey wine community for support and guidance. They just happen to view women as tending more toward open-mindedness.

“You talk to a male,” explains Villari, “he’s so confident he knows everything, and you believe him because he knows what he’s talking about. But it’s more like, Maybe he’s right, but there are also other ways to do it.”

Donnini says she’s thinking about organizing open meetings to brainstorm ways to make wineries more female friendly on issues such as pregnancy, parental leave, day care and overcoming stereotypes.

Winemaking definitely requires more brain than brawn. While growing grapes can be part of the job, the winemaker’s primary focus is choosing the styles of the wines and bringing them into being through expert fermenting, aging and blending.

“I have physical limitations as a woman, and that frustrates me,” says Doninni, 50. “But 90 percent of the physical tasks I can do. The other 10 percent”—including things such as barrel washing—“anyone would need help with.”

Each of the three panelists came to winemaking in a different way. Cross-Gambino—who says, “I’m 39 and have been for some time now”—grew up on a California farm, got a law degree and a PhD. in nutrition, served as President Jimmy Carter’s coordinator of human nutrition policy, and wrote diet and fitness books before she and her husband bought the farm that now produces her wine.

Villari, a Jersey native, studied viticulture and oenology at the University of California at Davis. She and her brother decided to save the family livestock farm by converting it to vineyards and a winery.

Donnini and her husband were lawyers who realized their passion did not lie in litigating and corporate life. She took online courses at UCDavis, and they planted their first vines in 2004, opening the winery in 2007. Donnini has since won more than three dozen awards in regional and international winemaking competitions.

Like the others, she has what she calls “a complicated feeling” about being identified as a woman winemaker. On the one hand, “it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman,” she says.

On the other hand, “when I realize I’m being recognized because [women making wine] is not the usual thing, I get my dander up and think, Why not?”

Nonetheless, she has asked her husband not to promote her wine on that basis. “I don’t want to get false accolades because I’m a woman,” she says. “I just want to get good accolades because I’m making freaking good wine.”

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