Historical Subjugation of Women in the Wine Industry

Since the beginning of the wine industry, women have been systematically discriminated against. However, despite the subjugation faced by women, some have managed to beat all odds and advance through the ranks to achieve admirable positions in the wine industry.

While today women in winemaking enjoy various legal statutes that promote gender equality, gender hierarchy has remained ingrained in the industry, with women still being disproportionately underrepresented throughout winemaking and wine trade positions.

Although significant progress has been made in promoting women to join the industry, a lot still needs to be done to ensure gender equality. To craft a more equitable future, it is critical to analyze various forms of subjugation that women have faced in the history of winemaking and how they can be effectively countered today.

The establishment and the success of a patriarchal society are significantly dependent upon the ability of men to effectively control the bloodline, thereby being able to adequately govern property ownership and inheritance laws in a trade-based economy. In the book The Creation of Patriarchy, the author explains that the origins of the patriarchal society date back about 12,000 years.

Additionally, the author argues that a significant rise in patriarchal hierarchies occurred from 3,500 BCE onwards, a period when Western societies started formalizing processes associated with the succession of wealth and trade.

It was also during this period that the wine trade started to boom, particularly in the Mediterranean region. Ironically, based on arguments made in the book The Story of Wine, it is highly likely that Paleolithic women might have been the first to discover wine. Females during the Paleolithic period were essentially gatherers.

Subjugation of Women in the Wine

Mary Ellen Pleasant

They collected grapes for consumption, only to find themselves drunk. Inevitably, they would have shared this significant discovery within their communities and sought to repeat it, refining the wine production process, developing the wine trade and eventually promoting connoisseurship.

The Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, which emerged around 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, is considered one of the first major human civilizations and the first known wine-trading culture.. It was ruled by the first female ruler, the Queen Kubaba of Sumer, who was also a tavern keeper. 

As the age of antiquity and the Roman era gave way to the time of Christianity and Feudalism in Medieval Europe, the ancient hierarchy continued. With the establishment of a new social structure, a woman’s position in society became an extension of the male’s property. Consequently, women were rarely recorded by their names unless in connection with that of their husbands or their fathers.

Girls coming from noble families were often nothing but powerful pawns used for merging property and wealth through marriage. Simultaneously, there have always existed tenacious and strong-willed women who fought restrictive cultural practices and left a significant mark despite the subjugation of women in the wine industry.

Powerful Women

Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of those women. Her life substantially impacted the world of wine during the 1150s.  The impact of Eleanor on the wine industry was realized when she married Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, who later became the King of England.

The union between Eleanor and Henry placed almost a third of France’s territory, which included Bordeaux, under English rule. As a result, a feud ensued between England and France, lasting for several years. The feud affected major wines across the world in both fascinating and complex ways.

Another woman who played a critical role in shaping the wine industry was Catherine de Medici. At the young age of 14, Catherine was traded through marriage between noble families. Catherine was cruel, manipulative, and ruthless. She well was known for her involvement with the Huguenots massacre that occurred in the 16th century. But despite her evil nature, Catherine had a large contribution to the wine industry. During her time, Cabernet Franc was introduced to the Medici’s Tuscan hunting reserve, Barco Reale.

Ancient Greeks and Romans

Did you know? During the ancient period, the significance of women in the wine industry was solidified based on their marital status.

Women who married powerful men impacted the industry, whereas other independent women married to peasants had little to no impact on the wine industry.

Wine has played a central role in the development of early western societies. The ability of wine to generate huge wealth, the stability it brought through trade, and its status as a valuable commodity illustrate why the majority of people throughout the history of humankind considered it a sign of power, wealth, and privilege. As a result, ancient wine cultures established rules that defined who could trade, make, and drink wine. These rules primarily targeted minority groups, including women and peasants.

For example, in Ancient Greece, the symposium, a widely known Greece wine party, was reserved only for men. It appears that the Greeks were among the first people to completely eliminate women from the wine business.

However, as the winemaking and wine trade continued to grow, moving beyond the Mediterranean, men saw the need to exert further control over winemaking and wine trading. This in turn led to increased control of wealth and wealth inheritance based on gender. Similarly, the Romans replaced the Greek symposium with the convivial.

In Ancient Rome, the convivium event allowed women, but they were not allowed to drink wine. In the early Roman period, the prohibition of women’s drinking was quite severe compared with restrictions faced by Greeks women. In Ancient Rome, women were not even allowed to serve wine until 194 B.C.E.

Women who were found taking or drinking wine were often divorced by their husbands, and some were even sentenced to death. However, as wine became more of a dietary staple, some restrictions aimed at deterring women from participating in wine were eased. On rare occasions, women were even allowed to participate in the convivial. However, in fear of adultery, Roman men continued to bar married women from engaging in social settings that involved wine drinking.

In essence, this established a precedent of gender-based discrimination based on the woman’s marital status. Prejudices and women’s subjugation during the ancient period unfortunately never fully stopped and have continued onwards until the current century. For example, in Europe, in the 17th and 18th centuries, prostitutes were the only females allowed in male drinking establishments like taverns or French cabarets. Married women, in contrast, were prohibited from visiting these places. Even talking to their spouses was prohibited outside their threshold. 

Many ancient societies like the Greeks and the Romans believed that excluding women from wine parties provided the crucial basis for forming political and commercial relationships in the absence of women. When women were excluded from these symposiums and convivium, it meant that they were simultaneously also excluded from participating in economic and political activities. This fraternization of drinking constituted a major hindrance to the advancement of women across every profession. 

The Napoleonic Code

In feudal Europe, gender inequality was a significant hindrance for many women. Although the French revolution has historically been linked to establishing an equal, free, and fair society in France, the established values were only applicable to men. For instance, the Napoleonic Code of 1805, one of the time’s most progressive legal acts, was based on the Roman Codes. In essence, the Roman codes provided men with full authority over women.

The Napoleonic Code played a huge role in accomplishing positive change across France, including abolishing feudalism, achieving the standardization of legal systems, and encouraging religious tolerance. However, the Napoleonic Code also made women invisible and tethered to their husbands and fathers in every way possible. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that certain provisions of the Napoleonic Code were finally changed. 

For instance, the Napoleonic Code’s inheritance laws mandated that “property should be apportioned between rightful heirs.” Another section of the legislation prohibited women from inheriting fortune on their own by designating them as wards to be cared for by their husbands or fathers. The only avenue by which women could inherit wealth was through being widowed. The inheritance laws, as stated in the Napoleon Law, not only fragmented vineyard owners but also ensured that women were entirely excluded from taking possession within the realm of wine. 

Most women managed to inherit at least some wealth through the widow loophole. For instance, this loophole enabled Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot to inherit her husband’s wealth and Champagne house. Her involvement in the Champagne industry had a tremendous impact on the industry and led to the world-famous Veuve Clicquot Champagne.

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Lily Bolinger was another independent woman who inherited wealth from her husband. From the early 20th century up until the 1970s, the inheritance of wealth through the death of men became an established path for women to climb to positions of power in the wine and wine trade industry.

Women in The United States

This trend was not only followed by women in France but also in the United States. For instance, in 1880, in Sonoma Country, California, a lady by the name of Ellen Mary Stewart was required to go the extra mile and petition the court to be allowed to operate the winery business that her husband had left behind after his death. In a similar case, Isabella Simi, the first female commercial winemaker in the United States, found herself in charge of her family’s winery at the age of 18. She inherited the winery after all the male members of her family died from a flu outbreak. Isabelle Simi was able to successfully navigate the family business throughout the Prohibition period, something many other winery owners could not accomplish. Besides sex, ethnicity also played a substantial role in inhibiting women from succeeding in the wine business. For instance, in America, in the mid-1800s, a woman of color couldn’t establish a self-sustaining business.

Although, some tenacious women like Mary Ellen Pleasant still succeeded despite the odds. A successful businesswoman, Mary Ellen Pleasant is known to have planted European grape varieties on her property. She also managed to help several other women become self-sufficient in the California Gold Rush era. 

However, despite efforts made by Mary Ellen Pleasant to empower minority women, there were not many significant records of women of color in the wine business until 2004, when Victoria Coleman became a founding winemaker of the Mario Bazan Cellars. Despite continuous and severe restrictions and subjugation placed upon women based on traditional, cultural, and social beliefs, there have always been strong-willed women who have managed to make a lasting impact on the wine world. 

Throughout the history of humankind, the patriarchy has played a huge role in enabling and maintaining the subordination of women through cultural structures and laws. Existing structural and cultural laws have been critical in promoting the persistent subjugation and systematic exclusion of women. Many women have been kept away from positions of influence and power as well as from creative and intellectual communities.

Since ancient times, women have struggled against inner biases and outer structural exclusions, essentially against the cultural heritage of the western world. However, massive progress has been made in eliminating these critical barriers that have historically excluded women from the wine industry and wine trade. Despite this progress, obstacles still remain to keep women away from success in the wine world. There is still plenty to be done to achieve a truly inclusive world of wine. 

To read more about wine, try reading the book below!

Women of Wine- The Rise of Women in the Global Wine Industry Bible Wines: On Laws Of Fermentation And The Wines Of The Ancients book

Wine Pairing Recommendation


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Categories: Wine History In-Depth, Women and WineTags: , , , , , , By Published On: July 12, 2022Last Updated: February 21, 2024

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