Women Of The Vineyards
Thu, 03/01/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Above: Irit Boxer-Shank of the Barkan Winery, one of Israel’s youngest winemakers, says she hasn’t faced any gender issues.
Above: Irit Boxer-Shank of the Barkan Winery, one of Israel’s youngest winemakers, says she hasn’t faced any gender issues.

One of the nicest perks to being a wine writer is having the chance to sit down with a winemaker and share a glass or two of his product. Since staring to write about wine for The Jewish Week, seven years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to taste wines with a few dozen kosher winemakers, all of whom had two things in common: a passion for wine, and a Y chromosome.

In spite of much innovation and creativity, the wine industry is in some ways very hidebound, and winemaking has traditionally been a masculine occupation. While wineries have long employed women in marketing and support roles, until recently very few have employed them as winemakers. That is starting to change. 

“Here in Napa Valley,” says wine journalist and kosher winemaker Jeff Morgan, “there are so many excellent women winemakers that the issue of men vs. women is simply a non-issue — almost a non-story. That’s quite a difference from, say, 15 years ago, when we [writers] were hard-pressed to find more than a handful of women winemakers to focus on.”

Yet in much of the world female winemakers remain a rarity. “I don’t know of a single woman winemaker in France,” says Jay Buchsbaum, the vice president for marketing and director of wine education at Royal Wine Corp, the largest importer of kosher French wines. He suggests the schedule of the winemaker may discourage some woman, particularly in traditional societies. “Winemakers are like doctors,” he says. “And during the harvest they are on call 24 hours a day.”

In Israel the number of female winemakers is still rather small, but growing. While a decade ago there were only one or two, today there are at least seven. I recently spoke with two of them, to learn more about them and their passion for wine.

Tali Sendovski has been working at the Golan Heights Winery (makers of the Golan and Yarden brands of wine) for 25 years and was the first woman to work as a winemaker in the modern Israeli wine industry. 

Sendovski starting working for the Golan Heights Winery in 1986. “I had finished my master’s degree in biochemistry and oenology in Israel, and started working in the lab at the winery. One year later I got an offer from the winery to go to UC-Davis to study winemaking.”

Sendovski, along with her husband and two children moved to Northern California, where she spent a year and a half studying winemaking. “It was not easy being a student again, with two kids, and studying in English.

“In 1989 I went back to the Golan Heights Winery as a winemaker, the first woman winemaker in Israel.” At that time, says Sendovski the Golan Height winery “was fairly small but very modern. All of the newest winemaking equipment that I had studied on at Davis was there at the winery. It was a very nice place for a first-time winemaker to start out.”

Over the years Sendovski has worked on almost all of the wines the Golan Heights Winery has produced, but she is particularly proud of her work on the winery’s Champagne-method sparkling wines, and on two of the winery’s popular dessert wines. “We make a dessert wine call Heights Wine, and I started it. ... I also [developed] a wine we used to make called Semillion Botrytis.”  These wines were made using innovative techniques, never before used in Israel, involving freezing harvested grapes (for the Heights Wine) and artificially introducing Botrytis Cinerea, a fungus, to harvested grapes (for the Semillion Botrytis).

Sendovski is very proud of her career as a winemaker. When asked if any of her children have followed her into the wine trade, she twitters lightly and says, “not yet.”

Irit Boxer-Shank, one of Israel’s youngest winemakers, works at Barkan Winery, where, she says, wine was “a family business.”

However it was only at age 18 that Boxer-Shank decided she wanted to become a winemaker. “I was in France with my father, on my birthday, and I drank the [French] wine and really, really loved it. In that moment I wanted to know how to make that wine.” 

“My father did not want me to become a winemaker,” recalls Boxer-Shank. “So he said, ‘First, you go and do all the really hard and dirty work at the winery, and if you still want to do it you can then go and study [winemaking].’”

After Boxer-Shank finished her military service, she started doing the “really hard and dirty work” in Barkan’s vineyards. Still determined to become a winemaker, Boxer-Shank began studying agriculture at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, continuing her studies in Australia, where she received a master’s degree in oenology. 

Five years ago, Boxer-Shank returned to work at Barkan, this time as a winemaker. When asked about her plans for the future, Boxer-Shank says she has “no idea. I don’t think I will stay here [at Barkan] forever. I would really like to work in a smaller winery for a while, but I will stay at Barkan as long as I have knowledge to learn at Barkan.”

Boxer-Shank also says that Barkan is an enjoyable place to work, and not immune to some hijinks. “One time I found one of the workers swimming in one of the tanks. It was pretty late, and I heard some loud noise, and I found someone swimming in a [water-filled] tank. He nearly gave me a heart attack.”

In spite of the fact that there are so few women winemakers in Israel, neither Sendovski nor Boxer-Shank has encountered any gender-based discrimination from their male colleagues. “I’ve never had any problem of that sort,” says Sendovski. “It was a very small industry in the Golan and in [all of] Israel when I started, and I just didn’t face any problem being a woman.”  

Boxer-Shank reports a similar experience. “I started working in the field with four other male winemakers, and everyone was very nice and accepted it [my gender]. There are more woman winemakers studying now, and in a time quite soon, it will be nearly equal.”  ✦

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