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How four North Bay women shattered the wine industry’s glass ceiling

Shattered glass is the confetti when women break through a glass ceiling. With a nod to Women’s History Month, four female wine professionals weigh in on how they continue to break barriers in the wine industry.

Remi Cohen, CEO of Napa’s Domaine Carneros

Remi Cohen has this advice for women in the wine industry: Know your worth.

Remi Cohen, CEO, Domaine Carneros, July 2020
Remi Cohen, CEO, Domaine Carneros, July 2020

“I recognize that there is still a gender disparity in the industry, especially as you look at more senior positions,” Cohen said. “Men still hold the majority of the top winemaking and executive positions, and recent studies have shown women’s compensation to not be on par with men’s in these roles. It’s important for people in the industry to know their value, work hard and ask for roles and compensation that are commensurate with their contributions.”

Cohen, 44, said her role model was her mother — Bernice Cohen — and she mirrored her mettle.

“My mother is definitely the person that gave me the confidence that I can succeed in any career, even one that is traditionally male-dominated,” Cohen said. “She has always encouraged me to explore all avenues, play to my strengths and be confident in who I am.”

Joining Domaine Carneros in August 2020, Cohen is following in the footsteps of Eileen Crane, who had been at the helm since the winery was founded in 1987 by the Taittinger family from Champagne.

“As far as advice or a philosophy, it’s important to be willing to step outside of your role and help other people and departments,” Cohen said. “That helped me gain insight into the sales and marketing sides of the industry early in my career when my jobs were primarily focused on the grape-growing and winemaking operations.”

Developing resilience is also key in advancing in the wine industry, Cohen said. She relies on yoga to keep her stress level in check and has spent the last two decades diving into yoga study. During the pandemic, she took classes online with noted teachers in their fields.

The wine industry can be quite stressful, she said. “There are so many factors out of your control, beginning with one of the most important — Mother Nature. ... Every day is different, and you’ll never be bored.”

Nicole Hitchcock, head winemaker of Healdsburg’s J Vineyards & Winery

Nicole Hitchcock, head winemaker of Healdsburg’s J Vineyards & Winery. “I don’t feel there was a glass ceiling I had to break through as much as I needed to prove myself,” the winemaker said. (J Vineyards & Winery)
Nicole Hitchcock, head winemaker of Healdsburg’s J Vineyards & Winery. “I don’t feel there was a glass ceiling I had to break through as much as I needed to prove myself,” the winemaker said. (J Vineyards & Winery)

Approaching one’s career from the standpoint of any particular gender association is limiting, Nicole Hitchcock said. What’s needed, she said, is to identify one’s personal limitations early on and break through those.

“I don’t feel there was a glass ceiling I had to break through as much as I needed to prove myself,” the winemaker said. “I’ve never felt that being a woman has been an added challenge, but it does give you a different outlook.”

Hitchcock, 42, joined Healdsburg’s J Vineyards & Winery in 2015. Growing up on the Central Coast, she worked at high-end restaurants in Carmel and said she was drawn to the winery because of its focus on food and wine pairing. J’s tasting room marries flights of wines with a selection of cheeses or small plates like a blood orange tart with pomelo and meringue. Hitchcock works closely with executive chef Carl Shelton on the tasting menus.

The winemaker said she had strong women in her family — her mother (Donna Robinson), her sister (Sarah Robinson) and grandmothers (Dorothy Boone and Florence Robinson) — who showed her there’s great promise in breaking new ground.

“Women come into the industry with unique perspectives on what has traditionally been a male-dominated craft,” Hitchcock said. “I think that it’s essential to respect and learn from tradition but not to be afraid to push the boundaries and chart new territory.”

Finding a respected mentor on your career path early on is crucial, she said.

“Don’t be intimidated by aspects of the wine culture that feel rigid or overly serious,” Hitchcock said. “Instead, know that incorporating your personal creativity and flair will benefit and inspire all of those wine enthusiasts out there.”

Ana Keller, Estate Director of Petaluma’s Keller Estate Winery

Ana Keller is the estate director of Petaluma’s Keller Estate. Keller says the unknown creates a glass ceiling of a kind. (Keller Estate)
Ana Keller is the estate director of Petaluma’s Keller Estate. Keller says the unknown creates a glass ceiling of a kind. (Keller Estate)

“There’s always a glass ceiling, something new that people don’t know if they can do,” Keller said. “Heading a winery from the beginning without the experience, my biggest fear was learning fast. I think I really had to ground myself and educate myself. Even now, at 50, I’m learning that there are things to learn and explore.”

As for her role models, Keller said her sisters, Grace and Lorraine Keller, have inspired her.

“They have been friends, mothers and entrepreneurs,” she said. “Their experience has always been a key in finding my path. They are there when I need a laugh. They pick me up when I fall.”

Born and raised in Mexico City, Keller moved to Petaluma with her family in the early 1980s. Their initial vineyard was planted in 1989 and today they have 92 acres of vines. Keller Estate produces roughly 3,000 cases of wine a year.

Keller’s family transitioned from grape growing to producing wine. Today, she oversees the entire operation. She said her goal is to create a viable, healthy business for the next Keller generation.

“I love the cyclic nature of the vineyard and the wine,” the vintner said. “Every year, you have a new opportunity to make changes and improve. Some years I find myself focusing on a few key issues. And when we have resolved them, we add new ones.”

Cecily Gamba, CEO and founder of ’You Had Me at Bordeaux’

Cecily Gamba is the CEO of her digital company “You Had Me at Bordeaux.” This seventh-generation wine grower is determined to change the perception of wine. (“You Had Me at Bordeaux.”)
Cecily Gamba is the CEO of her digital company “You Had Me at Bordeaux.” This seventh-generation wine grower is determined to change the perception of wine. (“You Had Me at Bordeaux.”)

Cecily Gamba, a seventh-generation wine grower, is a millennial determined to change the perception of wine.

“Wine is for everyone,” said Gamba, whose family winery — Gamba Vineyards & Winery — is in Windsor. “I want to dispel the notion that wine is a boring, unattainable hobby for those who fit a certain limited description.”

Gamba, 27, graduated from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles with a degree in marketing. Today she studies with Wine & Spirits Education Trust and is level-3 certified. After working on the wine programs of several high-end restaurants in Los Angeles, she returned to Sonoma County to create her digital marketing company. She’s a wine educator with the Instagram account of Tastefully Cec at tastefullycec@youhadmeatbordeaux.

Gamba is of Italian descent and practically grew up in a vineyard. Her earliest memories are of stomping grapes with her siblings and watching her father, Gus Gamba, sketch the design of his label.

Gamba credits her mother, co-vintner Paulette, and her sister, Natalia, for giving her the inspiration to pursue her unconventional dreams. She also said she was inspired by her immigrant grandmothers, on both sides, who lived through World War II and learned English as a second language.

“We began our brand as a way to merge our love for wine, photography, fashion and travel,” Gamba said. “We know it won’t be for everyone, but we’re going to continue to do it our way and stay true to ourselves, knowing that if we love it, others will, as well.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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