An interview with Ally Chapman, wine enthusiast and founder of The Femme Vine, by Elizabeth Harris.
Like so many industries, wine is very much a man’s world. Likewise, in many male-dominated industries, women are kicking ass and leading the way! Be it revitalizing traditional production methods, experimenting with new flavors, or advocating and spreading the word of a wonderful new niche! Sadly, most of the time, these incredible stories and incredible products are often overshadowed or left to the side.
That’s where The Femme Vine comes in “bringing modern drinkers and female vintners together to create more conscious consumers and promote gender equity in the world.” Ally Chapman, Founder of The Femme Vine, created a place to celebrate, share stories, and increase access to amazing wines and the incredible women behind them.
Ally spoke with me about some of the incredible women of the wine world, challenging stereotypes, and how we can be conscious feminist consumers.
Ally, it’s apparent that you know a lot about wine and people in the industry. Where did this passion for wine come from?
I would consider myself an avid wine drinker and an enthusiastic wine tourist. I’ve been really lucky to live in Europe and travel on wine holidays, where I was able to immerse myself in the culture and riches of the area.
When I would travel to these wine regions, I would often try to find female-run vineyards. It felt like search programs, like Google and Tour guides, would always fall short. Tour guides would say they knew a few but don’t have a relationship with them. Or, Google would make it really difficult to filter down and find female-run vineyards. I thought if I am actively searching this out, and I am really willing to go to extraordinary lengths to find these women, what about the everyday consumer?
That sparked a desire to create The Femme Vine, a database that anyone could use to find women who are making incredible wines today. It doesn't make sense that a product that is so heavily marketed to women, who make the majority of the purchases, doesn’t feed and sustain a system that women have helped create. Instead, it’s gone back into the pockets of men, which I don’t agree with.
I get you. It’s like everything feminine is run by a man.
Yes, exactly! I work in advertising, and I know marketing can often perpetuate a stereotype that doesn’t reflect reality. I think our wine purchase should reflect the real reality of women creating innovative, fantastic wines in this space. This creates positive pressure from consumer demand for female-produced products.
When you go into a wine bar, a restaurant, a grocery store, or a wine shop, I want people to ask a simple question, “Do you have any wine made by women?” This will start a positive cycle of conscious consumption that can bring equity into wine.
I love how you use the phrase Big Vine Energy. For those of us who don’t follow you, what does it mean?
Big Vine Energy is very much the brainchild of Esther Ajose and I having conversations about The Femme Vine.
When I was choosing a name for the brand, I was playing around with using the word “Vine.” I talked to a friend about it, and he was like, “Oh vines, they’re a bit unruly.” And I thought, Yeah, like all the best women!
So when we talk about Big Vine Energy, it’s a breathing, thriving part of every woman and what she can tap into. Big Vine Energy is a whole vibe, a way of being. It embodies what I want the brand to give back to women: this sense of confidence; this sense of following your own tastes and not be defined by anyone else’s; this swagger of "I know what I’m doing and I know what I want, and I’m willing to bring other women along with me to get it."
You talked about this earlier, that wine is associated with women, women primarily buy wine, wine is marketed towards women. It’s a very feminine thing, but it’s super a male-dominated industry. Why do you think there is still that tradition?
There's this idea that wine has always been a gentleman’s game. As a category, it brands itself as being intimidating. You have to know the vintage, you have to know the varietal, you have to know what notes to think of. That’s all bullsh*t!
I mean, think about who you associate with being a wine expert. Who comes to mind? A lot of sommeliers are men. Robert Parker’s system of ranking wine still dominates, and historically, a lot of men have led famous wineries in famous regions. Even families in France and Italy, who traditionally controlled a lot of the perceptions around wine, would often want to pass down their business to their sons. If there was a daughter, it was kind of like, “What are we going to do? Who’s going to take care of this vineyard?” A lot of the women that I speak to today completely rebuff that idea.
It’s also because it’s a lot of hard work. If you think about making wine, it is not easy. It requires so much strength, so much tenacity, so much drive. You are constantly battling with nature and natural elements. You are also battling with this sense that you have to present yourself in this room, you have to get buyers, you have to have this air that you know exactly who you are and what you are doing. I think, unfortunately, a lot of women, due to institutionalized forces, felt that they could never take up that space, and own those rooms. You’re starting to see more and more women starting to challenge that.
Something really nice that I heard from Katia Nussbaum at San Polino wine from the Montalcino region in Italy is that there have been loads of women who have been working in this industry, whether or not their names were on the bottle. It was this sense that women were invisible actors behind the scenes. You never got to truly appreciate how much a woman’s touch went into wine for centuries. It’s only today that they’re coming out and owning their own labels, or taking over from their family and rejecting the idea that only sons can inherit and only men can be working the land when it's just as much a woman’s job and a woman’s place.
I noticed you ask every winemaker what they think are some of the misconceptions of wine. So, what are some of the big misconceptions about wine?
The reason I ask that question is that I have a lot of friends who tell me that they find wine intimidating. Or, they say, "I only know that I like this one wine because it’s the one we always buy," or "It’s the one my partner always buys, so it's just what I go for."
That really shocked me because my friends are incredibly strong, independently-minded women. I just thought that’s crazy. We know how we like our food, we know how we want to dress. So, why is wine something we can’t engage with?!
That speaks to a big misconception, that to enjoy wine, you have to study and understand it at a depth and level that seems impressive to others. All the winemakers I’ve spoken to - and these are people that know the exact characteristics they want their wine to take on - will always say that it’s their job to know the technical side, and it’s our job to just enjoy the wine.
Elise Lane, who works at Laneberg wines in the UK, told me that wine is always for enjoyment and should never be a test. I think that is so so true.
You write a lot about women coming out, establishing themselves in the industry, taking ownership of family businesses, and starting their own label. How else has the wine industry been changing, and how have you seen women leading some of these changes?
In the New York Times article that came out about two months ago, you still see that there is a dangerous level of sexism within the wine world, but female winemakers are finally being recognized for the gift they give this industry.
The fact is, you can look at every country and every region, and you can find a woman who is creating a fantastic wine. Without them and without their wines, this industry would not be as interesting as it is today.
For example, there’s a recent focus on natural wine and low intervention wine. To your point of women being pioneers, some of the most innovative wines are being driven by women, like Arianna Occhipinti in Sicily. She practices low intervention winemaking, and she’s credited by a lot of women I interview as an inspiration. She released her first wines when she was 22. It’s incredible.
There’s another woman named Julia Schittler, in the Rheinhessen region in German, who is 29. Four years ago, she took over from her family’s label, and she wasn’t afraid to change things. I think it's great to see a lot of women are looking at the wine industry and their wine as to how it relates to their palettes and their choices. They want to create what they want this label to represent.
In France, I spoke to Mee Godard, who is in the Beaujolais region, and she said to me, "This label was something I did for myself. It was about me and the mark that I want to leave on this region and this world." I thought that was just so fantastic.
For every wine, there is a story of how it got there, and there’s a strength in how the producer created it. I think we all should tell their stories.
Sometimes the story will get you to the wine, not the label because you want to support the creator.
That’s another thing that has shifted in wine today is that wine carries a story. My parents’ generation probably thought about wine based on the regions they knew. If it was a Bordeaux wine, it was good. If it's a Cabernet Sauvignon from California, then that’s where good Cabernet Sauvignon comes from.
But it’s no longer just about what’s on the label and where is it from. It’s become how is it grown, how is it made. Then the logical next step, I hope to bring out, is who made it. Who is behind it? That goes for people of color and women. There has to be intersectionality in the wine world, which is, unfortunately, very white and very male.
You’ve interviewed numerous women. What are some of the big things that you’ve learned from doing The Femme Vine?
There are so many! It’s hard to pick a few.
Definitely, one of the things that stands out to me is the physical exertion that wine takes that I didn’t truly appreciate before. It is hard work, it is tiring, it is incredibly exhausting. It takes up so much of your time and mental-emotional energy because you’re putting your soul into this product that you have to wait and see how it goes.
Corrina Wright from Oliver's Taranga says that you put in so much effort now, and it has to last for years. You have to know that someone could pick up your bottle in a few years and enjoy it. You have to really think about that and what that means and how much work has gone into it.
I now fully appreciate the prices of wine. Wine has always been seen as so expensive. That is a problem how inaccessible the wine market can be because it is expensive. It is a discretionary purchase that can run into insane amounts of money to spend. What I learned is that what you’re paying for is the work of a team of people, for the vineyard that needs to be regenerated and needs to be taken care of, and for all the hours and years spent trying to get this product to its best expression. Knowing that explains the case of why wines cost as much as they do.
Lastly, I think what I’ve been really heartened to see is how beautifully connected to art and nature these women find wine to be. They always talk about this perfect mixture of art and science and nature. Lots of women will say to me, “It’s just fermented grapes. At the end of the day, I have to do what a farmer does. I have to cultivate and harvest these crops. Then, it's just fermented grape juice.”
Still, there’s so much seasonality, the flavor of the earth, and what has happened in the year that gets wrapped up in the experience of what that wine ends up being. The best thing they can do is make a wine that is a reflection of a time and a place.
I don’t think I really knew what terroir meant until I heard that. You are trying to get the grapes to their best expression, from the roots that they are from as well as from the air, the wind, the weather that affected them for that entire year. Veronique Boss Drouhin from Burgundy and Oregon talked about how years will go by, the vines will grow older, but the roots are in the same soil. It’s the same land and the same earth. That’s what you always have to remember and have to express.
I find that so beautiful and so touching about a very commoditized product.
You’ve already mentioned a lot of amazing women, and each woman is incredible in her own way. Who are some of the women who really stuck out and inspired you?
One of the first women to give me her time was Severine Pinte, who is in Canada. That was a really interesting interview because I never thought of Canada as having good wine, but it does. Severine is so dedicated to raising the profile of the region and helping people rethink where good wines come from.
I definitely think of Julia Schittler in the Rheinhessen region. Simply because of her youth and dedication to her own opinion. She talks a lot about how she came in and inherited a family label. But then, she created her own label, and she put her name on it. She has the Schittler family wines, and then, she has Julia Schittler as a label. I love that. I love how she knew those wines were going to be hers. She took what she grew up with, and she brought in innovation. She raised the bar for what could be accomplished in her vineyard. She’s such a fantastic role model and an inspiration to lots of people.
Cheramie Law is absolutely fantastic. I think being a black woman in wine is nothing easy. It is something to be really admired. I love how she talks about Texas wine. She doesn’t grow the grapes herself, but she buys grapes from her friends, and all of her wines are Texas-grown and Texas-made. She talks about the relationships she has with growers and how important that is in creating her wines.
Finally, Sveva Sernia from Morasinsi Wine in Puglia. She stands out to me because she has such a beautiful story about her approach to wine. She talks about how agriculture is seen to be something that only old men do in Italy. It doesn’t represent an opportunity and a career opportunity for young people. She told me she wants her wine to bring people home and bring people into agriculture as an opportunity to get involved. I think that is such a beautiful mission for her to be on through what people are drinking.
However, all the women are just so unbelievably incredible.
What advice do you have for people who want to learn more about wine and who want to be a more conscious consumer?
I think 100% you can do it and you should do it.
Wine is one of those fun things to figure out what you like. There is something about wine that is so exploratory. There is always more to discover, there’s always a different region, there’s always a different grape. You can find and figure out the different personalities of wine that you like and why you like them.
I also say ask questions. If you’re going to be a conscious consumer of wine, which I think everyone should be, ask questions. Ask where it's from, ask how it's made, ask who made it.
Or do your own research. If you go into a wine store, it’s really easy, with our phones attached to us, to look up the label and see who’s made it. You can probably find out a lot about them that you might not have known.
Lastly, Go and visit these places. Go and visit these women. It is such a beautiful way to experience wine, to be in a vineyard sitting and drinking. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll be with the people behind the bottle in front of you.
What’s next for The Femme Vine!?
It’s funny. I always just wanted to draw attention to these women. I always wanted to be a space where awareness can be built. That is still my goal - to try and make as many connections with female winemakers as possible so that I can provide a space where more people can find more wines to build into their everyday.
Regardless of if you only like white wine, or if you know exactly what vintage of Chablis you enjoy, I guarantee there is a woman making a wine that will fit your bill. I think it is high time that everyone knows about them.
I just want to keep doing that.
To learn more about these amazing women of the vine and The Femme Vine, head to thefemmevine.com for interviews and wine recommendations. Make sure to subscribe to The Femme Vine newsletter to learn more about these spectacular wines and the women behind them. Follow Ally and The Femme Vine @thefemmevine on Instagram.