Celebrating Women's History Month with Alison Thomson of Lepiane
March is Women’s History Month, and we’re excited to spend it here on the blog with a spotlight on some of the women who are kicking ass in today’s wine industry. Be they new to the scene or foremothers of it, we’re going to pick their brains and present their stories. In this historically male-dominated industry, we’re seeing something of an sea change, with more women entering the field and rising to leadership positions than ever before. In fact, several women have told me that up to half of their colleagues at enology school were women. The field is expanding, but there’s still work to be done: for example, “of California's 4000+ wineries today, some 10 to 12% have lead winemakers who are women,” according to the website Women Winemakers of California and Beyond.
We’re going to start our series in California with Alison Thomson, whose L.A. Lepiane label is an ode to her Italian heritage as well as her deep roots as a Californian. Esther Mobley, the SF Chronicle’s fantastic wine writer, called her a winemaker to watch in 2018 because she’s making “a convincing case for Italian varietals in California’s Central Coast.” Thomson’s Barbera and Nebbiolo (and a soupçon of Grenache) are grown in Santa Barbara County, and she’s crafting wines that meld the spirit of the two worlds. “That’s the exciting part,” she says. “I’m a California girl through and through. I love it, but I’m also Italian. I want to bring that Italian sense but with a definite California stamp. You can still smell the Nebbiolo but texture is different in the mouth. Maybe the tannins are more refined with more fruit in the middle.”
Her label is a nod to her great-grandfather, who was a Calabrian transplant in Hollister, California, and who had a relatively serious winemaking project throughout Prohibition. But, fundamentally, she named her wine Lepiane to honor her grandmother, who would tell Thomson stories about how she’d have to help her father make wine in the basement. “She was my connection to Italy. I named it after her. She passed away when I got to Italy for my internship.”
After studying at Davis, she took an internship that led her back to the homeland to work her first harvest in Barolo with Sergio Germano, and it proved to be a profound experience for Thomson. “I got dropped off, and on my first day, I took a tractor down what seemed like a cliff to a vineyard. Spent two weeks removing berries from damaged clusters. It was great. Did it all day long. I thought it was crazy, but it was really a good introduction to high-quality winemaking, berry by berry. I helped out in the winery as well. Picked all day and processed at night. There was a moment, at one in the morning, when the moon was rising behind the hillside with a castle being lit up. I was hungry and wet, and I realized this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It was a wonderful experience in Italy.”
But this was also a time that she spent reflecting on gender roles in the industry, particularly given the different cultural context. “I was out in the country. There were different cultural norms. It wasn’t normal for a young girl to be away from home. There were jobs for men and jobs for women, and that was eye opening. I wanted to learn. I wanted to be hands on.” So when she got back she decided she’d look for a role at a small place where she could work in every facet of winemaking. She landed at Sine Qua Non with Manfred Krankl, the ultimate in small, hands-on production. She then was hired by Steve Clifton of Palmina, a pioneer for Italian varietals on the Central Coast. “I really wanted to make Italian varieties, my passion, and the job with Steve was exactly what I wanted. He was a wonderful mentor and teacher. I got so much experience.”
Today, in addition to her own label, she’s the cowinemaker for Alecia Moore (AKA P!nk)’s label Two Wolves, which just launched in November. She’s also raising two children, a 7 year old girl and a 5 year old boy, so she understands firsthand about the unique challenges of being a mom and a winemaker—for instance, she gave birth during harvest one year (“Other winemakers do have children during harvest, but they’re not always women”). And the next year, she wore her baby while out in the vineyard. As a mom myself, who’s worn my baby to trade tastings, I loved swapping stories with her about this topic. She says, “I think it’s an important conversation. More than half of my class at UC Davis was female at that time, but unfortunately not a lot have made it to high-level positions—incredibly talented and smart women. A few got discouraged with the prospects of being a mom and working in the industry. It can be very demanding on your time. So people sometimes decided it wasn’t gonna work with their lives.”
When she started working in Santa Barbara County, there weren’t a lot of women making wine, especially those her age, so she turned to the older generation for inspiration—Kathy Joseph, Karen Steinwachs, Kris Curran, Clarissa Nagy. “The only one I met who actually had a child was Clarissa Nagy, and I thought, oh my gosh maybe I don’t have to give up my career to have a child. It made me hopeful that I could figure out some kind of career path to keep me in the industry.” Now she’s part of a collective of female winemakers who help each other with job postings, filter pads, and just general morale. They’re a support network for each other, and the younger female winemakers starting out are in the fortunate position to have many women to look to for fellowship in the industry. “It’s a big county, we’re spread out. But we are all connected. It’s neat to see the younger women come up through the ranks. Sometimes there’s a false narrative about women being competitive but it hasn’t been my experience.”
As the winemaking world grows, and the faces in it begin to look more diverse and, well, more female, I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak with women who have seen it change and are willing to share their experiences. Thank you to Alison for taking the time to chat with me and give me a hopeful sense of the future for wine, one full of such a range of strong voices. Stay tuned, readers, as we’ll be bringing more powerful ladies your way!
- Kate Soto