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Women of the Vine

Women for WineSense

By Sara Shaw

“Beside the sea she lives, the woman of the vine, the maker of wine; Siduri sits in the garden at the edge of the sea, with the golden bowl and the golden vats that the gods gave her.” —Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 10

In the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the oldest known literary work, the titular character is on a quest for immortality. Near the end of the tale, he enters the realms of the sun where he discovers a vineyard ruled by the goddess Siduri.

In ancient literature and legends, women were often depicted as the winemakers, and it is agreed by most historians that the women of these ancient cultures were charged with both gathering the grapes and making the wine.

Since that time, the wine world has become an industry run predominantly by men, and it has only been in the last 30 years that women have again returned to being winemakers, grapegrowers and vineyard owners. Meanwhile, female consumers—the ones most often responsible for purchasing the wine for the family and putting it on the table—have become steadily more active in educating themselves on the mystery and intricacy of fermented grape juice.

As the numbers of female winemakers have risen in the past 30 years, so has the participation in wine education by female consumers.

It was in the late 1970s when two women from the Napa wine industry decided to create an association that would educate the female purchasing-public about wine and the benefits of its consumption as part of a healthy and balanced way of life. 

According to Leslie Sbrocco’s book, “Wine for Women,” 64 percent of wine consumers are female. With the many thousands of different wine labels to choose from on any given wine shop or grocery store shelf, a large percentage of these women are likely to be overwhelmed if they are not armed with at least some basic wine knowledge. In an effort to aid wine education among women as well as promote consumption, a group called Women for WineSense (WWS) was formed.

They started with small gatherings, invited their friends and local winemakers, and what they began grew into a national organization represented across nine states with eleven total chapters; three of these chapters are here in Oregon.

In the mission statement, WWS characterizes the association as “the premier U.S. organization for women interested in and involved in wine, whether in the wine industry or just wine fans. The name allows us, as women, the majority gender and the marketing world’s primary family shoppers and caregivers, to reach out to policy makers and promoters and serve in our non-threatening, educational catalyst role to educate women and men about the positive aspects of wine as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.”

These groups are filled with multi-faceted women, seeking not only a place to develop their palates, but also make contacts in a lively social atmosphere.

Take Larlene Dunsmuir, Portland Chapter President of WWS, as an example. Dunsmuir is a nurse practitioner, a wine consultant and a small business owner. Exemplary of the women that founded this organization, Dunsmuir is dynamic in her life pursuits and passionate about wine. While her love of wine has led her to pilot the Portland Chapter of WWS, she’s also committed to educating her community on the things she’s learned and is devout in providing new and engaging events for her grape-loving sisterhood. 

“Women need to find a way to connect with each other,” she explained to me in between tales of wine tours and 1940s-something Bordeauxs. 

Dunsmuir and the WWS aim to forge that connection through wine, facilitate networking among women of the wine industry and women of the local community, and foster education in a stimulating environment.

To do this, the people of WWS, of whom there are 60 in the Portland chapter, host monthly events in rotating venues. At a local restaurant, wine shop, or hotel, the group gathers for a dinner with thoughtfully paired wines. An educational tasting is held while a guest speaker from the wine industry discusses relevant topics.

In the summer months, the group tours vineyards, and in an upcoming event, wines will be paired with piano pieces; attendees will taste wines that are meant to couple and complement the movements in musical works.

By bringing the many facets of the wine community together, the goal of WWS is to give women a vibrant and educational networking environment while learning about and enjoying wine. As Dunsmuir notes, the more speakers they are able to gather, “the more opinions you hear, the greater variety of information you get, and the more you are able to learn.”

Recent speakers have included Karen Hinsdale, owner of The Cellar Door in Portland; Susan Sokol-Blosser, co-founder of Sokol-Blosser Winery in Dundee and a founding member of the WWS Portland chapter; and Tina Hammond, winemaker and co-owner of Privé Vineyard in Newberg.

Women like these have been pioneers in the Oregon wine world, and WWS brings them to their own table to help inspire women interested in wine careers and wine appreciation in order to strengthen their knowledge and involvement in the world of wine.

“The cultural tides of the world have changed again,” writes WWS member Liz Tach, “and today, in wine-drinking countries, women are the primary purchasers of wine.  The connection between women and wine has always been there. Today it is growing stronger, with a focus on friendship, romance, health and balance.”

While women and their ties to wine go as far back as the cradle of civilization, a relationship between her, her community and the adhesive that is wine is still being formed, and WWS is an instrumental and productive partner in this endeavor. 

The annual membership fee is $40, and there are three Oregon chapters always seeking new members: Portland, Hood River, and Central Oregon. Men are welcome additions to any of these chapters. If you are interested in becoming a member, you can find out more information at www.womenforwinesense.org .

Sara Shaw is a writer and wine professional originally hailing from Alaska who has chosen the Pacific Northwest as her home. She is currently the sales manager at Daedalus Cellars in Dundee.

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