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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA Job Market : PART THREE: WORKING PEOPLE, IN THEIR OWN WORDS : Wine Maker Breaks Into Male-Dominated Field : JILL DAVIS : Wine Maker

May 17, 1987|Bruce Keppel

Four years ago at the age of 27, Jill Davis became the wine maker at 130-year-old Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma--an appointment notable both because of her youth and her gender in a field traditionally dominated by men. She graduated from the University of California at Davis in December, 1978, with a bachelor's degree in fermentation science, and worked under Beringer Vineyards' renowned master wine maker, the recently retired Myron Nightingale, before joining Buena Vista in December, 1982, as assistant wine maker. Four months later , she was promoted to her current job in charge of wine-making operations. The following was taken from an interview with Davis by Bruce Keppel, a Times staff writer.

The summer before my senior year in high school, a friend of my father's who owned a nursery had some grapevines growing and offered my Dad some Zinfandel fruit if he wanted to pick the grapes. I went along and helped pick the grapes. Then I looked up in the encyclopedia how to make wine and went to the hardware store, bought a plastic garbage can, raided Mom's kitchen for some baking yeast and away we went!

We had made beer before and sauerkraut, so we knew something about fermentation, but it turned out to be more difficult than we'd thought. In the case of the sauerkraut and the beer, ours was definitely better than your average commercial product, but our wine definitely wasn't up to par.

After school started, I asked my biology instructor if he knew what it was about wine that made it so much more difficult. It was he who told me that UC Davis had a program in wine making. The whole idea of doing something for a living that we'd done as a hobby was intriguing.

This has definitely been a man's profession, traditionally. I'm real lucky that my high school instructor pushed me in this direction. But with my folks it's always been whatever you want to do, you could do. I didn't grow up with a lot of prejudices or preconceived notions as to what was possible for me to do. I never have experienced any difficulty, and I think a large part of that is because I didn't expect any.

There are more than two dozen women in this field, but I would say that, of wineries of the size of Buena Vista or larger--producing 100,000 cases or more, say--that narrows considerably, to maybe eight or 10.

But it's a funny industry: If you can do the job, they don't care what your sex is, and that runs all the way from the old guard to the young people. And because it is an artistic--in a way, creative--type of an industry, women seem to be fairly well suited to it. As long as they can make that commitment--to spend the time to do it.

About half the wine-making students at UC Davis now are female!

I was married last May. My husband's in the film business, a cinematographer, which is almost as crazy as the wine business. We were going to get married the July before, but the harvest made it impossible, so we put it off until we could actually take a month and just not worry about what was happening in the winery. So the job pressures definitely have an impact on my--our--personal lives.

Part of the reason I think our marriage works is that we met each other doing what we're doing. That was part of the attraction--this intense commitment we have to our work. They're both high-performance jobs and both very much creative, and that just kind of spills over into the rest of our lives.

And that's partly because of the way I approach my job. I really put a lot of myself into it, and my job is not only to make the best wine I can but to make sure all my employees enjoy their jobs and to help them grow. I take that responsibility terribly strongly, and I think because of that we have a very strong production team here: Everybody likes what they do; everyone feels very responsible for the wine.

Our production team's average age is 30, 32--probably a little younger than most because our president, Marcus Moller-Racke, is very young--about 30--and he doesn't hesitate to take a chance on young people. There's a tremendous amount of energy coursing through this place! Almost nobody goes home after eight hours.

The old guard is starting to retire--the people who went to school in the '40s--so that's leaving some openings. The wineries that are healthy, like ours, are growing. Where, two years ago, I could handle the wine making by myself, now I'm finding myself on the road a lot, talking about the wine, educating consumers, letting people know why they should be excited about Buena Vista wines and what my style is, what the winery's style is.

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