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24 September 2021

Women and wine in Slovenia

I have never been one for singling out women for being women doing any particular job, and in an ideal world of equality, there would be no need. But it is always a good time for reflection and in much of the wine world, including Slovenia, true equality remains a distant dream. As an outsider, it often seems to me that Slovenia is quite forward-thinking - notably so in terms of environmental awareness, organic and local food and so on. Yet in wine the playing field is very far from level, indeed shockingly so. After asking around, I’ve identified around two dozen women who are winemakers and/or owners from around 2000 wine producers in the country. Mateja Škrl Kocijančič of Family Estates Slovenia confirms that just 5 of her association’s 87 members are women, though she adds that 90% of the male members have a strong woman at their backs.

For comparison, I have looked at a few other countries recently. A 2020 report on California found 14% women winemakers and Romania has just 5%, but surprisingly Bulgaria has a worldleading 50%. In addition, in Bulgaria, there are 85 women out of 166 members of the union of oenologists and over 80% of marketing and finance roles in wine are done by women. Ownership is just 35% CEOs but still this puts Bulgaria head-and-shoulders above the rest of the world. So what lessons are there to be learned from Bulgaria?

Certainly, the communist regime there had something to do with it (though of course Romania was also communist). Emancipation through equality of education was in place from the 1950s onwards when the first women took winemaker jobs. Women were expected to work outside the home, and it was considered unacceptably bourgeois not to work. Kindergartens were provided and several friends reported effectively being brought up by the state as both parents worked. Studying science and working in wine was seen as a valid career for women, though with a small number of (impressive) exceptions, women tended to work in more support roles in the lab, bottling or quality control. But with the rise of small private wineries in the 2000s, women came out of the shadows, and it seems their ability to do all the jobs around a winery rather than just directing a team has been invaluable. Study after study has shown that it's easier for women (and minorities) to take on roles if they can see “people like me" in similar jobs, and that certainly seems to be true in Bulgaria where wine student numbers are typical equally balanced. I wouldn't recommend communism as the best route to achieve equality, but Slovenia has always struck me as a progressive place, so the inequality is quite a surprise. Špela Štokelj says that to understand this inequality, it’s important to recognise the difference between women winemakers who run family estates and winemakers at bigger wine companies or cooperatives, because of completely different work obligations. She says, “In small familyowned wine estate you have to do the majority of the work by yourself, literally by hand, and it involves a lot of hard physical work - it's just impossible for me to lift a 50kg heavy box of grapes!” She adds that small estates usually can't afford to employ anyone other than family members, or can't invest in machinery that would help, and these are the most common model in Slovenia.

Inheritance laws are a major point of difference (there was effectively no private property to inherit in Bulgaria and what restituted was very tiny, fragmented plots of land). The picture in Slovenia is very much that the typical family estate always gets handed on to the eldest son.

For the future, there are strong signs for optimism from the academic world. Prof. Dr. Branka Mozetič Vodopivec (Dean, School for Viticulture and Oenology) along with her colleague Melita Sternad Lemut at University of Nova Gorica report, “Enrolments in our BSc degree programme (over the last 10 years show that the ratio of female to male students averages 40:60. However, there are more and more students who do not come from a winemaking family, and in that group, female students predominate.” This all suggests that increasingly winemaking no longer seen as a male profession. Furthermore, the faculty of wine is 48% women while the University's research centre is 50% female, with women in positions of Faculty Head and Head of Research. They say that it's often still the case that family wineries are divided on traditional grounds, but they conclude, "We would say that the era of Slovene women in the shadow of male winemakers is slowly coming to an end, especially with the very ambitious female students in our faculty.

Caroline Gilby, MW
for VINO magazine, Slovenia
Issue 1&2/2021

Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash