Lately, it seems as if the more high-profile examples of women becoming the heirs to their father’s work have come from some nefarious quarters. Marine Le Pen, Ivanka Trump and Rebekah Mercer not withstanding, a lot of inspiring women are taking on much more active roles in family-run enterprises and the first person who comes to mind in the wine industry is Virginie Joly of Coulée de Serrant.
The Joly family purchased Coulée de Serrant, which has been in existence since the 12th century, in 1962. In 1977, Nicolas Joly, who was working in finance in London, came back to the estate and embarked on a quest to make better wine. He discovered Rudolf Steiner and his writings on biodynamic agriculture and the rest is history and now, also her story. By 1985 the entire domaine was certified biodynamic and within a few years both Coulée de Serrant and Joly received international acclaim.
After studying outside of France, Virginie joined Nicolas in 2002. Humbly she says that she has had more of an influence on the winemaking since 2012. As the Jolys are not fans of the word “winemaker” let’s just say that she is a farmer. But that’s hardly it. Every bit as much the champion of biodynamic viticulture as her father, she is very active in running Renaissance des Appellations, a group they founded in 2001 advocating biodynamic and other forms of natural winemaking. Through these efforts, she is also an ambassador and both are close to full-time jobs. I bet there are some working mothers – and fathers – who are reading this right now, shaking their heads because they know how tough it is to take on so much responsibility.
One might assume that anyone who is at the helm of such a historic and important property would be entitled to have a bit of an ego but I’ve never caught a whiff of it from Virginie, at least not in an obnoxious sense. She knows that Coulée de Serrant and the other wines made from her family’s property are special but she credits Mother Nature for doing the hard work.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been conversing about the standing of women in the wine world and how it has changed. Here are some of her thoughts.
PSB: How did your story begin?
VJ: I am an organic baby born in an organic estate. I started my first harvest around five years old I think picking a grape here or there or carrying a bucket with two or three grapes to the press. I started to go with my father to help out in the evening after the last press to pump in the barrel at the same age. It just belonged to my daily life.
After school I was unsure of what to do so I studied languages and music but I had always the feeling I should go back to the estate. So, I returned in 2002. During the weekend I studied alternative medicine – this was three years – and after my diploma, I decided to go for viticulture more than medicine.
PSB: Do you think that studying alternative medicine has influenced your approach to winemaking?
VJ: I don’t know if my studies influenced my approach as I already had the biodynamic approach in my daily life, but it gave me a better understanding on how health works and therefore also the health of the vine, how to react, how to treat in advance, etc.
PSB: Have you noticed that there are more women winemakers in France now than when you first started in 2002 and also when you were growing up?
VJ: I think more and more women are in the wine world not only winemaking but also sommeliers. In the vineyard for sure, the daughters are taking over more estates than before or are more on the front scene. And mentalities have changed also. Fifty years ago a woman would not have been allowed to enter in a cellar. Now, I even think estates are more inclined to have a woman as oenologue in their cellar. So a complete change.
PSB: Why do you think estates are more inclined to have women as enologues (enologists)?
VJ: People I see are already more open to that, women might have more (of) an intuition way of working, they listen more to what the wine says and needs.
Wine being an alive product you need to have that sort of relationship. Men may have more a rational way of acting. Estates I know like to have people (who are) a bit less pragmatic, but as said my connections are in the organic and BD (biodynamic) world.
PSB: Why do you think that the organic and biodynamic world have more gender equality?
VJ: Well I do believe that the BD/organic world was for sure more advanced, women had their place earlier there I am sure also probably because it was wives or daughters at the beginning. Now I think it is pretty much equal, old superstitions are forgotten and the competence of the people is first on the list.
PSB: Did you have any role models female or male, in wine or not, that impacted your winemaking philosophy?
VJ: Not very original but I admire a lot the work of Lalou Bize-Leroy. Reaching her level is a dream, being able to recognize just from the taste of a berry from which parcel the berry is, and her intuition. What a model!!