Like so many industries, winemaking has long been considered a male dominated field. Mere decades ago, it was rare to see a woman out in the vineyards or down in the barrel rooms. Creating a wine that would go on to win prestigious awards and accolades was a bright-eyed idea reserved largely for men - until recently, that is.
The wine industry has seen a shift in the last several years that upends this age-old (and frankly tiresome) notion that winemaking, tasting and viticulture calls only for a man’s touch. Female winemakers are now paving the way for a new era of wine, and there’s a whole lot of talent breaking through the quickly crumbling barriers of this traditional male hierarchy.
In light of International Women’s Day and our Women in Wine series, we sat down with winemaker Kate Sturgess to chat about the game changing role of women in wine and how Brokenwood is championing our many incredible female community members alongside encouraging and supportive men.
At the forefront of female winemakers in the Hunter Valley, wider Australia and even the international stage, Brokenwood stands proud on the rolling hills of Pokolbin. Surrounded by a supportive community of fellow wineries, our Cellar Door is taking the opportunity presented by International Women’s Day to celebrate the many women who live and breathe wine with the passion of the greats.
With 70% of Brokenwood staff being female, it’s no wonder our Cellar Door is excited to champion the women in our community now and for years to come.
Fondly regarded as the woman of the hour, Brokenwood’s resident winemaker Kate Sturgess is quickly becoming a household name in the Hunter Valley region. A homegrown Brisbanite, Kate fled the sunny city to follow her dreams of joining the wine industry. She completed her Bachelor of Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Adelaide before gaining experience in a string of wine regions, including time at Culmina Estate in Canada.
Back in Australia, Kate continued honing her talents at various wineries before joining the Brokenwood family in 2015 as Assistant Winemaker. It was only a few short years before she climbed the ranks to Winemaker and kickstarted her reputation as one of the best up-and-coming female winemakers in the Hunter region. Kate would go on to win a plethora of wine awards and achievements, both of which she continues to tally up.
Working alongside Kate is Brokenwood Hunter Vineyards Manager and unofficial veteran Kat Barry. Born and raised in the lush Hunter region, Kat has fostered a love for viticulture since the age of 12. Kat and her father, the late Keith Barry and prior Brokenwood Vineyard Manager, worked together on 18 consecutive vintages. Kat is now leading the vineyard team into bold and bright new vintages. As Kate claims, Kat is ‘a force to be reckoned with.’
Brokenwood’s General Manager Candice Crawford is a true testament to following your passions. After leaving a successful position with PricewaterhouseCoopers as a Chartered Accountant, Candice came to Brokenwood in 2007 with big visions for our winery’s future. We’re pretty glad she made the switch and our Hunter Valley venue has blossomed under her management.
Similarly, Marketing Manager Carlee Watson left her career in banking to pursue her love for the Hunter Valley’s wine industry. Since starting with Brokenwood in 2009, Carlee has steadily climbed the ranks from working in our Wine Clubs (and developing them into the thriving hubs they are today) all the way to her current upper management role. Anyone who brushes glasses with Carlee can attest to her sharp eye, keen insights and flair for getting Brokenwood out into the world.
On the ground at our Cellar Door are long-standing staff members whose depth of knowledge and passion for Wine Country are tangible throughout the business. Cellar Door Supervisor Martelle Malhotra brings life and joy to the Brokenwood family and guests. Her passion for tastings, pairings and everything in between is cherished and shared by all who know her.
We can’t get into every Brokenwood staff member in one article, but you get the picture: from our slew of vineyards to our thriving Cellar Door, our women in wine are setting the precedent for quality experiences, great wine and a lot of fun.
So how does this shift away from male dominance in the wine industry occur? Kate Sturgess says that the key to unlocking more opportunities in the industry is to accept more women into the world of wine.
‘I’m very lucky to have some incredible women in the Hunter Valley as role models,’ says Kate. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see, right?’
When asked about the female role models that helped her to where she is today, Kate was ready with the answers - and the reasoning.
‘When you have women in charge, filling those managerial roles, it’s much more common for them to want to give the same opportunities to other women,’ says Kate. ‘Women see the value in it. We value our own work and understand just how much other women can bring to the table.’
Kate mentions the incredible female winemakers and viticulturists who have inspired her, and she credits them with being key players in the industry’s shifting tides. Brokenwood alumni Samantha Connew, now the founder of Stargazer Wine, gave Kate some telling advice.
‘When I was starting out, I remember Sam saying to me, “What do you want to do? Well, you need to put the effort into doing it!" recalls Kate. ‘She basically told me to apply for every job out there, to put my name down for everything I could, to get in people’s faces. I learned pretty quickly that having an end goal and working towards it is a major driver for success in winemaking.’
Among Kate’s other mentors in the Hunter region is Sarah Crowe, another Brokenwood alumni and current winemaker at the Yarra Valley’s Yarra Yering winery. Liz Silkman also makes the list, and being widely regarded as the best white winemaker, if not the best winemaker, in the Hunter Valley, it’s no surprise that Kate and so many others look up to her.
Kate also mentions Liz Riley and her incredible work not only in viticulture, but in developing the information and knowledge base that the Hunter has to rely on for growing grapes. ‘She does an excellent job at representing NSW in a generally SA-dominated industry,’ says Kate.
Once upon a time, it would have been customary to walk into a wine awards event and see every seat filled by men. Now, women are filtering in to not only attend such events, but also to take out major awards year after year.
From her inclusion in the 2021 cohort of Wine Australia’s Future Leaders program to being nominated for Winemaker of the Year at the Hunter Valley Legends Awards in the same year, Kate is no stranger to these big achievements in wine. But, humble as ever, she attests her successes to her team at Brokenwood.
‘For the last three years we’ve won the Young Semillon trophy at the Hunter Valley Wine Show,’ says Kate. ‘It’s nice to have that evidence of all the team’s work. That consistency of winning that trophy is pretty great, especially now that Brokenwood staff is so predominantly female.’
Kat Barry has also raked in her fair share of awards. Most prominently, and perhaps most meaningful to Kat and to all the Brokenwood family, was a joint win with her father Keith in 2013. The pair were awarded Viticulturist of the Year at the Hunter Valley Legends & Wine Industry Awards, and with their unmatched knowledge and passion for the land, the win came as no surprise.
When talking about instigating change in a field that has long been considered a man’s industry, it’s tricky to know where to start. Men were traditionally granted ownership of land. They tended the vines and engaged in the labour. They worked in the barrel rooms, rolled up their shirtsleeves, and literally got stuck into winemaking in a way that was once unheard of for women. Now, however, it’s commonplace at Brokenwood to see our barrel women buzzing with women.
‘Historically it was very difficult for women to get a look in, just to get the opportunity to learn,’ says Kate. ‘Now that’s definitely much less of a barrier.’
Despite the incredible progress that’s been made, the path to total equality continues to stretch.
‘[The wine industry] has changed a lot, but it also still has quite a way to go,’ reflects Kate. ‘The Hunter is quite forward-thinking in that sense. There’s some really strong, high-level winemaking and viticultural women throughout the Valley who have set the tone and kept the boys on their toes. This makes it easier for everyone else coming up in the industry.’
Brokenwood Wines is certainly unique, even in the Hunter region, for being such a female-dominant Cellar Door. But this hasn’t come easy for the many female winemakers and staff members now working here.
‘There’s a 70/30 split of women to men currently at Brokenwood,’ says Kate. ‘We’re quite unique from other wineries in the Hunter this way. It’s partly due to some amazing men in the Brokenwood community who have been very encouraging of women, training them and providing opportunities. But it’s also to do with the women who have been here for quite a long time now. They started in entry-level roles and now they’re managers and higher-level staff. That culture of being able to move up and constantly improve is nourished at Brokenwood.’
Baked into the long-standing family values and traditions of Brokenwood Wines, Kate perfectly sums up this culture of inclusivity and growth. Anyone who spends an afternoon at our Cellar Door, engaging in tasting, enjoying dinner at The Wood Restaurant, will feel that sense of belonging from the get go. And that’s exactly the same for every staff member who calls our winery home, no matter their level of training or experience.
‘Brokenwood has always been very willing to take both women and men at entry-level positions and train them,’ says Kate. ‘It sets a really solid foundation for the family nature of the business and lets women know that there’s no prejudice here. It breeds a culture of encouragement and growth.’
Looking to International Women’s Day and the year ahead, Brokenwood is excited to be partnering with a number of events aimed at celebrating women in the wine industry. Kate in particular is leading the charge here, and is set to appear and speak at several key occasions throughout the year, including the International Women’s Day Luncheon as part of Sydney’s Taste in the City festival.
Kate will also be a bit of a celebrity at this year’s Rosato Partito. Our Ladies Lunch at Brokenwood event will shine the spotlight on Kate and the many women of Brokenwood Wines, not to mention the incredible community of women who have joined our family through wine clubs, tastings, tours and Cellar Door visits.
On the nature of being a woman in the wine industry, Kate reflects that while it’s fantastic to see so many women front and centre at events and wine awards these days, there is still work to be done.
‘The wine industry doesn’t need to be an all-boys club,’ laughs Kate. ‘It would be nice to be able to turn up to an event and it be assumed that you’re the winemaker, not the other way around.’
We’re confident that with incredible female winemakers like Kate, viticulturists like Kat and Cellar Door staff like our dozens of wonderful women behind the scenes, lasting change in the wine industry is inevitable.
‘It takes time for change to happen,’ Kate agrees. ‘But everyone is slowly moving up tiers and there are constantly people who are stepping into new roles and taking new opportunities. Lots of us are being the first woman to do certain things. That makes it easier for the second woman.’
And that articulates it pretty perfectly, in our opinion. One woman, one glass and a few tasty wine awards at a time will quickly turn into the norm. So we say cheers to our amazing female winemakers and women in wine. With so much passion and talent, what’s to come next for Brokenwood and the wine industry can only be something great.