Career Goals: Meet Stoller Family Estate's Tribe of Women Winemakers

From covered wagon trains to waffle-iron sneakers, Oregonians have always changed the status quo. One place that’s proven regularly: Willamette Valley wineries, where women make up 30% of winemakers, compared to a measly 10% in Napa Valley.

At Stoller Family Estate in Dundee, Ore., you’ll find a ship helmed by female winemakers, orchard managers and chefs.

Melissa Burr, Stoller’s director of wine making, has been with Stoller since 2003, when the vineyard’s goal was to supply other wineries with fruit and make small batches of their own vintage reserves. With Melissa as head winemaker, Stoller grew to have the first LEED Gold certified sustainable winery in the world, a second winery facility and the largest contiguous vineyard in Oregon’s Dundee Hills.

“It was very small, with only 1,000 cases of chardonnay. Over the years it grew to be what it is,” Burr said.

In 2013, Melissa began work on the History collection, which showcases grapes from the Pacific Northwest’s oldest vineyards. For all Stoller wines, Melissa’s goal is to showcase the simple, elegant flavors of the grapes.

For the Stoller Reserve harvest, workers hand-pick and sort grapes. These wines also ferment for longer and age in new, French oak barrels that give the wines a rich, but natural flavor.

“It’s really about getting to know the site and working with the fruit and creating balanced wines,” Melissa said. “We’re not trying to over manipulate the wines and make them just a certain way.”

Both Burr and Kate Payne-Brown, Stoller’s assistant winemaker who manages the Reserve winery, planned on careers in medicine, but discovered winemaking while taking time off before med school. 

“You’ll find a lot of women in the wine industry who started with a science degree and decided to move to winemaking,” Payne-Brown said. “When I told my parents I was going to go into winemaking, they were like, ‘What do you mean? We were supposed to have a doctor in the family!’”

Though many women have discovered the wine industry as a career, they still face a number of challenges from a male-dominated industry. When Payne-Brown began an internship at a winery early in her career, she quickly went from bright-eyed to doubtful of her abilities.

“I walked up to this winery and I had to roll barrels and lift barrels. My first day, I cleaned like 9 and had 23 to go. I got in the car and I was all defeated and my husband was like you wanted to be a winemaker, no one’s going to respect you if you can’t roll a barrel, suck it up and move on,” Payne-Brown said. “My boss at the time was like, we have to work a lot harder, always. You’ve got to prove you can do it, you’ve got to prove you can drive a fork lift.”

Balancing family and work can also be a challenge for winemakers with small children. Payne-Brown had her son last summer and often carried him by her side in a sling during the 2016 harvest.

“My sons have seen me running around, driving forklifts and lifting heavy things.” Payne-Brown said. “Hopefully I’m dispelling some idea of what women can and can’t do in their mind for when they’re older.

When it comes to workwear, Payne-Brown needs clothes that fold into that work-life balance, even if things get... a little sticky. 

"Usually, I’ll stick my hand in a tank and wipe my hands on them. With the Mavens, you can’t tell," Payne-Brown said. "Its nice to have a thick pair of pants that doesn’t have holes in it, that I can get dirty and they still look good. I’ll go from here, working harvest, to a meeting for my kid’s Montessori in them" 

Payne-Brown is also a part of a group of women winemakers, who meet regularly for wine tastings and to support each other’s work.

“A lot of the women have been in the industry for a long time. Their families started it in the ‘60s. They definitely forged the way,” Payne-Brown said. “It’s interesting to have conversations about that and have the wealth of knowledge, really.”

It’s a sentiment Burr seconds. At first, she wanted to be known as a winemaker with less emphasis on the female aspect. When Forbes interviewed a group of female winemakers a few years ago, she didn’t see the significance, until she started talking to women who had no idea about the opportunities the wine industry presented.

“The more I think about it, it’s really something to be proud of,” Burr said. “It’s good to inspire other women, from all different things and for all of us to talk about what we’re doing and be really connective and work together.”

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