Samantha Sheehan, 8.23.19

Photo by Emma K. Morris

Photo by Emma K. Morris

How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today. 

I’ve been making wine since 2009.  When I first started my brand POE, I was making Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wine.  Today I make sparkling wine, rosé, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, a nouveau style wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, and three citrus vermouths under POE, Ultraviolet, and Mommenpop.

Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?

There was a wine shop near my first apartment after college called The Wine Hotel.  One day I walked in and Paul Wasserman was playing the guitar. He offered me a glass of 2002 Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne. It propelled me to visit Burgundy and Champagne, and the rest is history.

 What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The most important perk of the job is getting to navigate my own hours.  I am always working in my head, but I get to make time everyday to pick our 4 year old up from preschool. Besides having a flexible schedule, mornings during harvest are truly a dream.  Waking up as the sun rises, heading to the winery to check on fermentations and taste through tanks is my favorite part of the job.

Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman? 

At public tastings (not trade), people always ask “what are the owners of the winery like?”  I usually just say they are jerks.

How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior? 

Living in Napa I don’t see much, if any, prejudice by women towards other women.  There is a long list of female pioneers who proved themselves in the valley. Mary Ann Graf, Zelma Long, Helen Turley, Cathy Corison, Merry Edwards...  There are a number of women today who are killing it in the business, and have proved to the local industry that we are equally capable at selling wine, running a restaurant or retailer, making wine, or being the General Manager at a large estate winery.

When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?

Each sector of the industry will benefit in it own way by incorporating more women and making their positions stronger. For example, in Napa, finding experienced labor for vineyard and picking crews can be difficult. Researcher Malcolm Forbes at UCDavis led one study showing that 30% of women on these crews have experienced sexual harassment. This ranged from offensive jokes, to being coerced into sexual favors. 

Those who work at wineries and engage vineyard managers (whether direct employees or contracted firms), should make the women on the crews part of the conversation. The questions that need to be asked “are there women on your crew, do you require gender sensitivity training, is there safe way for women to report harassment, etc.”

When we think about women in our community, its needs to be a bottom up approach. We need to support those who are the most vulnerable, all the way up to the women in leadership positions.   

What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years? 

There are a lot of great projects and ideas started by woman that need funding.  I’d like to see more venture capital money and investment going to these businesses.  Perhaps it’s a lack of networking, or being shy to ask for capital as well...

What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?

One of the most challenging aspects of the industry for me has been finding a balance between passion and sustainable business.  Many times a product that you want yourself, or personally enjoy will be something that takes off because other people will feel the same way.  But this is a very expensive and time consuming endeavor, and it’s difficult to turn making wine into a profitable endeavor. So my biggest piece of advice - is to ask for opinions about the economics of your venture, and to actually take that advice if you trust the person.

What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?

I’ve had meetings in which I feel the men are respected and listened to immediately, while I need to prove myself first.  Starting out on equal ground when you walk into a room is what I would like to see.

What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?

I have hired or supported a number of women to work with me in different sectors of my operations.  Whether it is sales, or female vendors (glass, corks, etc), I try to have a supportive working relationship. When things don’t go well (orders get screwed up, etc.) I always try to find a way to solve the problem without blame, but rather by working through problems together.

What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?

Being headstrong and willing to barrel down a path.  The women who participated in the last event all seemed to be the type that wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  If a particular approach is blocked, they would find a way around or charge through.

What other women of wine do you admire and why?

Helen Keplinger (Keplinger Wines), Annie Favia (Favia Wines), Laura Brennan (Inconnu), Clemence Lelarge (Lelarge-Pugeot), Stevie Staciones (Bay Grape and Mama).  These women are not only extremely tough, savvy business owners and/or founders, but they are graceful and kind and extremely supportive. This list of women are not only those who I deeply respect, but also want to see succeed, as I know they would not hesitate to take the time to help me or anyone else if needed.