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Gender Did Matter, says First Female Winemaker of respected Burgundy winery, Hospices de Beaune

Ludivine Griveau had a great first yield, but prior to that, she had to work doubly hard to prove herself.

She’s the first female winemaker in the 573-year history of the Burgundy wine estate under one of France’s most hallowed charity hospitals, Hospices de Beaune. That puts her in charge of producing the bulk of the premier crus sold during the world’s oldest wine auction, now managed by Christie’s. (The takings goes to financing operations of the hospital and other charitable causes.)

  • Barrels of wine from Hospices de Beaune

Griveau’s first auction in 2015 raked in some S$17m, a record high, so she’s clearly earned her stripes. We cut to the chase and ask if the odds were stacked against her up to that point, on account of gender.

What got you into winemaking?

I initially wanted to work in food science, with a focus on children’s nutrition. Then I was given the chance to take an oenology exam, alongside my engineering diploma in food science. A manager of the faculty knew that I was fond of wine as I was involved in the student oenology club – I was the president – and made the offer. I thought – why not?

I passed both exams, and later was required to do a traineeship in another Burgundy winery. As it happens, I was mentored by a female winemaker, a Madame Dublanc.

Was she an inspirational character to you?

Yes, she was the one who made me feel certain that I wanted to be a winemaker. I spent a few years under her, and was employed for many tasks.

She was extremely passionate about her work – but she mentioned that I would have to work hard to rise in the industry, and it wasn’t till many years later I realised the meaning behind her words.

Was she alluding to being a woman in a man’s world?

Indeed. At the time, I knew I had to work hard, just like everybody else. It’s only many years later that I got the sensation that I would always have to do more and prove more (than a male in my position) to be respected.

It is particularly important when dealing with men to be absolutely sure of oneself. You need to have a strong character to assert that you are committed to a decision, and that you really believe in it.

When did this become apparent?

In the first year or so as winemaker of Hospices de Beaune, there was a certain disconnect between the teams and me, perceptibly due to both my gender and my relatively young age. After all, they did not choose me (for the position), and yet there I was. They would not volunteer information or take initiative, unless I asked explicitly.

Of course, they were also waiting until my first wine auction, where they would finally know if I could make good wines. It’s only human – I would have done the same, probably. Eighteen months on and after a successful auction, there is no such animosity and we are all simply professionals, doing our work.

Outside of managing people, does one’s gender play a role?

Not so much on the technical ability to taste and smell. But there are physical aspects that are naturally more taxing on a woman – yet I will take part in the cellar work regardless. I do pigeage, carry barrels and load the press.

It’s to show people that giving instructions is always easy, but actually executing the task is completely different. When you know what you are asking for, you know what to expect from people. And that is a skill that is important as a manager – you can’t ask someone to do something in two hours, when you yourself take three!

Has the winemaking scene evolved over the years to be more inclusive of women?

Definitely. It may sound funny now, but as recently as 25 years ago, women were not allowed into the cellars, and were not acknowledged in the winemaking process. There was the cultural perception that they would aff ect the wine, especially if it was their “time of the month”.Yet winemakers have always relied on women, be it for tasting opinions or harvesting work in the vineyards.

Nowadays, it’s completely diff erent, you even see winery names adopt “et filles” (“and Daughters” in French), as opposed to just “and Sons”, and winemaking couples are common.

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Known to some as Hôtel-Dieu, Hospices de Beaune is Burgundy’s most iconic sight for its hospital turned museum, as well as 150 acres of the finest vineyards. Since 1859 (156th year), a charity auction has been held annually for the barrels of wines from Hospices de Beaune’s vineyards which fund the hospital and upkeep of the grounds.

Singaporeans, too, can take part in the auction, which takes place on the third Sunday in November annually. This year, Aether Wines & Spirits will be facilitating bidders in the region – visit their site and contact them for more details concerning participation and involvement opportunities.