Wine, women and a role model in Sandrine Garbay
Frederic Jeammes, Agence France-Presse/Bordeaux
Women in France are beginning to crack those most masculine of preserves -- the cellars of the big wine chateaux.
Sandrine Garbay, now 38, took over in 1998 as cellarmaster at the chateau d'Yquem, which produces the best of the sweet white Sauternes -- described by author Frederic Dard as like drinking sunlight.
"It was an incredible chance that the position was free," said the slim brunette, who supervises production from harvesting to bottling.
A dozen or so women are cellarmasters or maitres de chai in the Bordeaux region, but Garbay is the only one in such a prestigious chateau.
The term maitre de chai remains in the masculine on her name card because of the connotations of maitresse, or mistress. Female lawyers and notaries are also addressed as maitre, like their male counterparts.
Garbay grew up in the southwestern wine center Bordeaux in a family which had nothing to do with wine.
She studied biology, then oenology at Bordeaux University, not dreaming then of taking up a post like the one she now holds, traditionally passed down from father to son.
It was almost by chance that she ended up at the chateau d'Yquem, the property of the Lur Saluces family for four centuries until it was bought in 1999 -- after her arrival -- by the LVMH group.
She was looking for a job in the region in the mid-1990s because her husband had set up there as a chiropodist.
By then, she had already obtained her doctorate -- her thesis was on malolactic fermentation, a complicated process where bacteria convert malic acid into lactic acid, carbon dioxide and diacetyl to produce wines which are smooth but crisp.
That pointed her toward a career in wine research, or as a consultant, but she said that in the end she decided not to follow that path "because I wanted to work in the field and make wine".
She began as an assistant to the then cellarmaster at the chateau d'Yquem, replacing him three years later when he retired after 45 years.
Garbay sees her job as being like the conductor of an orchestra, heading a team which is essentially male.
But she said she had never encountered any doubts at the chateau about her ability, nor any sexism, though she recalled -- laughing -- the old tradition in the wine regions that a menstruating woman will turn the wine sour.
She said she was convinced that "women can bring a lot to the profession", but declared firmly that she was not making any feminist demands.
"It's not my thing," she said. "I believe changes will come slowly."
The language of wine is often feminine -- a smooth wine can be called voluptuous -- and, for sturdy wines, sometimes masculine, but Garbay rejects the idea that some wines are suitable for women and others for men.
At the chateau d'Yquem, where tradition reigns supreme and the atmosphere is almost like that of an abbey, the cellarmaster says she wants to improve the "purity" of the wine while respecting the way the vines are grown.
She is not impressed by male wine experts who are into self- promotion, but says she is happy to be seen as a role-model for young women entering the profession.
"I'd like to send out the message that it's possible" to succeed, she said, adding that she would like to see her two children help to bring in the grapes at harvest time.
fj/mfo/hn/jkb/jmy AFPLifestyle-France-wine-women AFP
GetAFP 2.10 -- MAR 7, 2005 08:41:20