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Healdsburg winemaker Nicole Hitchcock paving a path for women in the wine industry

Healdsburg winemaker Nicole Hitchcock paving a path for women in the wine industry
Healdsburg winemaker Nicole Hitchcock paving a path for women in the wine industry 03:11

HEALDSBURG -- Among the more than 4,200 wineries in California, only 14% reported a woman as their lead winemaker, according to a study by Santa Clara University.  

But women are making huge strides in the state's fabled wine country. One of them is Nicole Hitchcock, the winemaker at J Vineyards and Winery, who was named 2022 Winemaker of the Year Wine Star Award by Wine Enthusiast magazine. 

It is through her senses that Hitchcock curates both still and sparkling wines. 

"What I am smelling for is just some early types of aromatics and flavors that are developing," she explained. 

Nicole Hitchcock checks on the vines at J Vineyards & Winery. CBS

The journey Hitchcock took to attain her position and recognition was not a walk in the park. 

"I didn't grow up in a winemaking family so I had no exposure to any of the things that a lot of wine families and those that grow up in the industry early on," she said. 

In her first few cellar jobs, Hitchcock said she had to learn the ropes from the ground up.

"Many times I was the only female on a cellar team," said Hitchcock.  "Sometimes that is really challenging because you get assigned the jobs nobody else wants to do."

She quickly gained knowledge of an important life skill: To be an advocate for herself. 

"I had to prove myself, really, to continue to move up," stated Hitchcock. 

Hitchcock uses her years of expertise to guide the buds on J's property into bottles in their Bubble Room. 

"Each of the wines are like my own little children and watching them grow, mature and age is so gratifying," said Hitchcock. 

That gratification, though, comes at a cost that many working women face.  

"I have had my moments where the hours have been long and there is definitely the pressure on the family front," said Hitchcock.  "But for me, I think winemaking takes a special kind of resilience that you must push through that end result is totally worth it."

J's brand team, wine club, tasting room and winemaking are all run by women.  While the company is also women-founded and women-led, female participation drops off when it comes to head winemaking and winery leadership roles.   

It is a space Hitchcock believes the industry already has the talent for, it will just take time and focus to see the numbers go up.

"Women are inherently very creative and they are incredible tasters," said Hitchcock.  "I think their perception of wines is really strong. I think we are also equipped to work hard, which is something that is absolutely a requirement in this industry."

As Hitchcock has shown in her career, it is grit, the skill of taste, and a high level of creativity are what make women a powerful influence on California winemaking. 

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