“Sometimes, it’s a battle here.”
I first met 31-year-old winemaker Sara Bañuelos a few days into a press trip to several wineries in the Ribera Del Duero and Rueda districts of northern Spain. By that point, I’d met with many winemakers who all relatively looked the same — males in their 40s and 50s with a bit of scruff.
The few female winemakers I did meet during the trip, women like Camino Pardo Alvarez of Bodegas Nexus, María Luisa Cuevas of Ferratus and María Pinacho of Bodegas Marqués de Velilla were inspiring in their own right. They were all bad asses with decades of wine experience who managed to make way for themselves in a male-dominated industry. However, it’s Bañuelos who’s ushering in the female-forward future of Spanish wine — as general manager of Bodegas Ramón Bilbao.
While I looked on, the bold oenologist commanded the wine tasting room, explaining to a group of 20 the company’s nearly century-long history, achievements, and current plans. At 31, Bañuelos didn’t grow up thinking she would one day lead an award-winning winery, but it may have been written in the stars for the young winemaker.
“I didn’t know I would go into the wine industry, despite wine being in my blood,” she told me, following a delicious lunch. “But my family is from Rioja, which is a premier wine region. Maybe I should have known.”
Bodegas Ramón Bilbao was founded in La Rioja in 1924, and though it produced wine in Rueda as part of a partnership with Diez Siglos, it wasn’t until last month that the wine company opened its own winery in Rueda. The company also purchased 150 acres of Rueda vineyards, with hopes of making a more dominant mark in the world of white wines.
Rueda is world-renowned as the top white wine region in Spain thanks to its indigenous Verdejo grapes, pebbly soil, and the region’s high altitude. A raised elevation means a more continental climate, providing the area with optimal weather conditions needed to grow Verdejo grapes. Bilbao’s expansion to Rueda may have given Bañuelos an opportunity to better succeed as a woman in wine. The winemaker feels Rueda, as a region, is a bit more progressive.
“I think some years ago, it was more difficult because it was a man’s world,” she notes. “But nowadays, I think mostly in the white wines, the women have more power. We are making a way. We’re more important now.”
Bañuelos officially began her career in 2011, graduating with dual Bachelor’s degrees in Oenology and Agricultural Engineering from the University of La Rioja.
“But during my studies, I was working different projects of investigation in wines, in vineyards, stuff like that,” she adds.
Bañuelos began working in several wineries in La Rioja post-graduation. She familiarized herself with the different type of wineries in the region ranging from small wineries to corporate wineries — before deciding on joining Bodegas Ramón Bilbao. Despite her knowledge and years of experience gained working in wine and the advancements women have made in the industry, Bañuelos says she still faces pushback from wine growers.
“They’re very traditional,” the young winemaker says of her fight against some wine grape growers. “Sometimes they say I’m very young. I am very young, but I studied a lot. I’m also learning everything from old people, young people… it’s sometimes a battle here.”
Former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco wholeheartedly believed in traditional gender roles when he ruled the country from 1939 until his death in 1975. During that era of female oppression, women were banned from working and owning property unless their husbands granted them permission. A Spanish woman’s job during those days was taking care of the household while her husband worked as the family protector and sole provider. If women needed money, all financial decisions were made for her by either her husband (if married) or her father (if unmarried). Spain only began moving towards equal rights when Franco died 42 years ago.
As old habits and policies die out over time, Bañuelos believes the industry is changing for the better now that traditional wine culture is starting to appreciate and understand what female winemakers offer.
“Our type of winemaking is different, and it’s more special. My position at Ramón Bilbao helps because I look at wine with another pair of eyes,” Bañuelos says with a smile. “We are trying to do more modern wines, and that means more experimenting. Women are very curious about these things. We have a different mind. We see things, and we smell things differently. Our feelings are a very significant part of it as well.”
“The Future is Female” isn’t just some cool slogan slapped on a t-shirt. It’s a progressive mantra in the world of wine — pushing the entire industry toward sustained success.
“I think the times are changing,” she adds. “We have to work together and be equal in the future. We have to be.”