Women in Wine — Emma Thienpont
Tuesday, March 6, 2018 in News
To mark International Women’s Day 2018, Langton’s spoke to five leading women in the wine industry. Emma Thienpont began her career in the wine industry as a winemaker with vintages in France, the Napa Valley, the Yarra Valley and the Barossa.
After moving to Bordeaux, Emma, a Brisbane native, has also made the move to the commercial side of the wine industry. Today, she is Export Manager for Bordeaux negociant Crus et Domaines de France. We spoke to Emma about winemaking, the move to Bordeaux and women in the wine industry.
How did you first get into the wine industry?
My excuse for getting into the wine was hospitality. My father was in hospitality so I grew up in the hotel industry, surrounded by food and wine and the occasional winemaker. But it was a fly by the seat of my pants decision to become a winemaker.
I did Science Arts degree at Uni, I spent some time in Europe, sometimes working hotels as well. After that, I went down to Adelaide and did winemaking as a postgraduate degree. I thought the worst thing that would happen was I would come out of it and know how to make wine.
Coming from Australia, what was the biggest surprise or difference about the wine industry in Bordeaux?
The biggest surprise, or difference really, was how traditional it was. Coming from Australia, where we’re so incredibly open-minded and prepared to consider a new idea or a new way to market a product. When you look at it from a winemaking perspective, with the different rules and regulations, it’s much more strict in Bordeaux. It probably took a long time for me to accept and get my head around it.
My first experience in Bordeaux was a consultant winemaker in the laboratory in the Medoc. I was really confronted there. I had come from a country where we were making wines out of a dozen different varieties in one winery to a place where they were just doing Cabernet and Merlot, and maybe a little bit of Petit Verdot thrown in. I found it quite frustrating, to begin with, but I’ve probably come to understand it better.
I’ve come to the conclusion that all of these strict regulations are about promoting quality. At the end of the day, that’s what their objective is. They are about ensuring there is a minimum standard. So if you want to put Bordeaux appellation on your bottle when you’ve ticked all of these boxes and subscribed to these standards. This is an international brand that we're selling.
Do you have a standout wine moment?
In 2017 I was inducted into the Jurade de Saint-Emilion as a "Jurat". The Jurade, founded in 1199 and recreated in it's existing form in 1948 (it didn't survive the revolution!), promoted the development of viticulture & winemaking in Saint-Emilion for centuries. Today the Jurade promotes the wines of the region around the world. Being recognised for my contribution to the local wine industry & becoming part of this community - where I live & work - was a very special occassion for me.
As a Bordeaux negociant what’s the one piece of advice would you give to up-and-coming people in the wine industry?
What’s really important is to be ready to move and take the opportunity even if that means moving state or moving country. I spent the first three years of my wine career travelling overseas. I went to France, I went to Napa Valley and I did vintages in Australia. It’s my own opinion by I think it's important to get your Australian experience if you want to be involved in the Australian wine industry. It was always important for me to come back to Australia for that vintage.
All of those experiences really demonstrated to me how much of a multi-disciplined industry this is. That’s why I would encourage people to take the opportunities as they arise. Don’t be afraid to jump out of the box a little bit.
With regard to the women who work in the wine industry, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen since you began your career?
I studied in 2007 and even in the short time since then I’ve seen the number of female winemaking graduates has increased significantly. You can see it in the industry. You can see more producers were represented by female winemakers.
If you look around the room at a professional tasting in Bordeaux you’d feel that it’s still very male-dominated but that is changing as well. There’s a large number of women who are directors of marketing and winemakers, there’s a lot of Bordeaux winemakers who are women now.
In our office, it’s astonishing the number of people who do my role, I’m an Export Manager, there’s a lot of travel, we work long hours, it’ not very family friendly, there's a lot of pressure. It’s not a traditional role for women and yet there’s 12 women and three men who do this role. I think the men of a certain generation recognise that women of our generation have something more to offer. A different way of seeing things and a different way of interacting and a different way of solving problems and I think there’s an appreciation for that. I may find myself at a table with men only, at business dinner, but I don’t feel like I’m the only woman at the table.
You’re a successful woman in the wine industry. Who is the woman in the wine industry who has influenced you the most?
There are several. It’s really hard to pick just one. The first person who comes to mind, the person that supported me, is Susan Mickan (then) head winemaker at Jacob's Creek. She opened up the Barossa to me, which is a very male-dominated place and slightly scary for a young winemaker. She’s a successful woman in the industry, in her region.
Someone like Jancis Robinson has to be mentioned. She paved the way. Everything she was doing was well before women were invited to the table. She’s a beautiful writer, I love reading her work and we can’t underestimate what she's done for wine education. The other thing is that she’s been in the industry for a while but has managed to reinvent herself and keep ahead of the trends and remain very relevant where many others get stuck in their ways.
Explore Langton's Bordeaux portfolio here.