The art of blending Champagne and other fine sparkling wines can take months, as winemakers gather to taste hundreds of lots of still wine to determine the perfect cuvee. For Pauline Lhote, Director of Winemaking at Chandon California in Napa Valley, assembling the blend is one of the most important times of the year, along with harvest. Yet trying to accomplish all of her winemaking tasks while being pregnant is a challenge that only other female winemakers can understand, but Lhote has managed the process twice now with ease and success.
“For me, both pregnancies were good,” announced Lhote in an interview. “I had a lot of support from Chandon and my all female winemaking team. It has been quite rewarding to see my team grow and make decisions, and we have established a stronger sense of trust.”
Lhote has two sons; 5-month old Nathan, who was born this past October and 28-month old Arnaud, born in November. “My husband and I tried to plan the births to occur after harvest, and we were so fortunate that the timing worked out” said Lhote. “Since sparkling wine harvests run from July to August, I was able to supervise the harvests. I was pregnant, but comfortable enough to work.”
She admits that Chandon, headquartered in France, with sparkling wineries in six different countries, would have supported her if she had to miss harvest. However, it was her personal choice to plan the pregnancies around the harvest and blending seasons. “Missing harvest for one year wouldn’t have been that difficult, but then I would miss all of the birthdays after that. I want to be present for their birthday parties and not have to worry about all of the night picks and fermentations that occur during harvest.”
Managing the Winemaking Seasons While Pregnant
The work year in a sparkling winery is distinctive in that each season heralds a set of unique tasks. January to March is a time of blending the cuvee from last year’s harvest; April to June is busy with vineyard visits and preparing equipment for the next harvest; July to August are devoted to harvest (sparkling wine grapes are picked earlier than red wine grapes, which are usually harvested in September/October in Napa Valley); and September to December are focused on meeting with customers, distributors and the very busy sales season of OND (Oct/Nov/Dec), when the large majority of sparkling wine sales occur.
“We have a team of 15 people in the winery,” said Lhote, “including our female cellar and lab managers, two female associate winemakers and one female enologist. Interestingly, all of my direct reports are women, and our Global President of Maison Chandon and US Vice President of Core Bubbles are women.”
Lhote planned her schedule so that she could take four month off after harvest and return to the winery for the important blending season. “We make 25 different wines here at Chandon California,” said Lhote. “To create the sparkling cuvees we taste and blend around 180 lots over a period of six to eight weeks.”
A sensitive issue for pregnant female winemakers is the need to taste the different wine lots to create the blend. “I chose not to drink alcohol while pregnant,” reported Lhote. Therefore she breastfed her sons for several months after the birth, and when she returned to the winery for the blending season, she used the professional technique of tasting and spitting the wine.
“I was fortunate in that being pregnant did not impact my sense of smell or taste,” said Lhote, which is sometimes the case for some women while pregnant.
During the four months she was at home, Lhote relied on her team. “They could contact me if they needed, but I wanted to give them time to grow and give them responsibility. When I was gone they reported to my boss, Stephane de Meurville, our General Manager of Chandon California. Also Chandon has a close-knit community of winemakers around the world, so my associate winemakers knew they could tap into that group at any time they needed help.”
One worry some female executives have about taking time off for children is the concern that someone could replace them while gone, but Lhote was not worried. “I was not nervous because I’ve had those conversations with my mentors at Chandon, and I knew they would support me.”
The Silver-Lining of Covid – Bringing Families into the Work Light
Like many companies, Chandon has a work at home policy, as well as childcare support for women who need it. Since she is originally from France, Lhote and her husband decided to hire a French nanny to watch their children.
“Even though we have someone at home to help care for the children,” said Lhote, “on the days I work from home, I often feed the baby a bottle during Zoom business calls, though I do turn the camera off when I change his diaper.”
“In a way,” said Lhote, “Covid has helped us to have better work/life balance. Now it is more acceptable to work from home, and everyone has had to share their personal life during Covid. Businesses now acknowledge that people have a personal life, and men are acknowledging how hard it is for women to juggle everything. And there are also many men, like my husband, who help with the children as well.”
The Champagne Legacy of Strong Female Leadership
Given that March 8 is International Women’s Day, it is only fitting to remember some of the other great women who have contributed to the world of sparkling wine. Indeed there is a legacy of strong women running many of the great Champagne Houses, such as Veuve Clicquot, Madame Bollinger, and Madame Pommery.
When asked about her advice to women who want to enter the wine industry, and follow in the footsteps of these inspiring grand dames, Lhote responded, “As a woman, I think it is important to be assertive, to believe in yourself. Don’t be afraid of hard work, starting in the vineyard, then the cellar to get hands-on experience. Also to find people in the company to support you, mentor you, and be an ally. Mentors can be both women and men.”
She paused for a minute, and then concluded, “It is no longer a taboo to have children, and still be a successful executive.” Indeed, it appears that Pauline Lhote is an example of a female executive who has managed to successfully blend motherhood and winemaking, and to have a healthy work-life balance.
In the meantime, Lhote is enjoying being back at the winery in person, while still working from home two or three days a week. She is also busy preparing for Chandon California’s 50th anniversary in 2023.
“Chandon is excited to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year,” said Lhote, “and has embarked on a beautiful and ambitious brand home renovation in honor of this historic milestone. Initial landscaping changes have already begun, and renovations to the visitor center buildings may begin as early as this summer.”