Exile in Guyville: Winemaker Christina Musto Tells it Like it Is

When Christina Musto talks about wine making, expertise flows so effortlessly from her lips you know immediately you’re in the presence of a rock star. And that she is. At 32, Christina is a force to be reckoned with in the wine industry. She holds a Hybrid Executive MBA in Wine Business from Sonoma State University’s School of Business and Economics, sits on the Board of the Suisun Valley Vintners & Growers Association, is a founding member of Women Winemakers of CT, and is positioned as the 3rd generation leader who will carry forward the family business, Musto Wine Grape Company. Her abundance of innate intelligence has clearly played a role in her career, but so has her undeniable passion for a traditionally male dominated industry that is not exactly clamoring to hand the keys to the kingdom to women. Especially Millennial women.

On the day of our interview, I drove with my son for an hour from Fairfield, CT to Hartford, where I found myself pulling into a dusty industrial complex with a large container pulled up to a loading dock that said “Musto Wine Grape Co – Now Taking Orders for California Season.” The loading dock itself is appointed invitingly with wine barrels, a potted ancient grape vine, antique grape crushers, and other supplies welcoming visitors to a spotless, well organized store offering everything you need to make your own wine. “These crushers belonged to my grandfather,” Christina said with a smile, patting the worn red antique equipment with obvious affection. Her Great Grandfather immigrated from Italy and started a produce business in New Haven. Her Grandfather followed suit, opening a produce company in Hartford, and began bringing in grapes. He eventually sold his company to a Canadian company, but her father hated answering to the new ownership, and bought it back. When Christina was 14, her parents took her and her younger sister to the French countryside, where they experienced family farms that sold wine in an unfamiliar way. “You just took an empty jug, filled it up, and paid, I don’t know, maybe 5 Euros? My Dad was amazed, that was the spark that led to our vineyards in California.” Today, Musto Wine Grape Company owns 65 acres in Suisun Valley, with a dizzying array of grape varieties. Christina beams as she rattles them off to me: “Let’s see. We have Clones of Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Merlot, Barbera, San Giovese, Savignon Blanc, Malbec, Petite Verdot and Muscat Cannellini.” Christina’s leadership role makes her bi-coastal - she spends a total of about two months out of the year at the California vineyards.

 

Three generations on the dock: Christina, her Grandfather and Father

During our interview over lunch, Christina revealed that her pedigree in the industry does very little to protect her from its rampant sexism. “I’ve stood on our loading dock with my father telling other men in the industry that I was taking over the family business and had them literally look me up and down, turn their backs on me without a word, and say to him ‘What? No boys?’” She smiles broadly for a moment, before pointing her finger at my notebook. “You can write that down,” she said, and I see the unmistakable look that flickers across her face throughout our interview. Every woman in business knows this look, because we’ve rehearsed it and executed it to stay in the game another day. Christina’s sunny disposition and charm stay intact, because she’s learned that it must – but something is different. Her jaw tenses, her smile quivers in an attempt to dissipate, but she holds it right there, like a boss.  There is a sense of an ocean of acumen and potential that have been held back by a retaining wall, unable to surge to the shore. There is evidence of the accumulation of tiny indignities suffered at board room tables as an idea is claimed by a man as their own, a suggestion dismissed with a humiliating wave of the hand, a basic concept mansplained condescendingly to a woman who holds an advanced degree and years of experience in the field. By the end of our conversation I realize, like so many industries, the brave few Baby Boomer and Gen X females who have blazed trails in wine making will pass on the scythe to the next generation of Millennials. The path needs to be wider, and there are miles to go. Christina Musto is all over it.

 

Founding Members of Women Winemakers of CT. Left to right, Kristen Parsons, Maureen MacDonald, Amanda Bracket, Christina Musto

Christina and her female comrades in the business are beginning to utilize an effective two-pronged strategy for rising in an industry whose powers-that-be don’t allow women to fulfill their potential or contribute their talents freely to the evolution of the craft.  1) Participate in the Old Boys’ Club because your presence alone has impact and 2) Create Your Own Professional Organization, so you can freely exchange knowledge and get shit done.

As a member of the Board of the Suisun Valley Vintner’s & Growers Association, a 97% male organization, “I learned very quickly to stay quiet, that if I have an idea and wanted it to see the light of day, it had to be done behind the scenes.” Her presence alone as the first woman on the board, now joined by her friend and colleague as one of two women out of twelve board members, is a major shift. The men on this board have a lot of wisdom to share, a benefit to her career, and she freely recognizes this. 

To balance this reality, Christina co-founded an organization that bypasses the old guard entirely – a woman-only industry organization.  In 2014, she joined a fellow winemaker for beers and shared frustrations about the realities of being a woman in the business. We thought “There are enough of us, let’s just create something of our own,” Christina said. A few more founding members joined soon after. Today, Women Winemakers of CT has 25 members with winemaking operations in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “Our ultimate goal is to raise enough money to send a woman to school for either a wine business or viticulture degree. Every time we get together for a meeting I feel so inspired, empowered and ready to take on the world. I love these women and their willingness to work hard, be true to themselves, and create something beautiful.”

 

Women Winemakers of CT 

When I ask what women have brought to the industry already, she said “Women are much more adventurous wine makers than men. We experiment more with blends. I think it’s because women are super tasters. Our taste buds detect a wider range of tastes, so we’re not afraid of the complexity involved.” She mentioned that women’s wines are often described using “feminine” words like “delicate.” There is nothing wrong with delicacy, she said, but it can be annoying when it’s so overtly a gender reference to the wine maker. When asked about her overall prospectus on the industry, Christina flashes her mega watt smile. “I’m so excited about the wine industry right now. It’s exploding.” She knows Millennials are drinking wine like crazy, and there is a lot of demand ahead. She also knows she and the Women Winemakers of CT are forging a path for other women, just like her female professors and mentors at Sonoma State University did for her. “I’ve noticed a trend that a lot of women in the industry are committing to teaching outside of work, and it’s great to see. They want to share knowledge, to open doors to other women.”

We’ll drink to that! 

----------------------------------------------------------

Thirsty for more? Click the Links Below!

Women Winemakers of CT FB Page: https://www.facebook.com/womenwinemakersofct 
- WWofCT in Winemaker Magazine: 
- WWofCT in American Wine Society Magazine:
- SVVGA - http://svvga.com/
-  Musto Wine Grape website - http://www.juicegrape.com/
- Musto Wine Grape Blog - blog.juicegrape.com
- Lanza-Musto grapes blog - https://lanzamustovineyards.com/page/1/ 
- Personal Blog: https://threadsandvino.net/