Penfolds senior winemaker Steph Dutton finds solace and inspiration in female role models within the industry

She urges people to look towards women as champions of progression.

Dutton joined the Penfolds red winemaking team in 2010 (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/The Edge)

Figuring out one’s calling in life is perhaps the greatest challenge and milestone of a lifetime, and few hit bullseye on the first try. Steph Dutton, senior winemaker at Australian winemaking behemoth Penfolds, will confidently tell you this is precisely the case for her.

“When you’re considering career options after finishing school, you think of the standard medicine, arts, commerce or law.” She eventually opted to pursue a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne, specialising in genetics for her honours project.

One might wonder how wine entered the picture then. Well, the “aha” moment came unexpectedly in the form of a side job.

“Like many other uni students, I worked part-time in hospitality,” Dutton recalls. “I found myself preferring to go to my restaurant shift more than class. There was a time when I was enjoying working with so many beautiful wines that I even skipped class.”

Wanting to delve deeper into the rich history and depth of oenological offerings, she started enrolling in short courses — four- to eight-week programmes that entailed a weekly evening class, attended mainly by the average wine lover just looking for a fun pasttime. And that still wasn’t enough.

“I got to the end of it and was ready to do the next one, but the little wine school I was going to said, ‘That’s all we have’. The people there suggested that if I was so interested in wine, I should consider it at university.”

“It was then I realised I didn’t have much passion for what I was studying at the time, and wanted to turn this hobby of mine into a career.”

And so upon graduating at the age of 22, she left life in the laboratory behind and relocated to Adelaide, home to about half of the country’s wineries, to do her master’s in oenology, before officially joining the Penfolds red winemaking team in 2010. She had previously worked at the Penfolds Cellar Door since 2007.

Dutton’s unique introduction to the world of fine wine plays a key role in her perception of the drink and how it should be approached.

“I love how my entry to winemaking was through the hospitality industry. It can be quite clinical when you’re picking up samples in the winery at the tasting bench. Wines are not meant to be drunk that way, but with company at an occasion, maybe a special one. It is such a beautiful talking point, the same way food is. You go over to someone’s house and they entertain you, telling you all about the wines and dishes they’ve selected for you.”


Technology has become a vital component at the winery (Photo: Penfolds)

After nearly 17 years at Penfolds, Dutton has seen the fine wine landscape shift and evolve. While many shy away from change, she has come to embrace it as part of the business’ progression into the modern age. Technology has become a vital component at the winery — Dutton notes robots are utilised to manage the labour aspect — significantly reducing the amount of physical toiling winemakers need to carry out.

Technology also enables Penfolds to stay true to its sustainability plan. Instead of transporting wine around the land by water, the winery now uses a gas pressure system to reduce waste. Wastewater is then funnelled out to the vineyards and even golf courses in the area. The brand is also known for working with old vine material — a feat Dutton lists as one of the “most rewarding aspects of the job” — and owns some of the world’s oldest continually producing cabernet vines.

This, combined with the Penfolds Evermore campaign — which includes the distribution of A$1 million (RM3.1 million) in grants to community initiatives around the world — pushes the label to the forefront of F&B sustainability and closer to its goal of complete carbon neutrality by 2030.

That said, Dutton and her fellow winemakers remain committed to the personal touch that makes fine wine so special.

“I think technology can enhance how you go about things,” she remarks. “But if it involves buying a piece of artwork, most people would prefer to spend their money on something with a human element, something that carries a craft honed over decades. I think that applies a lot to wine.”

It would be amiss to speak of innovation and not include the people behind the development, namely the many women, like Dutton, who have lent their skills and expertise to the field. While the business may not be as inherently patriarchal as similar lines of work, female winemakers still face the same challenges countless career women everywhere encounter regularly.

Starting and nurturing a healthy family is an everyday practice that requires consistent time and effort, which Dutton notes was hard to juggle with her job, particularly in the vintage season when long, gruelling hours at the winery checking on the vineyards and tasting up to 200 samples a day are the norm.

“I’ve got two little ones, three and six years old,” she smiles. “Working out how to create reasonable hours during seasonal work to support better family lives was hard, not just for myself, but all my team members.”

Even with the occasional odds stacked against them, Dutton finds solace and inspiration in the growing community of female winemakers, and hopes those entering the industry will find they can lean on those around them, as she has.

“I think that women in the industry have a wonderfully tight-knit connection with one another. My one piece of advice [to newcomers] would be to make sure you embed yourself in that network and embrace it. When you forge those relationships with female colleagues, everything becomes so much easier.”

Lastly, she urges people to look towards women as champions of progression, but also to “bring male colleagues along” for the journey. Ultimately, the gender gap has been etched into our way of life over generations, and can only be holistically overcome by community-wide participation by men and women alike.

This article first apeared on Mar 4, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


Follow us on Instagram