#WomenInAg: Sue-Ann Staff ready to move discussion beyond gender

·3 min read

Since deciding at only 16 years old that she would one day be a winemaker, Sue-Ann Staff has made wine her life’s work.

After spending time both abroad and at home learning the craft, her youthful vision came to life when she opened Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery 12 years ago.

As a successful businessperson running her own operation, Staff has spoken at a range of events highlighting women in business.

But ultimately her participation is more out of a sense of obligation – she yearns for the day when gender is no longer the hot topic of discussion.

“It’s becoming less noteworthy, and I think that’s the goal,” she said of being a woman in viticulture and oenology. “There’s a lot more to talk about in winemaking than gender.”

Staff has witnessed the rebirth of the wine industry over her 25 years in it, from industrial-sized production to its resurgence as an agri-tourism business with the small estate and craft wineries that have become so prominent in Niagara today.

And yet, for all the industry’s growing up, she admits it’s “alarming how few women there are.” It’s noticeable at events, where men dominate the rosters and women reach out to her to say what an inspiration she is.

Staff doesn't deny that there are barriers to women entering into the wine industry. She notes the physicality involved in the industry in Canada, for one, compared to other winemaking regions in the world, which have embraced technology and made the process less labour-intensive.

But at the root of challenges facing women, she says, is the industry itself, not gender.

“It matters that you’re good at what you do,” she insisted.

At times, she’s been insulted by remarks made from mostly older men asking when her husband bought the operation for her, or even what her alimony payment looked like.

It’s the exception to her experience, however, not the rule. Rather than dwell on it, she challenges the ignorance and moves on.

“This is my own stubbornness that got me this far; this is my own energy. I say that I run on another octane level,” she remarked.

Her grandfather was a determined and adamant grape grower when Staff was growing up with her family on the farm in Jordan, where her estate now sits. It has been in the family lineage for over two centuries.

“I loved driving the equipment,” she said.

Her father was determined not to award Staff any special treatment growing up just because she was the girl on the farm.

Staff’s career success comes at the sacrifice of what she called her own personal development – she has no children and has never married.

For Staff, that’s just fine; grapes are more her thing anyways. Besides, winemaking isn’t so much a job as it is something Staff lives, eats, breathes and, of course, drinks.

Her advice for women wanting to break into the industry is no different than for men: focus on hard work and education.

After all, it’s those principles which Staff credits with getting her where she is today.

So if you decide to the visit the tasting room at Sue-Ann’s, don’t expect to find her topping up your glass. Maybe she’ll be out in the field steering a tractor, meeting with bankers, designing a marketing plan or perhaps even taking a day off – but don’t ever expect her to retire.

Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Niagara this Week