The California wine industry is a stomping ground for powerful women. LINDA MURPHY profiles 10 women who have helped put the state's wines on the map.
It may be impolite to ask a woman her age, but if she’s one of Decanter’s 10 most influential women in California wine, you certainly don’t need to hesitate before calling her by her first name. Everyone else does, because like Cher and Madonna, the 30- to 60-plus-somethings on the list are household names to those who follow wine. We may not actually know them, but we talk about them as if they lived next door: Zelma is now making wine in South Africa; Gina has a new magazine ad out; Heidi is getting ready to blend the next vintage of Screaming Eagle. Zelma Long, Gina Gallo and Heidi Peterson Barrett, along with Jamie Davies, Merry Edwards, Carole Meredith, Margrit Biever Mondavi, Ann Noble, Michaela Rodeno and Helen Turley, are the familiar names who have had such an impact. As makers, growers, company presidents, researchers and teachers they’ve been successful as individuals while collectively clearing the way for other women to enter the field. A few are in the twilight of their careers, others are just hitting their stride. Each is passionate, focused and self-directed. Each wishes to be judged not as a woman in wine, but as a wine professional.
Of course, no ‘top 10’ list can be definitive, and in such a dynamic industry and region, there are many successful women who deserve a top 10 place – or will do soon: Kathy Corison, Dawnine Dyer, Alice Waters, Mia Klein and Judy Jordan, to name but a few.
HEIDI PETERSON BARRETT
Barrett, who put Screaming Eagle, Grace Family and Dalla Valle in the collectible Cabernet spotlight, recently spoke at a seminar on California’s next cult wines. Which new star would she introduce? Which client had landed one of Napa Valley’s most sought-after winemakers? ‘I showed La Sirena,’ Barrett says. ‘I promoted my own label. What a concept.’
La Sirena (The Mermaid) is 350 cases each of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, with a 2000 Syrah on the way. Barrett founded La Sirena in 1994, at the height of her freelance winemaking career. Meanwhile, her knack for producing rich, elegant, collectible Cabernets for a host of clients was making her a star and drawing raves from critic Robert Parker. Yet the grind of working with clients in multiple locations had begun to wear on Barrett, who often felt as though she lived in her car. She has recently stepped back from the daily winemaking duties at Grace but will continue to consult there. ‘Grace’s readiness for an on-site winemaker coincided with my desire to do other things.’ Barrett, whose current client list includes Screaming Eagle, Paradigm, Jones Family, Showket, Barbour and Lamborn, is the daughter of winemaker Dr Richard G Peterson. She fell in love with her father’s work while growing up in the Napa Valley, obtained an oenology degree from UC Davis, then got her boots wet at a handful of wineries before signing on as winemaker at Buehler at age 25. After six years there and the birth of her two daughters, Barrett needed more flexibility and found it as a freelance winemaker. While she continues to make wine for selected clients, Barrett is devoting more time to La Sirena, to painting and gardening, and to her husband Bo Barrett (winemaker at Chateau Montalena) and daughters Remi and Chelsea. ‘I don’t want to miss any more softball games,’ Barrett says.
It was 1965 when Jamie and Jack Davies assembled a group of friends and supporters to celebrate their first crush at Schramsberg Vineyards. They’d worked tirelessly to get the 100-year-old, run-down facility in working order, and now it was time to push the button that started the crusher. She pushed. Nothing happened. From the back of the room boomed the voice of legendary Beaulieu Vineyard oenologist André Tchelistcheff: ‘Madame, your duty is clear.’ Says Davies: ‘I knew at that moment that I needed to go stomp the grapes. I took off my shoes and socks and went to work.’
The party continued, the grapes got crushed and the Davies went on to establish their Calistoga winery as the first American sparkling wine house to use Champagne methods and grape varieties. It would be eight years before Domaine Chandon joined the challenge of making traditional method sparkling wine in Napa Valley.Davies and her husband, who died in 1998, struggled to perfect their craft while renovating the former Jacob Schram property, made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book The Silverado Squatters. Jamie brought in the world’s best chefs to create meals matched to the wines and cooked a meal or two herself for Julia Child, James Beard and Jacques Pepin. The Davies knew they’d made it in 1972, when President Richard Nixon took Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs to the Toast to Peace state dinner in China for Premier Chou En-lai. TV reporter Barbara Walters clutched a bottle of the wine during her live report from Beijing.Jamie Davies’ duty is still clear. She has extended Schramsberg’s viticultural reach from Napa into Sonoma, Mendocino, Monterey and Marin counties, and has signed a minority partnership deal with Duckhorn that will further increase Schramsberg’s grape sources. She created the Querencia Brut Rose, from which profits go to the Jack L Davies Agricultural Preservation Fund; she is working with growers in Portugal to produce sparkling wine there; she made her son, Hugh, general manager and winemaker; and planted Cabernet Sauvignon on the estate, which lies in the newly approved Diamond Mountain AVA.Though Davies is entering the Napa Cab game cautiously, trading her fruit in exchange for Carneros Pinot Noir, she is leaving her options open to one day produce a Schramsberg Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. Tchelistcheff would approve.
The number plate on her car reads REINEPN – Queen Pinot. Though too humble to have chosen this plate for herself – it was a gift from a friend – Edwards has earned it. Throughout her 28-year winemaking career, all of Edwards’ wines have been very good, but her Pinots have been spectacular. To think she was once considered a heretic.’A lot of people did laugh at me in the beginning,’ Edwards says. The snickering began in 1977, when Meredith ‘Merry’ Edwards visited the University of Dijon to view its clonal research. She returned convinced that clonal diversity was the key to complex wines. Edwards planted seven Chardonnay clones at Sonoma County’s Matanzas Creek Winery in 1978. She made separate wine lots from those clones, tracked their evolution, showed them at seminars and, ever so slowly, began converting the naysayers. No one is laughing now. California winemakers are all abuzz about clones, particularly the Dijon selections of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir now available in the States. They have Edwards to thank for much of the work.Edwards, who earned a master’s degree in oenology from Davis in 1973, also had an uphill battle before landing her first winemaking job, at Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. ‘No one thought a woman could drag hoses,’ she says. ‘Everyone thought a woman’s role was as a lab technician.’
After three years at Mount Eden, in 1977 Edwards became the first winemaker at Matanzas Creek, staying until 1984. She then became a consultant, most notably for Pelligrini Family Vineyards, for whom she has made the acclaimed Olivet Lane Pinot Noir since 1991. Using grapes from Olivet Lane, Dutton Ranch and other Russian River Valley vineyards, Edwards launched her own Merry Edwards brand in 1997. In 1998, she experienced her greatest career thrill – planting her own Pinot Noir vineyard, the 24-acre (10ha) Meredith Vineyard Estate in the Russian River Valley.’What you can do when you own your own vineyard is amazing,’ she says. ‘You have complete control. You choose the soil, the rootstock, the clones, the water the vines get, the crop load. Pinot Noir is made in the vineyard; if you don’t have the right material to start, you have one hand tied behind your back.’ With both hands now free, Edwards is developing another Pinot Noir site, with husband Ken Coopersmith, near Meredith Vineyard. ‘It’s been worth the wait.’
Trying to get Gina Gallo to define her achievements is like trying to get blood out of a stone. ‘I’m just fortunate to be tied to the family winery,’ she says, ‘and anything I’ve done has come naturally because I’ve grown up with it – living it and feeling it.’ The youngest woman on our list, at 34, Gallo’s accomplishments belie her modest statement that she’s merely ‘scratching the surface’. As well as being winemaker at Gallo of Sonoma, she is an active ambassador for Gallo and for California wine in general, travelling the globe to present her wines to buyers and restaurateurs.Founded by Ernst and her grandfather Julio in 1933, the Gallo company has expanded since then to become one of the world’s largest wine producers. With this reputation as a mass-producing colossus and a history of making straightforward, inexpensive, jug-style wine since the end of Prohibition, it is no mean feat that Gina has managed to extend the Gallo image upwards on the quality scale. Alongside the basic ranges, she has introduced the Gallo of Sonoma wines – single vineyard, estate-bottled, handcrafted wines which have won respect in the world wine industry and numerous awards. She is also the well-known face of the Gallo advertising campaign, often seen leaning out of her red pick-up truck in the vineyards.So what makes her tick? ‘More than being driven by goals, I’m driven by life; by leaving the world a better place in some way. I will have succeeded if I can look back at 90 and say: “Yes, I’m leaving this a better place.” To me, that’s top of the list. I also want to invest time in my family, our staff and the community.’Gallo feels strongly that women make natural winemakers. ‘It’s a natural instinct for women to care and to juggle. Tending a family and keeping it together takes patience, trial and error – qualities that are vital in winemaking. It’s very humbling as tasting and waiting are a big part of your life. It’s all about understanding the vineyard, watching it evolve, creating the wine and then ageing it. Even when you capture it and put the cork in, it’s still evolving.’A Gallo press release describes her winemaking style as ‘bold and sensual’. The latter is a very female adjective to use and would she agree with this definition? ‘I probably wouldn’t say sensual, no, but bold, yes, because I love wines that are expressive, personality-driven. Wines that bring out the best of the soil and the winemaker.’
And what does the future hold? ‘I’d like to have children and combining that with my career will be a challenge. The other challenges are in my winemaking. My goal is to master wine, but you never do. My grandfather said to me: “Whenever you feel you’ve mastered the art of winemaking, hand over the baton.” If you’re not challenged, you’re complacent and you’ll never improve. I’m right at the beginning.’
Since 1968, when she became the second woman to enroll in the UC Davis oenology program, Zelma Long’s rise in the industry has been meteoric, her mark indelible. Though last alphabetically, Zelma is usually the first to be mentioned in a discussion of women in Californian wine. The highlights of her extensive career include nine years in the winemaking department at Robert Mondavi Winery (1970–79); winemaker and co-owner, with then-husband Bob Long, of Long Vineyards in Napa Valley (1977 to present); winemaker,
president and CEO of Simi Winery (1979–1990), where she resuscitated the ailing Sonoma County brand; and executive vice president of Moet-Hennessy California Wineries in 1996, after Moet-Hennessy/Louis Vuitton had acquired Simi and Domaine Chandon. She retired from LVMH on December 31 1999 after 20 years of service.So much for retirement. In the late 1990s, Long and her husband, viticulturist Dr Phillip Freese, started their own company, Zelphi Wines. They seek out winemaking opportunities and partnerships throughout the world. Their current projects include Simunye Winery in South Africa, in which they are partners with Michael Back of Backsberg Estate, and Sibyl Winery in Nahe, Germany, where they make Riesling with Dr Monika Christmann, chair of the oenology department at the Geisenheim Research Institute.’Phil and I both started in Napa when Napa was young and we’ve seen similar opportunities to make great wines, particularly in South Africa and Germany,’ says Long. ‘We love our business, love the challenges – they’re incredibly rewarding.’
Long continues to advise those seeking careers in wine. ‘When I started at Mondavi, I was so focused that I wasn’t seen as a risk. It wasn’t like anyone was taking a chance on me,’ she says. ‘Still, women today have incredible opportunities that they didn’t have 20 and 30 years ago. Every young woman should have a sense of possibility, a sense that she can do whatever it is she wants to do in this business.’
DR CAROLE MEREDITH
The woman who shocked the wine world by revealing that the noble Chardonnay grape had a genetic skeleton in its closet – the mediocre and nearly extinct Gouais Blanc grape – has another surprise. Meredith, UC Davis professor and one of the world’s most respected plant geneticists, has, rather quietly, been growing her own grapes in the Napa Valley with her husband, Stephen Lagier.So what does a grapevine expert plant in the land of Cabernet? Syrah. Four acres (1.6ha) of it on a stunning 84-acre (34ha) Mount Veeder property 1,300 feet (400m) above the Napa Valley floor. ‘It took us a few years to figure out what to plant,’ Meredith recalls. ‘We had been to the northern Rhône in 1991 and loved the wines. We knew we would need to be passionate about whatever we planted and that it had to have an excellent chance of doing well. We chose Syrah.’
Meredith has used DNA fingerprinting to trace Chardonnay’s parentage, determine that Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, and confirm that America’s Zinfandel and Italy’s Primitivo grapes are the same variety. Her work allows growers to be certain of the varieties in their vineyards and gives geneticists help in preserving old grape varieties and developing new ones. Part of her impact, Meredith says, has been in encouraging international dialogue on the subject. In 2000, the French government agreed by awarding Meredith its Ordre du Mérite Agricole.Meredith was born in Wales, moved to Northern California with her family when she was 11 and eventually enrolled at UC Davis, earning a degree in biology. She returned for her PhD in genetics in 1977. ‘I wasn’t real interested in wine at the time,’ she says, ‘but I’d met Steve while he was getting his master’s in oenology and we decided to move to Napa and start looking for vineyard property.’Once they’d found it, Meredith and former Mondavi winemaker Lagier planted Syrah on their steeply sloped hillside. They produced their first release of Lagier Meredith Syrah from the 1998 vintage. ‘It’s one thing, as an academic, to tell people what to do, and quite another to do it yourself and do it with your own money,’ Meredith says. ‘Owning this vineyard has given me a better understanding of what my students are so passionate about; what drives them.’
MARGRIT BIEVER MONDAVI
At 70-something, Margrit Biever has experienced a fair bit of scepticism as a woman in wine during her career. Born in Switzerland and with years of travel behind her, when the future second wife of Robert Mondavi arrived in Napa, she immediately knew she wanted to stay. ‘It just smelt right,’ she says. ‘Eucalyptus, rosemary, mustard, roses and that wonderful, earthy smell of vineyards. It felt like home.’Her entrée into the wine world stemmed from her love of culture, particularly art and music, passions she has never left behind her. She persuaded Charles Krug winery (home to both Mondavi brothers before Bob left in 1966 to set up on his own) to provide a venue for a concert she was helping to organise in 1963, and it was such a success that the then PR director asked her to work at the winery giving tours. ‘I was fresh, interested and read everything I could about wine. That’s how I got into the business.’ Her all-male colleagues were sceptical until the accountant announced that she had sold the most wine off the back of these tours for two months running. ‘They really hated me after that!’When Bob left, the systems changed and it wasn’t any fun any more, so I went back to my painting until joining the Mondavi winery,’ she recalls. That was in 1967. Since then, Biever has made the winery a cultural and culinary centre. She developed the well-known Summer Music Festival and the Festival of Winter Classical Concerts and created a gallery for all the fine arts, supporting talented, unknown artists as well as more established ones. On the culinary side, Biever brought French and American chefs to the winery on the Great Chefs programme and is now helping to found the new American Centre for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa. ‘Back then the US didn’t have a culture of gastronomy. There was a small percentage of believers in food/wine harmony, but the rest we had to convert. The French chefs tasted our Californian wines with scepticism and were fascinated – every one of them introduced those wines into their restaurants after that, even if they weren’t on the first page of the wine list.’So does she intend to take things easy from now on? ‘Oh no. I never think of retiring. What I still want to achieve is to be more involved with the aesthetic decisions at the winery. I’d like to bring back more earthiness, rather than going for the slick approach.’
DR ANN NOBLE
For a quarter of a century, UC Davis’ viticulture and oenology students have taken Ann Noble’s courses on the sensory science of wine. Because a majority of California’s winemakers are products of Davis, it’s safe to say that Noble has trained many of them on how to smell, taste and describe the wines they make. Factor in the thousands of people who have used her Wine Aroma Wheel to help them talk about wine and this soon-to-retire professor will have left behind quite a legacy.Noble was the first female faculty member in the Davis oenology department, arriving in 1974 after earning a PhD in food science at the University of Massachusetts. Though sensory science is complex, she taught her students, very simply, to ‘listen to their noses’. Because taste buds can detect only bitter, sour, salty and sweet, the wine flavours we think we taste are actually odours that reach our noses when we hold the wine in our mouth. We remember these odours by associating them with something in our memory, like the Zinfandel that smells just like Grandma’s blackberry jam or the Sauvignon Blanc that smells like a freshly mown lawn. The Wine Aroma Wheel, which Noble developed in the mid-1980s, provides a common vocabulary for describing what we smell in wine.Are women better evaluators of wine, as some believe? ‘No is my standard answer,’ she says. ‘It’s not a matter of gender but rather of people having sensory experiences and memories and being able to process the information. Some people, like chefs, are probably better evaluators because they’ve been trained to remember what they smell and taste.’Noble is due to retire from UC Davis in April 2002. ‘I’m going to hike in the mountains and find a way to be a visiting professor, a lecturer or a consultant,’ she says. ‘I may be retired, but I’m not going to let myself get bored.’
What does one do with a French Literature degree from Davis, the foremost oenology school in America? Rodeno found a way to combine French culture and winemaking into a career as an executive with two French-owned winemaking companies in the Napa Valley – Domaine Chandon, the sparkling wine producer founded by Moet-Hennessy (now LVMH) in 1973, and St Supery, a still-wine producer owned by Groupe Skalli.A few years out of college and with no real career direction, Rodeno found herself in Napa, thanks to a job her attorney husband, Greg, took with a law firm there. She became a tour guide at Beaulieu Vineyard and was, as Rodeno recalls, ‘surprised to learn that I was the first female to have the job.’She soon heard that Moet-Hennessy wanted to build a Napa Valley sparkling wine house and had hired John Wright to begin the process. ‘It took me weeks to find John and when I did, I said: “I speak French and you must need help.”’ He did and together they began building Domaine Chandon, which opened in April 1977. By 1988, Domaine Chandon had become a leader in the industry and Rodeno, its vice president of marketing, needed a new challenge. It came from French wine and food magnate Robert Skalli, who hired Rodeno to start his Napa Valley winery, later to be called St Supery. ‘I had a real advantage because my ability to speak French gave everyone the opportunity to relax with me,’ says Rodeno . ‘It allowed me to be open and direct. It’s not common for a woman to be a winery CEO in France, but the French seem to have accepted it here.’Rodeno, in her 13th year at St Supery, has given the brand an American face, strong leadership and a marketing campaign aimed at making wine more accessible to consumers. She’s also been effective through her work with Women for Wine Sense (an organisation that promotes wine as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle), the Napa Valley Wine Auction (which she chaired in 1998) and as a founding director of the Wine Market Council, which is charged with creating a national generic marketing campaign for wine.
Her one-sentence fax stated simply that she did not wish to participate in this story. No explanation, no apology, just no. Anyone who has worked with Helen Turley knows that she says what she means. She’s a perfectionist who calls all the shots and she makes this clear from the start. No use arguing.One can’t argue with Turley’s success, either. It initially came from the consulting winemaking business she runs with her husband, John Wetlaufer. Bryant Family, Pahlmeyer, Colgin, Landmark and Martinelli are among the client wineries that have found stardom under their guidance. Although they parted ways, former clients Peter Michael, BR Cohn and Turley Wine Cellars (owned by her brother Larry) agree that Turley made a positive impact on their wines.Lately, success has come from Turley and Wetlaufer’s own Marcassin brand – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from their Marcassin Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast near Jenner and from single vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties. Sold only to restaurants and mailing list subscribers, Marcassin wines are among the most coveted in California.The 50-something Turley’s biggest booster has been Robert Parker, who has described her as a ‘wine goddess’, ‘a genius’ and ‘North America’s finest winemaker’. Some critics grumble that her wines are too big, too alcoholic, too tannic but, nonetheless, her fans are legion. Turley has said that her wines are a blend of power and finesse. Achieving this yin-and-yang balance is a risky and expensive business. She insists on high-density plantings, low yields, harvesting at 24–25˚ Brix, whole-cluster pressing, wild-yeast fermentations, new heavy-toast French oak barrels and letting Chardonnay sit on the lees for a year. Pity the vintner who believes that hiring Turley is the fast track to Parker’s palate and big profits.