By all accounts, female winemakers make up approximately 10 percent of the vintners in the U.S., with many more involved in the viticulture, sales and marketing and the educational side of winery life. Distributors and brand suppliers are made up of, in a large part, female associates, as is also the case in the hotel and restaurant business. Then there are the sommeliers and masters of wine, the media, with its writers and critics we all read — there are so many facets to this business. We will touch on just a few of the stars of the wine world in this article; I wish we had room for more!
Mary Ann Graf was the first woman to graduate with a degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis in 1965. She joined Simi Winery as winemaker in 1973, an enormous step for women into the wine industry.
In 1979, Graf was followed by Zelma Long, the second female graduate from the UC Davis viticulture and enology program, who left her position as chief enologist at Mondavi to become head winemaker and vice president at Simi. This marked one of the first instances of a woman running both the winemaking and business sides of a major winery. Long eventually became president and then CEO of Simi through the ‘80s and ‘90s. During this period, Long led major renovations of the winery’s fermentation and barrel rooms with the same hurry-up spirit and personality-infused style that Isabelle Simi had demonstrated until her death at 95 in 1981.
In the late 1960s, Dick and Nancy Ponzi moved their young family from their home in Los Gatos, California and purchased 20 acres on a small farm just southwest of Portland, Oregon. Their dream? To produce world-class Pinot Noir. The Ponzis believed the climate, soil and vineyards met every need of growing the red grape of Burgundy. They planted their first Pinot Noir vines in 1970 and the first barrels of Ponzi Pinot Noir were produced in 1974.
Nancy’s accomplishments are almost too much to write about in this space but they include: co-founder of The Consumers’ Food Council, environmental lobbyist at the Oregon legislature, president of the Washington County Women’s Federation, holding various offices in the Oregon Winegrowers Association, being a founding director of both the Board of Washington County Visitors Association and the Washington County Wineries Association, being instrumental in establishing the Oregon “Wine Advisory Board, as well as co-founding ¡Salud! The Oregon Pinot Noir Auction and helping found the Oregon Pinot Camp. In 1998, she helped to found the Ponzi Wine Bar in Dundee, showcasing some of the region’s very finest wines alongside their own Ponzi wines. In 1999, The Dundee Bistro, one of the area’s most successful regional restaurants, was born under her direction. Both the wine bar and bistro have become the center of the Oregon wine country.
Nancy remains active in the Oregon wine industry while the couple’s two daughters run the business. Luisa Ponzi is a Burgundy- and Italian-trained winemaker and her sister, Maria, is the president and director of Sales and Marketing. She has been operating the company with her sister, the winemaker, for over 20 years. The winery currently produces nearly 40,000 cases annually and farms over 130 certified sustainable vineyards.
Helen Turley is best known for making some of California’s most famous cult wines. She owns a cult wine of her own now, Marcassin Vineyard, in the Sonoma Coast, which specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir is two-thirds of the production and only sold to mailing list members, at $125 a bottle. If you are not on the mailing list, the secondary market is your only hope, with prices as high as $350 or more per bottle.
Starting out in the lab of Robert Mondavi Winery in 1977, she went on to become the founding winemaker of the Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma County where she developed Les Pavots, Peter Michael’s flagship blend of red Bordeaux varietals. Up until 1995, Helen made wine for Turley Wine Cellars, which is owned by her brother, Larry. She has also worked as a consulting winemaker for a number of wineries including Colgin Cellars, KapcsÃ¡ndy Family Winery, Martinelli Winery, Pahlmeyer Winery, Blankiet Estate, Landmark Vineyards and Bryant Family.
Robert Parker has called Heidi Barrett the “First Lady of Wine.” She is the daughter of California wine pioneer Richard Peterson and is married to Bo Barrett, winemaker at Chateau Montelena. She has been responsible for some of the most famous wines ever to come out of California.
In 1983, at age 25, she became the winemaker at Buehler Vineyards. It was here that she first attracted critical acclaim. In 1988, she left Buehler to become an independent winemaker. Within a week she was hired by Gustav Dalla Valle and was making wine at Dalla Valle Vineyards until spring 1996. It was there that she took her abilities to the next level, creating some powerful yet elegant Cabernets, including the famous “Maya” cult wine, a proprietary Cabernet blend that received two perfect 100-point scores from Robert Parker in ‘92 and ‘93. She started making wine for Screaming Eagle in 1992, which also received two perfect 100-point scores, the ‘92 and ‘97. It was a six-liter Methuselah bottle of ‘92 Screaming Eagle that set a world record for the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction, selling for $500,000.
In addition to her very own wines from La Sirena, Heidi is currently the winemaker for Amuse Bouche, Paradigm, Lamborn, Kenzo Estate, Au Sommet, Vin Perdu and Fantesca. Other past winemaking clients include the Jones Family, Grace Family, Vineyard 29, David Arthur, Barbour Vineyards and Showket.
Married for over 26 years, Heidi and Bo have decided to create their own wine together, Barrett & Barrett. The result is a handcrafted, limited edition Napa Valley wine that reflects their two different, yet complementary, winemaking styles.
Heidi and Bo live in Calistoga with their two daughters, Remi and Chelsea. She also enjoys skiing, scuba diving, painting, flying helicopters and working in her garden. I bet that is a nice garden!
In the grand tradition of female winemakers at Simi Winery, Susan Lueker is now the director of winemaking. She grew up in a farming family and has said that she always wanted to be a scientist, but after studying chemistry at University of Missouri, she switched her major and graduated with a degree in child development. While attending graduate school, she changed everything again and transferred to the University of California, Davis.
After her first visit to the vineyards, she knew she wanted to be a winemaker. It touched her heart with its combination of nature and science.
After working for small and large wineries and experiencing all the idiosyncrasies of making wine, she joined the team and the history of female winemakers at Simi Winery in 2000. According to the magazine of Missouri alumni, Mizzou, her favorite pick-me-up? A sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé. “I love sparkling wine because I don’t make it, so I don’t analyze it,” she comments.
Geneviève Janssens, director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery, was born to a French family in Morocco and raised in France. Geneviève’s formal wine education began under the tutelage of the legendary “three fathers” of modern enology: Jean Ribereau-Gayon, his son Pascal Ribereau-Gayon and Emile Peynaud, with whom she studied at the University of Bordeaux, France. Geneviève moved to the Napa Valley in 1978.
She recognized in Robert Mondavi, her father’s holistic approach to quality. “It starts with the earth, the legacy of what we have received from our ancestors and what we are going to leave for the future generation. We must work to maintain the land, to grow so that we all live in symbiosis: the earth, the vines, the people – care creates quality.” She started at the Robert Mondavi Winery as a lab enologist and an assistant enologist in 1978. From there, Geneviève continued exploring California for the next decade, holding several consulting positions. She returned in 1989 when she became director of production at Opus One Winery. Then, in 1997, she came full circle as the director of winemaking at the Robert Mondavi Winery. Geneviève lives in Napa Valley with her husband, Luc, and her two children, Gabrielle and Georges.
Kimberlee Nicholls, the winemaker for Markham Vineyards, moved to California after college in Oregon, with her new husband who was from Northern California. Her desire to use her biology degree led her to Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where she began working as a lab technician. In 1993, Kimberlee joined Markham Vineyards as an enologist and became an integral part of the winemaking team. After four years of hands-on experience in the vineyards and in the winery, she was promoted to associate winemaker in 1997 and then to winemaker in 2001.
“I’m a better cook than a winemaker,” she has been heard to say — she must be a really good cook if that’s the case! Kim enjoys throwing small dinner parties for family and friends, and knows she’s nailed a blend when she’ll serve the wine with a favorite dish that she fondly remembers from her grandmother’s cooking. As the mother of two teenagers, Kimberlee instills in them the love of food, wine and family.
Gina Gallo found her calling within her family’s empire as the winemaker for Gallo Signature Series, but not until after she spent time in sales and was educated at UC Davis’ winemaking program, studying viticulture and enology. To hone her trade, she was apprenticed to 30-year winemaking veteran, Marcello Monticello, one of the most respected of the Gallo winemakers and a trusted friend of her father and grandfather. With grapes grown by her brother Matt, she makes her style of wine including Pinot Noir from Santa Lucia Highlands, Chardonnay from Russian River and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. She also produces their Chardonnay and Cabernet Estate Wines.
Marisa Taylor, winemaker for Rutherford Hill, seemed destined to find a career in winemaking. Growing up amongst the vineyards of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, she recalls visits to the vineyards to watch her godfather, a vineyard manager, work amongst the vines. She graduated from the University of California, Davis, first with a B.S. in chemistry and then an M.S. in food science-enology. With her two degrees, Marisa had the solid foundation needed to excel at top-quality artisan winemaking.
In Marisa’s previous California experiences, she learned to make many types of wine that she makes today. Her natural curiosity led her to work abroad for the harvest of 1999 at the Colognole Winery in Rufina, Italy, where she immersed herself in winemaking and learned to vinify Sangiovese. Today, Marisa is part of a talented winemaking team at the Terlato Wine Group’s Rutherford Hill Winery in Napa Valley, crafting its award-winning wines. With the rise in popularity of Merlot again, they are especially interested in re-introducing their world-class Merlot that made Rutherford Hill such a popular wine and a category leader.
She is happy, challenged and enjoys all aspects of winemaking. In her free time, Marisa enjoys quilting, gardening and entertaining family and friends.
In early 2014, Renée Ary became the fourth name on the short list of Duckhorn Vineyards winemakers that began with Tom Rinaldi in 1978. Her promotion came after 11 years as an integral member of the winemaking team, which included her roles as assistant and associate winemaker. Like the two acclaimed winemakers before her, Renée spent years working alongside her predecessors, honing her craft, refining her gifted palate and mastering the Duckhorn Vineyards style.
Today, with an approach that balances artistry, science and a deep respect for the viticultural side of winemaking, Renée guides the entire Duckhorn Vineyards portfolio. “When you work with fruit of this quality, there is no recipe or formula. My job is to let the vineyards speak and convey the soul of the wine,” says Renée.
Sarah Gott grew up in Marin County, then later in Knights Valley, a stretch of farmland and vineyards linking Napa Valley with Alexander Valley in northern Sonoma County. It was in Knights Valley that Sarah first gained an appreciation of wine that led her study in the University of California, Davis’ Viticulture and Enology Department, where she graduated in 1993 with a degree in fermentation sciences.
Later that year, Sarah began an internship, which became a full-time position at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Napa Valley. In 1997, while working at Phelps, Sarah married vintner and entrepreneur, Joel Gott, who had launched Joel Gott Wines in 1996 with Sarah as an informal winemaking consultant. Sarah remained at Phelps until 2002, eventually becoming winemaker with day-to-day responsibility for all production activities.
Sarah left Joseph Phelps to become winemaker at Quintessa, a Napa Valley winery producing a single Bordeaux-style red. Sarah and Joel had their first daughter during the harvest of 2003 and the following year, Sarah left Quintessa to focus on their growing family. The couple now has three children, including twins, Lael and James. Sarah and Joel make a great team, drawing on her winemaking skills and his creative vision for the company.
A Northern California native and graduate of U.C. Davis with a B.S. in fermentation science, Stephanie Putnam developed her passion for winemaking at an early age, thanks to her family’s appreciation of gourmet food and wine. She fondly remembers many childhood trips to the Napa Valley where her parents would go to enjoy and collect wine.
She is now the director of winemaking at Raymond Vineyards, where she oversees all aspects of winemaking for this iconic Napa Valley winery. Before joining the Boisset Family Estates team, she was part of the team at Hess Collection, where she progressed to winemaker and also spent eight years as winemaker at Far Niente Winery. Stephanie has always focused on producing high quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay and her wines have won acclaim, including recognition in the Wine Spectator’s Top 100, Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 and being named The Wine News Cabernet of the Year.
Stephanie currently resides in Napa with her two large, lovable Labradors.
Cristina Mariani-May is the family proprietor of the internationally renowned Castello Banfi vineyard estate in Montalcino, Tuscany, and co-CEO of Banfi Vintners. Together with her cousin, James Mariani, they represent the third generation of family leadership in the company founded by their grandfather, John Mariani, Sr., in 1919. Mariani-May’s personal mantra, “a pursuit of excellence,” reaches every level of the operation, from their very accomplished environmental responsibility to their heralded Brunello’s. Cristina and Castello Banfi are also very involved in furthering the research on the Brunello clone, as well the recent innovation of their new hybrid fermentation tanks. Comprised of a unique combination of a steel base and head with a wood middle section (one-third steel, two-thirds wood), the tanks combine the best of both materials by balancing the flavor and aeration supplied by oak with the temperature control, ease of use and hygiene offered by stainless steel. A hands-on mother, Cristina divides her time between Montalcino and Long Island, New York.
Carolyn Wente heads up one of California’s most famous wine families. As fourth generation winegrower and chief executive officer, Carolyn works with fourth and fifth generation family members and company executives to continue the growth of Wente Family Estates and their portfolio of wines. So far reaching are Carolyn’s accomplishments that she was chosen as one of the honorees for the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World in 2002.
Since joining the business in the early ‘80s, she has also been instrumental in the development of the Wente family’s lifestyle business, including the opening of the Wente Vineyards Restaurant and Visitors Center in 1986. Under Carolyn’s direction, The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards has become a culinary destination continuously rated among the top ten restaurants in the East Bay. The Concerts at the Vineyard entertainment series followed, featuring concerts by world-renowned artists. Now, each summer, over 10,000 of San Francisco Bay Area concertgoers come to Wente Vineyards in the Livermore Valley to enjoy spectacular evenings of wine, food and world-class entertainment. On July 15, 1998, Carolyn hit the ceremonial first golf ball at the opening of The Course at Wente Vineyards, created by the Wente family and beautifully located in the midst of the vineyards. The 18-hole championship golf course was designed by Australian golfing great, Greg Norman and offers exciting challenges to both male and female golfers.
Carolyn makes her home in the scenic Livermore Valley with her husband, Buck Layton, and their son Buck, IV.
Wendy Nyberg has more than 27 years of experience in almost every aspect of the wine industry. She started her career as a college student at a new, up-and-coming company, Freixenet/Gloria Ferrer Winery. In 2003, Wendy joined Trinchero Family Estates as senior director of marketing for the nation’s top retail brand, Sutter Home. Wendy has since been promoted to vice president of marketing at TFE, where she currently oversees brand positioning, advertising, strategic promotions and packaging for many of the company’s top brands, including Bandit, Trinity Oaks, Fancy Pants, The Show, Montevina, Newman’s Own Wines, Lock & Key, Jargon, Fre and the company’s best-selling brand, Sutter Home.
“Passion is the difference between being good at what you do or being great at what you do,” Wendy says. Her love for her work, competitive spirit, ambition and creativity drive her every day.
One of the wine industry’s top executives and innovators, Jackson Family Wines Chairman and Proprietor Barbara R. Banke has spent the last two decades leading the company she co-founded with her late husband, wine icon Jess Jackson.
The UCLA and Hastings Law School graduate is no stranger to juggling diverse workloads. A former land use and constitutional law attorney, Banke spent more than a decade arguing cases before the United States Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal, and raised three children with Jess (Katie, Julia and Christopher Jackson).
In addition to the flagship Kendall-Jackson and La Crema wineries, Banke and Jackson shaped nearly two dozen small, high-image wineries located across Sonoma, Napa, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Mendocino counties, including Arrowood, Byron, Cambria, Carmel Road, Edmeades, Freemark Abbey, La Jota, Matanzas Creek and Stonestreet. The Jackson Family portfolio also includes the international properties of Chateau Lassègue in Bordeaux, Tenuta di Arceno and Arcanum in Tuscany, Calina in Chile, and Yangarra Estates and the Hickenbotham Vineyard at Clarendon in Australia. In 2013, the Jackson family purchased property in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, including the acclaimed Zena Crown and Gran Moraine vineyards.
Jane McGrath has worked in the premium wine industry for 30 years and is the vice president, director of National Accounts for Kobrand Corporation. Jane graduated from the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business with a degree in marketing and international business. During her junior year abroad, while living in Europe, Jane fell in love with wine. Upon her return to Boulder, she worked part-time at the megastore, Liquor Mart, further developing a passion for wine. Following her studies, Jane joined Kobrand Corporation as a sales representative. She was promoted to state manager before accepting the National Accounts manager, Western U.S. position. After seven years, Jane left Kobrand to join Benziger Family Winery as their National Accounts director. When the Benzigers selected Kobrand as their international agent, Jane accepted their offer to rejoin Kobrand as their National Account director in 1995. Shortly thereafter, she was promoted to vice president, director of National Accounts and now runs a team of four National Account managers. She manages Kobrand’s extensive portfolio that includes Maison Louis Jadot, Champagne Taittinger, Cakebread Cellars, St. Francis, Sequoia Grove, Benziger Family Winery, Masi, Sassicaia, Taylor, Fonseca, Alizé and Tia Maria.
Jane lives in suburban Chicago with her husband and sons. She also volunteers at her children’s school, chairing the Lisle Education Foundation for District 202.
P.F. Chang’s Beverage Director Mary Melton has her hands full managing the beverage program of over 190 restaurants across the country. She manages all things liquid including the creation of beverage menus, the wine program, drink innovation and development, wine education, tea, coffee, beer and bartender training. Mary has held the position since 2005 and has created one of the most unique programs in the National Account arena.
Mary lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband, Don, and their German shepherd, Annie. They also have four chickens and grow their own vegetables and herbs in outdoor garden beds. When not renovating their beautiful 1940s-era classic home, they enjoy traveling abroad visiting European wineries and camping and ATV-ing in the Arizona mountains.
It’s hard to imagine a woman with the surname “Wines” ending up as anything other than one of the country’s top sommeliers. And master sommelier Emily Wines has not fallen short of the calling with her most recent position as the senior director of beverage at Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants.
Emily grew up outside of Seattle, and spent time living in San Luis Obispo, California, where she developed first-hand knowledge about the wines of California’s Central Coast. In pursuit of a more serious wine career, Emily moved to San Francisco to work at a number of noteworthy restaurants, such as Jardinière, Elka and Foreign Cinema. In 2000 she joined the Fifth Floor restaurant as assistant sommelier under the mentorship of Rajat Parr, in 2005 she took over the wine director position for the restaurant. During her tenure, Fifth Floor’s wine list earned the prestigious Grand Award from Wine Spectator magazine and the restaurant was nominated for Outstanding Wine Service award by the James Beard Foundation.
In 2008, Emily became one of only 96 people in the United States to earn the designation of master sommelier. Emily was also awarded the prestigious Remi Krug Cup for passing all three sections of the certification exam on her first attempt; she is one of two women to ever achieve this remarkable feat. In addition to consulting on the wine program for Fifth Floor Restaurant, Emily now serves as master sommelier and director of wines and spirits for the Kimpton Restaurants nation-wide.
For 16 years, Deborah Brenner traveled the world as a marketer of computer technology used by television and film studios and was involved in several successful high-end technology start-ups. But it was her passion for food and wine that led her on a trip to the Napa Valley and a fortuitous lunch at Mustard’s Grill. Curiosity and her journalism education prompted Brenner to do more research on women in the winemaking business. The idea for her book, Women of the Vine, was born, and Deborah was soon trekking to California to interview passionate and famous winemaking women entrepreneurs. In the process, she realized that along with the book, she could champion these women more directly by going into the business herself. In March, Brenner will be hosting a two-day symposium titled Women of the Vine, the first of its kind devoted to advancing women’s careers in the wine industry. It is also the first of its kind, two-day trade event enabling women across all sectors of the wine industry and across the globe to connect, network, mentor, collaborate and support each other. It will take place March 13-15 in Napa, California, at The Meritage Resort and Spa.