For many people, one of the great pleasures at the end of a long day is pouring a glass of wine and taking the time to enjoy it, maybe at dinner with family or friends, and perhaps with a selection of cheeses. Some people are wine enthusiasts. Others are wealthy enough to amass an extensive – and expensive – wine collection. Then there are those who make wine for a living.
For many years, the wine industry was dominated by men, and seemed destined to remain that way. An exception was the wonderful Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, born in 1777 in France, and who later married Francois Cliquot when she was 21. Six years after marriage, her husband died and left her in control of a company with interests that included champagne. Under her leadership, the now internationally-famous Veuve Cliquot brand grew and prospered, eventually becoming the company we know today.
In the late 1970s the wine making industry in the US, particularly in California, began to grow. It was still an industry where men outnumbered women. That soon began to change as young women interested in becoming wine makers started to challenge old ideas that women were only valuable in the winery labs, or couldn’t handle managing heavy barrels and hard work. Slowly, more women took on positions in cellars, developing a reputation for having good noses and an excellent combination of scientific and artistic wine making skills.
Today, there are many women working in the wine industry in various capacities, particularly in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US. California has been a great breeding ground for wonderful wine and strong, influential women wine makers who have made their mark due to their skills and vision.
Here is a list of 10 women considered to be among the top most influential women in the world of wine today.
A pioneer of US women who have made careers in the wine industry, Merry Edwards started her career in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the mid-1970s. She became the founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek in 1977 and remained there until the mid-1980s. Until 1997, Edwards consulted for numerous wineries before she opened her own eponymous winery in California. She and her husband now manage five estate vineyards.
In 2013, Edwards celebrated 40 years as a winemaker, receiving the James Beard Award for Best Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional in the US, and being inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame.
Heidi Peterson Barrett
Heidi Peterson Barrett acknowledges that being the daughter of a Californian wine pioneer helped her on her path to making wine. Her success since, though, has been on its own merits. Having gained a degree in Fermentation Science from UC Davis, Barrett interned in Germany and Australia before returning to the US. In 1992, her fame was assured following the sale of a bottle of ‘Screaming Eagle’ wine she developed, which sold for a record-breaking $500,000.
Responsible for many of California’s cult wines, wine critic Robert Parker has awarded several of her wines 100 points. In 1994 Barrett started her own winery in the Napa Valley, called La Sirena.
Gallo Winery has a history that is over 80 years old, and is considered the largest producer of wines in the US. Gina Gallo is the third generation of the family involved in the business and one of the most influential women in the industry. Involved with grapes since she was 10, Gallo studied wine making at UC Davis and learned her craft at the family’s micro-winery in Modesto.
Since then, Gallo has become famous for the Gallo Signature Wine series, lives in Sonoma County, and helps to oversee the family’ wineries in California and Washington.
Considered a major, sometimes controversial, winemaking pioneer, Helen Turley began her career at the Robert Mondavi Winery in its lab. Later, finding it difficult as a woman to gain a wine making job in California, she took a position making wine in Kentucky. In the mid-1980s she returned to the US West Coast and took on a number of positions across the California region.
In 1991 she started her own vineyard in the Sonoma Coast region when it was still relatively unknown. Eventually her work made the Marcassin label one of the most respected in California, particularly for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.
Mia Klein studied oenology at UC Davis after becoming interested in wine when working as a seafood chef. A California native, one of Klein’s mentors was Cathy Corison, another pioneer of women in winemaking. Her other mentor, Tony Soter, hired her as an assistant at the Robert Pepi Winery and they formed a long-term partnership together, including acting as consultants to other wineries before Klein started her own winery in 2000.
Called Selene Wines, her reputation and influence in the Napa Valley has soared, and she is known for excellent Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc wines.
The San Francisco Chronicle Winemaker of the Year in 2011, Cathy Corison’s path to being a winemaker was accidental. Majoring in biology, she had to sign up for another class and happened to see one about wine making. She never looked back. After receiving her oenology degree at UC Davis, she found some resistance to women working in wineries in positions other than lab work.
She eventually interned at Freemark Abbey, became their winemaker, and moved on to Chappellet Winery in 1983. In 1987 she founded her own Corison Winery, and is known for her Cabernet and Gewurztraminer wines.
Carol Shelton was raised in New York and California. A chance tour of a winery sparked her interest in wine making, and she became one of the first women ever to gain a degree in oenology. Her apprenticeship in wine making began at the Robert Mondavi Winery. Later, she entered into a long-term partnership at Windsor Vineyards where she developed a particular interest in Zinfandel.
After 19 years with Windsor, during which she developed over 45 wines, she decided to open her own winery with husband Mitch MacKenzie. Shelton is considered to have received the most awards for wine making in the US, including several for Winemaker of the Year.
Born in Morocco to French-Algerian parents, Genevive Janssens is the only woman on this list not raised in the US. Janssens studied at the University of Bordeaux before beginning her career with the Robert Mondavi Winery in the late 1970s. Over the next decade or more, Janssens continued to learn her craft, did some consulting work, and was then hired as Director of Production at Opus One Winery.
In 1997, she rejoined Robert Mondavi and in 2010 was named Wine Star Winemaker of the Year. In 2011, she was named Winemaker of the Year by ‘Wine Enthusiast’. She also owns her own small winery, Portfolio Winery, with her husband, Luc.
Kris Curran grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley and graduated with a degree in animal science before realizing she really wanted to make wine. She took her oenology degree at the California State University, Fresno, before finding work in Santa Barbara County. Here, she helped established a number of premium wineries including Sea Smoke, famous for its Pinot Noir.
In her work at Foley Estates, she oversaw the production of 20,000-30,000 cases of wine a year. Now, with her husband, Bruno, she runs D’Alfonso-Curran Wines. Their focus is primarily on Spanish varietals, including Syrah, Tempranillo and Pinot Noir. She has been named a San Francisco Chronicle Winemaker of the Year.
Growing up around her father’s half-acre vineyard, Celia Welch graduated in oenology in 1982 and interned in various wineries in the US, Australia and New Zealand. After stints at the Silverado Vineyards and the Robert Pepi Winery, she decided to concentrate on being an independent winemaking consultant, contributing to many popular Napa Valley wines such as Kelly Fleming, Scarecrow and Keever.
A mentor of young wine professionals, Welch opened her own Corra Wines in 2004. She has earned a reputation as a creator of intense, deep Cabernet Sauvignons, her own wines consistently earning 90-plus points.
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