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Women Making History in Wine

National Women’s History month during March led me to consider the women winemakers, vineyardists and vintners I’ve met over the past year. Some are newer to the trade while others have a longer perspective on how far women have journeyed in the profession. Here’s a snapshot of some of the women in wine country.


El Dorado
I recently visited this up-and-coming region in the Sierra Foothills.  Feeling their way for a signature grape, yet resisting the option to be pigeonholed, winemakers—including the women—exhibit a heady mix of expertise and energy.


Mari Wells Coyle: Good Grenache and good cooking
When you meet Mari Wells Coyle and observe the boundless energy, sense of humor and scientific approach to problem-solving, you can picture her leading junior winemakers in the cellar or sailors at sea. Coyle’s father was a merchant marine and sorely wanted his daughter to join him at sea. But her passion for chemistry and biochemistry led her to UC Davis where she couldn’t resist taking some enology classes where she found her academic and career passion. After interning in Sonoma and New Zealand, the pull of white water rafting, skiing and hiking landed her in El Dorado at Rhone-based David Girard Vineyards. From 2005-2013 she excelled at making white Rhone blend Coda Blanc, Syrah and Grenache.



Now a consulting winemaker with her own label, The Wells Wines, she also launched The Winemaker’s Table. “I want to help people learn about the aromas in food and wine. Cooking with herbs that complement wine leads to unique pairings.”  I tasted her pairing of grilled filet rubbed with paprika, coffee, rosemary and salt to bring out the deep flavor of her earthy Confluence Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon—she’s on to a delicious journey as cooking teacher and author with this innovative style.


Susan Marks: Taking care of the El Dorado hills
Susan Marks is co-owner of Cedarville Vineyard. On the estate organic vineyard at 2,500 feet with remarkable views of the Sierras bordering Tahoe, Marks creates remarkably distinct wines including Syrah and Zinfandel. While walking with her in the vineyard of many head-pruned vines, Marks talks about sustainable energy and water management. “This land demands extensive hand work, and we are happy to do it. We want to leave the earth a better place than you found it,” said Marks.


Napa Valley
Making wine in the land of Cabernet Sauvignon, here are two women in wine forging new paths.


Molly Hill: Cabernet sauvignon with Pinot Noir passion
Hill planned to study at the veterinary school of UC Davis. But the biology major soon realized wine the pre-med students were much less fun than the enology group. The decision was sealed while reading about viticulture and enology in The Heartbreak Grape by Marq De Villiers.  As winemaker at Sequoia Grove, Hill has full responsibility for the cellar and grower relations for the Cabernet Sauvignon-focused winery.


Yet her vinous passion lies with Pinot Noir which, she explained, helps her craft elegant Cabernets. “I apply Pinot philosophies about site expression with our single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons, and Pinot-like winemaking techniques with our Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah.”


Hill has also taken an independent turn in the wine business with her winemaker husband, Lars Bjorkman. The duo collaborates on

Grow Wines with a first release of Chardonnay from the Mt. Veeder appellation. When asked if she has experienced challenges as a woman in the wine industry, she said, “I came of age during a great time for women winemakers. The only times I’ve noticed any challenges particular to being female were when they were pointed out by others.”


Kathryn Hall, Ambassador for estate wines and family tradition


Hall’s experience in the wine business started when there were fewer women in the trade. When she was in high school, she moved with her family to Mendocino where her father had purchased a vineyard. She accompanied her father to grower meetings where all the growers were men. “In the 1970s there were few women in leadership roles at wineries or vineyards, a short-sighted way to run business since women make up 50 percent of the population. Women have made the industry more interesting—they have so much talent.”


In 2001 Hall Wines started producing Bordeaux-style wines from estate vineyards. Her associate and assistant winemakers are women. In 2010 she launched the Walt wines label from selected California sites to honor her grape-growing parents, the Walts, with Megan Gunderson as winemaker. As a family owned business in St. Helena, Hall is involved in many aspects of the business, from blending final wines to production strategy, marketing and hospitality.  But her focus in Napa Valley is beyond the estate wines. A former lawyer and Ambassador to Austria, Hall supports the community through serving the Napa Valley Vintners Grants Committee.


Hall is proud of the first wine they made, eponymously named. But she added, “It’s a treat to make wine, and even better to share it with friends. The scores are not the point.”




Napa and beyond
Gallo is the number one wine company in the U.S., and a woman guides the premier winemaking.


Gina Gallo: Serious about her wine
I met Gina Gallo at an event where she was pouring the Gallo Signature Series . Having only seen her on TV ads, I wondered what about her day-to-day work at the winery. Though she began in sales, she realized the real action was in the vineyard and cellar. She interned under the family’s winemaker and consults on several Gallo brands.


But her primary focus is on higher end brands such as the Signature Series which literally carries her signature. While tasting through the wines, she spoke most avidly about the Santa Lucia Pinot Noir. She shared her stories from her childhood about attending Sunday meals with her grandfather Julio and father Bob who loved Zinfandel. They gave her Zinfandel mixed with club soda as a spritzer. “In the 1970s, there wasn’t much Pinot Noir in Calif.,” said Gallo. “But I like the way California has embraced Pinot Noir—it’s so food friendly.”


To top off the interest in Pinot Noir, she married Jean-Charles Boisset of Burgundy fame. Their business interests are separate, but they occasionally collaborate. “We made a special Pinot Noir blend, partly from our Russian River estates and his family’s Grand Cru. We named it ‘Maritus,” Latin for marriage.”


Russian River and the coast may be garnering all the attention, but Sonoma Mountain is home to a determined female vintner.


Kimberly Pfendler: Burgundy style on Sonoma Mountain

Though her husband was the one who purchased the vineyard high on maritime-influenced Sonoma Mountain, Kimberly Pfendler devoted herself to producing Pfendler Vineyards Chardonnay and Pinot Noir when he died. The unique terroir of the mountain fruit has led to well-balanced wines. At an Asian-inspired dinner in San Francisco, her wines with their light acidity held up to every course from rich appetizers to spicy barbecue and sweet dessert. Pfendler is raising her son Nicholas with the words of his father, “Care for this big, green, beautiful earth.” I admire Pfendler’s courage, quality focus and humility to plow ahead with a talented team to honor her husband’s dream.



Italy is home to many women in the wine business. Here is a snapshot of a peppy Sicilian vintner.


José Rallo: The singing vintner of A Thousand and One Nights

José Rallo is co-owner of Donnafugata Winery in Sicily. Her parents started the winery which is headquartered in Marsala on the west coast. Her mother preserved the long-abandoned Contessa Entellina vineyards south of Palermo. Rallo now oversees the nurturing of many indigenous grape varieties to Sicily. On the island of Pantellaria, Rallo produces Ben Ryé with Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) grapes dried over three to four months. Her team oversees a long-range study of biodiversity to study the many clones of the Zibibbo on the steep, hand-harvested vineyards. At the main Marsala winery, the long-aged and alluring Mille e una Notte, a thousand and one nights, is a classic expression of Nero d’Avola, what I herald as Sicily’s signature grape.

When I visited Rallo in Sicily, her enthusiasm about caring for the land and her employees was visible.  She burst into song at our dinner and offered guests a chorus of cultural components to complement the array of Donnafugata wines and Ben Ryé savored with dessert and cheese.


                                                  Donnafugata Winery owner Jose Rallo at right                                              

                                                                 Jose Rallo, co-owner of Donnafugata Winery at right.

              Photo credits: Deborah Grossman                                                 









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