Harvest season is in full swing amidst the reflecting light and golden sunshine that spills through Napa and Sonoma. This undulating land and its fertile bounty have enchanted travellers and tourists, wine collectors and students ever since Robert Mondavi made his way to what was then farmland. But amongst the many wineries I visited, I found myself attracted to those that were owned or run by women winemakers. Which brings us to the question: Is there a feminine style of winemaking?
Cathy Corison is one of the stalwarts of Napa, having lived and worked here for over 30 years. “Cathy Corison is my heroine,” says Jancis Robinson. “She makes such great wine – the essence of Napa Valley minus the bludgeoning force, plus a sensible price tag.
Corison has been called a “national treasure,” and “among the greatest producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley today,” by none other than Eric Asimov of The New York Times. The wines in her label, Corison Wines have won scores of awards including a 2019 nomination as a finalist at the prestigious James Beard Awards for outstanding wines. Given that most California wines have alcohol levels edging up to 16%, her wines have outstanding and – today – almost unheard of levels of low alcohol: 13.2%. I tried her 2015 and 2016 vintages and found them to be brilliantly aromatic with flavours of coffee bean, licorice, cherry and minerals. The petite winemaker says that she makes, “Cabernets that are both powerful and elegant because that’s what I like to drink. I want them to be full of life. Some might call my style ‘feminine’.”
Today, about 12% of the wineries are owned and operated by women. They include powerful and storied women like Anne Colgin, Merry Edwards, Anne Turley and Heidi Barrett but also newer and boutique wineries. Lynmar Estate, for instance, is co-owned by an Indian woman. Anisya Fritz grew up all over India as an “army brat” as she calls it. She and her husband, Lynn Fritz bought 100 acres in Russian River and make remarkable pinot noirs including one named after Anisya.
“Shaping a wine is an energetic process,” says Anisya. “The wines from my vineyard tend to be extremely feminine. Much more velvety than the grapes grown in our other vineyards. There is an intangible aspect to it.”
Today, their portfolio of 14 pinot noirs, 8 chardonnays, and one rosé is managed by a three-person winemaking team. They sell directly to consumers and have a small high-quality production of about 10 to 12,000 cases. The average price of their wines is below $100. Anisya’s blend is $85.
Lynmar is also one of the few estates in Napa that has a live-in bungalow that guests can rent to stay overnight in the middle of the vineyard. Their in-house restaurant uses seasonal vegetables from their extensive gardens to offer food and wine pairings. “Since the vegetables are grown in the same land where the vines are grown, the messaging to the senses is much more than words can say,” says Anisya. “Wine and food then become a physical and emotional experience rather than an intellectual one. We serve paired wines from three different vineyards, each with its own personality.”
Anisya agrees that there are very few women in the California wine business. The saving grace is that it is dominated by families. Over 90% of the wineries are family-owned. “When you have families, women get into it,” says Anisya. “Yes, you have to be a little better than everyone else to be noticed. But also, people make way for excellence.” However, you have to get your feet in the door first.
“Most winemakers begin as cellar rats,” says Deepak Gulrajani, owner/winemaker of Nicholson Ranch, an estate winery in the border of Napa and Sonoma. “It involves a lot of physical labour, lifting and carrying. There exists the possibility that when owners think of that job, they say, I want a man. The feeling that men will do all that dirty work but women may not. So there are less opportunities given to women in the beginning.”
Gulrajani produces 5,000 cases of award-winning sustainably produced wines. All his wines are unfiltered, dry-farmed and made using gravity flow techniques. His Nirvana pinot noirs sell for $90.
“In California, pinot noirs are cheaper than Cabernet Sauvignon,” he says. “The best pinot noirs sell for $175 but the best Cabs like Screaming Eagle sell for at least $2,500. I heard of this unknown Cab that is going to be priced at $3,500. Among other reasons, that is because the base Napa Cab grapes are twice the cost of pinot noir grapes.”
Interestingly it is in these big bold Napa Cabs that female winemakers have made their names. Which brings us back to the question about whether there is a “feminine” style of wine. Most people associate the feminine style with elegant wines that open up to soft aromas and a long finish. But the point is that cult women winemakers like Heidi Barrett were as “ballsy” as any male winemaker. So then the real question is not whether women make different wines than men but whether they make wines at all. With a growing interest in wine, and with more women collecting wine, it stands to reason that they ought to be represented in the industry too. “Women have better palates than men,” says Deepak. “Their sense of taste and aroma is better. And winemaking is all about taste and aroma.”
With the enology course in the reputed UC Davis churning out more and more women graduates each other, perhaps the day when women the take lead on wines is not far off. I am hopeful.