As in many industries, the impact of gender in the wine biz is sensitive, difficult to quantify and tenuous. Has it been harder for women to break into this business? Yes and no.
Ladies like the venerable Veuve from Clicquot have been making wine for centuries, although men have more typically dominated the field.
Do women intuitively make “better” wine somehow? It is scientifically documented that women are more sensitive to esters, the aromatic compounds in wine. Similarly, a recent Yale study indicated that women have a 35% chance of being biologically categorized as “super tasters,” those with extra prevalent taste buds, as compared to an average guy’s 15% chance. (We always knew the ladies had great taste.)
Does all of this translate to women winning in the winery? In the spirit of our Women’s Issue, we are spotlighting three inspiring winemakers from around the Golden State. Each works with distinct grape varieties and terroir, each is widely respected in the industry, and each happens to be a woman. Do wines made with integrity by passionate women really taste better? We encourage you to seek out these bottles and taste for yourselves.
THE INNOVATOR: Martha Stoumen
There’s an old adage: “If you want to make $1 million in the wine business, all you have to do is invest $10 million.” So what’s an ambitious 31-year-old to do if you don’t have a cool $10 mil but you want to make great juice?
Get innovative. Enter Martha Stoumen, a girl who has formed a company called Living Wines Collective, in which she and her three male partners make four distinct wines while sharing all expenses, profits and workload across the brands. Rather than bring in pesky investors who often have cash but zero knowledge of winegrowing and winemaking, this Fantastic Four is doing it all themselves.
Their first release was 2014’s Populis, made in a tiny facility in Orinda, California, where you’re more likely to run into cows than critics. Other labels made collaboratively include Les Lunes and Ama.
This is a generation of winemakers who like to meticulously farm the grapes they use. Martha and friends are also being innovative by seeking out vineyard treasures like an old-vine, organically-farmed chardonnay plot from 1972 … located in the Manton Valley A.V.A. Haven’t heard of the Manton Valley quite yet? Just granted appellation status in August 2014, it’s at the foot of snowy Mount Lassen and it’s spectacular.
Martha is one-to-watch as she and other generation-next winemakers take us to far-flung corners of California with carefully-made, affordable wines.
Recommended Bottle: Populis red, Carignane, Mendocino, 2014; $24. popthatbottle.com
Photographed by Tracy Sweeney, Corison Winery
THE PIONEER: Cathy Corison
A recent retrospective tasting of 25 years of Cathy Corison’s extraordinary cabernets, poured by Cathy herself, had the wine world in a tizzy. In a region known for inflated price tags, alcohol levels and egos, Cathy’s singular style of restrained Napa cab—doggedly and humbly made her way, without regard for fads or scores—is now iconic.
Cathy founded her eponymous winery in 1987 after stints making wine at various other well-known wineries like Chappellet and Freemark Abbey. Her husband built the barn in which she still makes her impressive wines. Her winemaking style is one of minimal intervention. As she puts it: “Mine is a hands-off approach to winemaking; it is my job to let the vineyards speak.”
While Cathy’s wines aren’t inexpensive, they’re exceptional values when compared to much-hyped competitors. Her wines particularly demonstrate the distinct profile of the Rutherford and St. Helena districts, where dusty, angular tannins provide the exoskeleton inside of which all that lush cabernet fruit can mature. For those that don’t think Napa wines are as age-worthy as fine Bordeaux, I encourage you to buy and try older vintages of Corison.
Recommended Bottle: Corison Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2010; $100. corison.com
THE PARTNER: Bibiana González Rave
A native Colombian whose winemaking career has spanned four continents, Bibiana González Rave ultimately decided to settle in California, where she subsequently met her husband and winemaking partner, Jeff Pisoni. Trained in Bordeaux with a pedigree that includes working at Château Haut-Brion, Bibi has worked harvests around the world and is as fluent in grapes as she is in multiple languages.
Here in California, she oversees the winemaking at powerhouse Pahlmeyer while managing consulting services across several brands under the RAVE Vines & Wines mast. She’s also a new mother working multiple harvests, so if you see this lady, by all means buy her a big old cup of coffee and then buy her extraordinary wines.
I was personally very excited by Bibi’s newly launched exploration of sauvignon blanc under the Shared Notes label. For too long, American winemakers have left SB to our cost-conscious Kiwi cousins with only a few truly committed to making it great, e.g., Peter Michael, Merry Edwards and Câpture.
Shared Notes is a collaborative effort between Bibiana and Jeff, and it’s a partnership in every sense of the word. They make two styles of sauvignon blanc from fruit sourced in the Russian River and Sonoma appellations. My favorite, “Les Leçons de Maitres” (the Masters’ Lessons), adds a 20% dollop of sémillon for one of the most exotic, lush sauvignon blancs I’ve ever tasted from California.
Recommended Bottle: Shared Notes, “Les Leçons de Maitres,” Russian River/Sonoma, 2014; $65. sharednoteswine.com