March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 marks International Women’s Day. At Aligra, we celebrate this month by honoring women in the industry. First, a bit of context: in 2020, 59% of regular wine purchases in the U.S. were made by women, and 7 of every 10 bottles of wine purchased in British and German markets were made by women. Women make up about half of candidates for the prestigious Master of Wine title. Yet even today, women comprise a minority percentage of winemakers world-wide. Part of this can be attributed to assumptions long held: for example, women are ‘not strong enough’ to perform the heavy physical tasks required in winemaking, they are more suited to picking the grapes which ‘require a delicate touch’. Also, there were long held superstitions, two of which: women would become licentious, and morally loose when inebriated, therefore they were discouraged to join in polite social settings that involved alcohol; a menstruating woman would not be allowed near fermenting grapes because somehow she might turn the whole batch to vinegar. (!!!)
And yet, women have played pivotal roles in winemaking. Do you like champagne? Thank Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, who, at the age of 27 upon the death of her husband, took control of the family wine business. With no formal training, she charged in and transformed the industry with innovations and techniques that resonate up to the present day. There are many who have followed. Let’s look at the women who work as wine makers and are involved in other aspects of the industry and whose wines grace the shelves here at Aligra. Reader alert: I thought a lot about this: who should I include in this list? Those whose wines sell most? Those whose portfolios are most represented? And it was obvious: every woman who has contributed to furthering the wine industry, and who is represented in our store, merits recognition! So I’ve included every one of them. So spend a bit of time, and read, and learn a bit about these stalwart, determined people who in many cases bucked huge odds to do what they most love.
For a catalogue of Wines carried in Aligra Wine & Spirits made by Women Winemakers, see the document "Somms Notes"below this article.
- Sandy Leier, Winemaker, Sandhill Wines
Sandy took over from Howard Soon, who retired in 2017. She’s been a keen student of the craft, having background in chemistry and microbiology. She says, “I love wine because I know how much personal touch and science goes into making it, and the realm of possibilities is endless.”
- Sandra Oldfield, Co-founder, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards; Co-founder, Elysian Projects
After getting a Master’s Degree in winemaking from UC Davis, Sandra spent 20 years as winemaker for Tinhorn creek. She now heads a consulting company with her husband, helping aspiring winemakers achieve their dreams.
- Nadia Zenato, Marketing Director at Zenato Wines, and Winemaker of Sansonia Wine
Nadia’s skill and experience are fundamental to the phenomenal success of the family business. She attributes part of this success to the geography in Veneto: “Actually I have to admit that we are in a very lucky geographical position. Thanks to the influence of the Alps and Lake Garda, we have a climate that makes viticulture particularly favorable”.
- Susanna Balbo, Winemaker, Susanna Balbo Wines
A legend in the Argentine industry, Susanna was the first woman winemaker in the country. With her expansive knowledge, she consults with wineries around the world, helping them craft wines of distinction.
Emily Faulconer, Winemaker, Carmen Wines
Faulconer, 32, is an agricultural engineer graduate from the Universidad Católica with a wealth of winemaking experience undertaking projects in Chile’s Elqui Valley, where she worked with Viñedos Alcohuaz, the US with Cakebread Cellars, at Chateau Canon in France, and with Trinity Hill Winery in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. She is in charge of the full portfolio at Carmen wines.
- Trudy Heiss, Co-founder, Gray Monk Estate Winery
George and Trudy Heiss moved to the Okanagan Valley from Europe via Edmonton with dreams of owning a successful vineyard, using grape varietals they had grown up knowing in Europe. In 1972, they were at the front of the line presenting their request to make and sell wine made from their own grapes. That began the Estate Winery program, which many believe was the turning point for B.C. wines.
- Virginia Willcock, Winemaker, Vasse Felix, Margaret River
She is one of the most awarded female winemakers in Australia, having won numerous awards including, ‘Winemaker of the Year’ by The West Australian Good Wine Guide 2013, and ‘Winemaker of the Year’ in the 2017 Australian Women in Wine Awards
Her winemaking style reflects her philosophy: “Every wine that we make should bring you to the Margaret River one way or another, whether it’s the forest or the beach, or where you walking or being, the wine should express a little bit of that.”
- Viviana Navarrete, Chief Winemaker, Viña Leyda, Chile
In 2007, Viviana became chief winemaker at Viña Leyda. Her mission? To make the best cool-climate wines in Chile. When asked if women make better wines, Viviana offers a very diplomatic answer, “It's not that women’s noses are better, or they have more sensibility; many people say that, but I think it's that we offer a different kind of winemaking. I don't know if I am able to show that, but what I want to show consumers to close their eyes when they try a Leyda wine and say, ‘Oh, this is cold climate, this is very mineral.’ That's my main target. If I can make it better because I'm a woman, that's terrific.”
- Louisa Rose, Yalumba, Australia
Multi-award winning Louisa is the winemaker for Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family owned winery.She is considered one of Australia’s most experienced winemakers.
- Jen Walsh, La Crema
Like so many people working in the wine industry, Jen Walsh fell in love with wine through working in restaurants during college. She got her master's degree in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis. Walsh joined the La Crema team in 2017. The wine that she says shows the heart of her winemaking philosophy is Pinot Noir: “One of the many reasons I enjoy making Pinot Noir is the transparency of the grape, which allows you to experience a sense of place in the glass. I want you to be able to close your eyes, swirl the wine, and be able to smell and taste where the grapes are grown.”
- Margo Van Staaveren, Winemaker, Chateau St. Jean
Celebrating her 40th harvest at the winery in 2020, Van Staaveren has evolved both her career and her expertise. At the heart of her winemaking philosophy is the art of blending—creating a wine style that remains consistent from vintage to vintage while still allowing the uniqueness of a growing year to shine. She explains: “I find that blended wines from the diverse Sonoma County region are even more explosive in their intensely forward fruit flavors.”
Alexia Roberts, Penny’s Hill, McLaren Vale
At the tender age of 16, Alexia undertook some work experience at the Penfolds winery in Barossa, and she hasn’t looked back since. After studying winemaking, she completed vintages in Italy and France. She found her home in South Australia’s picturesque McLaren Vale, where she has been the Group Winemaker at Penny’s Hill since 2013. She has won an array of accolades for the estate, including World’s Best Cabernet at France’s Concours International des Cabernets and the Best Australian Red in Show two years running at Mundus Vini in Germany.
- Elena Brooks, Dandelion Vineyards, Barossa Valley
Elena Brooks is the Chief Winemaker and CEO of Dandelion Vineyards, the wine company she created, controls and catapulted into critical acclaim worldwide in just 10 released vintages. Elena, native of Bulgaria, trained in Australia and is regularly recognized as not just one of Australia’s best, but one of the world’s leading wine producers as her single site Dandelion Vineyard wines continually set new benchmarks for wines of purity, poise and purpose.
- Pauline Lhote, Winemaker, Domaine Chandon (Napa Valley, California )
Growing up in Champagne, France, Pauline knew she wanted to make bubbly from a young age. Before coming to Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley in 2006, she worked at Moet & Chandon and Nicolas Feuillatte, and has a special talent for crafting gorgeous sparkling rosés. "The wine industry still remains a male-dominated environment, and as a woman you need to feel comfortable with and get used to it," says Lhote. "I grew up with two brothers, which I believe helped prepare me. As a woman, I feel that you need to be a lot more convincing and persuasive to have people adhere to your ideas and vision, so it just takes a little more effort."
- Elisabetta Geppetti, Wine Maker, Le Pupille, Maremma
Elisabetta Geppetti has been making wine in Maremma for twenty-five years as the head of the Fattoria Le Pupille in Morellino di Scansano territory. She was the first chairperson of the Consortium of Morellino di Scansano and the first woman to achieve the award from the German magazine Der Feinschmecker and Wein Gourmet of "Winemaker of the Year".
- Ilia Suter, Assistant Winemaker, Cave Springs Cellars
Ilia started off as a clerk in the Cave Springs retail shop, and worked her way into becoming assistant winemaker. “There are days when it’s snowing, my fingers are freezing as I empty the tanks and I think ‘Ah, the joys of making wine in Canada’,” Suter laughs. “But they’re more than made up for on the days when the sun is shining during harvest, the winery doors are wide open and the air is sweet with the smell of ripe grapes.”
- Victoria Benavides, Winemaker, Bodega Elias Mora
Victoria’s philosophy of the winery revolves around combining a respect for tradition and modern technology. She focuses exclusively on Tinta de Toro, the native clone of Tempranillo which has been grown locally, with no exposure to phylloxera, for over 2000 years. The wines are only ever in contact with natural products; oak, glass, natural cork. Finally, she seeks to respect vintage conditions knowing that each year will offer different qualities in the finished wine.
Elaine Vickers, Winemaker, Red Rooster Winery
Elaine earned a Graduate degree in Oenology at the prestigious University of Adelaide in Australia. It was an immersive, hands-on experience that continues to inform her winemaking approach today. Upon returning to British Columbia, she worked in a variety of positions, culminating as the harvest winemaker for the 2018 vintage at acclaimed Black Hills Estate winery. In August 2019, she moved into the position of winemaker at Red Rooster Winery.
- Prudence Mahrer, Co-Proprietor, Ruby Blues Winery
In 2007, Prudence, along with Beat, built their third winery, Ruby Blues Winery, and they enjoy running a small boutique - style winery with the goal to produce and sell locally. Prudence says, “I enjoy working in the vineyards. In early summer you will see me selecting and tucking shoots. And in all these 25 years I never missed one harvest day! So wave to the vineyard workers when you drive in to our place, it might be me....”
- Sarah Marquis, Owner, Mollydooker
Sarah Marquis was, for many years, married to Sparky Marquis, and together they fashioned one of the most iconic wineries in Australia. Sparky and Sarah had worked together at every stage of their wine careers. They started as winemakers at Fox Creek in 1991, then later as partners in Marquis Philips, before launching Mollydooker in 2005. After their divorce, Sarah acquired full ownership of Mollydooker. Although Sparky was the highly visible voice of Mollydooker, Sarah was, and is, involved in all aspects of the business. She’s responsible for the whimsical labels and wine names, such as the tête-de-cuvée Shiraz Velvet Glove, the entry-level Shiraz The Boxer and the Cabernet-Merlot blend Two Left Feet.
- Helen Masters, Ata Rangi Wines
Helen has been the driving force of excellence in Ata Rangi winemaking since 2003. She was recently awarded the 2019 NZ Winemaker of the Year by judges from Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine’s team. As well as maintaining a very close relationship with the vineyard team, she champions their ISO14001 Environmental certification programme and is the face of the business in Ata Rangi’s extensive range of overseas markets.
This concludes Part One. Go to Part Two: a catalogue of the wines we have in the store as of today. Choose a few of the wines these women represent, and appreciate the dedication, perseverance, and skill they demonstrate!
List Of Sources
Bailey, Mary, A Woman in the Vineyard, The Tomato, May 3, 2015
Cellar Masters, Inside the Meet the Makers: Women in Wine
Dr. Liz Thach, MW, Wine Goddesses Around the World, Wayward Tendrils Quarterly, Volume 18, No. 2, April 2008
Eads, Lauren, Santa Rita Names New Winemaker of Carmen Winery, The Drinks Business, May 12, 2017
Hale, Alex, and Hale, Alexandra, International Women's Day Wine: Who to Look Out For and What to Drink, Good Housekeeping, February 20, 2020
MacLean, Natalie, Men Versus Women Winemakers: Battle of the Bottles?, Natalie MacLean Blog, July 31, 2017
Maremma Guide, Interview with Elisabetta Geppetti
Mount, Rachel, Meet 9 of the World's Top Women Vintners, oprah.com
Mowery, Lauren, Notable First Women in Wine History, Winemag, March 6, 2019
Philly Mag, These Women Winemakers Are Changing How We Think About Wine
Singh, Alpana, Ten Wines Made by Women, March 8, 2020, alpanasingh.com/blog
Steiman, Harvey, Exclusive: Sarah Marquis Acquires Sole Ownership of Australian Wine Darling Mollydooker, Wine Spectator, May 1, 2017
Thomsen, Kat, In Honor of National Wine Day, Meet 13 Badass Female Winemakers, Glamour, May 25, 2016
Tracey, Sarah, Female Winemakers Everyone Should Know About, marthastewart.com, March 02, 2017
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