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The Grand Dames of Wine

In case you have not noticed, we live in turbulent times. Willingly or not, social media has turned our lives into a public commodity. From the most mundane of frivolities to moments of the most harrowing human tragedy; nothing is private, everything is subject to the possibility of public viewing. For better or worse, our phones, armed with their cameras, have become weapons in the fight against social injustices and abuses of power. Recorded images of government brutality against civilians are publicly displayed almost daily. The pot is boiling over, and the patience of the neglected and the underprivileged is running out. The political and social systems driven by greed, money and power protect and look after their own interest: the privileged and the wealthy. They seem to be operating with impunity. “Greed is the source of all evil in this world”, as my grandma used to say. 

Women’s fight for equality has always been at the forefront of social struggle. A difficult battle in a world where men have dominated nearly all aspects of cultural, political and social life since the beginning of civilization. The world of wine has not been spared from this male hegemony. The signs of change have been starkly visible in recent times, and it is time to pay homage to those women who historically, against all odds, have set an example and paved the way for a new generation of women in wine and beyond.

In the early 19th century, even in “civilized” societies, a woman’s role was well defined and unquestioned; bear children, raise them and run the household. That applied to all social classes. Women were excluded from the world of business; Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, coined as the Grande Dame of Champagne, was one of the first to break that barrier. Upon the death of her husband, she took over the family’s champagne business at the age of 27. Not only did Madame Clicquot run a successful business, but she was also one of the leaders of a budding industry at that time, an innovator and entrepreneur.  She bottled the first vintage wine from the 1810 harvest; “The Year of the Comet”. She introduced the modern version of rosé champagne by adding red wine into the blend. She invented the “table de remuage”, a riddling table, which is a contraption that allows for the collection of dead yeast cells and sediment in the neck of the inverted champagne bottles for their efficient removal during the following disgorgement stage. In its simplicity, the device is still used in the industry and is indispensable in the production of champagne.  Barely overcoming the adversities of the Napoleonic wars, she persisted in her determination and ironically found her most devoted drinker of her bubbles in the Russian Czar, Alexander I. 

In Clicquot’s lifetime, her production grew from merely 10,000 bottles a year to 750,000 annually. Not only that, but also, she played a major role in establishing Champagne as a world-renowned region, but she also inspired and created opportunities for women in the wine industry. She died in 1866 and, in her honor, the house of Veuve Clicquot named their prestige champagne Grande Dame.

Madame Clicquot was a true pioneer. A lone ranger gifted with acute business instinct, drive and integrity. What makes her even more special is that it wasn’t for decades until the next women of comparable stature came along in the field of wine. 

Historically Burgundy has always been a male-dominated wine region where land inheritance has always been passed on to male offspring. This is why Lalou Bize-Leroy holds a special place in my wine saturated heart. A pioneer, wine expert and shrewd businesswoman succeeding in the land ruled by men. Born into a prominent Leroy family with a long winemaking and grape growing tradition, Lalou’s life was steeped in wine from the get-go, helping her become one of the elite wine personalities of Burgundy. In 1955, at the age of 23, she joined her father’s negociant business and quickly became a force to be reckoned with; a womanly force for that matter. Her reputation flourished quickly, and from 1974 along with Aubert de Villain she co-managed Domaine de la Romanèe-Conti and elevated it into one of the most prestigious and coveted wine producers in the world. While at DRC, in 1988, she established Domaine Leroy and added to it some premium vineyards purchased from Charles Neollat and Philippe-Remy. 

After a series of disagreements, Lalou left DRC in 1992 and returned to her roots by devoting her full attention and energy to Domaine Leroy. From the outset, she began converting all the vineyards of the domaine to biodynamic cultivation—she was one of the precursors of that practice in Burgundy, and firmly believes that a vineyard’s ecosystem is a living organism in its totality, and as such, it should be treated holistically, where no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are allowed. Lalou views her land as an interconnected, symbiotic living system with all the natural elements within contributing to its health and prosperity. Her wines are considered some the best in the region, often fetching exorbitant prices. It is safe to say that Lalou Bize-Leroy was the first woman of huge prominence in Burgundy.

Let’s now come home and focus on my backyard of Northern Califonia’s wine countries.

 In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, long before California entered the modern age of winemaking (the 1960s), two women stood out as role models in the field: Hannah Weinberger and Isabelle Simi. The former one presided in Napa, the latter in Sonoma. Both assumed the ownerships of the properties after the deaths of their husbands. Weinberger was in charge of her winery from 1882 until prohibition closed it in 1920. Simi’s winery survived prohibition in hibernation. Isabelle sold off her vineyard holdings but maintained the possession of the cellar containing 500,000 cases of wine. These were ready for sale the moment prohibition ended. Isabelle remained an active participant in the winery’s operations until 1970 when she retired.  

The first woman winemaker of the modern era was Mary Ann Graf. In 1965 she was the first woman to receive an enology degree from UC Davis. Her first winery job as a chemist and an assistant winemaker was in the Central Valley at Gibson Wine Co. In 1973 she became the winemaker at Simi. Later on, she founded Vinquiry, a business venture which provided analytical and consulting services to the wine industry. She passed away in 2019. 

Nowadays some of the best wineries of the nearby wine counties of Napa Valley, Sonoma and Central Coast are run by women. Names like Cathy Corison, Merry Edwards, Helen Turley and Heidi Barret, just to mention a few, are synonymous with world-class wines, and the influx of new, young female winemakers continues steadily. The same trend can be noticed globally. In recent decades women winemakers have been growing in wine regions worldwide. Talented, ambitious and educated women are at the helms of some of the top wineries. The winemaking business’ migrant nature allows for an international exchange of workforce, ideas and experiences. Women are a big part of that exchange contributing to the business’ cosmopolitan nature; from French women picking grapes in Napa, California, to ladies fermenting juice in Australia’s Barossa Valley and beyond. 

In the past, a sommelier profession was almost exclusively reserved for men. Most of us can conjure up an image of a suited up, pretentious Frenchman with a tastevin (tasting spoon), hanging from his neck. For the most part, the stuffy suit is gone, the tastevin is pretty much non-existent, and women are some of the best sommeliers in the industry. Italy claims to have more women sommeliers than men. Court of Master Sommeliers is a wine educational organization that prepares wine professionals for the hospitality industry. There are four levels of the certification, with the highest being Master Sommelier, which is equivalent in difficulty to an academic Ph.D. 172 people boast the title of Master Sommeliers and 27 of them are women with Emily Wines, Madeline Triffon and Gillian Ballance as my favorites. 

Master of Wine, based in the U.K., is along with CMS, one of the highest qualifications of the wine industry. Master of Wine encompasses a broad range of wine-related knowledge from winemaking, viticulture, trade and history. Here the ratio is even more impressive. 137 women are Masters of Wine, making them a third of today’s world’s MWs. Some of the best wine writers, critics and educators like Jancis Robinson, Mary Ewing-Mulligan, Sarah Jane Evans and Alison Eisermann, to mention a few, are women.

While researching for this article, I was surprised and disappointed by the lack of information that was available on the internet about women in the wine industry. My personal knowledge and experience tell me otherwise. I have been a sommelier in San Francisco for twenty years, and I have observed, over the years, the number of women in the industry growing exponentially, from sommeliers and wine directors to wine merchants, wine educators and winemakers. There is a vast number of wine professionals who are women, and the majority of them are masterful at what they do. 

Ultimately, it is a sad state of affairs that in this time and age we still have to address the issues of discrimination. The fact that we have to emphasize the gender or the ethnicity of a person in qualifying and quantifying their worth is embarrassing in itself.  A person’s objectively evaluated skill, talent and efficiency of their labor should be the only testament of their value. Our natural instincts should dictate our behavior of common sense and lead on the path of fairness and justice.


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