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Wonder Women: 10 female California winemakers to watch

Stephanie Terrizzi (Photo: Erik Castro)

The Golden State was one of the first pockets of the wine world to champion women winemakers, with the likes of Zelma Long and Merry Edwards blazing a trail for others to follow.

Today, 14% of the winemakers in Napa are women, which, while still far lower than it should be, is an encouraging sign of the turning tides in wine. Give it another decade and the figure will hopefully be far higher.

Many of the state’s most revered wines have been made by women – from the debut vintage of Screaming Eagle, crafted by Heidi Peterson Barrett, and modern-day ‘cult’ wine Scarecrow, made by Celia Welch, to Cathy Corison’s elegant Cabernets and the myriad wines made by the forward-thinking Helen Turley over the years.

We thought it was high time to celebrate the achievements of these wine pioneers, and at the same time highlight five women winemakers set to become the stars of the future, from Stephanie Terrizzi of Giornata, with beguiling Barbera from Paso Robles, to Helen Keplinger, who is shining a light on Rhône varieties with her highly sought-after single-vineyard wines.

Virginia Lambrix

Rising star Virginia Lambrix’s wine epiphany came during a holiday in South Africa shortly after graduating from Colgate University in New York with a degree in psychology. Her Damascus moment led to a change in career path from chemical ecology to winemaking. Getting her all-important oenology masters from UC Davis, Lambrix started out at Hendry Ranch in Napa, then took flight to Chile where she worked for Concha y Toro. While in Chile she developed a passion for biodynamics that has shaped her approach to grape growing.

Back in California, stints at Lynmar and De Loach in the Russian River Valley followed, where she fell in love with Chardonnay and, despite its fickle nature, Pinot Noir. Mentored by Greg La Follette at De Loach, Lambrix learnt to understand vineyards instinctively. Her big break came in 2008 when she joined Truett Hurst as a winemaker, adding a Russian River Valley Pinot to the portfolio.

She also makes single-vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay under her own VML label, and experiments with small parcels of Zinfandel and Gewürztraminer.

“In life, the biggest challenges offer the greatest rewards. This is what drew me to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” she says, describing her wines as “feminine and pretty with a fair amount of extraction and depth”. Her grape to watch in California is inky red Petite Sirah.

Cathy Corison

A voice of restraint in a land of ‘look at me’ wines, Cathy Corison has been single-handedly championing elegant, fresh, lower alcohol California Cabernet at her eponymous winery since she launched her own label in 1987.

Born in Riverside, Corison studied biology at Pomona College in Claremont, where she was forced to join the men’s diving team, as a women’s team didn’t exist. Studying oenology at UC Davis in the mid-70s at the same time as Rhône Ranger Randall Grahm, Corison was told by her professor that she’d struggle getting a winemaker job in Napa because she was a woman. Undeterred, she joined Freemark Abbey as an intern and worked her way up to the role of winemaker, then moved to Chappellet as chief winemaker, where she stayed for a decade.

Having also chalked up stints at Staglin Family Vineyard, York Creek Vineyards and Long Meadow Ranch, today Corison makes two Cabernets – a blend from sites near Rutherford, and a single-vineyard Cab from the organically farmed Kronos vineyard next to her winery, which boasts deep, stony alluvial soil.

Uncompromising and exacting in her ‘hands-off’ approach, Corison’s aim is to make terroir-driven “complex wines that walk the fine line between power and elegance” and have “a long and interesting life” ahead of them. So far, she is most proud of the 2001 vintage from her Kronos vineyard. “The fruit flavours are bright, natural acidity snappy and the tannins feel like velvet. This was the first vintage that made me realise what my vineyard could do,” she says.

Helen Keplinger

One of California’s most promising rising stars, Helen Keplinger developed a passion for wine at a young age, learning from her wine lover father, who gave her his empty bottles to collect. A love of geology also saw the young Keplinger collecting rocks – a sign of things to come in her future career as a winemaker, which began after she attained an oenology degree from UC Davis.

She cut her teeth alongside Heidi Peterson Barrett at Paradigm, where she worked her way up to become assistant winemaker, and has since chalked up stints at Cellers Melis in Priorat, Fort Ross, Sarocka, Scully, Arrow & Branch and Bryant Family Vineyards. Uniting with Peterson Barrett again in 2005 at Kenzo Estate, Keplinger’s latest project is her debut solo venture, Keplinger Wines, where she makes tiny quantities of a dozen different single-vineyard wines made from Rhône varieties sourced from all over California.

Describing wine as “an ever-changing time capsule”, Keplinger is clearly in love with her job. “Art, science and nature all come together dynamically in winemaking. I strive to make pure wines of power and grace that have a clear voice of terroir and vintage by responding to the curveballs of Mother Nature,” she says. Aspiring to run her own vineyard and winery, for now Keplinger is most proud of the 2007 vintage of her 100% Grenache called ‘N=1’, which she describes as “seamless, complex and beautiful – a unique treasure of the vintage.”

Celia Welch

As a child growing up in Oregon, Celia Welch would sit under a giant oak in her back garden picking grapes from their stems for her winemaker father. During high school she dreamed of working as a perfume maker in France, but, after graduating from UC Davis with a degree in fermentation science, she fled to New Zealand and Australia’s Barossa Valley instead to gain valuable winemaking experience before returning to the Napa Valley to work at Silverado Vineyards. Moving to Robert Pepi winery in the early 90s, she went on to consult for a number of top Napa names during the 90s, including Staglin Family Vineyard.

Today Welch is responsible for California ‘cult’ wine Scarecrow. Launched in 2006, Scrarecrow’s debut 2003 vintage, made from old-vine Cabernet grown on a 10-hectare plot in Rutherford, was given 98 points by Robert Parker – a feat only bettered by Screaming Eagle. A year on, the 2004 vintage sold out in 16 hours. With just 400-800 cases produced annually, depending on the vintage, the wine has a celebrity following and commands healthy hammer prices at auction.

In 2004 Welch launched her own label, Corra, named after the Celtic goddess of prophecy, where she makes high-end Cabernet from grapes grown in Rutherford, Oakville and Pritchard Hill. Keen for her wines to bear the hallmarks of the land from which they came rather than the hand that made them, to retain the vineyard’s personality Welch picks earlier than many in Napa.

The wine she’s most proud of so far is the aforementioned Scarecrow 2003. “Even in barrel shortly after fermentation the wine was a knockout. I was tremendously proud that it presented itself with such beauty and complexity on release,” she says. “It’s such a thrill to take an existing vineyard and realise the quality that was there all along.”

Stephanie Terrizzi

One to watch Stephanie Terrizzi fell in love with wine while working at a bar in Illinois, which inspired her to take her WSET sommelier exams and become a wine consultant for Sonoma County’s top restaurants, including Ca’Bianca.

Keen to get her hands dirty, after attaining an oenology degree from Fresno State, Terrizzi interned at a number of Napa and Sonoma wineries before becoming the vineyard manager of Luna Matta in Paso Robles, which specialises in Italian varieties.

A decade ago Stephanie launched her own wine project with her husband Brian called Giornata, working with Italian grapes planted at Luna Matta with the aim of making “balanced and subtle” Italian-inspired reds.

Using the same clones employed by Italy’s top producers, the pair have won plaudits for their Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Aglianico and Barbera, and would love to eventually export their wines to Italy. “Nebbiolo is the hardest grape to grow and the most mischievous in the cellar. It has taught me patience and has pushed my creativity to make it work,” she says, citing Trentino-based Elisabetta Foradori as her winemaking inspiration.

While looking after twin daughters, Terrizzi also finds time to consult for a number of local wineries and works with Brian on a side project called Broadside in collaboration with Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars. Looking ahead, she’s keen to be one of the first winemakers in California to make a Nerello Mascalese.

Heidi Peterson Barrett

Daughter of California wine pioneer Richard Peterson, Heidi Peterson Barrett is behind some of California’s most lusted after wines. Known as the “First Lady of wine”, her fate in the California vintners hall of fame was sealed when she produced the inaugural vintage of Screaming Eagle in 1992, which, on receiving a 99-point score from Robert Parker, thrusted both her and the wine into the spotlight. During her time at the estate she received five perfect 100-point scores from Parker.

Graduating from UC Davis in 1980, she has made balanced, elegant, age-worthy Cabernets for other big gun California estates, including Dalla Valle and Grace Family Vineyards. Her skills are in play at both Paradigm and Kenzo Estate, where she makes wine, along with Diamond Creek Vineyards and Niebaum-Coppola, who she consults for. Barrett achieves all this while running her own boutique label, La Sirena (meaning the mermaid) where she makes Cabernet, Grenache and a Syrah blend among other drops.

She is also half of one of California’s top winemaking power couples – her husband is Bo Barrett, chief winemaker at Château Montelena, which shot to fame in 1976 when its 1973 Chardonnay, made by Bo’s father Jim, trumped a number of top French wines to win first place among the whites in the historic Judgement of Paris tasting organised by English wine writer Steven Spurrier. The pair make Napa Cabernet together under the Barrett & Barrett label.

Helen Turley

The elusive Helen Turley is best known for bringing some of California’s most famous wines into the international spotlight. The Cornell graduate is at the helm of the revered 3.5-hectare Marcassin Vineyard (French for ‘young wild boar’) in the Sonoma Coast, which specialises in boutique botttlings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir made in the Burgundian style. Known for being one step ahead of the game, she was an early champion of Sonoma Coast, planting vines there in 1991 at a time when most people considered it too cold for winemaking.

Working as chief winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars until 1995, she has consulted for the likes of California heavyweights Colgin, Kapcsandy and Bryant Family Vineyards. Starting out in the lab at Robert Mondavi Winery then moving to Chappellet, after a brief stint of making wine in Kentucky, Turley went on to become the founding winemaker of the Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma County, where she developed Les Pavots, Peter Michael’s flagship Bordeaux blend.

Helen’s winemaking philosophy is simple: meticulously farmed vineyards, limited yield, long hang time and natural yeast. She is currently writing a book about her experiences at Marcassin.

Elizabeth Vianna

A glass of 1985 Sociando Mallet changed the course of Elizabeth Vianna’s life. A pre-med student at the time, Vianna’s wine epiphany came at a tasting at Christie’s in New York. Working as a clinical toxicologist at New York Hospital, her love of wine stuck and she spent her free time going to every wine tasting that would let her through the door. Biting the bullet, Vianna enrolled on UC Davis’ famous oenology course, ditching a medicine career in favour of a life among the vines.

“Being a winemaker is a blend of art and science. It’s mainly science, but the artistic dimension is so fun – it’s instinct, using your palate much in the same way that you use your imagination,” she says.

Interning at Chimney Rock in the late 90s, after graduating she joined the Napa Wine Company as assistant winemaker. There she found herself working alongside Heidi Peterson Barrett, Pam Starr and Celia Welch. Returning to Chimney Rock in 2002, Vianna was named chief winemaker in 2005 and general manager in 2011. Based in the Stags Leap District, Vianna focuses on powerful yet elegant Bordeaux blends at the estate.

“My goal is to be an interpreter of the vineyards and not to intervene too much with the beautiful fruit we grow. I believe in making wines that tell the tale of the grape, place and time in the purest way I can,” she says. So far, Vianna is proudest of the wines she made in the “challenging” 2011 vintage. Her ultimate goal is to make wine under her own label in her native South America.

Genevieve Janssens

Hailing from a long line of winemakers, Genevieve Janssens has grape growing in her blood. Born in Morocco and raised in France, as a child she closely observed her winemaker father and dreamed of one day making wine herself. Studying oenology at the University of Bordeaux, she cut her teeth making wine at her family estate in Corsica in the mid-70s and went on to consult for a number of French châteaux.
Moving to the sun-drenched Napa Valley in 1978, she was lucky enough to be mentored by the godfather of Californian wine, Robert Mondavi, whom, she says, shared her father’s holistic approach to grape growing.

“He had such a passion for perfection. We’d finish a blend and he would say, ‘This is excellent, but we can do better’. He pushed me to make the very best wines possible.” In 1989 she took on the role of director of production at Opus One – Mondavi’s Napa-based joint venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, becoming director of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1997.

From the beginning, Janssens has pursued her goal of making approachable, fruit-forward wines of elegance and finesse that complement food. She played a pivotal role in the building of the To Kalon winemaking facility within the To Kalon vineyard – the winery’s first major renovation since it was founded in 1966. Janssens is optimistic about the future of Californian wine, believing that quality “will continue to soar”.

Jenny Wagner

The youngest winemaker in our round up, at just 27, Jenny Wagner is already custodian of the Emmolo wine brand, which includes a mineral-driven Sauvignon Blanc and a rich, well balanced Merlot. She comes from strong winemaking stock – in 1972 her grandfather, Charlie Wagner, founded Caymus Vineyards, which is now looked after by her father Chuck, while her brothers Charlie and Joey are both vintners. She released her first two wines in 2014: 2012 Emmolo Sauvignon Blanc and 2011 Emmolo Merlot.

Growing up among the vines, Wagner wanted to become a winemaker from an early age, and treated her family estate like a playground.
Studying business administration and Spanish at the University of San Diego, Jenny started out working for Caymus after graduating in 2010.

Whilst there she learnt the tricks of the trade from her father. “My dad pushes the envelope when it comes to winemaking and has carved out the character of Caymus Cabernet by going beyond the norm and developing his own techniques in the vineyard. He encourages me to experiment,” she says.

In 2011 Wagner was put in charge of the Emmolo brand created in 1994 by her mother and named after her great grandfather, Salvatore Emmolo, who founded a rootstock nursery in Rutherford, where she sources her Sauvignon from. Her Merlot, meanwhile, hails from Oak Knoll. Looking ahead, she hopes to launch her own wine brand with her husband, Eddie.

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