Glass Ceiling

Yes, Women Can Make Great Wine

It's no longer just men shaping America’s vinous landscape. A talk with three women on the leading edge of our wine culture.

Luis Davilla/Getty

A few weeks ago, President Obama declared March 2014 National Women’s History Month. Its purpose, he said, is to “recognize the victories, struggles, and stories of the women who have made our country what it is today” and to celebrate those who “make progress in our time” because “[w]hen women succeed, America succeeds.”

The wine industry has been dominated by male vintners and sommeliers for most of its history, but a handful of women have been instrumental in growing and shaping America’s wine culture. And now, a growing number of them are clearing new paths, pushing the envelope, and redefining what it means to make wine in America today.

Some of America’s most influential winemakers have been women. Two of them, Heidi Peterson Barrett and Helen Turley, were the visionary forces behind many of America’s most celebrated wines. Heidi Barrett, christened the “First Lady of Wine” by Robert Parker, is responsible for creating the wines and winery styles at iconic California estates including Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle Vineyards, Paradigm Winery, and Grace Family Vineyards. A six-liter bottle of her 1992 Screaming Eagle set a world record for the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine. Helen Turley found her stylistic voice at Peter Michael winery and went on to make wine or consult at Colgin Cellars, Bryant Family Vineyards, and Marcassin, among others. Both women have earned “Winemaker of the Year” accolades from various organizations.

But the wine world is evolving. Tastes are changing, and a new generation of women is on the cutting edge of today’s vinous evolution. Three of them have spoken to The Daily Beast about their role as women vintners, their mentors, and the future of wine in America through their eyes. Cathy Corison is winemaker and proprietor of Corison Winery and has been making complex, nuanced, and terroir-driven wines in the Napa Valley. She occupies an interesting space; while Corison has made wine in Napa for more than four decades, her signature understated style is finally gaining widespread recognition that, for years, remained a well-kept insider secret.

Diana Snowden Seysses makes wine on two continents—at the world-renowned Domaine Dujac, with her husband, Jeremy Seysses, and his family, in Morey-St-Denis, and at her family’s esteemed Snowden Vineyards, in Napa Valley—while also raising a family. Christina Turley, also from Napa Valley, is head of marketing for her family’s winery, Turley Wine Cellars and is on a mission to revamp White Zinfandel’s image with a new project, a “White Zin” wine she began making in 2011.

When and how did you know you wanted a career in wine?

Cathy Corison: I fell in love with wine when I was 19, studying biology at Pomona College, 40 years ago. I took a wine appreciation class and wine grabbed me by the neck and ran with me. I have never looked back.

Diana Snowden Seysses: When I was 19, after my first summer job at Robert Mondavi Winery, I made the first very deliberate turn to winemaking and pursued it singlemindedly from then until I became a mother, and then my focus became more dispersed. At 19, winemaking was the perfect combination of everything I loved—I was a terrible tomboy, I liked getting dirty, I loved covering myself in must, lees, climbing stacked barrels… I also loved science, first the chemistry, and then quickly became enthralled by microbiology and its practical and epicurean applications, which continue to interest me today, be it wine, beer, cheese, breads and beyond. I love my compost heap! And finally, and perhaps most especially, winemaking was a perfect way to travel and see the world. Wine took me from my beautiful native home of California to South America and to France, where I live today.

Winemaking is very physical work. As an intern, I took pride in my cellar work. I roll[ed] barrels, carried buckets without spilling a drop, spit. I did it all just like any other cellar rat. My friends at Davis called me “Senorita Macho.” Once I was pregnant, I embraced my own femininity and settled into my role as decision maker and proprietor. I still spit. Sadly, I no longer roll barrels.

Christina Turley: I’d worked summers in the cellar and vineyards at my family’s winery, and tasted with my importer/distributor stepmother and grandfather, so I have been lucky to be around wine my whole life. However, it wasn’t until one day in early 2008 when I went to Momofuku Ssäm Bar for dinner with my father that I really had my wine “epiphany.” Their general manager and wine director at the time was Cory Lane, and he recognized my father and insisted on pouring wines for us. We ate this meat-heavy meal but drank, of all things, high-acid, light-bodied whites. At first I thought the guy had lost his damned mind, since it went against what [admittedly little] I knew about food and wine pairings. Cory explained the history behind each winemaker and their vineyards, as well as why he chose them to accompany each dish, casually but passionately. The added dimension of the history and imagery brought the whole meal to the next level for me; I was hooked, and I wanted to share that nearly transcendental experience with as many people as possible. I quit my fancy art-gallery job, threw myself into a wide variety of classes, and pestered Cory until he offered me a job. Having even the nominal amount of wine knowledge I do has vastly improved my quality of life, and I hope to do the same for as many folks as possible.

Did any women play a role in inspiring or mentoring you as you came up in this industry?

C.C.: I always admired Zelma Long, who was making the wine and running the winery at Robert Mondavi when I arrived in the Napa Valley in 1975, straight out of college. Though I never worked for her, she was a terrific role model in a day when women didn’t work much in any part of the wine business.

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D.S.S.: I was certainly first inspired by both Daphne Araujo and Francoise Peschon when I worked at Araujo in 2001. Daphne had vision. She took one of California’s longest celebrated vineyards and she and her husband created an estate which is in perfect harmony with its place and the people who tend it. Everything Daphne and Bart put in place felt healthy; from biodynamic farming, with the cheerful cover crops and natural insect deterrents like Alyssum to the honey bees to the full-time staff they employ for vineyard and cellar work. (Employing a full-time team is the norm in Burgundy. In California most wineries work with farming companies who send in workers punctually.)

Françoise, the winemaker at Araujo at the time, was hugely instructive. She was a winemaker who was connected with her vineyards. She had a good feeling for where they were and was not afraid of picking when things felt right (rather than letting it hang a few weeks longer as most were doing at the time). She also made a point of taking care of the troops, which at the time included myself, plus their full-time team. The wine world tends to glorify the winemaker when really it takes a team of hard-working people to tend vineyards and make wine.

Rosalind Seysses, my mother-in-law, has been a longtime model, mentor, and support. In the wine world, Jacques [Seysses] gets credit for making gorgeous wines [at Domaine Dujac]—and with reason, but Jacques and Roz built the domain together. Roz has excellent business instincts, is a historian by education, and thus has a good grasp of the bigger context of the wine world. She is a warm and vivacious host. This is so important! Burgundy is confusing. Moreover, it isn’t enough to do all the right things in the vineyards and winery if you don’t communicate this to your clients.

C.T.: I credit my stepmother, Suzanne Chambers, for a great deal of inspiration, as well as access to some amazing wines and people alike. She brings into California some of the greatest wines of Burgundy ([Domaines] Dujac, Leflaive, de Vogüé) and I’ve had the honor of accompanying her twice on trips to the region. To maintain these kind of strong, unique ties with now multiple generations (she started the company with her father over 40 years ago) of such legendary people is truly awe-inspiring.

Do you notice any changes in the winemaking style and philosophy in the Napa Valley? In California in general?

C.C.: There is fashion in wine, just like anything else. It would be hard not to notice the sea changes that have occurred over the years. Personally I have always been more interested in what the vineyards have to say than what is the flavor of the month.

D.S.S.: Yes, definitely. It is an exciting time in California at the moment. After about a decade of a rather ubiquitous, monolithic style of red wines, the door is opening to much more diversity in terms of style, origin of grapes, and grape variety. There is no longer this imposed vision of right or wrong wine style, only choices.

C.T.: I’m fairly deeply entrenched in just one small corner of the California wine world. That being said, I am super stoked about this little corner. Essentially it’s a lot of next-generation people—either literally second generations of wine families, or “new” folks who’ve come to Napa to make their way—who’ve gone out into the world and returned here with a more global perspective and approach. I think some of the rhetoric has gotten it wrong; we’re not out to reinvent the wheel, and obliterate “old” California. My favorite wine people have a firm foot in the past, they’re inspired by tradition, what those who came before them have planted, created, and built. It’s just that the other foot is kicking it’s way down some new paths, taking lessons from the Old World and the New and applying them in fresh, dynamic ways.

How, if at all, has being a woman in this industry influenced your style and your path?

C.C.: I don’t think being a woman affects my style. My goal is to make wines that are both powerful and elegant, speak of place, grace the table, and enjoy a long, interesting life. I basically make what I like to drink. As for my path, for better or worse, being a woman has often meant a generally higher profile. It’s a little harder to hide. 

D.S.S.: Ever since 2005, I’ve made different styles and choices myself. I’ve been trying to figure out what works, have gained confidence in my Burgundian ways, plus every harvest is a new version of the same place.

Anything else you can share?

D.S.S.: Yes. A bit of a girly point. The French have an adjective that the English language lacks—“digest.” Foods, wines are categorized as “digest” or “pas digest,” as in easy or difficult to digest. An apple—“digest,” rillette de canard—“pas digest,” you’re fighting with it all night. This is something I am really focusing on currently. I want to make wines that make you feel good, and feel good the next day. This element is lacking from the hang-time debate. One of the biggest reasons I don’t want to make a wine with 17 percent alcohol and residual sugar, aside from aesthetic objections, is because the next day, you feel like hell. During fermentation after about 15 percent alcohol, yeast starts producing histamines. Histamines + alcohol + residual sugar = hangover.

C.T.: I’m inspired by… the force to be reckoned with that is the female wine community. It’s large and getting larger, and they are hands-down the most creative, dedicated, helpful, and straight-up fun group of people—not just women—I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.