At the turn of the century, an article touting fabulous wines made by women would have been depressingly short. Not because great wines weren’t being made by women but because there were so few women winemakers. Today, as women are helming the tanks at more and more wineries, it takes a lot of paring down and painful decisions to get that list down to an even dozen.
Even today, women comprise a minority percentage of winemakers around the world. In California, approximately 20 percent of winemakers are female and just 4 percent of the state’s 3,7000+ wineries are owned by women. But those numbers—in California and beyond—have been steadily rising during the 21st century and show no sign of slowing its ascent.
The women below all make several stellar wines, often for several different wineries, but we’ll focus on one apiece here and start with the pioneers—the ones who would have been in such a column 19 years ago.
Willamette Valley wine was scuffling along in the mid-1980s, a nascent industry when the esteemed Drouhin family from Burgundy alighted there. That grabbed the wine world’s attention in a big way, and the rest is glorious history. Véronique Drouhin made her first vintage in 1988 and continues to craft gorgeous chardonnays and pinot noirs (naming one of the chards after son Arthur and pinots after daughters Laurène and Louise, poking fun at gender stereotypes). Start with the Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2015 ($48, available at Liquor Boy, Edina Liquor, Lunds & Byerlys, and others).
After a successful stint at Chappellet, Cathy Corison founded an eponymous winery in 1987 and from the outset made profound cabernet sauvignon. Corison Napa Cabernets are earthy delights in their youth but are built for the long run, proving as age-worthy as any Napa cab. Many consumers will blanch at the $100 price tag, but this is as good as it gets for even twice the price (available at 1010 Washington, The Wine Shop, and others).
Merry Edwards made her name at Mount Eden and then as co-founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek, and in 1997 opened her own winery. She’s best-known for her pinot noirs, but her rich, barrel-fermented sauvignon has an almost cult-like following. From the get-go in 2001, “it took off like a ruptured duck,” she told me a few years ago. Again, $48 might seem like a lot, but I’d stack the hedonistic Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc 2015 against most any domestic chard (available at BrightWines, Cedar Lake, Hennepin-Lake, and others).
Carole Meredith gained renown as a University of California, Davis enology professor whose research uncovered the origins of the cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, syrah, and zinfandel grapes. She and husband Steve Lagier bought remote property on Napa’s Mount Veeder in 1986 and planted grapes in 1994, and she made their first wines in 2000. The rustic, evocative Lagier Meredith Mount Veeder Syrah 2015 rewards decanting ($50, available at France 44).
Carol Shelton also started making wine under her own name in 2000, and I was fortunate enough to taste her super-delicious zins from the get-go. These wines are always perfectly ripe but never flabby or over-the-top, actually playing well with food (lamb!). The Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 is an incredibly smooth offering from 60-year-old vines ($22, available at Cheers Bloomington, Top 10, 1st Grand, Vinifera, and others).
Meanwhile, closer to home, Nan Bailly has been toiling away for decades, forging rugged but approachable wines in hardscrabble conditions that she calls “the deserted tundra nothingness of Minnesota.” Nan’s father, David Bailly, founded Alexis Bailly down in Hastings way in the early 1970s, making it the state’s oldest winery. Despite having to replant vineyards constantly, Bailly has made a red blend called Voyageur a consistent gem ($30, available at Lake Wine & Cheese, Surdyk’s, Apple Valley municipal liquor stores, Stinson, and others. Voyageur is also available on the all-women-made wine menu at Barbette on March 8 for the restaurant’s International Women’s Day Wine Celebration).
At the other end of the experience spectrum is another Minnesotan, Pattie Björnson, who has been making wine on her own only since 2014. She and her husband, Mark, moved to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 2005 and started Björnson Vineyard in 2009, with Pattie apprenticing under John Grochau. She knocked it out of the park with her very first vintage: The Björnson 2014 Estate Pinot Noir is super-tasty and elegant ($35, available at Princeton, Lowertown, Liquor Vault, and others), and ratings on the soon-to-arrive 2015s are stout.
Another local couple who made the move west, Duane and Susan Hoff, had the good sense to hire the esteemed Heidi Barrett to make their wines for Fantesca. And while the winery is in Napa, the Fantesca Chardonnay 2015 ($75, available at North Loop and France 44) is sourced from three esteemed vineyards in Sonoma County. This is truly exhilarating stuff, racy but generous with a veritable fruit cocktail of flavor.
More tasty Sonoma chardonnay goes into the mix of the widely admired sparkling wines from J Vineyards, a winery launched by Judy Jordan and sold a few years ago to E & J Gallo, operated by Gina Gallo. So it fits that the winemaker is also a woman, Nicole Hitchcock. The J Vineyards Cuvee 20 Brut ($33, available at Total, Target, Morelli’s, Surdyk’s, and others) is brisk but super-smooth with a fab finish.
Speaking of brisk, few grenaches in the world boast the purity and precision of those crafted by Angela Osborne at Central California’s A Tribute to Grace winery. With almost rosé-like clarity in appearance and taste, the A Tribute to Grace Santa Barbara County Grenache 2016 ($30, available at Henry & Son, South Lyndale, 1010 Washington, and Thomas) delivers a jolt of springtime.
At Rock Wall, Shauna Rosenblum works in a different style, making exuberant, fruit-forward wines from all manner of grapes. She learned from her dad, Minnesota native Kent Rosenblum, and she learned very well. She shares his zen for zin and the Rock Wall Cuvee Exceptionnelle 2016 ($17, available at Lexington, MGM, and Haskell’s) is an exemplar of this popular style.
Finally, we head overseas, where Alexandra Boudrot is crushing it with clean, focused whites, reds, and bubbles in France’s Alsace region. Exhibit A: the Pierre Sparr Mambourg Pinot Gris 2016 ($45), a truly exciting wine, although the “regular” Pinot Gris ($16) is a dandy place to start (both available at Apollo, McDonald’s, Sunfish Cellars, and others).