Top Women Winemakers and Vintners of California 10 min read
The women before you are icons, mega-talented, capable and fierce. They are scientists, artists, wives, moms and all around wine goddesses. Their power is fueled by raw talent, perseverance, dedication, faith and passion. They are blindingly beautiful and inspire me each and every day.
Heidi Peterson Barrett
Heidi was born into an artistic and winemaking family. Her dad, a legendary winemaker, encouraged young Heidi to pursue her passion. She wound up at UC Davis and was an assistant to Dr. Ann Noble, a famed aroma wheel developer. Post-graduation, she worked with Justin Meyer (Franciscan, Silver Oak) and at Rutherford Hill and Bouchaine. Her first job as a notable winemaker was at Buehler Vineyards, where she improved and built the brand exponentially. In 1988, her career took a giant leap when she left Buehler to pursue consulting. Her client list included Dalla Valle, David Arthur, Grace Family, Jones Family, Showket, Vineyard 29 and of course, the world-famous Screaming Eagle.
Ask anyone who tried Cathy’s wines and be prepared for the inevitable “OMG!” She is profoundly admired and respected by her colleagues, and deeply loved by consumers. Her prior work at Chappellet, Long Meadow Ranch, Staglin, and York Creek gave her the depth and breadth of experience to launch her own namesake label in 1987. Almost immediately, it caught favor with press and trade. Her wines are as unassuming and classically timeless as she is. They are endlessly elegant, deeply meaningful, and beautifully age worthy. Having made wine for three decades, her creativity and innate sense of balance continue to propel her offerings to greatness.
Bibiana Gonzalez Rave grew up in Colombia. Having fallen in love with wine, she pursued her viticultural studies at the University of Bordeaux. While in school, she worked at a number of wineries in Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cognac and Cote-Rotie. She then interned in California and South Africa to expand her world view. After stints at Au Bon Climat, Peay and Qupe, she moved on to Lynmar Estate where she became their winemaker. In 2012, she joined the Pahlmeyer team, as a winemaker in charge of Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. She has her own brand, with winemaker husband, Jeff Pisoni, called Shared Notes. Her wines are simply stunning, well worth trying.
Milla Handley is a pioneer who carved her own path through uncharted territory. She earned her Fermentation Science degree at UC Davis in 1975. She began at Chateau St. Jean where she worked under the tutelage of Richard Arrowood, followed a job at Edmeades, working with famed vintner, Jed Steele. Her own namesake brand was launched in 1982, in remote Anderson Valley. Equipped with a burning passion to make wines from this unknown, yet magnetic region, she has managed capture the essence of the Anderson Valley.
Genevieve hails from France, where she was introduced to winemaking by her father, who had vineyards in France. She later learned from her famous mentor, Emile Peynaud. She earned her degree from the University of Bordeaux, and soon found herself in Napa Valley. Fascinated by Robert Mondavi’s viticultural views, she became Production Director at Opus One in 1989 and winemaker at Mondavi in 1997. Genevieve’ fierce dedication to the uncompromising quality has paid off. She is widely regarded by her peers as one of the most important winemakers of our time.
Helen’s winemaking dreams started early and culminated in an Enology Masters degree from UC Davis. Following school, she interned at Mumm. At Paradigm, she became an assistant winemaker under the tutelage of Heidi Barrett. Later she worked with Kathy Joseph at Fiddlehead Cellars, where she honed her Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir making skills. A pivotal moment came when she moved to Priorat, Spain to make wine and study the craft of micro production. She and her husband traveled throughout Europe and learned the craft of winemaking. She came back to Napa in 2005 and re-joined Heidi Barrett at Kenzo Estate. She has also consulted at Arrow and Branch, Bryant Family, Fort Ross, and Scully Wines. She recently launched her own namesake brand that is in pursuit of perfection in Rhone varietals.
Mia Klein’s career started as a chef. Her love of wine led her to UC Davis, where she studied viticulture. Upon her graduation she worked her way from the ground up. Her mentors were Cathy Corison, Robert Pepi, Tony Soter, and Heidi Barrett. Her clients soon included prestigious brands such as Araujo, Bressler, Dalla Valle, Fisher, Spottswoode and Viader. In 1991, Mia launched her own label, Selene, which focuses on Bordeaux varietals.
It seems as though all roads lead to UC Davis. Similar to her colleagues, she graduated from their prestigious wine program. Post Davis, Virginia went to work in Napa at Hendry, and later, at Concha y Toro in Chile. Subsequently, she made wine at Lynmar and De Loach, where she pioneered s biodynamic practices long before they were en vogue. Her then mentors, Greg La Follette and Hugh Chappelle played a major role in shaping her viticultural philosophy. In 2008, her own brand, Truett Hurst Winery, was created. These days she is responsible for winemaking operations at Truett Hurst in Dry Creek, VML in RRV and Bradford Mountain in Healdsburg Ranches. She is a staunch proponent of biodynamics and sustainable farming in its highest form.
Martha is one of those individuals that, upon meeting, you are instantly and thoroughly impressed. Having graduated with a degree in Oenology and Viticulture from Geisenheim University in Germany, she spent a decade honing her winemaking skills in a variety of countries. Upon returning to the U.S., she joined Merryvale Vineyards. While there, she also began working for Harlan Estate, where she made wines through the 2000 vintage. Next came Sloan and Blankiet Estate and Checkerboard Vineyards, all cult, boutique wineries. She currently is consulting winemaker at Harlan Estate and Hamel Family Wines. After years of practicing the skills of their shared passion at other venues, Martha McClellan and Robert Levy, her husband, combined their individual experiences in an independent endeavor of their own, called Levy & McClellan.
A force to be reckoned with, Polish-born Anna Monticelli earned her degree in Viticulture and Enology at the UC Davis. As an undergraduate, she spent a year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris and took summer courses in Italy and Poland. Her first harvest was at Château Cheval Blanc. Upon her return to California, she joined Seavey Vineyard in Napa Valley. Later, she became Assistant Winemaker at Bryant Family Vineyard. In 2007, she joined Piña Napa Valley as winemaker. Anna met her husband, Mario, while they were students at UC Davis. Today they have a joint winemaking venture, Esca Wines. Esca is the Italian word for “allurement”, an expression of winemaking and living that Anna and Mario embrace.
A fierce redhead, Lane Tanner is a native Californian, where she earned a degree in chemistry from San Jose State. She started at Mt. Konocti Winery, first as a bottle labeler, then as a lab assistant. Later, as Mt. Konocti’s new enologist, she was introduced to none other than Andre Tchelistcheff. Having lived up to her newfound reputation, she earned Mr. Tchelistcheff’s recommendation for the enology job at Firestone Winery. In 1984, Lane started making wines for the Hitching Post restaurant. By 1989, the Lane Tanner label was born. She sources Pinot Noir grapes from the finest vineyards in Santa Barbara County, such as Bien Nacido, Julia’s, Melville, Sanford and Benedict, and Sierra Madre. In 2012, she partnered up with Will Henry at Lumen Wines in 2013. There, she continues to source Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit from Sierra Madre Vineyard and Grenache and Grenache Blanc from Los Alamos vineyards.
Her own label: Marcassin
Helen Turley, a highly regarded winemaker and wine consultant, began her higher education at St. John’s College in Annapolis and graduated from Cornell University. In 1977, she began working in the lab for Robert Mondavi Winery, with a position at Chappellet following soon afterwards. After landing a winemaking position at B.R. Cohn, she became a founding winemaker for Peter Michael. An extraordinary visionary, she planted a vineyard in the Sonoma Coast region in 1991. At the time, the region was quite enigmatic, and considered by many too cool to produce world-class wines. This vineyard is now produces grapes for the highly coveted Marcassin label. Up until 1995, Helen also made wine for Turley Wine Cellars, and worked as a consulting winemaker at Colgin Cellars, Kapcsandy, Blankiet Estate, Martinelli, Pahlmeyer Winery, Landmark Vineyards, and Bryant Family.
Her own label: Viader Vineyards and Winery
Is there anything Delia can’t do? Delia Viader was born in Argentina, and came to the U.S. as a post-graduate student. She holds a doctorate in Philosophy from the Sorbonne. Later she pursued advanced business degrees at both MIT and UC Berkeley. She fell in love with wine and ended up buying a Howell Mountain vineyard and founded Viader in 1986. Delia studied Enology and Viticulture at UC Davis. Her first vintage was 1989. In 2003, she started the DARE line that focuses on single varieties, utilizing Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and Cabernet Franc. Always “daring to be different,” Delia decided to focus on the Bordeaux style of winemaking. In 2002, her son, Alan, joined Delia on the winemaking and production team.
Current client: Chimney Rock
Elizabeth Vianna was a pre-med student at Vassar College, when she first sipped a glass of ’85 Sociando Mallet. This instant infatuation led her to UC Davis, where she earned her degree, while interning at Chimney Rock. Upon graduation, she was hired as an enologist at the Napa Wine Company and soon found herself working alongside Heidi Barrett, Pam Starr and Celia Welch. Elizabeth became Chimney Rock’s winemaker in 2005, and is steadily making history. Consistently producing some of the most well regarded Bordeaux blends in the valley; she quickly became an important winemaking figure and a mentor to a new generation of winemakers. Her passions have served her, and the consumers, well.
Celia Welch grew up in Oregon, where she was exposed to wine early in her life, courtesy of her father, an avid wine collector and home winemaker. She enrolled in UC Davis, earning a degree in Fermentation Science. After graduation, traveled to many wine regions worldwide, yet in the end, set her sights on Napa Valley. She has worked with many well-known wineries, including Mt. Veeder, Silverado Vineyards, Robert Pepi and Staglin Family Vineyard. She has produced wines from a multitude of diverse appellations, such as Atlas Peak, Carneros, Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder, and St. Helena. She is renowned for seamlessly framing each region’s unique characteristics. After decades of making wine for others, in 2004 she founded her own brand, Corra Wines. Corra is the name of a Celtic deity symbolizing harvest bounty and prophetic vision. She sources fruit from Oakville, Rutherford, and Pritchard Hill, to create her magical blends.