Are women winemakers taking California by storm? 3 min read

There are over 3,700 wineries in the state of California. How many women winemakers are taking California by storm? Roughly 10% of California wineries have a woman as either a winemaker or consultant. Without question, some of these women have become wine aficionado favorites. Included in this list of extraordinary women winemakers are:


Heidi Barrett, who turns out California’s most sought after “cult” wines, including Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Paradigm, Grace Family, Amuse Bouche, Lamborn, Showket, Fantesca, Kenzo, and La Sirena.


Helen Turley, who started out at Turley Cellars, and soon became a rock star consultant to the likes of Pahlmeyer, Bryant Family, Colgin, and Blankiet. She was also a mentor to future wine stars, Mark Aubert and Philippe Melka. Most notably, she’s the owner of a 9-acre vineyard called Marcassin—an über cult winery on the California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay scene.


Mia Klein, a professional chef, turned winemaker. Klein was a winemaker for such critically acclaimed wineries as Araujo, Bressler, Boyanci, Chappellet, Cimarossa, Dalla Valle, Spottswoode, Viader. She has her own well-regarded brand, Selene.


Milla Handley, trailblazer, proprietor of Handley Cellars who made her historic 1982 Handley Chardonnay.


Perhaps just as renowned, Celia Welch, recently made news at Premier Napa Valley. Her Scarecrow bottling fetched $4,333 per bottle at this prestigious trade auction. Her other clients include such notable brands as Barbour, Kelly Fleming, Keever, Hollywood & Vine, Lindstrom and Bucella. Welch’s own brand, Corra, was born in 2004, and has been earning accolades from retail and critics alike. Her love of the science and artistry involved in winemaking defines her as a magnificent talent. Celia’s numerous awards include Food & Wine’s Winemaker of the Year,’s Top Ten Tastemakers, and a James Beard Award nomination.


Powerful yet elegant, the name Corra Cabernet Sauvignon is derived from a Celtic harvest deity. It is a complex wine bottled without fining or filtration, and made from fruit sourced from three premium vineyards in Oakville, Rutherford, and Pritchard Hill. Cabernet Sauvignon affirms Celia Welch’s talent as a winemaker.


At a CabFest seminar, a female journalist from the audience asked the question,”What should I, as a woman wine writer talk about, what issues near and dear to you should be covered from a woman’s perspective?” Celia immediately fired back, “First of all you are not a woman writer. You are a writer. Write well and they will read and respect you for it.” Heidi Barrett quickly chimed in saying the media’s obsession with the concept of “women winemakers” and the premise behind the concept was “just silly.”


One of Celia’s fellow panelists, Martha McClellan, exemplifies the balancing act between managing a wildly successful career, stepping out from one’s husband’s shadow, and being a mother of three.


Martha is a co-winemaker and co-owner of Levy & McClellan, together with her husband Bob Levy, a winemaker for Harlan Estate. She is also a winemaker at Checkerboard Vineyards and Sloan Estate. She also spent three years at the highly regarded Blankiet Estate.


Robert Parker described her as having an “extraordinary resume, limitless talent, and a perfectionist, nearly obsessive, attitude toward making world-class wines.” She is the only American woman to have earned a degree in Oenology and Viticulture from Geisenheim University.


American society obsesses over labels. The truth is that gender does not a person or a profession make.


True, statistically most winemakers, vintners, and grape growers are men. Undoubtedly, men preside over the wine retail and restaurant world. Likewise, men dominate professional wine tasting events.


But, instead of worrying about the gender, we should focus on the person and their individual accomplishments. Let the politicians fight over imaginary issues such as the “war on women.” The rest of us ought to focus on what makes this country truly great, individual achievements and triumphs. These women are world-class winemakers. Let’s celebrate their success, not their gender!

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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