Women Winemakers Uncork Their Experiences


Get a group of women together for a panel, and it’s bound to be a chatty time.

Get a group of women together for a panel — along with 10 different wines to taste — and a good time is guaranteed for all.

Such was the case at the “Women in Wine” seminar at last weekend’s first annual Pebble Beach Food & Wine event. Winemakers Carissa Chappellet of Chappellet Winery, Pamela Starr of Crocker & Starr, Celia Masyczek of Corra and Hollywood & Vine, Stephanie Putnam of Far Niente Winery, and Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards shared their passions and experiences breaking into what had long been a man’s world.

Starr had planned to go to dental school. Wong once wanted to be a cheesemaker. But like the rest of the women on the panel, they found themselves drawn to winemaking.

As Starr said, “I found I really liked transforming fresh fruit into something transcendent.”

Most of them started working in winery cellars, an often back-breaking position that required them to prove their physical might by dragging 100-pound water hoses, or shoveling out huge tanks.

At the first winery she worked at, Masyczek found herself the only woman in the cellar. “It was very physical. The barrels were heavy. Most tasks were two-person jobs, and nobody ever wanted to be my partner because they were afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold up my share of the work.”

Finally, she found a novel way to win over her male counterparts.

“I started reading the sports pages every morning,” she said with a laugh. “Even though I wasn’t into sports, I could talk to them about who scored in what game. That’s what finally broke the ice to be a member of an all-male team.”

Do they ever think that wine reviewers — which some industry insiders still consider an old boy’s network — overlook wines made by women?

Starr said she sometimes does a double-take when she sees the scores for some wines that she knows are far better than what they were ranked. “Numbers can be helpful as guides,” she said. “But sometimes they do a disservice. And sometimes it does make you think that men are more comfortable with other men.”

Still, Wong believes there is a benefit to being a woman in a world where so many big-name male winemakers try to tailor their wines specifically to the palates of influential male wine reviewers.

“I think women have more freedom to make different wines,” she said, “because they’re outsiders already.”

So do women in general make a different style of wine than men?

None on the panel thought so. “It’s easy to generalize that women make softer wines,” said Emily Wines, a Master Sommelier at the Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco and a moderator on the panel. “But that’s not true. We could easily do a seminar featuring many powerful wines made by women.”

Still, those in the audience agreed the wines tasted that day all shared a certain elegance and finesse. Just like the women themselves.

Here were the wines tasted:


2006 Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($28): Floral on the nose, with exotic fruit flavors. Has a slight toasty-ness, and high acidity. Would rock alongside tropical fruit salad or seared white fish.

2006 Peay Vineyards Estate Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($50): Aromas of butter, popcorn, and limestone. Unfiltered, it’s very acidic and minerally.

2006 Chappellet Estate Chardonnay Napa Valley ($30): Smooth and buttery, barrel-fermented for eight months in French oak.

2006 Far Niente Estate Chardonnay Napa ($56): A Chardonnay that does not undergo malolactic fermentation, it is crisp and acidic, with bright apple and pear flavors, and a viscous texture in the mouth.

2006 Hollywood & Vine Cellars Chardonnay 2480 Napa Valley ($42): The “2480” refers to the address of the owner’s house. Another non-malolatic fermented wine, it has fresh citrus and floral notes.

2006 Peay Scallop Shelf Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($52): Lovely flavors of cherry, tea, smoked ham, and dried orange peel. Of all the wines that Peay winemaker Wong makes, this is her favorite.

2004 Crocker & Starr Stone Place Cabarnet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($90): Two years in the barrel, then one year in the bottle, before being released. A rich cab with dark fruit and chocolatey flavors.

2004 Corra Cabarnet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($125): In French oak for two years, it has flavors of dark cherry, cedar, blackberry, and chocolate.

2005 Far Niente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($125): Super velvety, with cassis and huckleberry.

2005 Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabarnet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($125): Black cherry, plum, dark chocolate and coffee notes abound in this very concentrated, lush wine.

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