Women winemakers have made their mark on California wine. Here are two of our favorites:
Genevieve is Director of Winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery. She also makes gorgeous Cab with her artist husband Luc at their little cellar in Napa town, next to their home. We visited it years ago and were struck by its sheer sense of perfection — from its gorgeous wooden doorway to the barrels so carefully stacked. The Janssens serenade them with classical music and have hosted visitors from around the world in their intimate cellar. It was like being within a work of art (Luc’s designs grace the labels), and the wine … mon dieu, as Geneviève, who is from France, might say.
Genevieve’s resume is long and varied, with much consulting work and a long, productive association with Robert Mondavi. In 1989, she headed up production at Opus One and in 1997 became Director of Winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery.
In 2009, Geneviève received a title as “Officier” of The Ordre National du Mérite Agricole, a French entity that honors services to agriculture. We honor her service to wine whenever we uncork Portfolio … what an incredible career, and it’s not over yet!
Milla Handley first caught our attention in the early 1990s, when she was just developing her Handley Cellars in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. In those days, traveling to this picturesque valley just 20 miles from California’s spectacular coastal highway was an adventure. Aside from Roederer, Milla’s was one of the few wineries there. She and her husband Rex finished building in 1987, and every time we visit, we love it more. Milla has such a deep feeling for the land and its creatures — her vineyard was organically certified in 2005. Producing wines in a sustainable way fits in exactly with Milla’s values. She raised two daughters here, and always reserved part of the property for her horses, which have been another passion in her life. Milla’s Pinot Noir and Alsace varietals like Gewürztraminer are expressive not just of the Anderson Valley terroir, but also, of this winemaker’s distinctive, independent spirit. At a time when few women held degrees in Fermentation from U.C. Davis, she moved forward to create her own winery. Thank you, Milla!
Harvesting grapes — should be a breeze right? Here are a few ways it might be more complex than you expect:
- the needs of different blocks: A vineyard with complicated topography, like rolling hills, varying elevations and proximity to rivers or lakes can pose some challenges as far as timing of harvest. As many winemakers tell us, some blocks ripen earlier than others. You have to know when to pick.
- the needs of different varietals: Like vineyard blocks, some grape varieties ripen earlier than others. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are often picked earlier than say, Cabernet or Merlot.
- weather: A heat spike may push the grapes to ripeness very quickly. Are you ready? Then again, rain may threaten grapes that aren’t quite at perfect maturity. Will you take the chance to leave them on the vine, so they can ripen further?
- harvesters: With new restrictions on immigration, the laborers from Mexico that California agriculture depends on have thinned. Can you get pickers when you need them?
- crush: Let’s say you are one of many “virtual” winemakers — you have no vineyards or winery facility of your own. And now you have tons of grapes in a truck ready for crush and … is there room at the co-op winery for your load? Or do you have a relationship in place at a winery where you can quickly process those grapes? Because with grapes, time is of the essence — processing when they are cool, just after harvest, is best for the wine you hope to make.
Where can you see volcanoes rising through the mist in wine country? Where does cowboy country ride with Cabernet? Where is there a world class beach just minutes from wine country? Where is there a famous “castle” that figures in a vintage movie about its eccentric owner?
You’ll find it all in San Luis Obispo, a little known region on California’s Central Coast. It starts in the south at Cayucos, a western-themed coastal village and ends up in Arroyo Grande, cowboy country. Its range includes inland and coastal attractions for every age and interest.
In addition to a castle called San Simeon on breathtaking hwy. 1 (built by William Randolph Hearst, getaway for Hollywood’s elite in the early 20th century) , there are working ranches where you can overnight, then ride through the vineyards on horseback in the morning (www.greengateranch.com). Or hang out at Pismo Beach with plenty of great hotels to choose from (www.seacrestpismo.com – it’s pet friendly).
And then, there’s wine country. Those volcanoes we mentioned can be seen from Baileyana Winery in Edna Valley. Churchill & Claiborne are found in another corner of the valley (terrific whites!). Nearby Arroyo Grand Valley is the second appellation of SLO. Both share the significant cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean that produces great acidity and balance in SLO wines.
Meanwhile, back at the castle…there’s a winery nearby the castle co-founded by Steve Hearst of San Simeon’s Hearst family. It’s worth a pour, just like SLO.
Been to SLO? Any favorite wineries, restaurants, hangouts?
The click of footsteps on a winery floor these days is most likely not a woman in high heels. It’s usually the winery dog. And he or she is most often a tail-waggin’, all-in ambassador for his work/play place, the winery.
We love winery dogs. Dogs are full of the joy of life and perfectly match the tone of most people who step into a tasting room ready for a good time. Smile! Yip! Let’s get happy together!
Winery dogs clearly love their jobs. Who wouldn’t, if your job consisted of:
jump in truck
ride around on forklift
eat a grape
slush water around
run through a vineyard
wag tail and get workers to give you their sandwiches
Winery Dogs Publishing offers books featuring Fidos in Napa, Sonoma, Oregon, New York and Central California, typically from a dog’s eye view. They are a good reminder of what’s important in life — a toothy smile, a friendly paw, a roll-over-and-play invite. All, of course, with a glass of wine at the ready.
Do you have a favorite winery dog?
Frank Family: ED Skupien
Turning points. They’re part of life and certainly part of California wine history. Here are three worth considering:
- 1920 to 1933, Prohibition. Prohibition nearly ended California’s wine industry. Sure, some wineries survived by shipping grapes back east, since the law allowed some home winemaking. But wineries shut down by the dozen. Even worse, whole vineyards of premium grapes were ripped out and replaced with big yielding grape varieties of lesser quality. It would take more than 30 years before California’s wine industry set out on the road to recovery.
- 1966 – Robert Mondavi started his own winery. Mondavi had worked at Sunny St. Helena Winery in Napa and graduated from Stanford University with business savvy and a passion for wine. Mondavi was a visionary. He convinced his father, Cesare, an Italian immigrant who began a wine business in Lodi, to buy Charles Krug Winery in Napa. After Cesare’s death, Robert and his brother Peter fought over the direction of that winery and parted ways. In 1966, at age 53, Robert built the first new winery in Napa Valley since the late 1930s.
He arrived at just the right moment for California wine. His passion, belief that wine should be part of every day living and conviction that California wines could become world-class inspired a generation.
- 1980s-1990s Phylloxera in Napa Valley: In the early 1990s, nearly 50,000 acres of wine grapes in Napa and northern California were ripped out and burned, due to a vine-sucking louse called Phylloxera. But this bug had a silver lining: it allowed wineries to replant vineyards, that were planted in the 1970s with the wrong grape varieties for the terroir. This was an incredible stroke of good luck for Napa Valley. The new vineyards with varieties suited to the terroir began an exciting new chapter in higher quality Napa winemaking.
Pollsters say that wine and beer are running pretty much neck and neck popularity-wise. We don’t get it — because wine is so much more FUN than beer.
Okay, call us biased. Because we are!
We’ve never seen a field of hops that looked as romantic as a vineyard, with the vines heavy with purple fruit in late summer, and leaves going to crimson during veraison in the fall.
We’ve never experienced a bottle of beer changing during the course of a meal. The glass of wine you thought you new at the start of dinner might gradually reveal its full personality, an amazing transformation, so much so that what you thought was a nice wine turns out to be superlative.
No bottle of beer has ever inspired us to go to the beer country and travel around to where the hops are grown. We’ve never seen beer inspire chefs to create whole dining experiences around it. We’ve never seen anyone give someone an anniversary year beer as a gift. Beer has never sparked heated discussions about vintages and the differences and between them and why this vintage is so much better than that, all conducted with tastings of wines from those vintages and sniffing, swirling and sipping the years.
Which is not to say, beer isn’t fun. We love beer. It’s just that…wine’s better.
Some of us like older wine (and we’re talking reds here, since in California, whites rarely are made to age). An older Cab or blend of Bordeaux varietals like Cab, Merlot and Cabernet Franc tends to be less fruity than youthful wine. The flavors and aromas can become more complex over time, and if the wine was well-balanced in the beginning — meaning the tannins, fruit and acidity harmonize together– it will be later, too.
So, how do you tell if a wine is age-worthy? That’s a whole topic in itself that we’ll be exploring in Uncorked this January. In the meantime, here’s a thought –if you’re looking for an ageable red, look at the price tag.
Very few reds under $40 are going to be worthy of aging. Why? Because producing a very long-lived red requires time, effort and money. It’s costly to grow or buy beautifully balanced fruit. Wineries need even more money for the high quality oak barrels where the wine will age, often two years or more. Aging wine so long is expensive — inventory just sitting on the shelf.
So, the quick tip of the day about finding an ageworthy red is this: start with the $40 and over reds (and a varietal known for ageability – but that’s another day).
Now, there’s no guarantee a $40 or more bottle will be ageable — but it’s just about certain that a $20 bottle won’t be.
What about you? Do you like age-worthy wines, and do you find they’re more expensive?