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A Day With Women Winemakers

Prior to attending the 2nd Annual Sonoma County Barrel Auction, as part of the event "pre-parties," I was lucky enough to tour and taste current release wines at Gary Farrell Winery and have dinner in the caves of Pride Mountain Winery. While we are usually on the retail side of the three tier system, we sometimes get to peek behind the curtain and visit with the winemakers that are producing these amazing wines. It turns out, to my surprise and delight, that we spent the entire day surrounded by some amazing female winemakers, which, it seems, is kind of rare.

We started our day with winemaker, TTheresa Heredia and Karen Orlandiheresa Heredia, and general manager, Nancy Bailey, at Gary Farrell Winery. The tasting at Gary Farrell has evolved since the last time we visited, no doubt the result of these two ladies. We were seated at a table overlooking the gorgeous Russian River valley on a warm, Spring afternoon. Since we had an appointment, they had printed our names on the tasting menu - an extra special touch, I thought. Nancy visited each guest and you could see she was truly dedicated to making sure their experience exceeded their expectations. After a gracious tour of their facility by Nancy and Theresa we tasted through a line-up of Chardonnay and Pinot, including a barrel sample of the wine we would be bidding on later at the auction. Theresa, an alumna of Joseph Phelps, Freestone, and a harvest at Domaine de Montille crafting Burgundian Pinot, told us about how she is feathering in her personal touches to the signature Gary Farrell style. We could certainly taste the slight nuances in the Pinot Noirs.

It was the Chardonnay grapes from the Allen vineyard that Theresa used for the SoCo Barrel Auction wine. Unlike their typical Rochioli-Allen Chardonnay that they place into 40% new french oak for fermentation and aging, the special barrel lot was put into this interesting concrete "egg" that gives the wine gorgeous minerality. It was fun to taste them side by side, since the terroir is nearly the same. Both were lovely in their own right and carried the sophistication for which Gary Farrell is known. Just when we thought we couldn't love anything more, the 2013 Rochioli Chardonnay really impressed us. Scored 96 points by Robert Parker, this wine is one that you might bring out for a special dinner with your partner and just sink into its deliciousness with a big smile on your face. The best news, however, is that Gary Farrell graciously allowed us to purchase a case of the (sold out at the winery) 2013 Rochioli Chardonnay and the 2013 Rochioli-Allen Chardonnay to offer out to our customers. So call quick if you want some!

After Gary Farrell, we drove across the valley to a peak in the Mayacamas mountain range to have dinner at Pride Mountain. As a winning bidder at last year's Sonoma County Barrel Auction, we joined other "founders" and the Pride family for an evening of wine tasting and dinner, made by famous Duskie Estes of Zazu Kitchen + Farm – a former iron chef contestant, another amazing woman! As our first time visiting Pride, I didn't recognize co-proprietor Suzanne Pride Bryan, who greeted us at the bar so warmly that I initially mistook her for another guest.

Suzanne's brother, Steve Pride, was spot on when he articulated that the Pride family reputation is one of sincerity, caring, respect and fun. The personalized speeches, the genuine kindness of each staff member we spoke with, and even the food we ate were all consistent in that message. The only thing that didn't align was their wine, which is sophisticated, balanced and (in a good way) elite. In fact, if you didn't know that this winery is one of Robert Parkers top 156 in the world or that it has been served 32 times at the White House, you might think you were visiting a humble, boutique winery anxious to have you become a fan of their wines. To me, Suzanne and Steve have developed their parents' legacy into something truly special.

sally johnson of pride mountain winery sampling barrelsAnd the person at the core of Pride Mountain's winemaking success for the past 9 years, including the 100-point Robert Parker scoring 2012 vintage Reserve Cab, is Sally Johnson. Sally clearly knows what she is doing and leverages all of her resources to make the very best wines. But she is also disarmingly down-to-earth. I shared a brief moment with Sally, discussing work-life balance of career demands and caring for our small children. As an example of her juggling, she had worked all day, ran home to wait for the evening babysitter, drove back to the winery for our event, and she had a cold that night - another supermom!

During the amazing meal we were able to sample several varietals and vintages from Pride Mountain. They were all fantastic and I found myself finishing my glass far too soon.  Normally, you can only buy current releases of these wines if you are on their mailing list. Typically, we obtain back vintage wines from collectors, but for just this one time we were able to scoop up a case of the 2013 Pride Merlot and the 2013 Pride Cabernet. The Merlot, almost Cab-like with tremendous density and size, has flavors of chocolate, plum, strawberry, wet shale, crushed rose petal and spice.  And the 2013 Cab is classic Pride Mountain, with flavors of dark ripe berries, a range of baking spices, cedar and mocha.

It dawned on me while I was in the dark Pride Mountain caves, tasting their barrel samples of the latest cabs, that I hadn't ever spent a day in wine country with this many women leaders. I wondered about the adoption rates of females in this industry and what challenges they may be facing that hinders their advancement. When I got home I came across this great white paper (sent to me by another fabulous female winemaker, Kerith Overstreet) that analyzed the percentage of women winemakers and confirmed that women winemakers are very slowly increasing their presence in the field. Women represent* 50% of the graduating classes in Enology, but represent only 10% of the lead winemaking populous (* in California). They project that in the next ten years the percentage of female winemakers should grow to 20%. I found the statistics, like those about relationships to ownership and premium labels, to be quite interesting.

The literature I read wasn't opinion based, so I had to make my own hypotheses for what might be the challenges for women winemakers. Whatever it is that is preventing most women winemakers from attaining head winemaker status, I can only hope that time will remove any unfair hurdles and make the penetration on an even footing with men. As with most social issues, we have a ways to go. One thing that resonated with me was that during my evening wining and dining in Sonoma County last week I was particularly proud and inspired by the strong female role models that were so pronounced. Way to go, ladies!