In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s explore the paths of a few women winemakers along the Wine Road.
Women have been a part of the wine industry for a very long time. Until recently, a woman rarely was given the title of winemaker. When I first started in the industry, there were a few assistant winemakers or enologists, but you rarely hear of a woman touted as the winemaker, unless they owned their own winery.
We’re grateful this has changed, yet the number of female winemakers or vineyard managers remains low. I’d like to share with you some of the women who worked for decades before they found their path to recognition.
The path to recognition has been a long one for Carol Shelton, but when she was finally able to put her name to the wines she made, accolades arrived from everywhere.
After graduating from UC Davis in the late 1970s, Carol found her winemaking dreams wouldn’t be as simple to fulfill as she had thought.
In a past interview, Carol said, “Women weren’t allowed to work in the cellar. We weren’t considered strong enough, but I think many of us proved this conception to be dead wrong: by hauling hoses, pushing around pumps, shoveling out a tank full of grapes – and yes it’s hard physical labor, but women can do it.”
Carol paid her dues in the cellar for a couple of decades, producing stellar wines, but the winemaking credit was never hers. In 2000, with the encouragement and support of family and friends, Carol launched Carol Shelton Wines.
Within a few vintages, she garnered critical acclaim from the wine media and numerous wine competitions. With many wines earning 90+ scores and countless Best of Class, Double Gold and Gold medals, Carol Shelton is still going strong. Honored as Winemaker of the Year numerous times, Carol deserves to be toasted as trail blazer that proved women do belong in the cellar, and they can produce stellar wines we all love!
To read more about Carol’s winemaking journey, I encourage you to visit the About Us page on the Carol Shelton Wine’s website.
Another early trail blazer for women in the wine industry, Julia Iantosca was fortunate to find a job as a winemaker only a few years after graduating in the late 1970s from UC Davis with her degree in Fermentation Science.
Best known for her years as winemaker at Lambert Bridge, Julia has been looked up to as an icon; one of the few women who was able to get the coveted job and title of Winemaker. A feat that was rare in the 1990s in Sonoma County.
Julia now works as a freelance or consulting winemaker. If you’d like to taste the magic in a bottle she continues to create, visit Saini Vineyards to savor Julia’s wines.
Like Carol Shelton, Phyllis Zouzounis spent years working behind the scenes before she started her own winery, Deux Amis, with another friend from work. When her friend decided it was time to retire, Phyllis transitioned into her eponymous brand, Zouzounis Wines.
In 2017, Marcy Gordon interviewed Phyllis for a Wine Road blog entitled, Reflections Beyond the Road – Phyllis Zouzounis. In the interview, Phyllis shared some of her memories of what it was like to be a woman cellar worker in the 1980s and 90s.
“At first the winemaker did not want a woman in the cellar but I persevered and began to learn the ropes and make wine. I was propelled by a deep interest in wine but not knowing what the obstacles were was almost an advantage,” Phyllis recalls. “I was usually the sole woman at the wineries where I worked and it was always a struggle.”
Phyllis’s perseverance allowed her to eventually produce wine for herself, and also become the consulting winemaker for several Sonoma County wineries.
Pioneer Women Winemakers
Before we move on to a few other women winemakers, I want to take a moment to toast Carol Shelton, Julia Iantosca and Phyllis Zouzounis. The trail these pioneers blazed has made it better for the women who followed. Today, it’s not unusual to find some female cellar staff, and occasionally, they are the winemaker. A big thank you to Carol, Julia and Phyllis for staying the course.
The Next Generation
There are many women who became winemakers by 2000. Here are three that I personally know.
I met Susie Selby shortly after she arrived in the Healdsburg area from her native Texas. She was eager to learn all she could about wine, and she took jobs that could give her the on-the-job training needed for her future in the wine industry.
By 1994, Susie was ready to launch Selby Winery with her father and business partner, David. Susie was the winemaker and did just about every other job at the winery in the early days. When David Selby passed unexpectedly just three years later, Susie continued on her own. Today, Selby Winery is thriving. Susie continues to make the wine, but has staff to help her with the other dozens of winery jobs she used to do.
When I met Diane Wilson, she was making the wine for Wilson Winery in an old barn off Dry Creek Road. Shortly after that, Diane and her husband Ken bought and began renovations on the barn that houses Wilson Winery’s production cellar, along with a beautiful tasting venue. The husband-and-wife team have bought several other wineries as well, including Matrix, Rockpile Vineyards and deLorimier, where Diane is part of the winemaking team.
Diane’s skills as a winemaker were not taken seriously at first, but that all changed when she won the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Sweepstakes Award for best red wine two years in a row. She has gone on to win other sweepstakes awards, along with countless Best of Class, Double Gold and Gold medals.
Ashley Herzberg was working as an assistant winemaker when I met her in the late 2000s. Her impressive palate and gentle spirit struck me, and I’d hoped she’d be able to weather this male-dominated industry. She did and has thrived!
As the consulting winemaker for Amista Vineyards and Cast Wines, Ashley’s talents have produced many memorable wines. If you haven’t tried the Amista sparkling wine collection, be sure to stop by soon.
A Few More Women Winemakers
Here are a few more women winemakers along the Wine Road (this is not a comprehensive list.) I encourage you to check out their wines and read their stories of how they found their way to wine.
Theresa Heredia – Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery
Rashell Rafanelli – A. Rafanelli Winery
Montse Reece – Pedroncelli Winery
Shauna Rosenblum – Ridge Vineyards – Lytton Springs
Mary Roy – Capo Creek Ranch
There are other women winemakers, owners and vineyard managers, but they are still less common than men. But considering the changes since I started working in the wine industry, I’m proud of what women have accomplished. Next time you sip a wine along the Wine Road, maybe ask, who made this wine?
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