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Female Aficionados

Women increasingly wow the wine world.


As a woman, I get especially proud when I meet a dynamic, talented female winemaker. It means she's not afraid of the good ol' boy wine industry. Women have made considerable advancement in the wine ranks, thanks to the commitment of many stalwart individuals. Still, there's room for improvement. I recently Googled "female winemakers," and three of the first four sites extolled the sex appeal of these ladies rather than their abilities. In a land that reveres fake boobs and facelifts, it's kind of expected, but come on. It would be nice if kudos for female winemakers came for verve not va-voom.

Like many other industries, the turnaround began during the women's movement in the early 1970s. In 1973, MaryAnn Graf, the first female graduate of University of California at Davis' viticulture and enology program, became head winemaker at Napa Valley's Simi Winery, a business with a tradition of employing female managers. Then Zelma Long, considered the most important woman in California wine history, started her career in the labs of Robert Mondavi Winery, moving to Simi as winemaker and eventually becoming the executive vice president of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton's California wineries, which includes Simi.

Inspiring many others were additional trailblazers such as Merry Edwards and Helen Turley, two women who also made it on their own. Edwards got her start in the early '70s when, even armed with a Master's degree in enology, she kept getting rejected after interviewers learned "Merry" equaled female. Undeterred, she eventually landed a position at Mount Eden Vineyards and is now one of California's foremost vintners - male or female - producing unbelievable Pinot Noirs in Sonoma's Russian River Valley.

Turley, the genius behind super-venerated, super-concentrated cabernets from Pahlmeyer, Colgin, and Marcassin, has been called the best winemaker in California by many writers and winemakers alike. She started at Sonoma's BR Cohn, one of my favorite Cabernet producers, in the mid '80s. After wowing everyone, she began an illustrious consulting career.

In Europe, gender equality in the wine world still hovers in the Middle Ages, but strong-willed females have made progress. In 1975, Maria Martinez, a warmhearted yet tough survivor, began her wine career in Spain's Rioja region. After only four years of working in the cellars, she earned her spot among the esteemed winemaker ranks and has since been crowned "the Queen of Rioja" as the head winemaker at highly respected, 130-year-old Bodegas Montecillo.

When asked about her role as a high-profile female in this business, Martinez quietly replied, "I am in love with this profession ... and I'm a fighter." She sadly admits, though, that there are no other "respected" female winemakers in Rioja. (At a recent luncheon I attended in Tampa, Florida, honoring Martinez, only two of the 14 wine industry attendees were women.)

The rise of women shouldn't surprise anyone. Research has shown that women possess a better sense of smell than men, and more "supertasters" - those with more tastebuds and thus more sensitive palates - are female. And chicks drink. A 2003 study from the Wine Market Council found that 60 percent of Americans who consumed wine once or more a week were women. In that same year, Simmons Market Research Bureau reported that women consumed more than half of all wine.

And females continue to grow into the profession. Today, women make up almost 50 percent of the undergraduates at the winemaking program at UC Davis. Get ready world. Chicks have arrived.

Recommended Wines

Montecillo 2003 Bianco - Smells like summer, with fragrant lime and fresh, clean sheets. Tart lemon-lime and creamy vanilla in the mouth, with an acidic finish. Excellent value. $6.

Merry Edwards 2002 Pinot Noir Russian River - Oh my, how I love her wine. Earthy cherry, raspberry and blueberry home in on that one special spot in your mouth that ignites such pleasure. Elegant, classy, and sophisticated. $34. n

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