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5 Pioneering Women Who Are Altering the California Winemaking Industry

5 Pioneering Women Who Are Altering the California Winemaking Industry

Wine is an industry that is still very much dominated by men, particularly when it comes to winemaking. The ‘old boys club’ mentality can make navigating the industry difficult for women. In honor of International Women’s Day, we tip our hat to a handful of California winemaking pioneers – who just happen to be women.

From first-time winemakers to generational farmers, these five women are building legacies for others to follow. They lead with tenacity, commitment and perseverance in building a stronger community for all.

In the vast California wine landscape, these women understand the nuances of their terroir. They each work in tandem with the ever-changing environment to create wines with a sense of place.

Unapologetically Leading the Way

Cathy Corison is a trailblazing innovator. She’s one of few women to obtain an enology degree from UC Davis in the 1960s and 70s. At the time, California’s wine industry was rapidly expanding. Despite a slew of opportunities, wineries were hesitant to allow women in the cellar, assuming that their physical strength and skillset were lacking compared to their male counterparts.

In 1977, Corison had a position revoked for this very reason. But, she returned the following year and was able to forge forward.

In this clip from Verticals: Corison, available on SOMM TV, Corison talks about that time in her life and persisting through uncharted territory.

For four decades, Corison has had an unwavering vision of creating world-class Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Her expressions have elegance, finesse, and power. During those years when Napa Cabernet was typically bold and extracted, she persevered, never conforming her wines to market demand.

“I’m stubborn, passionate, crazy, and have a very long view. If you’re stubborn, passionate and crazy enough, just start walking,” says Corison when asked about the success of her longevity.

Following in Family Farming Footsteps

While Corison forged a winemaking path all her own in Napa, Gina Giugni and Chenoa Ashton-Lewis were fortunate to grow up in a family of farmers who taught them the fundamentals.

Gina Giugni learned her passion by working the land at Narrow Gate Vineyards with her father. He mentored her about regenerative farming and biodynamics, something she has held close while establishing her career, particularly when starting Lady of the Sunshine in 2017.

Giugni currently farms Chene Vineyard in the Edna Valley, a 6.5-acre farm that’s now Demeter certification because to her work. When words like ‘sustainable‘ and ‘natural’ often get misused, Giugni maintains that certification builds authenticity. “It provides a community with resources that connects a network of farmers who share similar values and who share their knowledge and experience,” she says.

California winemaking pioneers
Gina Giugni / Photo by Summer Staeb

Further north in Sonoma, the family of Chenoa Ashton-Lewis, of Ashanta Wines, has lived and farmed in the foothills of the Sonoma Mountains for more than 50 years. Ashton-Lewis and her partner Will Basanta gave up their life in L.A. in 2019 to return to the family farm. Her homecoming awoke a deep spirit of reclaiming the land not only for herself but for future generations.

“The legacy is not the vineyard my grandparents planted and its regrowth after a devastating fire or our restoration of it. The legacy is how the accessibility to land and vines can allow BIPOC bodies the shared exploration of the profound emotions I felt when returning to land,” says Ashton-Lewis. 

California winemaking pioneers
Chenoa Ashton-Lewis / Photo provided by Ashton-Lewis

Building Something from Nothing

Even with years of industry experience, two degrees and three wine certifications, it’s taken time for Terah Bajjalieh to find her path. Bajjalieh is a winemaker heading into the third vintage of her young business, Tereh Wine Co.

She says a strong community of professionals as a reliable support system and not underestimating her value and skillset have been key learnings in starting her business. “Recognize when something is not a great fit and have the courage to make a change,” she says.

California winemaking pioneers
Terah Bajjalieh / Photo provided by Bajjalieh

For Martha Stoumen, a Californian native, it’s been a challenge to build a business from scratch. Self-financing means that every decision is thoughtful and swift, but often with sacrifice. Yet, this allows for focused spending that matter the most for her business.

“I’ve learned that even with careful planning and adding extra buffer in expenses, everything costs more than I thought it would,” says Stoumen. Putting her funds towards high-quality grapes and hiring the right people have been essential in growing her company. 

California winemaking pioneers
Martha Stoumen / Photo by Chad Kirkland Photography

Stewards of the Land

With time comes immense knowledge, which has proven integral for Corison in farming her 50-year-old Kronos Vineyard. In the past decade, it’s experienced both the coldest, wettest growing season and the hottest. The gnarly old vines arguably produce some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the world. But, they require an incredible amount of attention without bearing much fruit. Without Corison’s long-term vision and commitment to sustainability from the beginning, these vines may not have survived to tell their story. 

For Stoumen, her path to low-input farming meant looking for inland vineyard sites, where disease pressure is low. The trickle-down effect of this is minimal sulphur applications with fewer passes on the tractor resulting in lesser emissions.

With drought and water shortages, dry-farmed vineyards planted with warm-climate varieties is also part of farming responsibly. Where the norm in California is to focus on a single variety and or single-vineyard wine, having the flexibility to blend and produce different styles helps mitigate the effects of unpredictable vintages. “It takes more intervention to stick to the status quo than to shift your practices to align with what nature offers,” says Stoumen. 

Building and Mentoring For A Stronger Future

According to 2021 data, only 14% of California’s 4,200+ bonded wineries have a woman as their lead winemaker. This dismal statistic means wine industry mentorship is critical, not only for women but for BIPOC and other marginalized groups. For Bajjalieh, that means working with organizations like Bâtonnage and The Hue Society, which serve to build more diverse and equitable wine communities.

“Having access to a community that can uplift, connect you with others, and lend a hand can truly be invaluable especially when you’re in need,” she says.

Bajjalieh also collaborates with Natural Action, a non-profit organization whose natural wine club supports internships and education for the BIPOC community within the wine industry. 

Outside of established initiatives, good ‘ol neighborly generosity is what made the difference for Ashton-Lewis in her first winemaking vintage. In 2020, she lived in a tent with her partner on the property of Tony Coturri. This experience enabled them to fully immerse themselves in harvest, with every waking minute spent observing, learning and doing. Under the guidance of both Coturri and winemaker Caleb Leisure, they were able to get lessons in different winemaking styles.

“Tony and Caleb were both extremely generous with the space and their knowledge. It always felt like a safe and inviting space to ask questions. It’s all we could’ve asked for,” says Ashton-Lewis.

The 2020 vintage of Ashanta Wines includes lighter-style reds, high-acid whites, skin-contact wines, pét-nats, co-ferments, rosato and cider. Without the knowledge shared with them from the community, the learning curve would have been extremely steep. 

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