Historically, Greek and Roman gods of wine were all masculine. Wine was a beverage reserved for men only, it was deemed to be unseemly for women to imbibe. Despite this, we have glorious examples of women succeeding spectacularly with grit, ingenuity, and tenacity throughout the history of wine. The widows, Clicquot and Pommery, transformed the Champagne industry in the 1800’s when they were left to run their respective family businesses. Having drawn inspiration from their tenacity, I find myself contemplating those that personally motivated me on my own path and career in wine. In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to acknowledge and celebrate three exceptional women that I have had the good fortune to meet and be inspired by. This is by no means a comprehensive list, I could write a book on female winemakers, oenologists, writers, sommeliers, and viticulturists that make the world a tastier place for all of us. So, grab a glass of Vueve Clicquot, Pommery, Gaja, J Brut Rose, or your favorite wine from your favorite female winemaker. . .
Madeline Triffon was the first American woman to pass the Master Sommelier exam in 1985. I had the incredibly good fortune to have her proctor the Advanced Sommelier exam that I passed in 2013. Hailing from Detroit, she famously passed her Advanced Sommelier exam and then the Master Sommelier exam the next day – being the first woman to win the Krug Cup – the award given to those who pass all three parts of the exam on the first try with the highest score. To date, only 14 Master Sommeliers have ever won the Krug Cup. Highly respected, regarded, and awarded – she’s a legend to many in the sommelier community. She was involved with the table service portion of my Advanced Sommelier exam. As Tim Gaiser, MS quizzed me about wine theory, I began the Champagne service. During said service, one must never take the thumb off the wire cage (muselet) and the cork underneath or it’s an automatic failure - she mischievously asked me to stop for a picture just as I nearly had the champagne cork out to see if I would move my thumb. I smiled graciously, realized what she was doing and kept my thumb firmly in place. The next day, she was the one to fetch me as I waited nervously out in the hotel hallway to be brought into the room with the six glasses of wine to be identified during the blind tasting portion of the exam. The late comedian Norm McDonald was strangely also involved in the scene - I’ll save that story for another time. Her grace and generosity calmed me and I was able to focus on the flight of wines. Gratefully, it was one of my best tastings ever and she made a point to congratulate me after the exam for having a fantastic tasting. To this day, her words of praise mean so very much to me.
Gaia Gaja held a blind tasting of Brunello and Barbaresco for an invite only group of sommeliers at Canlis, a top table in Seattle. The room was crowded with excited wine professionals in their spiffed-up suits and shiny sommelier pins. Having had the good fortune to have met her father, Angelo Gaja, years prior – I couldn’t believe my luck at being at this table and getting to experience a challenging blind tasting of Gaja’s sangiovese v. nebbiolos; depending on the producer, the vintage, and even the microclimate from where the grapes are sourced, wines from these two grapes can be so very similar on the palate. Angelo Gaja forged his own way in Piedmont, Italy, bringing his family’s winery to great heights of fame and renown. His daughter would be the fifth generation to take the helm, bringing new ideas of rejuvenating soil health and carrying out her father’s idea of a winery in Sicily on the slopes of Mt. Etna. A formidable role to ascend to and meeting her in person only gave one a sense of her humor, depth of knowledge, and confidence. As each of us around the table announced our verdict on each individual wine, we asked her how she identifies a sangiovese from a nebbiolo and she simply shrugged her shoulders and said to a table of Master and Advanced Sommeliers, “well, they are different”. As she delved into the differences between the two grapes on the nose and palate with incredible detail from years of working with these grapes, I was left inspired by her depth of knowledge and confidence.
Nicole Hitchcock – wine maker for J Vineyards. She took over winemaking duties from the founder Judy Jordan (of the Jordan winery family). Judy Jordan fell in love with chardonnay and pinot noir after the family trips to Burgundy and suspected the grapes would do well in the Russian River Valley of Northern California. She planted the vines with the intention of not only making still wine, but also sparkling wine. Nicole worked with Judy and then took the reins herself. I met Nicole in the middle of the majestic Bow-Tie vineyard in the Russian River Valley whilst on a work visit and we somehow quickly sorted out that we were both missing the first day of kindergarten for our kids. We shared a quick moment of commiseration about missing such a milestone and then we both took in the beauty of the vineyard and gratitude for being in such a stunning place. Listening to her discuss the complicated process of crafting sparkling wine as we tasted through the bare components of what will be a completed wine after it sits on the lees for at least three years was a monumental experience. Her command and comprehensive knowledge of the vineyards and what grapes do best in each parcel, her ability to craft compelling still wine and sparkling wines, and the comradery of being a fellow mother in wine has made me a fan. Her Winemaker of the Year award from Wine Enthusiast in 2022 is well deserved.
I am extremely grateful to raise a glass to each of these women and to honor that their company left me uplifted with inspiration that comes only from being near people excelling in what lights them up. Their generosity of sharing their knowledge, their efforts, and their passion is a gift to the wine community and consumers. Here’s to women in wine!