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The Future Is Female

From left, Esther Mobley, Luisa Ponzi, Cleo Pahlmeyer, Shannon Staglin, Carissa Mondavi and Christie Dufault were the panel at Pebble Beach Food & Wine. 

Allison Levine photo

As I sat down for a seminar at the 2018 Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival titled “The Future is Female: The Next Generation of American Wine,” I was excited to listen to a panel of women discuss taking the reins of their family wineries. As I looked at the panel of women sitting in front of me, I sat up a little straighter as I was so proud and inspired to see only women sitting there.

On one end of the table was Esther Mobley, the wine, beer and spirits writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. After graduating from Smith College, Esther worked harvests at two wineries, worked in retail and at a restaurant and then followed the path of a writer, working at Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator and now the San Francisco Chronicle. On the other end of the table was Christie Dufault, a former sommelier at top restaurants who today is the associate professor of wine and beverage studies at The Culinary Institute of America. In between these two formidable presences were four women who are taking over their family wineries.

Luisa Ponzi

Ponzi Vineyards was started in the late 1960s when Dick and Nancy Ponzi moved to the Willamette Valley. Luisa was 2 years old at the time and grew up on the vineyard. As she grew up in the industry with her family winery, the industry also developed around her. They were one of only three wineries when they started, and today there are more than 700 in the Willamette Valley.

Luisa worked alongside her parents for her first 20 years. She moved to Burgundy to get her degree in the early 1990s. In 1993, she took over the winemaking at Ponzi, along with her sister Anna Maria who is president. As a young winemaker, Louisa returned from Burgundy and, like many young winemakers, aspired to make big, extracted wines that garnered high scores. Over time she went back to father’s style and today makes more restrained wines that profile the soils and climate. As Luisa explained, “I enjoy my wines more.” As much as she loved Pinot Noir, she was more infatuated with white Burgundy. Oregon was not making great Chardonnay at the time, but Louisa got the right plant materials and 20 years later, Ponzi is making world-class Chardonnay.

Noting that she had never been on a panel with all women before, Louisa was asked about the women who have inspired her. Naturally, her mother is number one, as well as her older sister. She also learned from winemaker Lynn Penner-Ash who taught Louisa to speak her mind. “You have to speak your mind and be present and you have to know your industry and be better than men.” Luisa also noted that there are so many unsung female heroes in the wine business. Many women worked tirelessly by their husbands’ sides, while raising kids, without getting due credit.

Cleo Pahlmeyer

Pahlmeyer was started in 1986 by Cleo’s father, Jayson Pahlmeyer, whose first love was Bordeaux wines. Aspiring to make a “California Mouton,” Pahlmeyer made its name with high scores on the 1986 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red. In 1998, at the urging of Helen Turley who was the winemaker at the time, Jayson purchased the Wayfarer estate on the Sonoma Coast where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were planted.

Cleo joined the team in 2008, adding new energy to the family winery. Recognizing the uniqueness of the Wayfarer Estate, which is located less than five miles from the coast and protected by two ridgelines, Cleo created the Wayfarer Estate label in 2012. As part of the team, Cleo says that the goal is “to stay true to our roots, to a sense of place and balance.” But she also noted that “the future is about putting my taste on the wine, making sure the wine is fully developed but balanced overall.”

The women who have inspired Cleo are her mother, as well as other women winemakers, such as Helen Turley and Ann Colgin. “I look at examples of women in other industries, knowing they have succeeded and what they have done provides inspiration.” As for future generations, Cleo said, “it is about having examples. Seeing more and more women will continue to inspire others to follow and do the same things.”

Shannon Staglin

Shannon Staglin’s parents, Garen and Shari, met on a blind date in the 1960s while students at UCLA. Business school at Stanford took them to Northern California where they discovered Napa Valley and began dreaming about owning property in the area. Their dream was realized in 1985 when they purchased 60 acres at the base of Mount St. John in the Mayacamas Range, on the Rutherford Bench, and started Staglin Family Vineyard.

Shannon and her brother, Brandon, grew up on the property. After graduating from UCLA, she worked as a harvest intern and then in the office before receiving her MBA from UC Davis. After gaining experience working outside of the wine industry, Shannon returned to Staglin Family Vineyard in 2011 and today oversees all aspects of the business.

“We are trying to make site-driven wines from our estate. Each year is different, it is a reflection of the climate, not the people,” Shannon said. The Staglin’s began sustainable practices in the 1990s and became Certified Organic in 2005 all with the idea of investing in the future.

Shannon has been inspired by her mom, Shari, who has been both a professional and personal mentor. Shari has historically run the day-to-day of the winery and is tireless. She loves everything about the business — the wine, the people, the travel, and working in the market keeps her young. Shannon also notes all of the role models in the Napa Valley, including Cathy Corison, who worked at Staglin in the late 1980s, Celia Welch, who worked at Staglin in the 1990s, and Beth Novak of Spottswoode Winery.

Carissa Mondavi

Carissa was born into a wine-making family that has not missed a harvest since 1919. Her father, Tim, gained a global perspective on wine after winemaking experiences in Italy, Chile, Australia and France. After the Robert Mondavi name was sold, Tim, at the age of 53, started over. With his family, Tim created Continuum, a wine that focuses on one estate, one family and one purpose. Carissa, a fourth-generation family member, is a spokesperson for the Continuum Estate. She is proud to share her family’s story. As she explained, “I am not taking over; we are starting over.” Continuum is now on its 10th vintage and the focus is to make terroir-driven wines.

Carissa’s inspirations were the women in her family who were always ready to entertain guests, whether expected or unexpected. Carissa also admires the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild who she described as a woman with so much energy and little care for decorum.

For each of these women, family is first. But, it was not lost on me that this second generation is all women. More and more women are running wineries, making wine, selling wine, educating about wine and more. As Christie best explained, “it does not take much to look around to find women in the wine industry.”

But no matter how many women are in the business, it is a rare sight to see an exclusively female panel, and it was an inspiration to see one at this seminar at Pebble Beach Food & Wine.

Allison Levine is owner of Please The Palate, a marketing and event-planning agency. A freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications while eating and drinking her way around the world. Contact her at allison@pleasethepalate.com

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