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A brief history of women in the wine industry, from 1805 France to present-day Napa Valley.

Girlz in the Vineyard

Ever since the early 19th century, in a business dominated by men, some ladies have been making their names in the wine world. We've seen everything from cutthroat businesswomen to world-renowned wine writers. Some of the biggest risk-takers in the wine industry have been women, and their accomplishments have earned them much respect.

The stage was undeniably set in 1805 when a young French woman was widowed at the age of 27 and left to deal with her late husband's small Champagne house. Madame Nicole Clicquot made the seemingly crazy decision to keep and run the business herself, which could not have been easy for a woman at that time. She renamed the business Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin ('veuve' is French for 'widow' and Ponsardin was her maiden name) and, against all odds, took the business to unbelievable success. She set the company's motto, 'Just one quality, the best,' and held her employees to that motto, earning herself the title of 'La Grande Dame de la Champagne.'

One of her gutsiest moves was sending a secret shipment of Champagne to Russia (the Czars were some of her most important customers) when Napoleonic France was blockaded by the British Navy. Madame was not messing around! Her non-vintage Yellow Label Brut (about $40-$45) is, to this day, the best-selling Champagne in the world. This wine is crisp and full-bodied and will make any occasion truly special.

In the late 19th century, another headstrong woman came along in wine land. Lillie Langtry was a colorful Victorian actress, famous in both American and European theater. She owned and operated the vineyards now known as Guenoc from 1888 until 1906. She once proclaimed that her wines would be 'the greatest claret in the country.' Guenoc pays homage to her legacy in every aspect of their business: Her picture is on every bottle of Guenoc Estate wines, and her house is still located in the middle of one of the largest vineyards on the property and has been completely restored.

Guenoc's Langtry Red Meritage and Langtry White Meritage are among its pricier wines, but are fantastic representations of Bordeaux-style blending and worth the money. Guenoc Victorian Claret (about $15) is a tribute to Lillie and the wines she was so proud of. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Carmenere; approachable soft red fruit with toasty oak and medium tannin.

Serena Sutcliffe first got interested in wine while working in France in 1971 as a translator. She decided to make a career change; in 1976 she was the second woman ever to be admitted to the Institute of Masters of Wine, passing the exam on her first try. Now the head of Sotheby's International Wine Department, she is considered to be one of the world's leading authorities on wine and is an internationally renowned taster and much-published wine writer. If you're looking for some good wine books, check these out next time you're in your favorite book store: Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia, The Wine Drinker's Handbook, A Guide to the Wines of Burgundy and A Celebration of Champagne.

There are a lot of ladies to watch in the field of winemaking, too. Judi Cullam is co-owner (with Barrie Smith) and winemaker at Frankland Estate in Western Australia. The family ran a wool-growing business on the property from 1974 until a trip to Bordeaux in 1985 influenced them to give wine a try. The winery was established in 1988, and Judi returned to Bordeaux in the early 1990s to gain experience working at Chateau Senejac. Their flagship red Frankland Estate Olmo's Reward was heavily based on the wine blending techniques of Bordeaux. Their Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Shiraz (about $23) is quite spicy with very subtle fruit, making it very unusual when compared to Shiraz from the bigger, more mainstream winemaking regions.

Stacy Clark earned a degree in viticulture from the University of California at Davis in 1983. A real go-getter, by 1988 she was winemaker at Pine Ridge Winery. Situated in the heart of Napa Valley's Stag's Leap District, Pine Ridge is widely recognized for consistently high-quality wines each vintage. Pine Ridge Crimson Creek Merlot (about $28) is full-bodied and luscious, with black cherry, vanilla and smoky notes. The addition of 13 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and a bit of Cabernet Franc and Malbec gives this wine plenty of structure and aging potential.

Lesley Tolar McHardy is a staff writer for the Jackson Free Press.


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