I still remember the 1973 Simi Cabernet Sauvignon. Although it might not stand up to some of today's blockbusters, it was special nonetheless. It was also the first wine I'd ever tasted that had been made by a woman.
Russell Green, the Los Angeles oil man who owned Sonoma's Simi Winery in those days, made history that year when he hired Mary Ann Graf, a 1965 graduate of the University of California at Davis, to be America's first college-trained female head winemaker. "It's no big thing," Graf told me at the time. "There are other women in the business and more will be coming along." Was she ever right.
It's hard to believe that 35 years ago, a woman winemaker was news just because she was a woman. Today, so many women are producing wine that they make news only when their wine is great. Women are the chief winemakers of at least 20 California wineries, not to mention assistant winemakers and hardworking cellar rats in several hundred wineries at home and abroad.
Among my favorite producers, male or female, are Lalou Bize-Leroy in Burgundy, Christine Vallette in Bordeaux, Véronique Drouhin in Oregon, Norma Ratcliffe in South Africa and Zelma Long, Susan Reed and Merry Edwards in California.
Some of the finest--and most expensive--wines in Burgundy are made by Lalou Bize-Leroy. She first achieved fame as the co-manager of the famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Vosne-Romanée, of which her family was joint owner. But when Bize-Leroy was ousted from D.R.C. in a dramatic boardroom coup in 1992, she turned her attention to her family's Domaine Leroy, to her own estate, Domaine d'Auvenay, and to Leroy's négociant business.
The wines from both Leroy and d'Auvenay can be magnificent, and very often expensive: as much as $500 or more a bottle. Still, from time to time, Bize-Leroy produces a simple Bourgogne Rouge at Maison Leroy that sells for around $20. It's definitely one of the world's best wine bargains, much sought-after by savvy Burgundy buyers.
One of the leading iconoclasts in tradition-bound Bordeaux is Christine Vallette. Although her family's château, Troplong Mondot, in St-Emilion, had produced respectable wine for many years, it wasn't until Christine took over as winemaker in 1981 and enlisted the assistance of enologist Michel Rolland that Troplong Mondot was truly transformed. Wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., has called the 1990 Troplong ($200) "amazing" and he rated it 98 out of 100 points. My preference is for the 1989 ($179), an astonishing wine, intensely rich and concentrated. However, the more readily available 1996 sells for about $55 and the future price of the much-heralded 1998 is about $57.
Véronique Drouhin is a Burgundian who made her name in Oregon, thanks to her father, Robert, who heads the venerable négociant firm of Joseph Drouhin in Beaune. Some 20 years ago, Robert decided that Oregon Pinot Noirs could match some of the best in Burgundy. So he built a $5 million winery in the Willamette Valley, named it Domaine Drouhin and appointed his daughter winemaker.
Véronique's Pinot Noirs are, not surprisingly, Burgundian in style, which means restrained and understated, especially compared with some of the New World's more muscular Pinots. Her 1997 regular bottling (about $35) is a relatively light wine with true Pinot flavors and an appealing, earthy bouquet. Better yet--although somewhat harder to find--is her 1996 Cuvée Laurène ($45). This more intense, fuller-bodied wine, named for Véronique's daughter, recalls Robert's famous premier cru, Clos des Mouches.
South African wines are only beginning to catch on in this country. And while there are quite a few choices available these days, I'd suggest looking for wines made by Norma Ratcliffe at her winery, Warwick Estate in Stellenbosch. Norma and her husband, Stan, originally just grew grapes at Warwick, and then sold them to winemakers. However, when she became bored with merely growing grapes, she decided to give winemaking a try.
Warwick Estate is considered one of the Cape's leading boutique red wine producers. Although the Estate is noted for its Cabernet blends, Ratcliffe does make a version of South Africa's only indigenous wine, Pinotage ($21), from traditional bush vines. It is, however, something of a curiosity, while her Trilogy ($23), a classic Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend that's lean with good structure, is as appealing an introduction to South African wines as I can think of.
Zelma Long, who learned her craft in the Seventies as winemaker for Robert Mondavi, went to Simi a few years after Mary Ann Graf made history there and rose from winemaker to president. Under Long's aegis (she has since moved on), Simi turned out a succession of magnificent Cabernets that have virtually defined the style of Sonoma's great Alexander Valley wines. One of her wines is worth looking for (and may still be found in retail stores): the 1994 Reserve Cabernet ($40), a big, brawny, almost opaque wine with a long, satisfying finish.
One of the more important aspects of the winemaking job at Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma is satisfying the expectations of perfectionist owner Sandra MacIver. Happily, Susan Reed has succeeded in pulling this off and making first-rate wines at the same time.
Someone once wrote that Matanzas Creek had grown moderately in size and exponentially in reputation. Reed has had more than a little to do with that. The winery concentrates on three grape varieties: Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. (Cabernet Sauvignon, once integral to the winery's lineup, has disappeared, except as a blending element in the truly exceptional Merlots.)
I find the regular Sonoma Merlot ($47) to be beautifully balanced, with just the right touch of oak in the finish. Matanzas Creek also produces a limited production Merlot, called Journey (around $155), but I'd recommend sticking with the regular bottling.
If I had to single out one wine from the truly impressive array offered by the world's women winemakers, it would be a Pinot Noir made by Merry Edwards for Meredith Vineyard Estate, in Sonoma's Russian River Valley.
The Russian River appellation is noted for its great Pinot Noirs, and if I am any judge, Edwards is in the ranks of the world's great Pinot Noir makers. I recently savored the 1997 Merry Edwards ($42), made with grapes from the Olivet Lane Vineyard (which has provided grapes for great wines from Williams-Selyem, probably Sonoma's most famous Pinot Noir producer). The 1997 Merry Edwards is easily in Williams-Selyem's class. That is to say, it's one of the best Pinot Noirs around. And it's considerably more attractive than wines twice its price, including many famous Burgundies.
Pinot Noir has often been described as a feminine wine, though I have to say there is nothing feminine about the wines made by Merry Edwards, or for that matter by any of the other women I've listed here. They are all great wines made by talented winemakers. And I don't think these women would have it any other way.
Frank Prial is the wine columnist for The New York Times.