Meet the Next Generation of California Vintners
Pull up a seat at a wine-fueled roundtable on breaking the glass ceiling, friendship, and the future of the wine industry.
It's early in the afternoon on a sunny Sunday in Napa Valley, and the question isn’t whether to have another glass of wine; it’s which one—or whose, really—to have next. This not-unpleasant conundrum is typical when friends Shannon Staglin, Jasmine Hirsch, Carissa Mondavi, Maya Dalla Valle, and Sarah Heller get together.
Heller’s a chef, but the other four could be a snapshot of the future of California wine. All are poised to write the next chapter of history at their families’ respective wineries. Wine has long been a male-dominated business—of the more than 3,700 wineries in California, only about 10 percent have a female lead winemaker, according to professors emeritus Lucia and John Gilbert of Santa Clara University’s Women Winemakers research project. But slowly, surely, that paradigm is changing.
Consider that in 2017, for the first time, more women than men were enrolled in the viticulture and enology program at University of California, Davis—both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Consider also this group of friends: Staglin and Mondavi have been pals since around 2011, when they were both working in sales and marketing for their family companies. “We spent a lot of time hanging out at the Rutherford Grill together,” Staglin recalls. Hirsch met Mondavi around the same time: “I remember a mutual friend saying to me, ‘You really need to get to know each other.’” Dalla Valle, who’s a few years younger, is a later addition to the group. All of them have leadership roles at their wineries, but as Hirsch says, “We also know we can always ask each other for advice. I’ve talked a lot with Shannon and Carissa about how to handle critics and so on. Being Napa Cabernet producers, they know that world much more.” (Hirsch’s family vineyard on Sonoma’s far coast is renowned for Pinot Noir.)
Today, these young vintners are talking shop over a springtime potluck on the Staglin property: They contributed their favorite wines, and, together with Heller, family dishes that take full advantage of wine country’s incredible agricultural bounty. There are crisp crostini topped with Bellwether Farms goat cheese and honey from the Staglins’ own hives, served with a springtime-bright English pea and watercress soup with local Dungeness crab. There’s tender roasted rack of lamb with a peppery radish leaf pesto (both Heller’s creations) and Mondavi’s wild rice salad with steamed beets and fresh herbs. Picking the first two wines for the meal is easy—a lightly toasty, stone-fruity 2016 Chardonnay from Staglin and Hirsch’s bright 2014 San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir—but then it’s Cabernet showdown time. Which next, the intense 2014 Continuum or the elegant 2014 Dalla Valle, both Cabernet-based wines that would be excellent with the lamb? The answer proves to be simple: Just bring out more glasses.
As dishes are passed, conversation ranges from upcoming travel plans to the questionable value of the Chambong (a beer bong for Champagne; Dalla Valle asks, sounding slightly appalled, “Has anyone actually tried that thing?”) to last fall’s wine country fires. No one at the table suffered damage, but the memory is still vivid. Both Dalla Valle and Mondavi spent worried nights when it seemed the Atlas fire might sweep northward over Pritchard Hill, and at a later point it appeared that the blazes raging atop Mount Veeder might engulf the back side of the Staglin property. But in the end, everyone here escaped harm. (While most of the wineries and vineyards in both Napa and Sonoma counties were largely unscathed, the fires did significant damage to residences and businesses in the Sonoma County town of Santa Rosa, impacting many of the people who work at the regions’ wineries.)
Still, it was a stressful moment, even if now, with the sun overhead and the new leaves green on the vines, it’s beginning to seem longer and longer ago.
Despite a general inclination to avoid business talk, the friends compare notes on being a woman in today’s wine world. “In my family, I’m the fourth generation, but the first three were entirely male-dominated,” Mondavi says.
“We really shouldn’t get credit for that shift, though,” Staglin says. “It’s more women like my mom, Maya’s mother, Celia Welch, Beth Novak [Milliken], that generation.” Welch is one of the valley’s most acclaimed winemakers, and Novak Milliken runs her family’s historic Spottswoode winery. They run through a roll call of other pioneering women winemakers: Cathy Corison, Heidi Barrett, Merry Edwards, Zelma Long.
“It’s really true,” Mondavi agrees. “Back when my aunt Mary would present wines at distributor events, she’d be the only woman there, except for a bunch of scantily clad liquor girls.”
“My mother’s been doing everything by herself for 22 years now,” Dalla Valle says. “Sales, marketing, everything. Now she’s thinking, ‘I’d like some time to enjoy life.’”
“So she says!” Mondavi replies. “But does she really want time off?”
Dalla Valle laughs: “Oh, she’ll be there till she’s 105.”
Heller goes to get dessert, a luscious olive oil cake with yogurt and local strawberries. “You all have to work with your parents,” she notes when she returns. “That’s not something I deal with at all.”
“My mom told me I had to work 10 years out of the winery before I could come back,” Dalla Valle says. “I did nine.”
Hirsch shakes her head. “It was the opposite for me. My dad sent me a formal offer letter the year I graduated from college, with a salary and everything. And I told him, ‘No way. I’m going out to see the world.’ Plus, I was like, ‘Work for my dad? I can’t do that; that’s nepotism!’ But then I was 28, 29—”
“—And you get distance and realize what an amazing business this is,” Staglin says.
“It is. I mean, except when people coming to our winery from Continuum are two hours late,” says Dalla Valle, joking.
“Hey! It’s a long way up and down that hill,” Mondavi replies. “They forget. That’s not our fault.”
“We should just install a zip line between us.”
Hirsch says, “We used to have a zip line, down at the creek when I was a child. We’d dam the creek and make a swimming hole and zoom out over the pool and drop in. But apparently it was threatening some kind of rare newt. So we had to stop.”
“A rare newt?” Mondavi asks her.
“A very rare newt,” Hirsch confirms.
The women all consider that for a moment, and then, because what else can you do when you’re with your best friends and the subject has turned to newts, they burst out laughing and raise their glasses—to friendship, to the springtime, to success, to life.
Jasmine Hirsch manages all aspects of her family’s eponymous winery, while her father, David, still farms their 72 acres of vineyards. The 2014 Hirsch Vineyards San Andreas Fault Estate Pinot Noir ($60) that Jasmine brought to the picnic at Staglin exemplifies the character of the Pinot Noirs from this groundbreaking far Sonoma Coast estate: poised, floral, and terroir-driven, with incredible precision of flavor.
Shannon Staglin is president of Staglin Family Vineyard, which her parents founded in 1985, and oversees this significant Rutherford property. Though Staglin is best known for its sought-after estate Cabernet, to accompany the sheep’s milk ricotta crostini at the potluck, Shannon poured the 2016 Staglin Family Vineyard Estate Chardonnay ($80), a rich yet balanced white, full of subtle orchard fruit and melon notes, with a polished sheen of French oak.
Maya Dalla Valle, director at Dalla Valle Vineyards, studied winemaking at Cornell and in Bordeaux, then worked stages at properties such as Ornellaia and Château Pétrus before returning to her family home in Napa Valley. Though the group drank Dalla Valle’s legendary Maya red—named after her—with lunch, that wine is hard to find (not to mention $500 a bottle). The estate’s 2014 Dalla Valle Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($200) is no less compelling, with structured tannins, intense blueberry fruit, and wild thyme notes.
Carissa Mondavi was born into one of the most famous, if not the most famous, winemaking families in California. Today, she handles marketing and communications for Continuum Estate, which her father, Tim; aunt Marcia; and grandfather Robert founded atop Pritchard Hill in 2005. The 2014 Continuum ($225) she brought to the potluck is the second vintage to use fruit solely from the estate’s vineyards. Powerful and intense, with vivid cherry fruit and notes of pencil lead and smoke, it should cellar well for decades.
Sarah Heller is the acclaimed chef-proprietor of Radish Leaf Cuisine, which she founded after cooking at both Bouchon Bistro and Meadowood. Today she creates menus using ultra-fresh, local ingredients for wineries and private clients throughout Napa Valley.
But the list of groundbreaking women in the wine industry doesn't end in California, of course. Read on as wine writer Sarah Bray lists 15 more women to watch in the wine world right now.