Trailblazing Women in Wine

California’s Trailblazing Women Winemakers

While many historians believe wine was discovered by a woman, the world of wine--from its consumption to how it’s made and how it’s sold--has always been the domain of men. Since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans until this century, women were neither wanted nor allowed to participate in that world.

Today, however, women make up more than half of all wine consumers in the United States and approximately 71% of total buyers of wine, spending around $43 trillion. In addition, more and more women are holding important positions in the wine industry--not only in the marketing and selling of wine, but also as as oenologists, winemakers, vineyards managers and cellar workers.

We can thank women, such as Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, Lily Bollinger and Antonia Ferreira, for paving the way and helping grow the wine industry and cultivate it to what we know today. But in California, we can also look to a few notable women for their contributions.  


California’s First Female Winemaker

Isabelle Simi became California’s first woman winemaker in 1904 when at the young age of 18

her father and uncle died weeks apart from the flu. She stepped in to spearhead Simi Winery, successfully navigating the business toward prosperity despite natural disasters and the stunting impact of Prohibition.

It was during the prohibition years that she showed her nature for business when se secured the ability to produce licensed “sacramental” wine in her cellar. She was able to discreetly save her supply and when prohibition ended had a 25,000 gallon wine cask and tons of inventory to sell. Isabelle sold the winery to another grower in 1970, but continued work there. Throughout her career, she served as mentor and inspiration for other trailblazing female winemakers such as Maryann Graff, Zelma Long and Merry Edwards.


Modern Era Trailblazers

In 1965, Maryann Graff became the first woman to graduate with Enology degree from UC Davis. She first worked as an assistant winemaker and chemist for Gibson Wine, then became the winemaker at Simi Winery in 1973. After six years, she co-founded Vinquiry, an analytics and consulting firm for the winemaking industry.  

Zelma Long followed Graff in the program, but left to work a harvest for Robert Mondavi.There, she rose to chief enologist, but left to become Vice President of Simi Winery and eventually their CEO, which made her the first woman in senior management of a winery. Today, she is widely recognized in America for her winemaking and is known the world over for her work. She also founded the American Vineyard Foundation and the American Viticulture and Enology Research Network.

Merry Edwards graduated with her Enology degree in 1973 and in 1974 began her career at Mount Eden Vineyards. Three years later, she became the founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek, where she remained until 1984. It was then that she left to consult and run Merry Vintners, a small winery she and her family founded. She has continued her winemaking, founding her own winery and in 2013, she became only the fourth woman inducted into the Culinary Institute of America Vintners Hall Fame.

And while progress has been made within the past 20 to 30 years, as with any industry women have yet to break the glass ceiling. According to a study published by Santa Clara University, 9.8% of California's wineries have women as the main or lead winemakers. Even so, women will play a major part in continuing to grow and cultivate the industry.  

Isabella Crisman