Ashley Herzberg, Bacigalupi Vineyards

Women Winemakers in Sonoma County


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Sonoma County wineries have been early leaders in elevating women to lead winemaking roles since the 1970s. Today, you are more likely to see women working in assistant and lead winemaking positions in Sonoma County wineries than in almost any other region in California.

Year of the Woman

However, even in 2018, which has been unofficially termed a 'Year of the Woman' in the media, women are not even close to parity in this still male-dominated profession, despite the fact that by the 1990s, 'nearly 50 percent of UC Davis's viticulture and enology graduates were women,' according to UC Davis Magazine (Summer 2009).

Surprising statistics compiled by Lucia and Jack Gilbert, professors at Santa Clara University, for their Women Winemakers of California project, reveal that of more than 4,000 wineries in California, only 10 percent employ women in a lead winemaking role, with wineries in the Sonoma and Napa County areas having the most women winemakers, at 12 percent.

Here are four Sonoma County winemakers who continue to lead the way for other women in the field.

Kathleen Inman, Inman Family Wines

A woman with short, blond hair holds two clusters of grapes
Kathleen Inman
A wine country native, Kathleen Inman grew up in Napa, and was working as an intern at a winery when she had a brief conversation with an Englishman who was visiting the winery in 1982. Her long detour began when she studied abroad, reconnected with the Englishman and married, and spent 15 years overseas, becoming a member of the Royal Horticultural Society along the way.

Back in wine country in 2000, Inman began planting a 10-acre vineyard on Olivet Lane, west of Santa Rosa in the Russian River Valley. In 2012, she was awarded the Rising Star Winemaker Award by Women for WineSense. Environmentally minded, Inman installed one of the first winery electric vehicle charging stations at her tasting room, where she pours 'Endless Crush' sparkling wine, Pinot Noir and other Russian River Valley varietals.

Marcia Torres Forno, Matanzas Creek Winery

A woman stands in the vineyards looking at the sky
Marcia Torres Forno

Jackson Family Wines, which owns Matanzas Creek Winery, is the kind of vast wine company that one might think that wines of individuality, and personal style, get lost in, but it's clear that's not the case when talking with winemaker Marcia Torres Forno, who was named head winemaker at Matanzas Creek in 2010.

Of Spanish and Italian heritage, Torres Forno grew up in Santiago, Chile, where she earned a bachelor of science in agricultural engineering at Catholic University in Santiago. After several winery jobs, she came to California in 1996 through the Communicating for Agriculture and Exchange Program.

Torres Forno is a good fit with Matanzas Creek, which is known for its cool-climate Merlot, as she says she thinks the aroma of Merlot is 'more seductive' than Cabernet Sauvignon. But also, she has artfully applied her affinity for Sauvignon Blanc to expand the program at Matanzas Creek, which was better known for its Chardonnay in the 1980s. (Historical note: Pioneering woman winemaker Merry Edwards developed the popular Matanzas Creek Chardonnay style after the wines displayed a 'buttery' note after being cellared in the former dairy facility there. Marcia Torres Forno, taking the wines in her own direction, has discontinued the use of that particular malolactic bacteria strain.)

Katy Wilson, LaRue Wines

A woman touches a cluster of baby grapes in a vineyard
Katy Wilson

In 2009, Katy Wilson named her LaRue brand after her great-grandmother, Veona LaRue, a spirited woman who advised Katy that she didn't have to follow convention or listen too much to what others said — that she could do anything she wanted in life. 'Don't let someone put you in a box,' Veona advised.

Having grown up in a walnut orchard and learned to drive a tractor before she learned to drive a car, Wilson was happy to go into the family business of agriculture, but had an 'aha' moment when she learned she could apply her interests more creatively in wine. She worked in Australia, Napa, and New Zealand, and landed an assistant winemaking position at Sonoma County's Flowers Winery.

Today Wilson makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from small Sonoma Coast vineyards for LaRue and is also a consulting winemaker for Anaba Wines, Reeve Wines, and Smith Story Wine Cellars.

Penny Gadd-Coster, Breathless Sparkling Wines

A woman holds a bottle of sparkling next tothe vines in Sonoma County
Penny Gadd-Coster

A highly acclaimed winemaker who has worked with Rebecca Faust at Rack & Riddle since 2007, Penny Gadd-Coster brings nearly 35 years of sought-after experience to Breathless Wines. Most recently, Penny earned 96 Points in the 2020 North Coast Wine Challenge for the NV Brut; Sweepstakes Winner for Best Sparkling Wine for the Blanc de Noirs in the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition; 91 Points and Gold Medal for the Blanc de Blancs and Double Gold Medal for the Brut in the 2020 Sunset International Wine Competition; 96 Points for the Brut along with Best of Show, Best of Class, Double Gold Medal and Best of Sonoma in the 2019 Harvest Challenge; Gold Medal for the Blanc de Noirs in the 2019 Sonoma County Harvest Festival as well as 2013 and 2018 Sweepstakes Winner; among many others. Penny was also named winner of the prestigious 2013 “Winemaker of the Year” award for the entire Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and greater Bay Area by the North Bay Business Journal.

Additional Sonoma County women winemakers

Shelly Rafanelli, A. Rafanelli Winery

Ashley Herzberg, Bacigalupi Vineyards

Carol Shelton, Carol Shelton Wines

Margo Van Staaveren, Chateau St. Jean

Alison Green-Doran, Equality Vines

Sarah Quider and Rebecka Deike, Ferrari-Carano

Theresa Heredia, Gary Farrell

Megan Glaab, Ryme Cellars

Lisa Evich, Simi Winery

Cara Morrison and Zidanelia Arcidiacono, Sonoma-Cutrer

Katie Madigan, St. Francis Winery

Resources: Women Winemakers of California

Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.