Women’s History Month is always a good time to reflect on trailblazing women who are making a difference in the wine industry and Napa Valley as a whole.
The wine industry, historically and traditionally dominated by men, has welcomed women vintners in Napa Valley for over 130 years. In 1886 Josephine Tychson founded one of Napa Valley's original 13 wineries. Tychson was the first woman to build and operate a winery in California, and in her time, her winery was known as Tychson Cellars (and is now Freemark Abbey Winery located in St. Helena). Today, over 60% of Napa Valley wineries have either a female owner or winemaker.
Napa Valley is home to some of the most innovative and inspiring women in the wine industry worldwide. Here, in alphabetical order, is a closer look at some of the women we admire.
It’s safe to call Barrett the Cult Queen, as she has been responsible for many of California’s most beloved cult wines. In her cellar of accomplishments: Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle Vineyards, Paradigm Winery, Grace Family Vineyards, Amuse Bouche, Lamborn Family, Showket Vineyards, Revana Family Vineyards, Vineyard 29, and Fantesca. She also is a consultant for Diamond Creek Vineyards, Niebaum-Coppola, Kenzo Estate, and her own wine label, La Sirena. Barrett studied viticulture at University of California, Davis, and was one of four women in her graduating class.
Along with her two siblings, Brown owns and operates Brown Estate, the first and only Black-owned winery in the Napa Valley. Technically, Deneen Brown and her siblings are the second-generation to run the brand; their parents started it in 1980. The flagship wine is Zinfandel, and it has been one of the highest-rated Zins out of Napa Valley since the late 1990s. Today, Brown Estate grows and makes wine at the family property in the Chiles Valley and runs a swanky second floor tasting room in downtown Napa. Deneen Brown is intricately involved in both operations.
Amelia Moran Ceja
Ceja’s dream of owning a winery began in the 1960s when she and her family left everything behind in a small village in Jalisco, Mexico, to settle in the Napa Valley, where her dad worked as a vineyard foreman. Today, she and her husband preside over Ceja Vineyards, a family business working to maintain what the family has grown all these years. Ceja’s largest claim to fame: she was the first Mexican American woman to be selected president of a winery. Ceja also loves food – she and her daughter Dalia did a regular cooking class on Facebook Live during the Covid pandemic.
The Indian French is only the third winemaker in Signorello Estate’s decades-long history-big shoes to fill for a relative newcomer to the Valley (and for a brand that essentially burned to the ground in the 2017 Tubbs Fire). French went to school in India, studied wine there, and came to the United States to sharpen her skills through internships and additional development. In addition to winemaking, she is passionate about social change and mentorship, specifically of Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), and women in the wine industry.
Winemaking is in the family for Paula Kornell, who is the daughter of winemaker Hanns Kornell, founder of Napa Valley’s Kornell Champagne Cellars. Having worked at Napa Valley wineries Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, and Oakville Ranch Winery, Paula was also the President of the Board of Directors for Napa Valley Vintners (a position her father once held). After many years championing some of Napa Valley’s most known vintages, Paula launched her own sparkling wine in 2019 – Paula Kornell Sparking Wine – coming full circle back to her family’s roots in sparkling wine.
Perhaps no woman in the Napa Valley has a stronger pedigree than Rutherford native Robin Lail. She grew up at Inglenook, where her great-grand-uncle was Gustave Niebaum. She began her vintner career under the mentorship of Robert Mondavi and directed the first Auction Napa Valley. She co-founded Dominus with Christian Moueix, Merryvale Vineyards with Bill Harlan and, in 1995, she and her two daughters launched Lail Vineyards, which produces what many say is the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. Lail remains a stateswoman of the region, often advocating for sustainable development.
Elaine St. Clair
The only woman in the U.S to hold the commercial title of both winemaker and brewer is Elaine St. Clair of St. Clair Brown Winery & Brewery, who has been making wine in Napa Valley for over 30 years. As a UC Davis graduate, she attended both their Winemaking and Master Brewers programs and was also Head Brewer and Co-Owner of Napa Ale Works, one of Napa Valley’s original breweries.
Crocker & Starr Winery was helmed by founding winemaker, Pam Starr. After toiling as a winery employee for 18 years, Pam’s transformation at a relatively young age into owner, manager, and winemaker was quite remarkable and required a special mix of skill, passion, and dedication. With a career spanning four decades, Pam is most celebrated for her Sauvignon Blanc and sustainable farming practices.
If you like Bordeaux-style wines, it’s likely that you’ll love Vianna’s vino. She helms winemaking duties at Chimney Rock Winery and has worked at the brand for more than 20 years. Vianna is one of America’s few Latina winemakers; she also was the inspiration for one of the main characters in “Vintage,” the recent Wine Country-based television show. Interestingly, Vianna studied biology as an undergraduate at Vassar College in New York and worked as a clinical toxicologist after that, until she fell in love with wine.