From Washington to California, women excel in winemaking

I try to keep this wine column timely: Thanksgiving choices in November, rosés for summer. Other than May wine, May is a challenge — until I thought about Mother’s Day. Then a feature about women winemakers seemed especially appropriate!

When I started researching women winemakers, I thought I might find a few. I was pleasantly surprised to find many … from large wineries to small boutiques.

I first focused on my favorite region: Washington state. Joy Andersen of Snoqualmie is one of the fabled alumni winemakers of Chateau Ste. Michelle. When Chateau Ste. Michelle purchased Snoqualmie back in 1991, Andersen was quietly placed at the helm and quietly started getting awards and acclaim. Now she is celebrating her 17th year with Snoqualmie, producing good wine at a low price.

Kay Simon is an alumna of Chateau Ste. Michelle, where she was winemaker for seven years. She and her husband, Clay Mackey, have been proprietors of Chinook Winery for 25 years. Mackey is the viticulturist while Simon is the winemaker.

“Our claim to fame is to reflect the balance and flavor inherent in our part of the Yakima Valley,” said Simon.

I spoke with Anna Shafer of Walla Walla’s áMaurice Winery in March. Shafer moved to Mercer Island for middle school and graduated in 1997. Everything I tasted of Shafer’s was truly wonderful — true to the grape, delicious, with lingering finishes. Shafer was featured in Seattle Magazine as one of Washington’s up-and-coming winemakers. She is one of the founders of áMaurice. She has visited 36 countries and works the harvest in Argentina every year.

Sagelands used to be Staton Hills. Winemaker Frederique Spencer is a native of Provence, France. While studying agriculture in college, she began visiting nearby wineries and discussing wine. She soon realized she could combine her two loves of farming and wine by becoming a winemaker. After graduating with honors and building an impressive résumé while working at various wineries in Bordeaux, she joined a student exchange group. While everyone else went to California, she tried Washington state. I met Spencer at the winery a few years ago. My husband and I were part of a team competing in a cabernet sauvignon blending competition. Our team won.

Wendy Stuckey from Australia is in charge of making all of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s white wines. Prior to joining Chateau Ste. Michelle in 2007, she was considered one of Australia’s best white winemakers and worked at Wolf Blass Winery for 15 years. Stuckey is known for her deft ability to make white wines reflective of their origins and true to their variety. She has won many gold medals and industry honors over her winemaking career, and was often a judge in Australia’s wine competitions.

The daughter of American expatriates, Covey Run winemaker Kate Michaud grew up in England. After graduating from college in Oregon, she began working in the cellar at Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz while simultaneously studying winemaking at the University of California at Davis. She worked a harvest in Australia and returned to work as an assistant enologist at David Bruce Winery. She worked in Washington state at Canoe Ridge and then a harvest in New Zealand. When she returned from New Zealand, she finished her studies at Davis. In 2007, she became the winemaker at Covey Run.

“Covey Run affords me the opportunity to work with world-class Washington state fruit from the Columbia Valley, one of the world’s great winegrowing regions,” Michaud said. “My goal is to make wine lovers even more aware of the amazing quality Washington wines have to offer.”

One of the newest Washington wineries is “O” Winery, where Stacy Lill and Kathy Johanson produce a chardonnay from the Horse Heaven Hills appellation. I have never seen a winery take off like this one. The wine has received good press, and it funds a good cause. A portion of the proceeds funds scholarships for underprivileged and at-risk young girls in Washington. However, the wine must be well-made and reasonable before any charity takes place.

“O” Winery is “expressly in the business to make reasonably priced wine with amazing taste far exceeding the price.” With the wine’s popularity, Lill and Johanson have succeeded.

Now leaving our home state of Washington, I venture into California. Laurie Hook is the winemaker for behemoth Beringer. Growing up in Sacramento, Hook never dreamed of becoming a winemaker. Then she discovered that her family had owned Chateau Olivier in France before the French Revolution. Loving history, science and agriculture, she graduated from the University of California at Davis, the training ground for many winemakers. She worked in Australia at a small winery for six months. In 1986, she became an enologist for Beringer. In 1997, she was the assistant winemaker, and she was promoted to winemaker in 2000.

Lee Miyamura also worked at Beringer. While in college at Sonoma State University, she applied for a temporary Quality Assurance Lab Position at Beringer while waiting for a “real job” in the biotech industry. Bitten by the winemaking bug, she had been an integral part of Beringer. When Beringer started its sister winery, Meridian, Miyamura applied for a wine chemist job there. At Meridian, she has been promoted five times and is now Meridian’s head winemaker.

The year 2007 marked Margo Van Staaveren’s 28th harvest at Chateau St. Jean. Blending is the cornerstone of Van Staaveren’s winemaking philosophy. To her, one of the greatest accomplishments is to create a wine style or signature blend that carries from vintage to vintage while still capturing the uniqueness of that particular growing year. She graduated from the University of California at Davis 1979 and joined Chateau St. Jean as a laboratory technician in 1980. By 1989 she was named assistant winemaker and in 2003 she was named winemaker.

Susan Doyle is winemaker for MacMurray Ranch, which was the home of actor Fred MacMurray, who raised his family there. The same rail fences, oak and redwood groves still surround the property but the vineyards are relatively recent. Winemaker Doyle studied both grape growing and winemaking and specializes in pinot noir and pinot gris.

Gina Gallo has a name which must have initially been a blessing and a curse. The Gallo family has been making wines for generations but not necessarily well-crafted wines. Gina Gallo, the granddaughter of Julio Gallo, California wine pioneer, had her work cut out for her. Her label is Gallo of Sonoma. She and her brother Matt grew up in the vineyards and now are a team to produce high quality wines.

Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson launched a new endeavor called White Rocket Wine Co. Based in Napa Valley, there are several brands under the White Rocket umbrella, and they are all made by Melissa Bates. Bates is a 20-year-veteran of such venerable wineries such as Rutherford Hill, Belvedere, and Sebastiani. Using her longstanding relationships with leading grape growers, she makes Tin Roof, Silver Palm, Automoto, Horse Play, and Dog House.

In case you think that women have an edge in winemaking due to heightened taste or smelling capabilities, I attended a seminar on What a Woman Wants at TasteWashington last year. Kay Simon of Chinook was one of the panelists. All the panel members balked at being placed in this seminar and cited study after study that women do not have an advantage over men for winemaking or wine tasting.

So the proliferation of women winemakers just means that there is no glass ceiling.

Dee Hitch can be reached at

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