Women, Wine and What..?

women winemakers, wine for women
These are the ones you want – not the reserves.

We did receive samples from the winery mentioned below after we had bought our own and did the interview. However, we did not request said samples, nor, we suspect, will the winery’s publicist be terribly happy to see what we have to write about them.

Hmmm. Where to begin? Because what started as a straightforward interview with a woman winemaker ended up touching on a hot-button issue, and, well, we need to address it here.

The woman winemaker is Margaret Leonardi. Last February, she was promoted to winemaker at Little Black Dress wines. We got the press release and thought what an interesting subject. But having interviewed an interesting person before only to hate her wines, we made sure we bought a few bottles from the Little Black Dress line before we requested the interview.

They are a supermarket wine, but the chardonnay was quite tasty – nothing spectacular, but worth the $11 we paid for it. So were the reds we tried. In fact, we were quite pleasantly surprised. (We got them at Ralph’s supermarket, aka Kroger elsewhere in the country.)

So Anne chatted with Ms. Leonardi, and she was quite pleasant. We did talk briefly about how the label is marketed, but that’s not really Ms. Leonardi’s job. In addition, her interest is in making more “serious” wines, wines that are varietally correct (as in they taste like you’d expect that variety to taste like) with more structure.

We are down with that. You see, here’s the issue. Wines that are typically marketed to women are frequently “dumbed-down,” as in they’re made simply, without a lot of structure, which is a really hard thing to describe, but you sure know it when you taste it. In fact, we were discussing this issue at another tasting with wine-writer Corie Brown, general manager of ZesterDaily.com. She’d told her adult daughter, “Don’t ever buy wine that’s marketed at you.”

The assumption is that women buy wine to drink with their girlfriends and don’t care how complex or interesting it is. Well, that’s probably true, since most wine in this country is purchased by women and from the supermarket. But it’s also probably true of most men, as well. Yet, the dumb stuff gets marketed to women, which is more than a little insulting.

So to find a label aimed at women with some structure and complexity, wow. We were quite happy.

Until we received the samples that the publicist insisted on sending after we’d done the interview. These were the reserve labels, so you’d expect them to be even better. The chardonnay was off-dry and low acid, with nothing on the bottle to hint that it was intended that way. Or if it was, we didn’t see it. A sweet chard? What’s the point?

The rosé, made from a blend of several grapes including the extremely sweet muscat, was intentionally sweet but was only helped by the very low expectations we had for it. The cabernet sauvignon was flabby and inoffensive and boring. You could taste an overly soft malolactic fermentation (the part that can lend some creaminess to the mouthfeel) and the slight off flavor from a last minute intervention, which could have been alcohol removal or a rebalancing of the acids.  This is the reserve label and it was a blah. In fact, all three wines were a perfect example of dumbed-down wine.

To be fair to Ms. Leonardi, she has not been with the company that long and she probably did not make cab sauv, and possibly had limited contact with the others. And, again, she did say that her goal was to make more serious wines.

There is nothing wrong with a simple, unstructured wine. Sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed. We just wish that the people who market wine would stop foisting them off on women on the assumption that women don’t care what they’re drinking. Sure, some women don’t – just like some men don’t. But there are a hell of a lot of us women who do care, who want something nice to drink with our girlfriends that isn’t flabby or dumbed down and we’re getting pretty fed up with avoiding labels marketed to us simply because of a sexist assumption.


Women Winemakers of Chablis, Part One

We love Chablis. Real Chablis. The gorgeous white wine made from the chardonnay grape in Chablis, France. (Wines in much of Europe are named for where they’re made, as opposed to what they’re made from mostly because there are rules in the various regions that define what wine will be made there.) So when Anne got a press release last spring celebrating the Women of Chablis, she jumped on it.

The result is a series of email interviews with six women winemakers from the Chablis region, translated from the original French by someone else because Anne’s French is in terrible shape. We asked each woman the same three questions.

First up is Nathalie Fèvre, who with her husband Gilles, own Domaine Nathalie et Gilles Fèvre.

Women of Chablis
Nathalie & Gilles FEVRE
1.) What makes Chablis different from other wines made from chardonnay?

Nathalie: The unique terroir we have in Chablis – soils and subsoils composed of clay and limestone marl and which contain a multitude of marine fossils – explains why Chablis wines always feature briny and mineral notes, so pure and unique to Chablis, regardless of the vintage. I always say that Chablis is like a memory of the sea.

2.) If someone sees Chablis on the label of a bottle of wine, what should she expect to taste in the wine?

Nathalie: Notes of fruit and white flowers + mineral notes: a mix of spices (tending towards minty when young and towards curry-style spices when aged) combined with salinity. An English client once use this term : seabreeze, which is spot on to describe the sensation felt when you are by the sea and lick your lips.

3.) Finally, how are things changing for women winemakers in France? In the U.S., making wine is still very dominated by men. Are there more women becoming winemakers? Do women make wine differently than men, and if they do, what do they do that’s different?

Nathalie: I started as an oenologist in 1998. Back then, there were very few women at technical levels holding positions of responsibilities in the wine industry. Today, it’s a different story, the world of wine is more open and there’s a lot more women who are winegrowers, oenologists, cellar-masters, vineyard managers, etc.
For example, our Domain is called Nathalie & Gilles FEVRE; both my husband and I work together, we have two children (a boy and a girl) and our daughter, who is an agriculture engineer and oenologist, will take over the family business. Our case is absolutely not unique! It’s just a matter of being open minded: women can be just as successful as men. Our job is our life. It’s all about passion: you need to be passionate to do the right thing and succeed in doing it, but I think that is true for a lot of jobs, right? Finally, the difference between women and men is that women might tend to produce more elegant and complex wines than men? Maybe it is related to women’s own, complex nature? Sometimes, I hear people talk about “women sensitivity,” but I don’t buy it! However, I realize that when I drink a wine, there is a deep personal signature and I would say that the wine has a soul. I can feel the passion the winemaker (man or woman) that went into its making…Again, it’s all about passion.

Schug 2007 Sonoma Chardonnay

104472-1-7 proofThis is a cool climate chardonnay which was fermented in steel and given no oak flavor of any kind – oak being one of those things folks have come to expect in chard. So what does it taste like?  Yummy.  Okay, there’s citrus – orange and lemon peel – and minerals – flint and graphite – in the nose and in the mouth.  There are also the peach and slight spice notes that good growing conditions and careful winemaking can give a badly abused grape like chardonnay.

The wine has a lush mouthfeel that could be enough of a draw, if you’re looking to suck some back at the local wine bar or big party.  But the moderate alcohol is very well balanced (14.5 percent, slightly higher than the standard for Schug wines) makes it a great food wine, whether summer salads, winter bisques and cream-based sauces and gravies on chicken and pasta.

BV Coastal Estates 2008 Chardonnay

We served the wine at a brisk 61 degrees with fish and chips.  The color was clear and golden like a chardonnay should be, and Michael got citrus and melon in the nose. The first taste had a nice medium weight and crispness that suggested the wine had been fermented in steel tanks. Nonetheless, there was the spice of applied oak, meaning oak used as an ingredient instead of to cover one or more faults. The finish was decent but not long.

Just like the cabernet we mentioned earlier, these are decent wines for midweek meals or occasions where wine may not receive the time and attention it deserves. When was the last time you really noticed the sea salt or extra-virgin olive oil in the meal you bolted down before the PTA or town hall meeting?  But these wines do fill that gap in your palate when you want a glass as part of a relaxing meal before dashing off to that next committee meeting or the kids’ latest recital.  Or both.

Three Sticks Winery and a (Sigh) Mess-Up


Oh, deep and profound annoyance!  We had gotten turned onto Three Sticks Winery at the Family Winemakers event in Pasadena last spring.  Then, after several rounds of phone tag and other missed opportunities, Anne finally got a chance to to talk to winery owner Bill Price.  Then Anne spent two weeks….  Two whole weeks, mind you, trying to find the note book pages on which she’d written the interview notes, only to find them on the hard drive of her computer.  She’d typed them rather than hand written them, which is better because Anne types faster than she writes.

What attracted us to Three Sticks were the lovely Burgundian-style wines that Price’s winemaker, Don Van Staaveren, was making.  Price told us that’s on purpose.

“We try to make a more classicly Burgundian style,” said Price, who is also the owner of Durell Vineyards in Sonoma County, California.  He’s got roughly 150 acres in Sonoma, with about 40 acres planted in chardonnay, 40 acres in pinot noir, and then 10 acres planted in syrah, with the rest in a few of the Bordeaux varieties of grapes, including cabernet sauvignon.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get that there’s a big difference between the soil in Sonoma County, California, and the Burgundy region in France.  That’s what’s called terroir, and Price agreed that it does make a difference.

“We reflect what the land gives us,” he said.  “Though maybe in a more subtle way than… our extreme coastal competitors.”

The result is food-friendly, though perhaps not for the budget-conscious.

The Three Sticks Winery website is here.  They do expect to be releasing a cab sauv soon, but, hey, check us out on Wednesday, when we post the pinot noir notes.

Syncing up with Fetzer Chard

Overall, the Fetzer Vineyards 2008 Valley Oaks Chardonnay is a pretty basic chard. It’s light – the sort of wine that’s good with salads, a simple roast chicken, perhaps, or a light sole or even some creamy pasta sauces. You just don’t want to pair it with anything terribly strong-flavored, like a dish heavy on the garlic.

Here’s what we found:

The color was a clear, straw-colored yellow. The nose (or aroma) turned up some hints of melon, a little bit of citrus and light oak. The mouthfeel was fairly lush – it’s not the sort of wine we’d call a gulper. But there wasn’t much of a finish, as in the flavors didn’t hang around in the mouth once the wine was swallowed.

The taste followed through on the hint of melon, with some tropical fruit flavors added to that. There was a bit of oak, some nice light acid and light tannins – that dry, almost rough feeling on the back of your palate.

Now, it’s your turn. Find the Fetzer chard, or if you can’t, try some other light chardonnay. Don’t spend a lot of money. Taste it, then post comments on what you found.

Anne Louise Bannon
Michael Holland

It’s Calibration Week! Start Your Bottles

The winery’s tasting notes called the smell in their wine “gaminess.”  Michael wrote down “barnyard.”  Anne just wrinkled her nose and said, “Ooo.  Ick.”  Someone could have said, “Wow, that’s great!”

All of us would be right.  Or correct.

Tasting wine is an inherently subjective process.  And Napa-centric snobs notwithstanding, any wine you like makes it a good wine.  True, there are certain characteristics that most people seem to agree make wine taste good.  And there are certain smells and tastes that distinguish different grapes (aka varietals).  But the way we might describe a basic cabernet sauvignon is not necessarily the way you would describe it.

So this week  we will be doing a calibration tasting.  We have purchased two wines that should be available around the U.S. (we got them at Target – although we recognize not every state in the Union allows wine to be sold there).  The first is a Fetzer Vineyards, Valley Oaks Chardonnay, 2008.  It should retail between $10 and $15,  unless you catch it on sale, like we did.  The second (coming in around the same price point) is a Blackstone Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.

You are invited to buy the same wines – or as close to them as you can get and taste along with us.  On Wednesday, we’ll post the chardonnay notes and you can compare what you tasted to what we tasted.  The idea is that if we say, “this chard has a nice pineapple tang,” and you tasted peach, then you’ll know that when we say pineapple about some other chardonnay, you’ll probably taste peach.  And if you like peach, then you’ll possibly like that wine.  And, of course, Friday, we’ll do the cab sauv.

Now, what if you taste the wine and you taste… wine.  It’s good, or possibly not.  But peach?  Pineapple?  Barnyard?  Bacon fat?  What in bloody tarnation are these wine geeks talking about?  It’s wine, for crying out loud.  Exactly, we say.  Seriously – the genius behind our tasting notes is Michael.  Anne can seldom taste all the more subtle flavors.  That doesn’t mean she can’t tell a good wine from a bad wine – or more importantly, that her impressions of a wine are any less valid.  It just means that she evaluates a wine in a different way.

So the first thing to remember is that tasting notes are supposed to be fun.  Unless you’re judging wines for a competition (something Michael has actually done many times), the only real reason for tasting notes is to communicate something – usually to yourself and/or life partner.

Maybe you just want to remember what it was about that syrah you tasted at your local wine bar that made you want to buy the bottle.  Maybe you want to pretend you’re Uber-critic Robert Parker.  And why not?  He is, in our not so humble opinion vastly over-rated.  It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that you get to choose what words you use, your preferred short-hand, whatever.  Just write down your impressions.

Then we invite to post your comments so we can all share what we thought about the wine.  Just remember, no snarking on anybody else, because all of our impressions are valid.  And maybe we’ll come up with a new way to describe that soft, creamy feeling on the back of the palate as something besides buttery.


Anne Louise Bannon and Michael Holland