Women Pioneers in Wine

Trailblazing women and the wine they made famous


A few centuries ago, at the dawn of the French Revolution, one women changed the world of Champagne and in turn the world of wine forever.

Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin, better known as the Veuve Clicquot, revolutionized the Champagne trade, invented the riddling technique and sought brand identity by selling her wines with the iconic orange cap. Since then, from Burgundy to Alsace to Australia, women have shaken up the traditional man’s world of wine.

Here are some of those trailblazing women and the wines they made famous.

Photo courtesy clotho98 via Flickr/CC

Mary Penfold

Another widow, and a contemporary of the Veuve Clicquot, who took over after her husband’s death was Mary Penfold of Penfold’s in Australia. Before and after her husband’s death in 1870, she ran the estate, supervised blending and experimented with varietals. By the 1870s, Penfold’s claimed to be selling one-third of all wine in South Australia. After her death, her contribution was largely forgotten and her husband’s name is the one on the history books, but her strong support and hard work laid the foundation for the once-fledgling estate to become the success it is today.

Photo courtesy womenshistory.com.au

Zelma Long

A true pioneering female, Zelma Long flung herself upon the scene in the 1960s. After enrolling as only the second female at the University of California at Davis, she took a job at Robert Mondavi during one harvest. Quickly working her way up the ladder, she became the head winemaker at Robert Mondavi and Simi. Eventually, she became the president of Simi and then the executive vice president of Chandon Estates. Long is currently the head winemaker and co-owner for the Vilafonté project, a joint California and South African project, as well as for Long Vineyards in the Napa Valley.

Helen Turley

After brief stints at Robert Mondavi and Chappellet Turley was unable to find a wine making job in California, so she took a job making wine in Kentucky. After returning to California a few years later, she worked at B.R. Cohn, then Peter Michael and eventually Turley Wine Cellars. A pioneer in the Sonoma Coast area, Turley planted grapes there when others thought it too cool to for them to grow. This project eventually turned into Marcassin, one of California’s premier Pinot Noir and Chardonnay labels. In addition to her own label which is available through an almost impossible to get on wait list, she has consulted for other auction-friendly wines like Colgin Cellars and Bryant Family.

Merry Edwards

Another successful female coming from California, Merry Edwards, the eponymous owner of Merry Edwards Winery in the Russian River Valley, has had her share of successes and obstacles during her career. Starting as an amateur making The Merry Vintners wines during college, she turned her love for wine into a successful career. An early-believer in clonal variation, she studied and tested different clones of Chardonnay in an effort to prove her hypothesis on the differences between clones of the same varietal. She was the founding winemaker for Matanzas Creek until 1984, and after a few career setbacks during the 1980s, she went on to found her own winery with help from her family in 1997, where she has been producing wine ever since.

Isabelle Barantin-Canet

Château-Grillet, one of only two single-appellation estates in all of France, produces what is arguably the best Viognier in France. While Isabelle Barantin-Canet did not found this well-known estate, she manages the production, which is located in the Northern Rhône. Her family owned the estate from 1830 until 2011, but she still oversees production and sales of the wine. Produced in small quantities every year, this wine fetches high prices and demands respect the world-over.

Diana and Vanya Cullen

One of the original vineyards in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, the Cullen estate was influential in establishing this region as a quality wine-producing area during the 1960s. Diana and her husband, who together founded the estate, experimented with different varietals during the first few years. Leaving her career in physiotherapy, she became the full-time winemaker. During her first year, Cullen won a trophy at the Perth Royal Wine Show, the first woman to do so. Eventually, her daughter Vanya went on to take over the production duties, earning ever-more awards and recognition for her family’s estate.

Susana Balbo

Hailing from Argentina, Susana Balbo has made a name for herself inside and outside her country. She was the first Argentine winemaker to be hired as a consultant at European wineries and has made wine in Spain, Australia and France, among others. Every year, she spends one month in another country learning different wine making techniques. She works with her family’s estate, Dominio del Plata, and started her own line, Crios de Susana Balbo, named for her children. In 2011, Susana passed the winemaking reins to her son, José, who continues her vision.

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  • Great story, though I was surprised not to see, among these amazing women, any mention of the eminently amazing Chiara Lungarotti and Teresa Severini of Lungarotti winery, Torgiano, Umbria.

    Mar 14, 2012 at 1:11 PM

  • Snooth User: Ozrr
    184260 9

    Clarification: Zelma Long was one of the first women to study enology and viticulture at U.C. Davis when she enrolled for her Master's studies in '68, not one of the first women to attend UC Davis. UCD was a coed campus at the time Zelma enrolled.

    Mar 14, 2012 at 1:40 PM

  • Snooth User: syoung51
    176730 11

    Alessia, Albiera and Allegra Antinori might be worth mentioning - they have advanced the family name beyond all expectations!!!

    Mar 14, 2012 at 2:07 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 5,301

    You should've included Anne Gros in Burgundy and the Minervois, too. Many others could be named but she should be pretty high up the list.

    Mar 14, 2012 at 3:18 PM

  • I'm beginning to see how daunting a task Ms. Zapel was up against, reducing to a workable size the list of so many eminent women in wine. Good work, in any case.

    Mar 14, 2012 at 3:26 PM

  • I would like to add Patrizia Lamborghini's name to this list. She inherited her father, Ferruccio Lamborghini's winery in Umbria after he passed away and took it to a whole new level. She brought in Dr Riccardo Cotarella, one of Europe's top enologists and completely redid the vineyards, replacing the white varietals with Sangiovese and Merlot. She making only red wines now, some of the best in the region.

    Mar 15, 2012 at 5:44 PM

  • Seems to me that an article might be written solely on the women of Italian wine.

    Mar 15, 2012 at 7:45 PM

  • Snooth User: chiefpace
    274075 2

    I think that Colette, Catherine and Laurence Faller of Domaine Weinbach deserve a mention. Not only for producing a remarkable Reisling but for keeping the winery in the family after the death of Colette's husband Theo. They have improved the winery and produce a great line of wine. I had the Grand Cru Schlossberg at the Inn at Little Washington and fell immediately in love with it.

    Mar 16, 2012 at 6:37 PM

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