A Woman’s Work Is In the Cellar: A Salute to Women of the Vine

Well-behaved women seldom make history, they say. We say the same holds true for women who make wine and spirits. From Maria Prophetissima, the ancient alchemist who invented the tribikos, one of the first recorded stills, to Doña Antónia Ferreira, patroness of Portuguese wine, and Hannah Weinberger, Napa’s first female winemaker, women have long been leaders in the booze business. Today’s producers are continuing in the footsteps of their foremothers, crafting wines and spirits that delight critics and consumers alike. In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a closer look at some of the women winemakers on our shelves.

Arianna Occhipinti (Occhipinti)

Arianna Occhipinti came of age in Vittoria, in Sicily’s southeastern region, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the inland mountains. She first learned about wine and natural winemaking in the fields and cellars managed by her Uncle Giusto, owner of the renown COS winery, and in no time fell in love with the vine. She studied oenology and started her own production with a single hectare of abandoned vines growing near her family’s home. In 2004, she founded her own estate, bottling her first commercial vintage just two years later. Today, Arianna works exclusively with estate fruit grown organically and biodynamically. Focused on native varietals, including Frappato, Nero d’Avola, Albanello, Zibibbo, Arianna’s dedicated to making wines with singular character and freshness that captures the essence of the region. Across the world, critics, consumers, and industry peers have taken notice, and Arianna is today recognized as a symbol of success in viticulture and natural winemaking, even she continues to develop her own ideas on the practice. “I make natural wine, but this is a term I’m beginning to be less and less comfortable with, because its implications are very complicated,” she said during an interview with importer Jules Dressner. “I really want to stress that my main goal is to make a good wine that reflects where it comes from, and for me the only way to successfully do this is to make the wine naturally.”

Brianne Day (Day Wines)

A semifinalist for this year’s James Beard Award, Brianne Day is an unmitigated star in the world of Oregon wine. A native of the Willamette Valley, Day grew up enraptured by the vines of her home turf, so when the opportunity arose to travel the world and continue exploring wine, she didn’t hesitate. Day traveled and tasted wine for nearly two years before returning to Oregon for formal study at Chemeketa Community College. After that, she picked up and went traveling again, this time to gain experience making wine in France, New Zealand and Argentina. Officially hooked on the craft, Brianne worked to learn every angle of the wine business. “I worked for producers who were making wines in ways I wanted to: The Eyrie Vineyards, Brooks Winery, Grochau Cellars, Belle Pente, and Scott Paul,” she writes on her website. “I also worked at Storyteller Wine Company, learning the retail side of the wine world, and then as a server at Le Pigeon and Little Bird Bistro. I also sold barrels for Bordeaux cooperage, Saury, which allowed for many opportunities to listen and learn from winemakers throughout the Willamette Valley. In 2012, Brianne had the opportunity to start her own production when she purchased fruit for 125 cases of single vineyard Pinot Noir from a friend. Her wines stood out from the very beginning among industry pros, the wine press, and consumers. The rest, as they say, is “herstory” — Day Wines now produces 5,000 cases from organically farmed fruit, and is distributed in 12 states and three countries.

Sara Pérez (Mas Martinet, Venus de la Universal)

The daughter of José Luis Pérez, founder of Priorat’s Mas Martinet, biologist, self-taught oenologist, and one of the most respected and followed voices of the wine world, Sara Pérez is without a doubt descended from winemaking royalty. Having grown up surrounded by the vine, she studied plant biology, viticulture and philosophy before taking the reins at Mas Martinet in the late 1990s. Back then, to win the respect of the old school, boys’ club of local grape growers, Sara took to swearing and drinking strong, black coffee. “Eventually they understood that I was the one who decided who to buy from,” she said.

“I owe everything to my father,” Sara continued: “The direct knowledge that he has given to me and the strength that he has transmitted to me, as well as the respect for what is different, for other ways of thinking and working, and, above all, the sense of freedom to discover my own path.” That path is widely apparent with a sip of the elegant, bold, and unforgettable reds Sara produces from organically grown old vines in hot, sunny Priorat and Montsant.

Maria Elena Jiménez and Marta Casas (Parés Baltà)

Oenologists and sisters-in-law, Maria Elena and Marta are also leaders among the new generation of winemakers who are rooted firmly in the past, yet continually work to innovate and elevate the craft. A former chemical engineer, Maria Elena fell in love with winemaking almost at the same time as she fell for Joan Cusiné, one of the owners of Parés Baltà. She studied enology at Rovira Virgili University in Tarragona, and expanded her wine knowledge with travels to France, Australia, and Napa Valley, here in the U.S. She joined the family business when she returned.

-During her childhood, Marta was surrounded by her grandparents and her great-grandmother, who were all involved in winemaking. She loved to play in her grandparent’s tiny wine cellar, dashing behind the press, barrels and concrete tanks. When Marta grew up, she studied pharmaceutical sciences at University of Barcelona. During her studies, she met her future husband Josep Cusiné. In this period is when her passion for wine started. Josep introduced her to wine tastings and they started to travel to different wine countries around the world. She was so interested in the vinification process that she decided to help in the cellar. Today the duo has made a name for themselves in Spain and beyond, introducing new, ecologically sensitive farming techniques and state-of-the-art science to grape-growing and winemaking.

Mike FunkA Woman’s Work Is In the Cellar: A Salute to Women of the Vine