I don't know if it's just an impression or if there's a definitive statistical basis for it, but I felt that there are a lot of women winemakers in America, and I again visited two of them in Napa, California. Like Kelley and Rebecca in Carlton OR, Helen Keplinger and Marguerite Ryan are working under the roof of a large winery, Cuvaison. Each of them make their own wines independently under their own labels and they have achieved a certain notoriety with their respective cuvées.
Cuvaison is located on the historic Silverado Trail in northern Napa Valley has been a long-time player in Napa, it's around since 1969, it's mostly known for its chardonnay, it was located initially in Calistoga and it moved to this modern location near Napa around 2004. I can't but stress out once more the pragmatism of U.S. law in wine-producing states thanks to which small-size operations can be housed under the roof of large wineries that see an advantage in both the financial contributions and the flow in experience and skills that can result for the benefit of the two parties. It varies from year to year but on average Cuvaison hosts 5 or 6 independant, small-size operations like Helen's and Peggy's.
Another common trait between these two women winemakers is that they embraced the winemaking trail after starting carrers in completely different fields : medicine for Helen and Law for Peggy (Marguerite). America lost a doctor and a lawyer but their wines helped smooth this loss I guess.
Her wine range begins with a medium-bodied pinot noir, then a petite-syrah co-fermented with viognier and blended with syrah and that's the biggest volume. But what she looks to make is mostly what the vineyard offer, she isn't into single-variety wines, she'll take the varieties planted on a given block she sources here grapes from, that's why some wines are blends, some are not, it depends of the vineyard. She is making usually 6 cuvée but in 2013 she'll have 8 or 9, and they usually make between 100 and 250 cases per cuvée, most being in the 100-150 range. She's doing the winemaking and vineyard relation while her husband Douglas is doing the marketing and sales side.
Helen grew up in Ohio, her parents used to drink wine every day, and even when she was a child she used to keep a bottle collection. Her mother was an inventive cook, making her own French baguettes and she making meals where wine had its place, that's for her early training. Later in college she was always interested in wine, she was the one who would pick the wine for dinner. When she went to Boston for medical research she kept her interest active, tasting Massachusetts wines and buying cases here and there from different regions. As she was working with doctors who were also academics and they were kind of all a bit sour about their profession, saying in private that if they had to choose today they'd do something else, and as she was still in her 20s' and not yet fully in her future carrer this impressed her. While thinking afterwards to what she herself liked most, she saw that UC Davis had a 2-year graduate program in winemaking, this was in 1988 and she enrolled.
_ Keplinger wines Caldera 2012 (from a barrel), 65 % mourvèdre, 30 % Grenache and 5% Cunoise, from a vineyard just outside of Placerville in the Sierra Fooyhills at 2700 feet elevation with a beautiful red volcanic soil which drains particularly well, which is good because there's also clay in this soil. the roots routinely go down 20 feet in this vineyard, she says. That's the reason the owners there mostly dry farm (don't irrigate). These vines are between 14 and 18 years. Asked if it is difficult to find vineyards that are not irrigated where she sources her grapes, she says yes, everything esle is irrigated around.
Typically she picks early in the morning, when she picks in the foothills she got insulation that goes on top so than they arrive here at the chai they're still cold. For this particular wine it's 100 % destemmed (but other wines are vinifies whole-clustered) then it's cold-soaked for 3 to 5 days, then begin to ferment under native yeasts with punchdowns 3 times a day or so, then 2 then 1 then nothing. She usually fermented in little bins (Macro Bins I guess) but this very morning she was to receive 2,5-ton tanks and she'll work with different containers. The wines, the cuvées are all small lots, so she does puncheons (1-ton and 1,5-ton barrels) for the end of the fermentation. The wines usually go through 30 days of skin contact with the free run put apart from the press juice, which will get into a second label. Of course she checks the press juice along and if it's good it goes into the 1st wine and if there's something she doesn't like beginning to sneak through the press juice she puts it apart.
The wine has rich aromas with roses notes, strawberries and a tannin touch that I like.
Nice texture of tannins here, I feel, even though you also feel thart this wine is very young and still in its élevage. This will be bottled in april 2014 and released the following fall. Speaking of SO2, she adds a bit on the incoming grapes and then keep the sulfites level low including at bottling.
__ Keplinger old-vines syrah (30 years) 2012, Another wine from a barrel, no name yet for this cuvée, it's a new wine she's making here from vineyards she works with since last year. Also from the Sierra Foothills, at 2400 feet elevation, on another type of soil found in the foothills : granite, decomposed granite.
Nice chew in the mouth with a pleasant astringency at this stage, considering it's very early to taste it. This syrah is 100 % destemmed.
__ Keplinger petite syrah co-fermented with 3% viognier, will be blended with 10 syrah. We taste the petite syrah with the viognier, it is all destemmed. From the Shake Ridge vineyard also, and a blend of 4 blocks. Dark color, still astringent and a bit early to taste. She says that a month ago it was very plush but right now it's very tight.
Alder's profile of Helen Keplinger (Vinography)
Helen Keplinger as winemaker of the year 2012 (Food & Wine)
Napaman page on Helen Keplinger
That's how she made her first steps in the winemaking world, and she opened shop commercially in 1996 with only 3 barrels. Now on average she makes 500 cases a year.
Peggy Ryan is doing some cellar work by herself, but gets also lots of help from the trainees here at Cuvaison because it's included in the contract, and she says it's great to rely on the staff. She says renting space in a large winery like here at Cuvaison is very convenient for an operation of her size, she can use the tools, people help each other and it's very neat. I tell Peggy than in France it's totally forbidden to have several wineries under the same roof and it's a big handicap for aspiring vintners and for the economic flexibility as well. Here she says, the U.S. government has managed to allow them to do that, they made it possible for example to delegate the licenses to the host winery (Cuvaison in this case) because most of the small-size vintners don't have a licensing : technically the host winery (which of course has the licensing) owns the wine, they do all the recording to the government administration, and it's only when she finishes with the product and takes it out of the winery that the wine really becomes hers. This system is called operating under a dirt bond. And Peggy will pay the taxes when she takes her wine out. The government has made these inroads to ease the sharing of facilities for winemakers without a facility. If a winemaker wants to be able to pour wine at a public tasting room, he'll need another type of licensing, and Peggy for example doesn't have this license. Additionally, she needs a license in California to sell her wines, but it's not too difficult to get.
Read this ATF document for more details.
Peggy happens not to have made wine last year for personnal reasons but she should resume this year and we'll taste a few of her cuvées from the previous vintages (she didn't have wine in barrel to taste). She is making mostly pinot noir but also now some chardonnay and even some red pinot meunier. She sells her wines in restaurants, in Pennsylvania, New York, Washington D.C. and California
__ Ryan Chardonnay 2009 Duhig Vineyard, Napa Valley. An experiment she's been doing with chardonnay, it was her first vintage with a chardonnay and she purchased the grapes from Cuvaison, with native-yeast fermentation and malolactic completed. 70 % new oak and she did a lot of lees stirring. The wine is pleasanrly balanced, not heavy and it doesn't has the mouthfeel of its 14,4 % in alcohol. She added acid on this wine.
__ Ryan Chardonnay 2010, from a different vineyard section and a different clone, the acidity has not been corrected and it's made in 100 % new oak. Stirring of the lees too, until the malolactic. Neither wine is filtered but this chardonnay was racled once before bottling. The mouth is more marked here, less smooth than the 1st chard, she didn't correct the acidity here, the ph was higher. It was a try for her to make these two chardonnays of different styles and she asks which I prefer, I say the first and same for her. Asked how she makes her acid corrections she says it was right after the press, so it fermented with the correction, she says the earlist the better so that it gets integrated but she has seen winemakers late in the fermentation and even near the bottling time because numbers were misjudged and ph was too high. Both these chars are fermented on native yeasts, it started quite quickly btw. Same for the malolactic, no inoculation here.
__ Ryan Pinot Noir 2010 Van der Kaemp Vineyard (on Sonoma Mountain). 50% new oak here, almost 12 months of élevage. The nose is very fruity, the color is dense with a nice evolution already. Deep aromas of coffee in the mouth. Peggy says that it's a little closed right now.
This vineyard is not far away from here, from Napa, she says, it's half an hour in Sonoma, this is some of the oldest clones of pinot noir in Sonoma County. There are 2 different French clones here, 777 and 828, vinified separately. She selected the picking day and brought the grapes here and the total volume of this cuvée is 200 cases. For this vineyard she always destems, and usually for the pinot noir she inoculates the yeast and often she has to add acid, there has been just a little bit added for this vintage. DFor the yeast, because the alcohol levels are high in California she chooses a yeast that can sustain a higher alcohol level (and not stall, I guess), she'll use a yeast that can handle a higher Brix and can complete the fermentation. She doesn't really well the temperature of the fermentation with these bins (that's why helen orderd tanks) but she uses wraps around the bins to that effect, or in certain rooms of the building she can try use the heating system, the problem being at the harvest season in this region that temperatures that are too low, especially at night.
__ Ryan Pinot Noir 2010 Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands (near Monterey). The wine is quite dark, with aromas of stewed fruits, fruit cakes. The clone of pinot noir here yields bigger, more tannic wine, more concentrated too, but after the surprise I'd say I like the mouthfeel but you definitely have to eat with this. The fermentation was the same here, but in terms of sorting there was more sorting and some juice was separated. After the 2nd or 3rd sip I think I can say that I prefer this pinot to the 1st.
__ Ryan Pinot Meunier 2010 Van de Kaemp Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain. She made just one vintage of the pinot meunier, a try with a different variety. 86 cases.
This red wine has a very exciting and vivid nose. The color has some transparency in it and has evolution tones. There's glycerol on the sides of the glass. 14,6 ° in alcohol. Peggy says that the vinification is very similar, just that it's in neutral barrels, old ones. It's all destemmed with whole berries, with a couple days of cold soak after getting a bit of SO2 and then the fermentation starts and she does 2 to 3 punchdowns. Again, as she uses these small bins she doersn't really control the temperature which goes usually from 85 to 88 F (29 to 31 ° C). If she can wrap the bins with the wrap she can keep the heat from going down.
Prince of Pinot on Peggy Ryan
We did drive, cruising slowly around and looking both sides desperately for something suitable. But merely a few blocks away, just on the other side of the bridge, I spotted a diner on the left with a dusty parking lot, I immediately felt that this was a real place, of the type I'm looking unrelentlessly over here : Here is the Soscol Café, where apparently many people including upper middle class types come take refuge from the boring sophisticated cafés of downtown. We had our lot of pancakes and immersed in the no-fuss ambiance, sipping a coffee which (I have to admit that) was probably the wateriest coffee I have ever drank (but I keep my praise overall).
On the whole this profile seems quite right, the place is so-so in terms of hygiene and the coffee is almost plain water but I love it, and I'm sure many people from Napa too.