Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Goddesses of the Grape, Part 1

It’s National Women’s History Month, and in the first of our two-part series, we’re raising a glass to female trailblazers in the winemaking world.

It’s National Women’s History Month, and in the first of our two-part series, we’re raising a glass to female trailblazers in the winemaking world, like the pioneer who headed both winemaking and business in the early days of a now-legendary California winery. Plus, getting up close and personal with the first black female vintner in South Africa. And, can’t get enough Willamette Valley Pinot Noir? We’ll hear from the Oregon native who’s been helming an award-winning cellar in the region for over a decade.

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The Wine Enthusiast Podcast

Read the full transcript of “Goddesses of the Grape, Part 1”:

Susan Kostrzewa: From Wine Enthusiast Magazine, this is the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. I’m Executive Editor Susan Kostrzewa.

Coming up, “Goddesses of the Grape”. It’s National Women’s History Month, and in the first of our two part series, we’re raising a glass to female trailblazers in the winemaking world. Like the pioneer who headed both winemaking and business in the early days of a now legendary California Winery.

Zelma Long: I always hired whoever I thought was best for the job, and that brought many women into my realm.

SK: Plus, getting up close and personal with the first black female vintner in South Africa.

Ntskiki Biyela: Starting my own company was that, it’s gonna help me to drive that change that I wanted to in my community.

SK: And, can’t get enough Willamette Valley Pinot Noir? We’ll hear from the Oregon native whose been helming an award-winning cellar in the region for over a decade.

Melissa Burr: Women are fantastic at anything, really. But as being winemakers, and there’s a lot of opportunity especially now for them to go out and do so.

SK: It’s coming up on the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.

Fifty years ago, Zelma Long set out on a road less traveled. Ditching her original plans to become a dietician, Long signed up for a Master’s degree in Enology and Viticulture at the esteemed University of California Davis. She was the second woman in the United States ever to do so. Fast forward to today, and women comprise more than half of UC Davis students earning wine degrees. Meanwhile, Zelma Long is still blazing trails all over the world. Not only is she a winemaker in California and South Africa, she consults with wineries everywhere from Germany and France, to Israel and Argentina. Her wine wizardry has earned her many awards, including James Beard Wine Professional of the Year.

The globe-trotting pioneer recently spoke with managing editor Lauren Buzzeo.

Zelma Long: I had gone back to school at UC Davis to study enology and viticulture and just before I was headed back in the fall of 1970, Mike Grgich called me in and asked if I wanted to work at Robert Mondavi winery as an intern. And I thought, “absolutely.”

Lauren Buzzeo: It’s interesting that you bring up Mike Grgich and your time at Robert Mondavi, and that he first hired you as a harvest intern. He’s been quoted in saying that “she learned so fast from every source. Me, other winemakers, books, magazines, that she was soon qualified for not just one job, but three positions: winemaker, wine chemist, and microbiologist.”

What is it about you that makes you such an avid learner? I mean you’re just a sponge of information.

ZL: So I never stopped being fascinated with winemaking and I have a tendency personally to get extremely focused on what I’m interested in.

LB: What was it like being a woman in the wine business at a time when the industry was really so male dominated?

ZL: I didn’t give much thought to being in a unique position because I was so focused on learning what was interesting and doing what I needed to do and learning about winemaking. Mike Grgich was a wonderful teacher. He had a wonderful way of describing wine and a great deal of wisdom about how wine behaved. So my thoughts were really on what I was doing.

LB: I love that. So it wasn’t even really top of mind to you, but really you were at the peak of this evolution that was really starting in the winemaking industry, especially in California. You’ve even described California winemaking in the ’70s as a time of “evolution.”

Can you tell me what you mean by that?

ZL: Well that decade, when I started in 1970, there were 19 wineries in Napa Valley and it was easy to make and sell wine because there was little of it and a great demand for it. So of course other wineries started to come in to the business. So first of all that decade was just learning and beginning to perfect and understand the process of winemaking. It was also a very experimental period, and I was particularly lucky to be at Mondavi at that time, because Bob Mondavi was always asking questions, looking to explore, let’s say, new vineyards, new grape varietals, new areas, new pieces of equipment. And so it was a school in and of itself.

LB: And there were other items playing to that, sort of school and foundation of learning that you were doing professionally during that time to sort of move this winemaking evolution forward. Can you speak to that a little bit?

ZL: I spoke at that time and wrote at that time quite a bit about the developments in California and I think just by virtue of being a good communicator and a good spokesperson for winemaking, I was able to be an educator to wine groups who wanted to learn more about the industry. And of course as I said within the winery itself, I had a full-time experimental enologist who carried out trials with barrels and yeast and different processes.

LB: So at the tail end of the 1970’s, you became the winemaker at Simi Winery. A decade later, you were named the CEO of Simi, making you the first woman to head a California winery. How did it feel, if it even resonated with you to be such a pioneer?

ZL: It’s an interesting question, but the answer is very similar to the one you asked earlier.

When I became CEO I was really focused on doing a good job as CEO. It was a different job than I’d been doing as winemaker. I had the responsibility to maintain the wine quality and wine direction but also I was responsible for the vineyards, the finance, the marketing, the profitability, and I was pretty much nose down learning those areas, and excelling in them to the extent that I was able to do that.

LB:     So you’ve described the 1980s as a time when the industry’s focus was on wine growing as opposed to perhaps winemaking. Can you talk about how your career in the 80s and your time at Simi tied into this focus?

ZL: When I started at Simi, one of my responsibilities was purchasing grapes for the winemaking program, which I loved. I loved going out and talking to growers and looking at the vineyards, and going out at harvest. And so I quickly became aware of two things, none of the magic, but … I hadn’t dealt with vineyards much at all at Mondavi, I was really focused on taking in the grapes, and creating lovely wines from them. But I can see that there was a tremendous amount to be learned in the vineyard about how you make vineyard decisions, and how that ties in to the wines.

The questions were what clones, what plant materials, what root-stock, how do you lay out a vineyard, and then what kind of trellis and what road direction. And all of these questions that we felt would likely or surely impact the wine but for which there were not usually clear answers.

LB: That’s amazing and certainly the work that you did there has had an impact on the industry, especially in California ever since you really shaped that.

So let’s move on and we get to the 1990s. And in 1990, you were invited to speak at a technical conference in South Africa. And this invitation seemed to be the beginning of a fascinating new chapter for you. So can you tell me what was it about South Africa that intrigued you so much?

ZL: Many things. Of course, first of all it was a new continent. So, intriguing in itself. I was asked to come over and speak about the use of barrels in winemaking and at that time that was pre- the end of apartheid. I was there with Phil, my winegrower husband. So between what we considered a climate that could produce great wines, and soils that were completely intriguing, and the fact that some of the wines we tasted already were very fine, we thought this area, the Cape, is undeveloped relative to its potential to make world class wines.

LB: So when a South African winemaker approached you and your husband in 1997 about developing a vineyard and winery, do you remember what went through your head? I’m guessing it was an instantaneous “yes” but maybe I’m wrong.

ZL: Well, pretty much. Of course, we had to look at the property that he was proposing. But it was pretty ideal from our perspective. It had these old soils, wonderful old clay soils with little stones in it, and small vines and small crops per vine, to intensify flavors. So the site was pretty much perfect to achieve that.

LB: How would you describe Vilafonte, which is the name of the winery, to someone who’s never been there before?

ZL: Vilafonte is a wine estate based on a site, a hundred acre site of which we have planted about 50 acres that we selected and planted Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. That site and its layout and it’s viticultural management were all focused on our end goal, which was wines of world class status. Essentially what we’re about is growing our wine by managing the planting to development, the viticulture in the winemaking. It’s been very, very exciting and deeply satisfying.

LB: You’ve been a consultant winemaker in so many places. Just to name a few, we have Argentina, California, France, Germany, Israel, Oregon, Washington. Then of course you have the winery in South Africa. And as a winemaker, what’s it like having your foot in so many different places? It really seems like you’re basically making wine year round.

ZL: Well fortunately I wasn’t working in all those places at the same time. But I’ve found that working in different countries, with different varietals was always fascinating. There was always something to learn. There was always new perspective and I think it certainly made me a better winemaker with a bigger perspective.

LB: I’ve read about you and respected you and known your name for many, many years and I want to speak to your role as a mentor to so many other women in the industry. Just to name a few, we have Dawnine Dyer who’s headed Napa’s Domaine Chandone and now owns Dyer Vineyards. We have Genevieve Janssens who’s been a winemaker at Robert Mondavi. Diane Kenworthy, first president of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture, Margaret Davenport, who’s also president of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture.

How does it feel to see so many more women working in the wine industry today versus when you were starting out, and to know that you played a part in their getting there?

ZL: It honestly makes me feel proud because it was never directly my intention, but likewise I always hired whoever I thought was best for the job, that I was hiring for. And that brought many women into my realm. And I also enjoyed supporting women even if theyweren’t working for me. It’s great to see so many women in the wine industry and it’s also great to see them having their own businesses. So I would hope that we see more and more involved.

Susan Kostrzewa: You can learn more about Zelma Long, and check out her TED Talk on Sonoma county wines by visiting our website winemag.com/podcast.

When Ntskiki Biyela was growing up in a village on the eastern Cape, wine wasn’t part of her world. Where she lived, the most popular alcoholic libations were liquor and home brewed beer. Byela had never even seen a grapevine. But then, in 1999, everything changed.

South African Airways had created a wine scholarship to increase diversity in the country’s burgeoning wine industry. Biyela won the scholarship, and next thing she knew, she was on her way to a degree in viticulture and enology. She says her very first taste of wine was, quote, “horrible”. But before long she was making history as South Africa’s first black female winemaker.

Senior editor Layla Schlack reached out to Ntskiki Biyela to learn more about her wine company, Aslina, and what it’s like working in South Africa’s wine industry today.

Ntskiki Biyela: When I came to Stellenbosch, our mentor,  that’s when we started tasting wine with him. Because he was explaining how the wine tasted like. And I think when you haven’t tasted something and somebody tells you how it tastes like, and they tell you the flavors associated with something that you know should be nice, and he was talking about fruits and plums and whatnot and we’re thinking that it’s going to be delicious because you know, plums, they’re nice and sweet and you’re picking up plums and picking up this, and then …

When you actually sip and taste this you realize that it’s actually not what we … what I expected.

Layla Schlack: You ended up being put in charge of winemaking at a small family owned winery in Stellenbosch, and at that point you officially became South Africa’s first black female winemaker. How did that feel?

NB: That put a lot of pressure for me. And there was a point I sat down with David Lello the owner of Stellekaya and said “I can’t do this, this is just so difficult. People are going to expect me to be perfect.” And he goes, “No. Live your life to the best of your ability.”

And so I was like I don’t have to … he’s like, “No you don’t have to do anything. Just do what you want to do. The way you want to do it.” That was for me the beginning of learning and understanding really what life is.

So as I’ve grown to understand that I had to focus on what I enjoy and love. It came with a title but yes.

LS: So did that kind of help you develop your own voice and your own sensibility as a winemaker? Was that really when you were able to say “okay, this is the style I want to make. This is … I’m making the wines that I like now.”

NB: What made me be able to do … make the wines the way I wanted to make them was … it’s because at Stelle it’s more winery. It’s a small winery and the owner said, Dave Lello was like, “You know what? This is your cellar. You are the winemaker, you’re going to make the wine.” And he gave me that flexibility, he gave me that platform to express and make the wines the way I know how.

It was that support from him and that understanding that you are saying, “You know what? You started this, you know it, so let me leave you to it, but I’m here if you need help.”

LS: Well, that makes sense, right. You don’t want to let him down.

NB: Exactly. I didn’t. I didn’t want to let him down. It was like, oh my word, did he just trusted me, you know? He represented a leader because he doesn’t … he wasn’t managing me to say, “okay no, don’t do this, do it like-” No. It’s like, “you come to me when need help”. And as I read about how leaders lead people, help them to grow, that was what actually he represented to me.

LS: And since then, do you feel like there’s been a lot more black winemakers and women winemakers joining the scene in South Africa?

NB: Yes. No, there’s been a lot of winemakers joining. Women, black people, getting into the wine industry and understand and trying to learn … to learn and grow. Yes.

LS: Do you feel like you’re a part of that? Do you feel like you helped pave the way for them, or do you think it’s just kind of a natural progress?

NB: Well, maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s both. Because some people … one of the ladies, she’s now a CEO at Vinetrop, I remember she said to me “you know you are the reason I got excited about the wine industry” and whatnot, and I was like, I got puzzled because I didn’t know when and how, you know. So … but when she explained where she saw me for the first time and what I was doing and what happened, then I was like, “Oh, okay.” So I think it’s both.

LS: So going back to 2009, your Cabernet Sauvignon won South Africa’s Women of Winemaker of the Year Award. How did you feel when you found out you had won this award?

NB: It was amazing. The feeling was great. I remember that evening when everyone came in I was like “look, guys, I’m one of the finalists. This was a part because everyone who was a finalist you were all winners. So when I found out I had won, you get up there, you’re not even prepared with a speech because you had no idea.

It was a great feeling.

LS: And why did you decide to start your own label?

NB: Since I think, when I was a student, I knew that at some point, I’m gonna start my own company. At that moment I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know it was going to be a wine brand, but I knew that I’m gonna start my own company at some point. And when I started working as a winemaker, I was like “it looks like this is where I’m gonna go.” So I basically … it was sort of … I’m gonna call it a natural progression. But at the same time the reason behind it was … something that’s gonna help me to drive the change that I want to see within my community. And starting my own company was that, it’s gonna help me to drive that change that I wanted to do in my community.

LS: Are you seeing that change happening? Are you seeing wine become a bigger part of your community in South Africa?

NB: It is. The wine community is growing in South Africa. Black people are consuming wine, and they are learning about wine. So it’s … yeah, there is a big change happening.

LS: How did you come up with the name Aslina?

NB: That is my grandmother’s name. She tasted my wine when … the first one that won a gold medal when I was in Stellekaya. That moment for me was amazing. Unfortunately she passed on in 2006.

LS: Do you have any sort of overarching message for other women in South Africa who want to get into winemaking and want to, like you are, be kind of hands on involved in the process from beginning to end?

NB: It is important that, a person, when you think him of doing something, to have a reason why you want to do it because that reason, it’s what’s going to drive you to do that. If I say a reason, I’m talking about not to make money, because that’s that a reason enough. That’s not the drive. That’s not what’s going to make you wake up in the morning.

At the end of the day, you have to make money, for sure. But that shouldn’t be the reason behind starting your own company. That shouldn’t be the reason behind doing something. But when you want to do something so that you can be, you can drive that and have the passion for the- and move it forward. There must be something deeper than that. And I think for women who wants to do anything they want to do? It is doable. Sometimes it looks like it will be difficult to do, but it’s still the journey. Enjoy it, and you can do it.

Susan Kostrzewa: You can read more about Ntskiki Biyela and Aslina, by visiting our website, winemag.com/podcast.

Time for a break. But when we get back, the woman leading one of the top wineries in Oregon.

Melissa Burr: I’m really proud that I am in a winemaking position, and successful and I’ve been at it quite awhile here.

SK:  It’s coming up on the Wine Enthusiast podcast.

Welcome back to the Wine Enthusiast podcast. I’m Susan Kostrzewa.

This week, we’re toasting female pioneers in the winemaking world, with the first of our two-part series, “Goddesses of the Grape.”

When our next guest entered the industry, it was more or less a trial by fire. Oregon native Melissa Burr was interning at a winery in the famed Willamette Valley, when the winemaker there quit. Next thing Burr knew, she was in charge of producing a whopping 16,000 cases. Now, she’s director of winemaking at Stoller Family Estate.

Under Burr’s leadership, Stoller became the largest contiguous vineyard in Oregon’s Dundee Hills. And the first LEED Gold gold-certified sustainable winery in the world. The award-winning winemaker recently spoke to with digital managing editor, Marina Vataj.

Melissa Burr: I started to get a pretty big interest in wine in general while I was going to college in Portland. I was studying to become a naturopathic doctor and live next to a really nice high-end grocer who did a lot of wine tastings. I was also seeing the industry grow around me, so those two things kind of happened at the same time while I was studying science. And I did a lot of reflecting and decided to just try out the wine industry and I was an intern that year in 2001. I was really enjoying drinking wine, and it was in the summer time and I was actually working in my mother-in-law’s garden and we were talking about naturopathic medicine and wine, and she just looked at me at one point and she said “You know, you would make such a better winemaker than a doctor. I’m just saying.”

At first, I was almost kind of offended because I had been working so hard, but it really just did click into place, about just the interest in wine and I fell in love with the industry and I’ve been involved in it ever since.

Marina Vataj: Why were you drawn to making wine?

MB: The hands-on aspect of it, to me, and the century components to making wine was really appealing, and it seemed to be a good fit for me.

MV: When you became the first dedicated winemaker for Stoller Family Estates in 2003, what did the landscape look like for women in wine at that time?

MB: There were a handful of women winemakers in Oregon really blazing the trail for women, but definitely not the majority of winemakers were women, and it’s still not the majority. But it was, in 2003, inspiring for me to look around at some of my neighbors. Lynn Penerash in particular has been a role model for me. She’s been making wine for a long time, and she’s really built up the reputation for Pinot Noir in Oregon as a woman winemaker.

So in 2003 there was … there were few and now, certainly there are a lot more and I think it has become something that has been talked about with Oregon. The last that I heard, Oregon per capita has more female winemakers than any other state in the United States. So it’s interesting. I’m not quite sure why that is, but I certainly think women are excellent winemakers and it’s fantastic that we have a large proportion of them here in the state.

MV: What did you think being a winemaker was going be like before you started? And then what was it actually like?

MB: I thought that it was going to be something that was a bit more specific, and I would say almost narrow, like honing in on the grape, making the wine, the processing of the wine. There’s … and what it is, is so much broader than that. It’s working with agriculture, it’s processing and understanding the scientific part of winemaking, it’s an art with all the blending, it’s being really mechanical, which quite frankly sometimes is not my strong suit but being a mechanic at times, literally with all the equipment and all the things that happen, things that go into processing of grapes. It’s really looking at the broader picture with the sales of the wine, the marketing and the costing. So there’s a lot to it.

MV: In 2003, Stoller became the world’s first LEED Gold-certified winery. What was the process like? Can you give us some examples of environmentally-friendly elements you created, and how you made them happen?

MB: Yeah, absolutely. So Stoller in 2005 was when the winery was built on the property, on the vineyard site here and it got certified and the building was completed in 2006, certified lead gold. And at that time, it was the first lead gold winery building in the world. And to have that accomplished, it was a whole host of things, ingredients that were … went into the building. A lot of recycled materials, energy efficiency with light fixtures and plumbing fixtures, and generating and off-setting power through having a solar array and using local materials as much as possible to construct the building.

All of those things have a series of points attached to the decision you make to go about giving yourself certification of gold. So, it was a lot of data collection, a lot of tracking the products and ingredients that went into the building, and a lot of paperwork, really quite frankly to come to attain a LEED Gold certification.

Stoller Family Estate's gravity flow layout
Stoller Family Estate’s gravity flow layout

MV: What more needs to be done to make this industry less male dominated do you think?

MB: Communication and education and collaboration. A big benefit, I think, for people wanting to get into wine, for women in particular wanting to get into the wine industry, is the fact that there are so many … opportunities to experience a vintage, and you can be an intern. So almost every winery that I know hires interns, whether it’s one or two or quite a few. And that happens around the world, really. So if you are someone that’s looking to get into the wine industry and you want to learn about Pinot Noir, you can take some classes and go to some seminars and then start applying for working a vintage. It’s really the best way to experience whether … the industry, especially on the winemaking side and you gain such an insight to things. You can come to Willamette Valley and do an internship at a winery here and then you could also go across the hemisphere and do something in Australia or New Zealand and really bounce around the world.

So I think that in itself has allowed a lot women to get- and men- but to get into the industry and experience it. And I think just more, more women just sharing their experiences being winemakers and the fact that there’s more programs and schools being offered and I think a lot of colleges are starting to pick up wine programs in Washington and Oregon. And the more that that happens, I think the more opportunity there are for younger women. And women in general.

MV: Do you think of yourself as a role model?

MB: I would like to think of myself as a role model for sure. It’s something that I’ve began to feel very comfortable and confident with because at first, even rewinding maybe 10 years ago when people would ask about being a woman winemaker, I liked to kind of prefer to stay under the radar and not focus on the fact that I was a woman. But now it’s, I’m really proud that I am in a winemaking position and successful, and I’ve been at it for quite a while here in Oregon and I’d like to be a role model for other women for sure, and just show people that you can do this and women are fantastic at anything, really but as being winemakers, and there’s a lot of opportunities especially now for them to go out and do so.

MV: What advice do you have for women who say, are just starting out in the industry or one day hope to?

MB: I would say that, going back to what I had said about vintage, I would say, if you are serious about going into the industry, particularly with winemaking, I would take a few course so you can get a bit of a science-underlying science background. Do as many tastings as possible and take some seminars, classes. Immerse yourself with wine, and read. But also really try to get your foot in the door and do a harvest somewhere because that’s the best way to see the action and see if it’s something thing you’re gonna like.

Susan Kostrzewa: You can learn more about Melissa Burr’s work at Stoller, and check out a cool diagram they developed to reduce energy use, by visiting our website, winemag.com/podcast.

And that’s it for today’s Wine Enthusiast podcast.

We heard from Lauren Buzzeo, Layla Schlack, and Marina Vataj.

Be sure to join us next time for the second part of our series, “Goddesses of the Grape.” And if there are women in the winemaking world you think we should know about, please, send us an email. Our address is podcast@winemag.com.

Don’t want to miss the latest about wine, food, beer and spirits? Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast podcast on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please, write us a review. We’d love to hear what you think.

We’d also love to stay in touch. Follow Wine Enthusiast Magazine on Facebook and Twitter, and use the hashtag w-e podcast. Or visit our website, winemag.com/podcast.

The Wine Enthusiast podcast is produced by Sheir and Shim, LLC. Our executive producer is Marina Vataj. I’m Susan Kostrzewa. See you next time!

Published on March 7, 2018
Topics: Podcast



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