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Ntsiki Biyela

Ntsiki Biyela is seen in this undated photo.

With Mother’s Day on the horizon, today’s column covers wines by women winemakers. California’s first woman winemaker was Hannah Weinburger, who ran the Weinburger winery in Napa Valley from the death of her husband in 1882 until the winery closed with Prohibition in 1920.

Despite this early start, currently only about 10 percent of California’s 4,000 wineries have women winemakers. Nevertheless, there are signs women are on the verge of an increasing role.

Ann Noble, retired professor in the renowned viticulture and enology program at the University of California, Davis, and her successor, Hildegarde Heymann, shared with me the percentage of women students in their course on sensory perception of wine, a core course in the program. The enrollments show striking growth in women students from 13 percent during the 1970s to 46 percent in the 2010s.

I recently tasted many wines made by women across the world. My top wine picks follow, each with a brief introduction of the winemaker. These fine wines are wonderful choices for celebrating Mother’s Day.

Winemaker Elena Adell was introduced to wine as a child when she dipped cookies into a glass of wine alongside her grandfather. Her Campo Viejo 2012 Grenache “Rioja, Spain" ($10) is impressive for its attractive color, expressive fruit and soft tannins. Moreover, its complexity, refinement and length are rare at this price.

Belinda Thomson focuses on maximizing expression of the Verdejo grape by the limiting the effects of her winemaking. Her Shaya 2014 Verdejo “Rueda, Spain" ($18) is a white wine that’s very fresh and lively on the palate thanks to expressive fruit being wonderfully balanced by crisp acidity. Plus its complexity is impressive for the price.

Lorna Kreutz, originally from San Diego County, fell in love with making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Her Lincourt 2013 Chardonnay "Courtney’s Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills” ($27) is a beautiful wine featuring deep yellow color with a hint of gold, notable fruit and complexity on both nose and palate, and excellent balance and refinement.

Valentina Buoso sees eye to eye with owner Pascal Jolivet in focusing on natural purity of fruit highlighted by well-honed crispness and minerality. Her Pascal Jolivet 2014 Sauvignon Blanc "Sancerre, France" ($27) is a highly polished wine expressing that wonderful fruit on nose and palate, along with finely honed balance and attractive complexity.

Leslie Mead Renaud’s career path included a stint with the U.S. Forest Service before she fell in love with making wine. Her Roth 2013 red blend "Heritage, Sonoma County" ($30) is dominated by Syrah and Zinfandel and pairs full-bodied fruit and medium-soft tannins with notable complexity and refinement. I also loved her Roth 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon “Alexander Valley, Sonoma County” ($28).

Eileen Crane, with 35 years in the wine trade, is considered the most experienced sparkling-wine maker in the U.S. Her Domaine Carneros 2011 “Brut, Carneros” ($30) is a beautifully refreshing sparkler. I loved its copious, mouth-filling froth, forward flavors, impressive complexity and excellent length.

Christine Barbe was born, raised and educated in Bordeaux, so making fine Sauvignon Blanc is engrained within her. Her Coquerel 2013 Sauvignon Blanc “Terroir, Walnut Wash Vineyard, Calistoga, Napa Valley” ($32) has exceptional balance, pleasing complexity, smooth texture and great length. Available from

Jen Beloz was urged to go to medical school, but her interest in winemaking ultimately prevailed. Her Saldo (by Prisoner) 2014 Zinfandel “California” ($30) was pure joy to taste, with its richness, light tannins, fine balance and fruit-dominated attack followed by development of notable complexity. Her Prisoner 2014 red blend “Napa Valley” ($45) is another fine wine.

Susana Balbo became Argentina’s first woman enologist in 1981 and started her own winery in 1999. My favorite among several of her wines I tasted was the Susana Balbo 2012 red blend “Brioso, Single Vineyard, Agrelo, Mendoza, Argentina” ($44). This Cabernet-dominated blend has an expressive nose and is full-bodied with richly textured fruit, beautiful complexity and great refinement. Her Susana Balbo 2013 Malbec “Signature, Valley de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina” ($23) outperforms its price.

Stacy Vogel worked in sales administration for a wine and beer distributor, during which she became interested in winemaking. Her Miner Family 2011 red blend “The Oracle, Napa Valley” ($46; half-bottle) is a full-bodied wine with excellent balance, fruit, complexity and refinement. Tannins call for serving with beef.

Sarah Marquis shares winemaking duties (and winery ownership) with husband Sparky. Their Mollydooker 2014 Shiraz “Blue Eyed Boy, McLaren Vale, Australia” ($49) deserves raves with its strong, complex and yet refined nose and its power, fruit and complexity on the palate. It also has an impressive sibling: Mollydooker 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon “Gigglepot, McLaren Vale, Australia” ($49).

Ntsiki Biyela had never tasted wine before being awarded a scholarship to study winemaking, and then she became South Africa’s first black woman winemaker. Her Cabernet-based Stellekaya 2008 red blend “Orion, Stellenbosch, South Africa” ($50) has an impressively complex, powerful nose and is very bold yet refined on the palate. Available from

Genevieve Janssens was born in Morocco, grew up in France and ultimately moved to California. As Director of Wine Making, her Robert Mondavi 2013 Chardonnay “Reserve, Carneros, Napa Valley” ($55) is an exceptional wine with beautiful color and a forward, complex nose. The first sip develops in the mouth to reveal light oak, power and complexity that persist through an extended finish. Also very impressive is her Robert Mondavi 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon “Oakville, Napa Valley” ($45).

Jenny Wagner comes from a family of winemakers who began in California when her great grandfather arrived from Italy. Her Emmolo 2013 Merlot “Napa Valley” ($60) is a superb wine with incredible color depth and complex nose that presage extraordinary balance, strong fruit, excellent complexity and an abundance of personality. I also thoroughly enjoyed her Emmolo 2014 Sauvignon Blanc “Napa Valley” ($22).

Jordan Fiorentini grew up around wine at her family’s winery in…Georgia. Her Epoch 2012 red blend “Authenticity, Paderewsi Vineyard, Paso Robles” ($65) is an inspiring Syrah-based wine with gorgeous color, strong fruit, thick body, powerful complexity, excellent refinement and distinctive personality. Buy soon, because this beauty might sell out before Mother’s Day. Or consider her fine Epoch 2013 red blend “Estate Blend, Paderewski and Catapult Vineyards, Paso Robles” ($50).

Heidi Barrett grew up in a winemaking family. After achieving extraordinary success through winemaking, she founded her own small-production winery in 1994. Her La Sirena 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon “Napa Valley” ($175) is exceptional, boasting an excellent nose expressive of strong fruit and bold complexity. Moreover, there’s superb integration, smooth tannins, excellent complexity and very impressive refinement on the palate.

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