7 Women Winemakers in California Forging a Better, Brighter Future With Sustainable Viticulture

women wine country marin

Winemaking in California has never been more challenging, with climate change, the threat of wildfires and drought threatening vineyards at every turn. There’s hope for wine lovers though – many winery owners are rising to the challenge, embracing more sustainable practices from dry farming to installing pollinator sanctuaries. These sustainable viticulture practices go hand in hand with better land stewardship often result in better tasting, more complex wines. And increasingly, a number of these winemakers are women.

Not only are many women at the forefront of winemaking practices, but they are finding ways to give back, not just to the environment but the community too. Here are seven women you need to know who are pioneering a more sustainable future for California wine country.

Beth Novak Milliken, President & CEO of Spottswoode

Beth Novak Milliken. Photo by Bill Tucker

As long-time president of her family’s Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery, Beth Novak Milliken is a climate activist and powerful advocate for women in the wine industry. The 137-year-old Spottswoode Estate Vineyard has been farmed organically since 1985, and CCOF certified since 1992. Spottswoode is also solar powered, certified biodynamic through the Demeter Association, Napa Green Vineyard and Winery Certified, B Corp Certified, and one of the first members of International Wineries for Climate Action.

“Each time we make a purchase, we have the opportunity to support those who share our values,” Novak Milliken says. “At Spottswoode, our vineyard is certified organic and biodynamic. Our soils and our environment are alive with microbes, worms, birds, insects, farm animals, and more. This biodiversity results in healthy, vibrant grape vines which give us deeply flavorful and dynamic fruit from which to make our wines. One can taste the life and care in our wines.”

Philanthropically, Novak Milliken has been the honorary chair for Auction Napa Valley in 2010 and in 2007, she committed Spottswoode to be a member of 1% for the Planet, contributing a minimum of 1% of the winery’s gross revenue on an annual basis to environmental organizations — most notably green space preservation, including contributions to the Land Trust of Napa County, Yosemite Conservancy, and Bay Area Ridge Trail Council. To date, Spottswoode has accumulated a donation of over $1.24 million.

Maggie Kruse, Winemaker at Jordan Winery

Maggie Kruse has worked at Jordan Winery since 2006, and took over as head winemaker from founding winemaker Rob Davis in 2019, guiding this iconic Sonoma County winery into a new era as it celebrates 50 years. Jordan has always made just two wines — an estate cabernet sauvignon and estate chardonnay — and a significant portion of wine sales at the winery supports the John Jordan Foundation, which provides disadvantaged youth and young adults with tools to succeed academically and professionally. This year, to celebrate their 50th anniversary, Kruse will be visiting three cities across the United States in June – Denver, Dallas and Nashville – and partnering with nonprofit organizations in each city to raise money as part of Jordan’s Social Impact Summer initiative. One hundred percent of ticket sales will go to nonprofit partners in each city.

Plus, Jordan is in the midst of an estate replanting project and recently installed pollinator sanctuaries too. “Only about 10% of our estate is under vine, while the rest of the estate has been left wild,” Kruse says. “Our goal is to ensure that the biggest positive impact for the grapevines comes from the smallest human input.”

Hilary Cocalis, Founder of Sipwell

Hilary Cocalis founded Sipwell just last year, a sustainable new line of canned wine that’s can-fermented with champagne yeast and packaged in single-use fully recyclable aluminum cans. Cans weigh much less than glass bottles, resulting in a reduced carbon footprint when it comes to shipping. Cocalis is passionate about the planet, sourcing all grapes from organically and sustainably farmed grapes in California’s Central Coast. When she couldn’t find a sparkling wine she liked in a single glass format, she decided to make one for herself, in a can. Coming from the craft beer industry as Vice President of Marketing for Ballast Point Brewing Company, Cocalis took her knowledge from home brewing and what she learned about traditional sparkling wine making practices to create a can-conditioned wine, mirroring the champagne method and creating fine creamy bubbles with zero grams of sugar. Sipwell makes four varieties now — a sparkling red, sparkling white, sparkling rosé and still grenache.

“We have a mantra of ‘sip responsibly’ that goes beyond just the idea of moderation when drinking,” Cocalis says. “For us, it also means a responsibility to our planet. We use organically or sustainably farmed grapes to ensure that fewer harmful chemicals are ending up in our soil and that water resources are conserved. And we’re putting it into a sustainable package — infinitely recyclable aluminum.”

Women of Wente Vineyards – Aly and Niki Wente, Elizabeth Kester

Left to right: Elizabeth Kester, Aly Wente, and Niki Wente

Wente Vineyards is America’s longest, continuously family-owned and operated winery, founded in 1883 and now managed by the fourth and fifth generations of the Wente family. Sisters Niki and Aly Wente are director of vineyard operations and vice president of marketing and experiences, respectively. Their director of winemaking, Elizabeth Kester, is also a woman and the trio represent a fresh millennial approach to the art of winemaking and entertaining. Located just east of San Francisco in the historic Livermore Valley, Wente Vineyards is recognized as one of California’s premier sustainable wine country destinations with certifications from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CCSW) for both the vineyard and winery. Fewer than ten percent of wineries hold both the vineyard and winery certifications, and Wente Vineyards is proud to be counted among them.

“For the vineyard, we are looking forward to using one of the first electric tractors from Monarch Tractors to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, energy expenditure, fuel spending, and labor,” Niki Wente says. “We are also renewing our contract with a full-time Master Falconer during harvest season to help control vineyard pests without chemicals.” In the winery, they are also transitioning Wente Vineyards’ bottles to lighter-weight glass to reduce carbon emissions from the supplier to the consumer and installing a new bottling line to increase energy efficiencies further.

Mari Jones, President of Emeritus Vineyards

In late 2019, after seven successful years as the chief operating officer for her family’s Emeritus Vineyards, Mari Jones was appointed the winery’s president at the age of 32 — making her one of the youngest people in California to guide a winery. Mari oversees all aspects of Emeritus, approaching her role with a long-term vision, and in 2011 the winery adopted a dry farming practice, growing all of their grapes without irrigation. Today, Emeritus is the largest dry-farmed pinot noir estate in Sonoma County, and possibly all of California, with 140 acres dry farmed. Jones estimates that dry farming saves the winery 320,000 gallons of water per acre, per year. “Dry farming makes wines that are an honest reflection of the vineyard and vintage, by allowing the vines to adapt to the uniqueness of each season,” Jones says. “From a technical standpoint, dry farming allows the grapes to achieve ripeness at lower sugar levels, so the resulting wines are higher acid and lower alcohol. The berries are also smaller, so the wines are more intense and there is a bit of tannic structure.”

Emeritus is also a Certified California Sustainable Vineyard & Winery and joined with other members of Sonoma County Winegrowers to create a Climate Adaptation Certification (CAC) Program. The aim of the program is to verify a vineyard’s sustainability practices and offsetting carbon emissions. “We are working to sequester as much carbon as possible in our vineyards,” Jones says. “We do this by planting indigenous flora, by chipping instead of burning dead vines, and other practices to keep carbon in the soil and in plant matter.”

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Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley.

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