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Food & Wine: Women In Wine

By Emily Mangini

A chemist who was intrigued by the science behind enology and viticulture research. An adventurer who nearly lost her life. A Napa native who signed up for Wine Tasting 101 on a whim. Theresa Heredia, Shannon O’Shaughnessy and Tami Lotz each had her own unique — and sometimes circuitous — path to the wine industry. Though their journeys are disparate, they have in common something that eludes many women in the wine industry: a leadership role. Even though female graduates at UC Davis’ Enology and Viticulture program — one of the top in the country — have outnumbered male graduates every year since 2014, only 14% of lead winemakers in California are women, and only 38% of wineries in the state have female owners or co-owners, according to research by Lucia Albino Gilbert, Ph.D., and John Carl Gilbert, Ph.D., of Santa Clara University.  Fortunately, those are stats, not shackles, for these three women, who are forging their own path and staking their claim at the winemaking table.

Despite a love of adventure — and great heights — Shannon O’Shaughnessy, above, owner and founder of Aileron Estates, is feeling grounded these days.
Despite a love of adventure — and great heights — Shannon O’Shaughnessy, above, owner and founder of Aileron Estates, is feeling grounded these days.

Shannon O’Shaughnessy

Owner, Aileron Estates

It was 2009 when O’Shaughnessy, founder and owner of boutique wine brand Aileron Estates, found herself preparing to leap — for fun — from a giant rock into a river 50 feet below. The year had not been kind to her — an H1N1 diagnosis had gone from serious to life-threatening and she was weeks away from a surgery to remove the left lobe of her lung. It would be an understatement to say that her precarious perch at the top of that rock defied doctor’s orders. But O’Shaughnessy, an “adventure junkie,” had passed on the chance to jump the previous day and it was a choice she deeply regretted. “I was so frustrated with myself,” she recalls. “Looking down from the rock, I promised myself I was never going to miss another opportunity again.”

O’Shaughnessy leapt and held true to her word. After her lung surgery, she fulfilled a lifelong dream of getting her pilot’s license. She picked up sport after sport — skiing, cycling, clay shooting — each day modeling an adventurous spirit for her two sons (now 14 and 17). But in 2014, she realized something was still missing: the wine industry. It had been over a decade since O’Shaughnessy left the business, having helped build and run her family’s O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery. “I felt like my time in the business was unfinished,” she says. “I still wanted to build something that was mine.”

What O’Shaughnessy built was Aileron Estates, a boutique Napa Valley winery that produces limited-production estate-grown sauvignon blanc from Coombsville and cabernet sauvignon from the Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak AVAs. With the help of winemaking powerhouse duo Philippe Melka and Maayan Koschitzky of Atelier Melka, O’Shaughnessy is realizing her vision of making vintages that are “the best representation of place.” As for the name, it weaves together her love of flying and that ‘aha’ moment up on the rock all those years ago. “An aileron is the part of an airplane that helps stabilize and change direction. That speaks a lot about my approach in life — an obstacle is just another opportunity to redirect.”

Head Winemaker Theresa Heredia is surrounded by barrels in the tasting room at Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery.
Head Winemaker Theresa Heredia is surrounded by barrels in the tasting room at Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery.

Theresa Heredia

Head Winemaker, Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery

In 2001, when Heredia was earning her Ph.D. in chemistry at UC Davis, she found herself grading undergraduate chemistry papers with some enology and viticulture graduate students. “We started talking about their research and my research,” says Heredia, a well-traveled wine aficionado. “I was doing peptide synthesis for cancer therapeutics and they were doing wine analysis. The science was the same, but their subject was wine and mine was peptides. It was a no-brainer. I took my coursework and transferred. There was no looking back.”

Heredia hasn’t looked back, but her science background continues to shine through: A tasting with her is as much a lesson about varietal clone percentages and the climate’s impact on whole-cluster fermentation as it is about traditional tasting notes. Truly, it would not be extreme to liken her brain to an encyclopedia of the more than 20 wines — most of which are Russian River Valley pinot noirs and chardonnays — that she makes for Gary Farrell. But to assume Heredia’s approach is ruled by figures and formulas would be wrong.

“Winemaking brought out a creative side I didn’t know I had,” Heredia says. Today, her scientific background provides guidance, allowing her to adapt and adjust to the unique qualities of each year’s harvest. No two years are ever alike, something Heredia, who was nominated in 2020 for Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast, embraces.

“This is such a dynamic job,” she says. “It’s never boring here.”

Mumm Napa Head Winemaker Tami Lotz traveled the world to bring her expertise home.
Mumm Napa Head Winemaker Tami Lotz traveled the world to bring her expertise home.

Tami Lotz

Head Winemaker, Mumm Napa

Lotz was born and raised in the Wine Country, but not the wine industry. “My family was in the flooring business. I never thought I’d end up in the wine business,” Lotz says with a laugh. As a freshman at UC Davis, Lotz decided on a whim to take an introductory wine class. “I thought, well, gosh, I grew up in Napa, I’ve tasted some really nice wines, I should learn more about it. I changed my major and never looked back.”

After graduation, Lotz interned at Mumm Napa for the fall harvest. Then, thanks to a scholarship from the International Food and Wine Society, she set off on a yearlong adventure of wine tasting in Australia and working at wineries in Germany and Chile. As fate would have it, each experience gave her greater exposure to the art and science of sparkling wine. “It allowed me to see a future in sparkling,” Lotz explains. “I could see how at Mumm we did it this way, in Germany we did it this way, and in Chile we did it this way. It got me thinking about different ways to achieve the same goal.”

When it was time to leave Chile, Lotz considered moving to Germany or New Zealand, but Napa, she says, is home. So in 2003, when she heard that Mumm Napa was hiring its first assistant winemaker, she jumped at the chance. Mumm Napa has been her wine home ever since, and in 2019 she was named head winemaker. “People have asked me: Don’t you want to move on? Try something new?” she muses. “But I’ve always felt grateful to work for a company that invested in me and has always helped me to grow. There’s no reason for me to want to leave. I work with great people and make wines that I’m proud of.”

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