Rockstar Women Cheesemakers by Molly Hess
March 6, 2022
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Spirited Women by Daniel Sirko

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, and all of March is Women’s History Month – both recognizing the cultural, historical, political, and economic achievements of women. In addition to  the numerous accomplished cheesemakers, we feature a number of women-produced wines and spirits that will be featured each week throughout March.  Here are just a few of the women we admire, setting new standards in the spirits world.

MARY TAYLOR

Mary Taylor is a negociant, a wine merchant, partnering with several Old World producers to bring their wines to market.  Her premise is simple – to showcase honest, authentic wines based on their appellation, or place of origin, as they have been for centuries in Europe. Partnering with independent grower-producers whose practices align with her values of sustainability, minimal intervention and artisanship, her wines are true expressions of each villages unique terroir, or sense of place. After a career selling French and Italian wines in New York, Mary moved to Burgundy where she immersed herself in wine culture as a way of life.  “I worked my whole life for male-owned businesses, where my strategic thinking was not heard. Men overwhelmingly own the money and the resources, so women’s creative expression in the business is less visible. It doesn’t take upper body strength to run a great company, just experience, insight and intelligence.” Acknowledging that the European labeling system can be confusing for many Americans, she set out to demystify the packaging with unpretentious labels displaying the provenance, vintage and the producer on the front.  The back label displays the grape varietals and a brief description of the wines origin.  You’ll always find a few of her bottles on our shelves as they represent genuine, affordable wines of integrity.

CAROL SHELTON

Often called the most awarded wine maker in America, Carol Shelton has won Winemaker of the Year five times, has countless gold medals, and was named one of the eight Pioneer Women Winemakers of Sonoma County.  She continues to win awards and accolades – her Wild Thing Zinfandel is included in Wine Spectator’s current Top 100 Wines. She attributes some of her skills to the game she played as a child with her mother, challenging her to identify herbs and spices from the kitchen cabinet.  With her keen senses, she decided on Enology studies at UC Davis in the late 70’s.  With her degree she was determined to work at wineries, but quickly discovered some resistance: “Women weren’t allowed to work in the cellar. We weren’t considered strong enough, but I think many of us proved this conception to be dead wrong – yes it’s hard physical labor, but women can do it.” After stints at several prestigious wineries, she worked her way up to winemaker at Windsor Vineyards overseeing 45 different wines, with Zinfandel always her favorite:  unpretentious and a true reflection of its terroir.  In 2000, with urging from her husband Mitch, Carol launched her own winery as winemaker and president.  But it was tough and expensive and her creativity led her to sell futures for her first vintage, which she had to use just to buy the glass bottles.  Many harvests later, her passion remains stronger than ever, her recognition unmatched her wines exceptional. 

MARSHA MILAM, HEATHER GREENE and MARLENE HOLMES

It was a rocky start for this whiskey distilling trio, often given the cold-shoulder in a what is considered a predominantly male sector. But the team behind Milam and Greene Distillers have persevered, winning competitions and great acclaim within a few short years.  As well as multiple gold, double gold and platinum awards from credible spirits competitions and high marks from Wine Enthusiast. In 2021 Milam & Greene were awarded the “People’s Choice Award” at The Texas Whiskey Festival and “Best in Show” out of 550 entrants at The American Craft Spirits Association. Wow! With over 60 years of experience, the team brings many traditional and innovative skills to the project. 

Texas entrepreneur Marsha Milam had an established distillery in Blanco, Texas.   Looking for a fresh approach, she partnered with Heather Greene, a noted spirits author and whiskey sommelier, who serves as Master Blender for their newly formed enterprise.  They coaxed Master Distiller Marlene Holmes to join the team, a whiskey veteran who worked for Kentucky’s Jim Beam for over 30 years.  The trio’s experiments in sourcing, blending and finishing are the focus of the business, while turning the hot and humid conditions of Texas into an advantage in their aging process. With its innovation and fortitude, Milam and Greene are setting new standards of excellence in the once-old boys’ network.

MARIA SINEIRO

Lagar de Besada Winery was founded in 1985 by Maria’s father in the Valle de Salnés in northern Spain’s Galicia region. It was, at the time, a tiny little spot focused on local sales of their young, fresh Albariño wines the region was known for.  With wine running through her veins, Maria went off to work in Champagne, France where she recognized similarities between the Spanish Albariño and French Chardonnay grapes.  Returning home, she was determined to make a local sparkling wine in the Champagne method, but the appellation refused to recognize her efforts. She persevered for years until sparkling wines were finally allowed to carry the Rias Baixas appellation. Her “Burbujas de Besada” earned her wide recognition in Spain and served as a launch pad for the equally innovative efforts she and husband David, are making with still wines. Organically produced with minimal intervention, what is especially unique for Maria’s wines are the extended aging on the lees (spent yeasts), from six months to ten years, creating what Chicago importer Damien Casten describes as “ a wonderfully deep wine that can be enjoyed in all the same moments that a collector might reach for a Premier Cru white Burgundy.”  He goes on, “the key is the yin and yang of good Albariño – it has weight and depth with electricity and zip. They are lithe but powerful, immediate but thought provoking.”  Indeed.