While men still dominate the winegrowing business, women are coming on strong. Here are four from the Sacramento region who are making their mark in a changing industry.
The first female vintner on record in California was Josephine Tychson, who took over Tychson Cellars in St. Helena following her tubercular husband’s suicide in 1886. Under her leadership, Tychson Cellars constructed a new wine cellar capable of holding 30,000 gallons of zinfandel, burgundy and riesling, and the vineyards expanded to 65 acres before she sold the business in 1894. The statistics show that males still dominate the upper echelons of the wine industry. According to a 2015 study, 10 percent of head winemakers in California are female, and only 4 percent of them own their own wineries; meanwhile, fewer than 15 percent of Master Sommeliers are women. But a new generation of talented, tenacious and highly accomplished wine professionals is changing the conversation.
Sommelier Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou: Always a Student
The Advanced Sommelier exam is a three-day course administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers that tests candidates on wine knowledge, service skills and blind-tasting abilities. Candidates generally spend about two years, several hundred study-hours and several thousand dollars just to get to the exam, which they probably won’t pass.
Considering that Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou, the co-owner of Sacramento restaurants Allora, Woodlake Tavern and Uptown Pizza Kitchen, passed the Advanced Sommelier exam in July 2017 on her first attempt, it would be reasonable to consider her a wine “expert,” but she flatly rejects the label. “I never want to be an expert. I always want to be a student,” she says. “There’s always something new to learn. I don’t like not knowing things.”
That drive to expand her knowledge base has propelled Mandalou throughout her time in the restaurant industry, from her first job at Olive Garden to stints at Cafeteria 15L, Ella and The Firehouse. “I always want to be the smartest person in the room, male or female,” she says. “I want to score higher than all of you. I want to pass on my first try.”
It was at The Firehouse that Mandalou met her future husband and business partner, chef Deneb Williams. But it was during her job interview with Joe Vaccaro at Ella that she first asked about the Certified Sommelier pin on his lapel. Ella provided an education by fire for Mandalou, who was eventually promoted to the assistant sommelier position.
“All these people knew about wine; they knew about spirits; they knew about food; so you better learn if you want to work there,” she says. “It was really intense, but it was just what I needed.”
That intensity seeped into Mandalou’s study habits, and she breezed through her Introductory, Certified and Advanced Sommelier exams in remarkably short order. “I’m not the most confident person, and feeling like I know the information helps more than anything I could ever wear, anything I could ever say,” she says. “That’s something really personal that no one can take from you: your knowledge and how much you put into it.”
Passing the Advanced exam is the third of four steps toward becoming one of the fewer than 300 people in the world to hold a Master Sommelier diploma. But after sandwiching study time between opening three restaurants, Mandalou is in no hurry to hit the books again. “I’m finally getting to the point where I feel like I’m floating and not sinking,” she says. “I managed to pass all my exams on the first try, which doesn’t happen often, especially for the Advanced exam, but I want to give myself the best chance.”
She has tentative plans to sit for the Master Sommelier exam in 2020, but these days, Mandalou spends “99.9 percent” of her time at Allora, the widely heralded Italian restaurant that she and Williams opened early last year in East Sacramento. “The wine list is so esoteric and different that if I’m not there, we could see a huge decline in sales,” she says. “For me, it’s about exposing people to things that maybe they haven’t had before.”
The seafood-forward menu at Allora allows Mandalou to confound expectations on a nightly basis. “A common misconception is that red wine and seafood don’t go together, which is interesting considering that some of Italy’s prized wines are in areas where the majority of the cuisine is seafood,” she says. “Certainly, white wines tend to work better with seafood, especially shellfish, but if someone insists on the red, there are ways to do it where it works.”
Winemaker Nicole Salengo: Putting Her Soul in Her Wines
Nicole Salengo has such an infectious energy and enthusiasm, she can literally get you excited about dirt.
“Between Putah Creek and our vineyard, there are 32 different soil types to my knowledge,” says Salengo, the award-winning winemaker at Berryessa Gap Vineyards in Winters. Indeed, the soil texture shifts under our feet as we walk through Coble Ranch, the 60-acre vineyard where Salengo sources her grapes, the ground going from rocky and dusty to cakey and claylike in a few steps. “I really like the variation even from the soil perspective. I like to have options.”
Salengo is passionate about every element of her winemaking, from her “high-tech” optical sorter that takes a picture of every single grape to her comparatively low-tech Spanish basket press, but the Vermont-born geology major is probably most passionate about the mineral-rich Winters soil. “We don’t have an AVA, so people aren’t taking us seriously as a true winegrowing region,” she says. “I want people to know that this is a unique growing region that has a very special future, and I want it to be recognized for quality.”
Although Salengo originally moved west to continue her geology studies at UC Davis, she was exposed to great wines through her job at a local wine shop. “We would taste verticals with winemakers from Burgundy, and I didn’t even know what I was experiencing at the time,” she says. “I was waiting on all the UC Davis enology professors and their guests, and it was a special opportunity for someone to eventually get into my position.”
She never set out to become a winemaker but quickly fell in love with the mix of science and artistry. She started taking winemaking classes at UC Davis while tirelessly working to perfect her craft. Hired as head winemaker at Berryessa Gap in 2013, Salengo immersed herself in every detail, overhauling the winery’s equipment and gradually imposing her preference for balanced, food-friendly, European-style wines. “There’s a finesse in French wines that I don’t find in domestic wines,” she says. “I’m seeking that when I’m making wine, looking for that elegance, that silky texture.”
The white-wine acreage at Coble Ranch has expanded since Salengo arrived, and next year Berryessa Gap plans to roll out a refreshing rosé in cans, bottles and kegs. “This is a hot area. The summer is long. We need more rosé in California,” she says. After five years at the helm, Salengo feels that she is fully executing her vision from root to bottle. “I have the crazy work ethic, I have the interest, and now I think I have enough experience to feel comfortable and confident,” she says. “It’s hard for me to be hands-off. A piece of my soul is in this wine.”
When Salengo steps out the back door of the winery, she gets a stunning view of the real Berryessa Gap, as well as a reminder of the area’s potential as a winegrowing region. “We get special weather from that gap,” she says. “We get a lot of cooling winds, particularly in the evenings, which is basically perfect for grape-growing.” Her grand vision for Winters involves fully realizing that potential and hopefully converting some of the area’s many walnut orchards to wine grapes.
“We only have two wineries here, so people automatically assume that this must not be a great place for good wine,” she says. “I personally just think it’s a secret that hasn’t been discovered yet, and I’m ready for people to know and taste the wine.”
Winery Owners Sami and Rachel Ruddick: Growing With the Company
Sisters, roommates and best friends Sami and Rachel Ruddick have been immersed in the wine industry their entire lives. Their family has grown wine grapes and pears in Mendocino County for five generations, but it remained unclear how agriculture business student and amateur winemaker Sami, 25, and graphic design major Rachel, 22, would fit into the family legacy. After all, the family vineyard only supplied grapes and never produced its own wine.
“It wasn’t clear that wine was what we were going to do,” says Art Institute graduate Rachel. That all changed last year when the Ukiah natives teamed up to start Largo Ridge Wines, using fruit purchased from the family farm. The collaboration was a natural fit, with Rachel focusing on label and website designs for Largo Ridge and Sami handling most of the customer service and sales. “We definitely use different parts of our brain, so together we make one full brain,” Rachel says of the sisterly collaboration.
Their goal with Largo Ridge Wines was simple: create the lighter-bodied wines that appealed to their own youthful demographic, even when working with stereotypically “bold” varietals. “We wanted to make a wine for people like us, wines that we like to drink, for young people who are the new generation of wine drinker,” Sami says. “We wanted to make a chardonnay almost in the style of a sauvignon blanc: stainless steel-fermented, super light, fruity, not sweet. It’s the chardonnay that we’ve been looking for.”
That youthful spirit extends to the branding for Largo Ridge, which boasts Instagram-inspired labels and places Rachel and Sami front and center in marketing and social media. “In the wine industry, there’s no actual face behind the brand,” Rachel says. “We want people to recognize us as the winemakers and the business owners.”
For all their lifelong experience and family support, the learning curve has been steep for the Ruddick sisters. “We’re just learning about all of the financial stuff,” Rachel says. “The whole industry is so brand-new to us from this perspective.”
Sami was similarly unprepared for the number of hoops waiting for them as new business owners. “I went to school for most of this, and I had no idea the amount of paperwork and taxes and licenses that there are,” she says. “There are obstacles around every turn, and we’re still learning every single day.”
Sami works part time as a hair salon receptionist, and Rachel hopes to find full-time employment as a graphic designer, but otherwise, they spend almost every waking hour working on Largo Ridge Wines. “We’re home and working on things up until the time we go to sleep, and then right when we wake up, one of us has an idea,” Rachel says. They live together in Sacramento but are constantly making the nearly three-hour commute to the vineyards in Ukiah. “Because we love it, and because it’s for our future, it doesn’t feel like work.”
Largo Ridge Wines currently produces only 400 cases a year of a 2017 chardonnay and a 2016 cabernet aauvignon, although new vintages will debut in the spring, and the sisters have plans to eventually release a red blend. “We started small because we want to be able to grow with our company,” says Rachel, who ultimately aspires to make Largo Ridge Wines her full-time job. “That’s our long-term goal and that’s what keeps us grinding on it—we’re passionate about it.”
She adds: “We have big goals for the future. We’re not exactly sure what they are, but we know that they’re there.”
Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou recommends: 2015 Cantina Terlano Vorberg Pinot Bianco ($92)
Region: Alto Adige, the northernmost winegrowing region in Italy
ABV: 13.5 percent
Unique characteristics: Cantina Terlano was founded in 1893 in the German-speaking Tyrolian region, with the grapes grown at high altitude in warm temperatures.
Tasting notes: White peach, quince, some savory qualities and natural mineral notes from the volcanic soil. “It tells a story of where it’s from,” Mandalou says.
Suggested food pairing: “It’s really beautiful with seafood, and that’s why I typically will always have this wine on the list.”
Where you can try it: Allora (5215 Folsom Blvd.)
Nicole Salengo recommends: 2016 Berryessa Gap Tempranillo ($26)
Appellation: Yolo County
ABV: 14 percent
Unique characteristics: Salengo credits the stark differences between the 2015 tempranillo and this more restrained 2016 vintage to her continuing evolution as a winemaker. “It is always a work in progress,” she says.
Tasting notes: Red and dark fruits, cocoa and a touch of spice, with medium body, silky texture and relatively low acidity.
Suggested food pairings: Every November, Berryessa Gap holds a paella cook-off and dinner to celebrate the end of harvest and commemorate the Spanish heritage of the winery’s owners. Iberian varietals like tempranillo pair perfectly with paella and Spanish-style tapas.
Where you can buy it: Berryessa Gap’s two tasting rooms in Winters, various stores and restaurants around town and berryessagap.com
Rachel and Sami Ruddick recommend: 2016 Largo Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)
Appellation: Mendocino County
ABV: 14.7 percent
Unique characteristics: “A lot of cabs tend to hit you in the face with the first sip,” Rachel says. “Our cab is smooth from the first sip. It’s just a great social wine you can drink with your friends or while you’re watching TV, or you could have it with a nice dinner.”
Tasting notes: Juicy red fruit, especially raspberries, with a well-rounded balance of acids and tannins.
Suggested food pairing: “Chinese food is always a good pairing for me,” says Sami. “It’s such a versatile wine, it really can go with anything.”
Where you can buy it: largoridgewines.com