To coincide with International Women’s Day, Stephen Williams, Founder & CEO of AWC writes for Oracle Capital Group, an independent multi-family office dedicated to providing personalised services to high net worth individuals, about the influence of some leading ladies in the world of fine wine.
[Above: Portrait of Madame Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin]
As recently as the 1980s, the world of wine was almost entirely European-focused and, for many, it was seen as a somewhat elitist environment, a male-dominated industry of pin-striped suits, aloof leadership, and inaccessible London Livery Clubs. As with many other professions, fine wine presented itself as being very much “a man’s world.”
Although this may well have been the historic outward appearance, the reality is quite different, particularly with developments over the past three decades. Indeed, some of the longest standing fine wine brands owe their success to female inspiration, energy and talent, and, in the current fine wine world, the gender ratio has become significantly more balanced.
Numerous female pioneers arose in France’s Champagne region as early as the eighteenth century. Perhaps the most famous is Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, better known by her married name of Madame Clicquot. Upon her husband François’ untimely death in 1805, Barbe-Nicole took control of the family business, thereby becoming one of the first women to run a major Champagne house. While many women at the time ran small, household enterprises such as inns and textile manufacturing operations, Madame Clicquot was a pioneer due to the spectacular size and prestige of the business she both managed and successfully expanded. Her distinctive looping signature, reading ‘Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin’ (‘The Widow Clicquot Ponsardin’), is still seen today on the yellow labels of the house’s Champagnes.
As well as having a fine head for business matters (keeping the books balanced during the Napoleonic wars was no easy feat), Madame Clicquot was also a gifted winemaker. Her invention and refinement of the remuage technique (i.e. the use of ‘riddling’ racks, which are free-standing wooden boards that allow Champagne bottles to be placed neck down and gently rotated until all the sediment from the secondary fermentation is settled in the neck of the bottle for easy removal) would eventually become a standard industry practice. This method created brilliantly clear and clean Champagnes, and remuage is now a core part of the Champagne production process.
In 1810, Madame Clicquot introduced vintage Champagne – made from grapes from one specific vintage harvest. Today the house’s homage to Madame Cliquot is their tête de cuvée called La Grande Dame (The Great Lady). First made in 1969, La Grande Dame is the pinnacle of Veuve Clicquot’s style. Elegant, refined and delicate, this is a rich, smooth and finely textured Champagne, with stunning complexity and extraordinary length – a fitting tribute to a woman with such an important legacy.
[Above: Madame Lily Bollinger]
The wartime years of the twentieth century saw another Champagne widow rise to fame when Madame Lily Bollinger took over the family business in 1941. A marketing machine, Bollinger travelled the world promoting the brand, ultimately finding such success that Queen Elizabeth invited her to Buckingham Palace and bestowed her with a Royal Warrant in 1955. Just a year later, James Bond drank Bollinger for the first time in Ian Fleming’s novel Diamonds Are Forever. This sparkling moment kick-started a long and enviable relationship with 007, which still continues to this day, with Daniel Craig uncorking some 1990 Bollinger La Grande Année in the film Casino Royale.
In 1961 Lily Bollinger created the concept of R.D. (Recently Disgorged) Champagne. This was an aged, vintage wine that was kept in the house’s cellars until it’s later than usual release, meaning that the collector could enjoy perfectly mature Champagne that had been mellowed in the very cellar in which it was made. Today, Bollinger R.D. is one of the most sought-after and exclusive Champagnes.
The Sweet Taste of Success
Luckily, you don’t have to be a widow to become a key player in the “haut de gamme” wine business. Modern times find quite a number of dedicated women winemakers at the top level, who, like Madame Clicquot, employ the latest technologies and work to promote their wines to a global audience whilst maintaining a strong sense of identity.
[Above: Sandrine Garby, Château d’Yquem winemaker]
In 1998, aged just 31, Sandrine Garbay became the winemaker at Château d’Yquem. This landmark hire made her the first female winemaker of a Premier Cru Classé in the history of Bordeaux. Surprisingly, when she began her oenology training as an eighteen year old student she admits that she did not really enjoying drinking wine. However, this has now changed and there’s no doubt that Sandrine has the necessary talent to produce astounding bottles, a skill especially evident in the Château d’Yquem vintages of 2001, 2006 and 2011, all years that are acclaimed as being amongst the greatest sweet wines on the planet.
In Burgundy, home to the fragrant Pinot Noir grape, Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy (Domaine Leroy) co-managed the famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) starting in 1974 and, over the following twenty years, built Romanée-Conti into one of the most sought-after wines in the world.
During my own 25 year career at the helm of AWC I’ve witnessed a growing number of new world wines that have become quality contenders to the French classics. Napa Valley is a prime example as it is the source of two iconic wines that have benefited significantly from the female touch. Ann Colgin, an avid art collector and dedicated philanthropist from New York brought her first vineyard here in the early 1990s, and experienced significant success from the start. In fact, noted wine critic Robert Parker has awarded Colgin a stunning set of perfect, 100 point ratings, describing the estate as “nirvana.”
[Above: Ann Colgin, Colgin Cellars]
Finally those wanting to raise their glasses with something really special on International Women’s Day should appreciate that Screaming Eagle, the 57 acre estate in Napa, was founded by local real estate broker Jean Phillips in 1986. She made the prescient decision to hire Heidi Barrett as her winemaker and in the many vintages that followed, this double-female managed property has produced wines that command prices greater than those of Château Pétrus.