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Toast to the wine women of Sonoma

There must be something in the air. Maybe it's the fog? Maybe it's the soil? But there has to be something that has led so many women to make wine in Sonoma, Calif.
/ Source: Reuters

There must be something in the air. Maybe it's the fog? Maybe it's the soil? But there has to be something that has led so many women to make wine in Sonoma, Calif.

There is, of course, Helen Turley. America's answer to France's flying winemaker Michel Rolland. This grande dame of California cult wines has her latest venture, Marcassin Vineyards, 10 acres or so producing Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays on the Sonoma Coast.

In the 1980s, it was Judy Jordan who founded J Vineyards. Given her proclivities for sparkling wine, naturally enough she planted Chardonnay, and eventually Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

Merry Edwards, who has been making Pinot Noirs for more than 25 years, has her vineyard in Sonoma, and Theresa Heredia is making wine for the Phelps' family at Freestone Vineyards.

Now there comes La Crema's Melissa Stackhouse. La Crema is owned by Laura Jackson Giron and Jennifer Jackson, members of the Kendall Jackson family, one of the largest family-owned wine operations in the United States.

Following her passion
Stackhouse, 43, grew up in Michigan, a state better known for cars and beer than wine. Raised in a religious household where alcohol of any kind was not served, she went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids to study nursing.

"But I didn't feel passionate about it and I wanted to feel passionate about something. So I went to find something else."

She went to Washington State to sell classified ads for the Bellingham Herald. She went to Alaska to drive a motor coach and she went to New Zealand to work on farms.

"I was 28, before I learned you could go to school to learn how to make wine. And I decided to be a winemaker, because it's something I love to do. It was and is something I feel passionate about," Stackhouse said. The work combines her interest in science with a drive for creativity.

Finding flavor
La Crema produces several different Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Chardonnay, the world's best selling varietal, is a chameleon.

"It really reflects the region where it is grown," Stackhouse said. Consequently, "our Carneros Chardonnay is a wine that has a lot lemon zest and minerality, whereas the Russian River Chardonnay is a more hedonistic wine. You have more of that creme brulee, baked apple, baked pear."

But the flavors and aromas "don't really come from what we do. All of that distinction comes from where the fruit is grown," she said.

A self-described "meat-eater" Stackhouse said when she finished her degree at the University of California at Davis "I was a Cabernet girl all the way. Big reds that's what I thought," she said.

"Pinots were trying to find themselves. They have long been talked about as being a difficult grape variety to make...and it can be especially if the vintage is extreme," she said.

But now that she has been making Pinot Noirs for 10 years, Stackhouse said she prefers "real Spartan wine making. It's all about the grapes. Making certain they're very healthy and in good condition and then being hands off."

La Crema's Carneros Pinot Noir has an earthy, vivid cherry to it, while the Russian River Pinot Noir, which is heavily influenced by the fog that sweeps in and hangs about the valley, leaves the wine tasting of black cherry, sassafras and a bit of licorice, Stackhouse said.

She and her team will blind taste through 250 lots of grapes before deciding on the blend.

"There is no house style at La Crema," Stackhouse said. "We don't strive to make wine like last year. We strive to make a better wine each year."