Unlike a previous generation of woman winemakers, when Theresa Heredia entered the field almost 20 years ago, others had already paved the way. She credits a handful of California pioneers like Heidi Barrett, Mia Klein, and Merry Edwards with breaking down the barriers that allow women to hold high-level positions in wineries and vineyards today. Even in the progressive New World winemaking state of California, only 14% of lead winemakers are women, leaving a lot of room for growth as more women enter the world of wine.
The head winemaker at Gary Farrell Winery in Healdsburg, California, Heredia is a specialist in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from top vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. Through a combination of grape selection from single-vineyard sites and winemaking technique, she crafts wines known for their balance and bright acidity. Theresa started at Gary Farrell Winery in 2012; immediately prior she was at Joseph Phelps’ Freestone Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast, where she also made highly acclaimed Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. She has a Burgundian flair in her winemaking, having worked in France at Domaine de Montille. Before leaving to follow her calling as a hands-on winemaker, Theresa was a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry with an emphasis on enology at U.C. Davis. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
Gary Farrell Winery produces 27,000 12-bottle cases of wine per year. Ten thousand of those cases are sold directly to consumers via the winery tasting room and website, and 17,000 cases are distributed throughout the US or sold into the export market. In the United States, 60% of Gary Farrell wines are sold in restaurants, with the remainder available in wine shops. In addition to single-vineyard wines, Gary Farrell also produces Russian River Valley Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and rosé using grapes from a variety of sites within the appellation.
In celebration of International Women’s Month, we spoke with Theresa about her path to becoming a winemaker, the women winemakers who have influenced her career, and her focus on making wine from the different “neighborhoods” in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.
World Wine Guys: What was your path to becoming a winemaker?
Theresa Heredia: I stumbled upon this career quite serendipitously. I studied Biochemistry as an undergrad at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and then went on UC Davis where I spent two years in the Chemistry PhD program. During that time, I was a teaching assistant for undergraduate General Chemistry, along with 11 other grad students. When we gathered to grade exams, two of the grad students brought wine and glasses to the grading sessions where we also exchanged stories of our individual research projects. I heard the enology students talk about using the same analytical methods that I was using in my peptide synthesis for cancer therapeutics research, and I was floored that we were using the same methods. After all, wine was much more fun those peptides! Within days, I transferred to the enology program and that’s how it happened. I did my first harvest at Saintsbury in Carneros in 2001, and then I got hired full-time in 2002 at Joseph Phelps Vineyards, where I spent 10 years making the Freestone and Fogdog wines from a brand-new vineyard that had no associated brand or history, making it a perfect project for a new, experimental winemaker.
WWG: When you entered the world of winemaking, what was the atmosphere like for women?
TH: The atmosphere already felt pretty welcoming for women when I entered the field. I was hired by Sarah Gott, then Winemaker for Joseph Phelps. I also worked there with several other women who were, along with myself, promoted to their current roles a few years later: Ashley Hepworth, Winemaker; Kelly Fields, Assistant Winemaker; and Sarah Black, Vineyard Manager. I also worked there for a season with Alisa Jacobson, who was an intern in 2002, and is currently Winemaker for Joel Gott Wines. I even had young role models in Oregon at the time. The path had been previously paved by several women to whom I feel extremely thankful for their sacrifices: Heidi Barrett, Mia Klein, and Merry Edwards, for example. They’re the women who had to deal with the unwelcoming atmosphere, the ones who may have been accused, mostly by men in the field, of being “hard asses” or “really hard to work for.” I can only imagine the environment, and how they may have had to act in order to earn respect. Yet in doing so, they were criticized. There was no win back then. Alas, this is how it goes for women throughout history.
WWG: Have you had female mentors in the wine world?
TH: My first female mentor was Sarah Gott, with whom I worked for just a few months, before she took a winemaking job at Quintessa. I looked up to her long before I got hired at Joseph Phelps. She was a young, energetic, hard-working woman whom I thought was a badass. Ha-ha! So, it was an honor to be hired by her, and to work for her, if only for a short period. As previously mentioned, I also very much looked up to the women working in the Oregon wine industry in the early 2000s and I felt they had broken ground more quickly than it was happening in California: Ana Metzinger and Leigh Bartholomew, former Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Archery Summit; and Lynn Penner-Ash, former Winemaker at Rex Hill, now owner/Winemaker of Penner-Ash wines. These are women I idolized. Before the Joseph Phelps Freestone harvest began in 2003, I scheduled a trip to Oregon just to meet and taste with these women. My experiences tasting wine and speaking with them so early on in my career are forever imprinted in my memory.
WWG: Are you mentoring other women who are entering the wine industry?
TH: We hire lots of harvest interns every year and we try to hire a balanced team of men and women. In the past several years, we’ve had 1 to 2 more female interns than male, which is awesome. I think part of the reason is that some of these interns want to work at a winery that has a female winemaker, so that they can have a balanced experience working for different types of winemakers. I do find myself mentoring each of these young, up and coming female winemakers, and I’ve stayed in touch with many of them over the years, including several who were interns way back in my Joseph Phelps Freestone days.
WWG: You recently led a Zoom tasting for media focusing on Gary Farrell Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from different Russian River Valley “neighborhoods.” How do different expressions of terroir cause you to alter your winemaking technique?
TH: The different neighborhoods in the Russian River Valley each have unique qualities, such as climate and soil type. Because of these differences, the fruit qualities vary quite a bit, and require slightly different techniques in order to capture as much site specificity as possible. For example, the warmest neighborhood, called the Middle Reach, is characterized by warm, sunny afternoons and cool, foggy mornings. The river runs adjacent to the vineyards, pulling fog from the Pacific Ocean, and chilling the grapes, helping the vines to retain acidity. The wines have a distinct, succulent red fruit quality to them, as well as soft, velvety tannins. Acidity accentuates these qualities but is not a defining feature. I use lower percentages of whole cluster in the fermentation with grapes from the Middle Reach because I find that in warmer climates, the fruit tends to ripen ahead of the stems.
On the contrary, in a neighborhood like Green Valley or Sebastopol Hills, where the temperatures are much cooler and the fog persists more hours of the day, I find that the stems ripen more on par with the fruit and are perfect for higher percentages of whole cluster inclusion. Acids in these wines are a distinct feature, so stem inclusion can naturally balance the acidity while simultaneously adding more site specificity.