Sac Mag: Women in Wine
Women 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.”