From gardening and winemaking to fundraising and philanthropy, these women are blazing trails in Wine Country. How do they do it?
While they may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, these women continually amaze Wine Country with their superhuman achievements. One was Food & Wine magazine’s Winemaker of the Year. Another has raised $20 million for charities by combining wine, shopping, and fundraising. And another was named Person of the Year by the Wine Enthusiast.
These seven don’t have capes or superpowers; they just inspire the next generation of Wine Country pioneers, one milestone at a time.
The Rock Star
What does it take to be named top winemaker by Food & Wine magazine? Take one look at Helen Keplinger’s petite hands during harvest season, and you will see the deep purple hue that earned her such a title.
The Ohio native grew up with wine at the dinner table and was always intrigued by her father’s wine cellar. So she attended UC Davis, where she studied under renowned winemakers. After college, she worked with vineyard manager David Abreu and superstar winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett, among others, and launched her own label, Keplinger Wines.
Keplinger also worked at a winery in the Spanish wine region of Priorat before landing coveted wine-making roles at cult producers Kenzo Estate and Bryant Family Vineyard in Napa Valley. In a short period of time, she earned critical accolades, eclipsing 90-point ratings for her wines.
Considered by many to be a “RhÔne ranger” of the next generation, Keplinger is doing it her way, with a keen emphasis on aromatics. She sources her fruit from Sonoma and the Sierra foothills.
“I want everything—the flavor, the texture, and crazy floral and dried herbs and fruit,” she says. “I feel I have made a contribution by bringing attention to and making some really strong Grenache and Mourvèdre from Northern California.”
Kathryn Hall jokes that she never intended to own two wineries. But when the opportunity came nine years ago for her family to purchase the old Napa Valley Co-op wine-making facility with the historical Bergfeld winery building, they couldn’t pass it up.
The former U.S. Ambassador to Austria under President Clinton, Hall now serves as an ambassador for Napa Valley by traveling the country for her eponymous label, Hall Wines. She also recently celebrated the opening of her state-of-the-art winery in St. Helena, a milestone that was years in the making.
Hall, who grew up growing grapes in Mendocino County, fell in love with wine during her tenure as ambassador in the late ’90s, when she promoted American wines abroad. Upon her return to the states, she and her husband, Craig, launched Kathryn Hall Vineyards in Napa Valley.
Today, she earns positive attention for the sustainable practices at her vineyards. Both are farmed organically, earning Hall a Best of Wine Tourism Award in 2011. The Botanical Research Institute of Texas bestowed the inaugural International Award of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing to Hall in 2010.
“The most important thing we’ve done is be respectful of the land and be responsible members of the community,” she says.
What do a Sauvignon Blanc and a silver stiletto have in common? Just ask Elaine Honig, founder of Wine, Women, and Shoes, a clever fundraising platform taking the nation by storm.
Ten years ago, Honig, who spent more than two decades working in national sales and marketing for the Honig wine brand, became tired of the formulaic wine and food themed events. So she hosted a fundraiser for a Napa Valley nonprofit that doubled as a marketing opportunity for Honig Wine, hoping to establish something new and different.
The event was successful, and she saw an opportunity to turn her model into a business. So the St. Helena resident founded Wine, Women, and Shoes, a fundraising platform that has raised more than $20 million for causes from hospital foundations to food banks.
The model is simple: Groups around the country that want to raise money for a nonprofit contact the gals at Wine, Women, and Shoes, who help plan and execute an event that includes wine tasting, auctions, a fashion marketplace, and sometimes a fashion show—all for a good cause.
“We speak the language of Barolo and Manolo,” Honig quips.
The Midwest native has long been an entrepreneur. While studying economics at Tufts University, she rented out apartments to pay her tuition. She came to San Francisco, where she met her now ex-husband, Michael Honig. Together, the couple built Honig Wine into one of the most successful brands in Wine Country.
In addition to her position as president of Wine, Women, and Shoes, Elaine Honig has been involved with many local organizations, including the Napa County Farm Bureau, the Sierra Club, and the Napa County Land Trust. She also uses her marketing and event skills to help with local fundraisers.
When it comes to iconic pioneers in the wine industry, few compare to the enormous Kendall Jackson empire, run by Barbara Banke.
Banke became the proprietor of Kendall Jackson and chairwoman of Jackson Family Wines—the wine company behind the mega brand founded 30 years ago by her late husband, Jess Jackson, after he passed away in 2011.
“Taking over is not as dramatic as it might seem,” she says matter-of-factly. “Jess and I functioned as partners, so I’ve been working in this business ever since I evicted myself from the practice of law.”
A former land use attorney, Banke is building on Jackson’s legacy by acquiring large parcels of real estate around Wine Country. She has been on a spree, of sorts, snatching up vineyard and winery properties where she sees future opportunities. In the last two years, she’s scooped up 16 vineyard and winery properties, adding more than 4,000 acres to Jackson Family Wines’ holdings across the globe. Her portfolio now includes properties in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and McLaren Vale in Australia.
Last year, the Wine Enthusiast named Banke Wine Person of the Year for overseeing the most dramatic expansion in Jackson Family Wines’ history, and for being a strong proponent of sustainable farming and winery practices. She’s the first woman to receive the honor, which was also given to her late husband in 2000.
Outreach and philanthropy also play a large role in Banke’s life. She supports causes including the Family Justice Center and the Sonoma Paradiso Foundation, and she recently purchased the famed Saralee’s Vineyard in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley—and has pledged to continue Saralee’s tradition of community philanthropy. (Cofounder and beloved Sonoma icon Saralee Kunde passed away earlier this year.)
When she’s not expanding the Jackson empire, you can find Banke riding horses at her thoroughbred race horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky, where she and her husband spent much of their time together.
“I love wine, but the horses are fun, too,” she says with a smile.
( In Memoriam )
The French Laundry put Wine Country on the culinary map, but ask any local to name the chef whose kitchen is an extension of his or her own, and the answer is sure to be the same: Donna Scala.
A fixture on the Napa Valley food scene since 1987, when she and her husband, Giovanni, opened Ristorante Piatti in Yountville, Scala is credited with establishing one of Wine Country’s most beloved restaurants, Bistro Don Giovanni.
A Virginia native, Scala grew up working in the hotel and restaurant business. She learned to cook in the south of France, before heading to Sausalito, where she opened a gourmet food store in the ’80s. She met Giovanni, and the two opened Piatti, and then Bistro Don Giovanni just off Highway 29 in 1993.
At the bistro, Scala developed a menu that drew crowds from near and far. Over two decades, legendary vintners and luminaries gathered there regularly, including Robert Mondavi, Dan Duckhorn, and Danielle Steel.
Scala frequently emerged from the kitchen, urging diners to try her new dishes. One time, she approached Mondavi, saying, “Try this soup I just made,” recalls Giovanni.
“After one spoonful, his face lit up, and she knew it was a sign of approval,” Giovanni says.
Shortly before this article was printed, Donna Scala lost her battle with cancer at the age of 60. We share our deepest condolences with her family and staff.
What do you get when you bring the Bolshoi Ballet to Festival del Sole? Perfection in the performing arts—thanks to philanthropist Dede Wilsey, who is underwriting this year’s sold-out event.
Wilsey is a longtime Napa resident and vineyard owner, and an unrivaled patron of the arts who thrives on bringing culture and new experiences to her communities. The daughter of a diplomat and great-granddaughter of Dow Chemical founder Herbert Henry Dow, Wilsey didn’t hesitate when the festival approached her about introducing a dance program. Now a signature event, the Dede Wilsey Dance Series brings national and international ballet companies to Wine Country every year.
“People like to see something they haven’t seen before,” she says. “It gives people choices of what they can ultimately become really passionate about.”
Considered a lightening rod among the San Francisco society circle, Wilsey is a philanthropic force. She is president of the Board of Trustees at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and raised more than $190 million to rebuild the de Young Museum, one of the largest collective gifts ever to a cultural institution in San Francisco. She also serves on the boards of the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet.
In Wine Country, she supports the Boys & Girls Club of St. Helena, We Care Animal Rescue, and the Land Trust of Napa Valley, among others.
The Constant Gardener
In the 47 years since she and her husband, Donn, put down roots at their esteemed Chappellet Vineyard, Molly Chappellet has changed the way people entertain in Napa Valley. In so doing, she has quite literally pruned her way to become the patron saint of gardening in Wine Country.
A trained artist, Chappellet became a cook, entertainer, and gardener out of necessity: When she arrived in Wine Country, there were few restaurants.
“People were always coming to see us,” she says. “We were the new kids on the block and the first bonded winery on Pritchard Hill.” (Today, her neighbors include Colgin, Bryant Family, David Arthur, and Ovid, to name a few.)
With so many residents asking her to host gatherings, Chappellet shifted her focus from art to cooking and opened the Napa Valley Cooking Class, where culinary legends such as Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, and Charlie Trotter were instructors during its 22-year stint.
But Chappellet is perhaps best known for her extensive gardens at her home and winery, where on especially hot days, she can be seen strolling the landscape carrying a colorful parasol, and working in her garden. The gardening authority has penned several books, including A Vineyard Garden: Ideas From the Earth for Growing, Cooking, and Entertaining, which earned a James Beard Award for its photography 20 years ago.
Today, she focuses on land sculptures as well as her home garden. Once filled with exotic plants and vegetables, the space is transitioning into a quiet boulder garden for meditation.
“I’m back to the land again, realizing that the land is important to me, and nature inspires me daily,” she says.