Letters from Lodi

An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.

Randy Caparoso
March 22, 2024 | Randy Caparoso

The consequential role of women in the Lodi wine industry

Oak Farm Vineyards winemaker Marilia Nimis-Schrader presiding over a recent harvest in Lodi's Mokelumne River appellation.

March is Women's History Month. We should, no doubt, celebrate the contributions of women to events and history every month, on each day of the year; but in its wisdom, U.S. Congress (in 1987) selected March as the month to celebrate the achievements of women towards our nation's fortunes and destiny.

The wine industry, however, is one place where women are still "catching up," so to speak, despite the fact that women make up just over half of the country's population, and currently over 58% of the country's overall work force.

The glamourously messy side of the business: Sue Ripken pressing Primitivo at her family Ripken Winery.

In the latest update (2023) of the Women Winemakers of California website, the numbers remain sobering: Out of 4,200 California wineries, approximately 14% report that a woman serves as lead winemaker (a slight increase from the 10% figure in the group's 2011 study).

It's not for lack of education or, apparently, ability. For over twenty years women have represented over half of the college degree holders in the United States. Recently, the discrepancy has only increased—women now outnumber men 60% to 40% in American colleges.

The University of California Davis Department of  Viticulture and Enology is a bellwether: In recent years, at least 60% of the school's graduates have been women.

So what gives? I'm not going to speculate, guess or criticize. Let's just say, a disproportion exists.

The all-women/sister leadership at Lodi's Oak Ridge Winery: Raquel Maggio-Casity (General Manager & Partner), Lisa Kammerer (Partner), and Shelly Maggio Woltkamp (Brand Ambassador & Partner).

Recently, Lodi's Oak Ridge Winery—re-established in 2002 (after over 70 years of operations as a grower/cooperative) by third generation Lodi grower Rudy Maggio—has been publicizing the fact that it is now an entirely women-run business, consisting of three of Mr. Maggio's daughters (Raquel Maggio-Casity, Lisa Kammerer and Shelly Maggio Woltkamp) firmly in control of operations as partners, plus a winemaking staff controlled by women (led by Chief Winemaker Laura Chadwell, a UC Davis graduate with hard won Lodi ties). About time!

Fourteen years ago (in 2010) when I first moved to Lodi, there were only three and a half women who could be counted as head winemakers in the appellation: Bettyann Spenker, co-owner of Spenker Winery, Heather Pyle Lucas of The Lucas Winery, and Sue Ripken (now Ripken Lambie) of Ripken Winery

Acquiesce Winery owner/grower/winemaker Sue Tipton, who during the first 12 years of her estate's existence personally sorted through each and every grape that was picked, fermented and bottled under her label.

The "half," if you can say that, was Susan Tipton, who in 2010 had just established Acquiesce Winery with her husband Rod Tipton. Make no mistake, Acquiesce has been Ms. Tipton's brainchild from the beginning. Tipton has always been her own lead winemaker, although during the first few years Heather Pyle was retained as a consulting winemaker.

In early 2022, the Tiptons handed over control of both winemaking and winegrowing to former assistant winemaker Christina Lopez, a hugely talented and visionary vigneron. Another giant step for women of Lodi.

Slowly but surely, the proportion of women to men in the Lodi wine industry is coming closer to evening out; albeit, at a percentage slightly lower than the overall industry average in California.

Laura VanDyk, a third generation Lodi farmer who owns and operates Cadena Ag Solutions, a farm labor contracting service.

Most certainly, there are Lodi women who have been operating wineries and vineyards while playing significant roles in various capacities—owners or co-owners, presidents or general managers, directors of marketing and directors of sales (if not both at once), winemakers or associate winemakers, tractor drivers, grape pruners, barrel toppers, entire PR and human resources departments, event planners and coordinators, however which way the cap has fitted—over the past ten to twenty years, making consequential contributions to the ever-growing reputation and profile of the Lodi wine industry.

Bettyann Spenker, co-owner/winemaker of Lodi's Spenker Winery, who also crafts fresh, farmstead goat cheese under the family name.

To single out a few: Liz Bokisch (Bokisch Vineyards), Kathleen Mettler and Jorja Lerner (Harney Lane Winery), Charlene and Marissa Lange (LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards), Charlene Mettler and Kim Mettler Eells (Mettler Family Vineyards), Farrah Felten-Jolley (Klinker Brick Winery), Joan Kautz (Ironstone Vineyards), Melissa Phillips Stroud (Michael David Winery), Wanda Woock Bechthold (Jessie's Grove), Nancy Erlinger Ripken (Ripken Vineyards), Madelyn Ripken Kolber (KG Vineyard Management), Helen Dart (d'Art Wines), Janis Barsetti Gray (Barsetti Vineyards), Lisa Gash (PRIE Winery), Anne-Marie Koth (Mokelumne Glen Vineyards), Gayla and Faryn Schatz (Peltier Winery), Lani Jean and Tanya McMahon (Macchia Wines), Jacylyn Stokes (La Belle Nue and Stokes Bros. Farms), Laura VanDyk (Cadena Ag Solutions, Inc.), and more... there are a good number more!

Jacylyn Stokes, a Lodi native schooled in Dijon, France, who operates her family's Stokes Bros. Farms while producing and marketing her own La Belle Nue brand of Provence-inspired dry rosé.

And the latest? Look out for the soon-to-be launched WOO GIRL! Cellars, owned and operated by winemaker/grower Vivian Valenzuela, who is in the process of resurrecting the historic Langford Colony property on E. Woodbridge Rd. (formerly the site of Paskett Winery). This one-woman operation initially plans to specialize in dry rosés and sparkling wines made mostly from Grenache noir as well as from the old vine Charbono growing on Valenzuela's property, although this enterprising vintner possesses enough chops (previously honed in Sonoma County) to eventually do even more.

Bottom line, though, is that all these women are not so much "women" as power players in the Lodi wine industry. Their gender is only incidental to their success stories. We're only talking about it in this context because there are not enough of them in our industry. At least for now.

WOO GIRL! owner/grower/winemaker Vivian Valenzuela, one the Lodi wine industry's latest editions of muilti-faceted contributors.

What key women are saying about their roles in the Lodi wine industry

In their own strong words, 100% unfiltered...

Marilia Nimis-Schrader
Winemaker, Oak Farm Vineyards

I grew up in Italy in a family of winegrowers. I have always been passionate about wine and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw different girls taking winemaking classes at college in Italy with me. I got the chance to work in a few wineries in Northern Italy and in New Zealand, to then end up in Lodi, California, which has been my home for the past four and a half years.

Oak Farm Vineyards winemaker Marilia Nimis-Schrader.

People often ask why I decided to stay in Lodi after my first harvest here, and part of that answer is the fact that the Italian wine world when I left was still very traditional. When I came to Lodi I was able to be seen and appreciated for my capabilities, for my hard work, my passion and my focus, and being young and a woman didn't matter.

One thing I love the most is the fact that I got the chance of meeting so many women winemakers and creating some lasting friendships. I appreciate being able to share experiences and to feel free to ask for suggestions without being underestimated. I see Lodi as a wonderful wine region with a lot of hard working women winemakers who make just great wines and elevate this area. 

There is something about our attention to details, multi-tasking capabilities, patience and understanding that where the physical strength is missing, the intuition and intelligence come to bring a solution, that is just fascinating. And I can't wait for people to see what more women have to offer to the wine industry.

Heather Pyle Lucas (right) pressing The Lucas Winery specialty, estate grown old vine Zinfandel, with assistant winemaker Eliza Hess.

Heather Pyle Lucas
Winemaker/grower/co-owner, The Lucas Winery

As I slowly close out my career in the wine industry, I see more and more clearly how Lodi holds the key to success for women winemakers. The inverse is also true—women hold the key to Lodi’s success in many ways.  

Lodi is a young and underappreciated region globally that has all the "quality" potential of other winegrowing regions. I spent half my career in Napa Valley and half here. By comparison to Napa, Lodi is encouraging innovation, care for the land and the people that work the land.  Lodi is also showing leadership in preserving a healthy environment for future generations.  

These are values near and dear to most women’s hearts as the givers of life. Winemaking is not better suited to men than women, and Lodi tends not to make judgements on false limitations such as gender. Here there is room for all, and women have and will continue to show themselves as the best stewards of healthy farms and healthy wines.

Kendra Altnow, part of a fifth generation of a family of Lodi farmers (since the 1870s), who recently transitioned from the position of Marketing Director to Sustainability Manager for LangeTwins Family, one of region's largest growers, producing several brands with national and international distribution.

Kendra Altnow 
Sustainability Manager, LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards

I’m not one to focus on stereotypical gender roles, but I attribute this to how I was raised. Mom [Susan Lange] worked off the farm in the early years, and when she got home, she would help Dad [Brad Lange, half of the "LangeTwins"] with whatever needed to get done in the vineyards. As a kid, I would repair drip irrigation alongside my brother and cousins. I jumped on a quad and sugar tested during my college summers. It was about your ability—if you could get the job done, and done right, then you were hired!

What makes me think about “women’s role in ag, farming, and the wine industry” is when someone asks the question. Yes, there are amazing women in leadership roles, and I know that it hasn’t always been that way. Like me, I’m sure they had a mentor in their lives similar to my parents, who encouraged them to pursue what they were interested in. 

I know we (today’s women in ag) are lucky to not have as many barriers as women in the past, and this contributes to why we have these opportunities. The door is open for us all to do what fills our cup, as long as you have self-confidence, ask the right questions to gain knowledge, and simply be who you are. So what is women’s role in the future of Lodi’s wine industry? I say, whatever they want to make of it.

Susana Vasquez—"Susy" to friends, colleagues and family—who serves as Director of Winemaking for LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards.

Susana Rodriguez Vasquez
Director of Winemaking, LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards

As a female winemaker originally from Bolivia, my journey to becoming Director of Winemaking in the United States has been a testament to perseverance and passion. Despite language barriers and navigating a male-dominated industry, I’ve thrived, embracing the challenges and opportunities along the way. 

This Women’s History Month, I celebrate all women breaking barriers and forging their paths in traditionally male-dominated fields. Let’s continue to empower and uplift each other as we shape the future of winemaking and beyond!

Acquiesce owner Sue Tipton (left) with visiting wine journalist Alissa Fitzgerald (middle) and winemaker Christina Lopez)

Sue Tipton
Owner/grower, Acquiesce Winery

When I started in the Lodi wine industry, I was fortunate to have a woman winemaker mentor, of which there were very few. Today we are privileged to have many talented women winery owners, winemakers, and managers who play a major role in the Lodi wine scene, who will provide great mentorship for the young women of tomorrow. With their fresh perspective and no doubt determination, I see the role for women ever increasing, and the Lodi wine industry will undoubtedly benefit as a result.

Winemaker Christina Lopez, who has also recently been focusing on taking the Acquiesce estate's sustainable farming practices to an even more exacting and regenerative level.

Christina Lopez
Winemaker, Acquiesce Winery

I think growth of the Lodi wine industry is inevitable. It is increasingly apparent when I do out-of-town events that it’s still a region flying under the radar. But the new consumer isn’t looking for the historical standard, they’re in search of something unique, bright, and affordable. This can all be found in the 136 different varieties of grapes now grown Lodi. 

I see Lodi shifting in a similar vein as Grower Champagnes in France: More growers taking the winemaking helm to express the vision of their hard work as opposed to the big box house style of their current buyers. I also see women playing a critical role in this. Every year I’m seeing more women take on upper-level positions and making a mark here. It’s these young, fresh, fearless perspectives that will bring Lodi to the forefront in the near-future.

Time capsule: Kathy Stonum and her niece Francesca Stonum in their Stonum Vineyards estate, 1994 and 2023.

Kathy Stonum
Owner/winemaker, Stonum Vineyards

My path to growing grapes and making wine began in 1980 with my family's purchase of 16 acres of land in Lodi. At that time, there wasn’t much in Lodi in terms of being a winery region, and it was a rarity, in a male-dominated industry, for a woman to farm, let alone make wine. 

Adaptability, innovation, focus, and tenacity helped me make my way. In the last 42 years, I have seen the Lodi wine industry grow and establish a reputation as a producer of premium wines, and it is no longer a rarity to see women involved in all phases of the wine industry. As I see it, women winemakers are key players because they are uniquely equipped to deal with change and uncertainty, and have the creative ability to problem solve, adapt, and innovate in the vineyard and cellar. 

The strength and continued growth of the Lodi wine industry depends on how resourceful we are at identifying the current challenges that we face, and working together to solve them by creating an inclusive environment where diversity is valued. 

The entire Stonum winegrowing family foot treading old vine Carignan.

Francesca Stonum
Co-owner/Assistant Winemaker, Stonum Vineyards

I am a second generation family farmer and winery owner. My father Mike Stonum and my aunt Kathy Stonum worked tirelessly to build our family winery. With my father’s passing [in 2019], Kathy is now the sole vintner and has taken me under her wing. While it seemed normal to me all these years, upon reflection I feel so lucky to have such a strong female example of what hard work can achieve. 

Women possess innate qualities of adaptability, empathy, creativity, & humility. It is for those gifts that I believe that the future of the Lodi wine industry and all wine regions will be strengthened by the increasing presence of women. In any environment it is diversity which breeds strength and resilience. I am grateful for the women who have paved the way and excited to create an even brighter future for our industry. 

KG Vineyard Management's Madelyn Ripken Kolber (left)—who manages a full scale farming company with her husband/business partner Ben Kolber while also serving as the team's Sustainability Director—discussing farming practices with visiting scholars (in the blue-green cap is Dr. Stephanie Bolton, the director of sustainabiility, viticultural research and education for the Lodi Winegrape Commission).



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