Women and Wine: Adventurers, Iconoclasts, Leaders (what, no witches?)

The Democratic National Convention convened in Philadelphia this past week, bringing with it the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton as the US’ first, female presidential-nominee for a major (i.e. Republican or Democrat) party. While it *is* historic — given that she is the first — it is ridiculously-long overdue. The modern era has seen female heads of state (starting in the 50’s in Mongolia) across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Oceania, South America and North America — the latter in Central American and Caribbean nations, and women currently lead nations both small (Malta) and large (Germany). Over that time, these women have demonstrated that the male sex is not a prerequisite for effective and strong leadership (UK’s Thatcher), pan-regional influence (Germany’s Merkl), rampant corruption (Argentina’s Kirchner), or dictatorial tendencies (India’s Indira Ghandi).

Though overdue, we recognize this American milestone with a look at some of history’s other “female firsts”. And, because history is more fun with wine (as, too, are many topics), we accompany these figures with wine.

Matilde di Cannosa

Who was Matilde di Cannosa? She was one of the largest landholders, and the head of one of the most successful armies, in 11th century Italy. Following the death of her parents, older siblings, and estranged, first husband, Matilde controlled an estate that included much of modern Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and Lombardy. Matilde was able to parlay this prime location into real influence, through her resolve and her military capability. Centuries after her own death, she was the first woman to be buried in St. Peter’s Basilica.

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Half a millennium after the fall of the Roman empire, Matilde’s family estate — over which she had full ownership and rights of revenue — was squarely placed for maximum impact on the emerging political landscape. Rome, though greatly reduced in political stature, was the center of the Catholic Church and housed the Pope. The Church claimed lands on the southern and eastern borders of Matilde’s estate: Lazio (around Rome) and a strip along the eastern seaboard, roughly between the rivers Rubicon and Po. At the same time, the Holy Roman Empire took advantage of the waning of Byzantium to consolidate its power in the German territories and northern Italy, north of Matilde’s lands; the Holy Roman Emperor — one of many Roman Catholic monarchs — was the putative head of the Empire.

In the 11th century, the burgeoning roles of the Holy Roman Emperor and the papacy came to loggerheads; each wanted more power, particularly to make appointments for positions in the Church. These competing interests came to a head during the reigns of Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV, with theInvestiture Controversy. Fortunately for the Papacy, Matilde supported the the Pope; her support and protection were crucial, as her lands separated those of the two regimes — and the movements of friends and foes between them. Nonetheless, fortune vacillated between the Pope and the Emperor until, ultimately, Henry’s forces were defeated by those of Matilde around her stronghold of Cannosa. After this, Henry’s sorties into Italy slowed and, eventually, stopped altogether. Henry V succeeded his father and named Matilde “Imperial Vicar” and “Vice Queen of Italy”.

Competition between the Pope and the Emperor continued for several centuries, with proxy fighting in the 12th and 13th centuries between theGuelphs (pro-Pope) and Ghibellines (pro-Emperor). Within Matilde’s realm was the land now known as San Gimignano, famous for its ever-taller, tower-houses that resulted from the rivalries between those factions. In due time, the Guelphs (so named after the Bavarian “House of Welf” — incidentally the family name of Matilde’s 2nd husband) won out. Then, the Guelphs split into 2 factions: the “White” and “Black”. Ironically, the “White Guelphs” basically argued the Ghibelline agenda. Dante Alighieri, possibly the most famous of all Guelphs, was a member of the “White” faction. Dante visited San Gimignano in 1300 AD, at which time the Vernaccia grape — grown in- and around- San Gimignano — was already well known; the grape is later mentioned in hisDivine Comedy.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano

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Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a white grape indigenous to this part of Tuscany, which is notable for being Italy’s first DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) and Tuscany’s only white-grape DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita). San Gimignano is justly proud of this grape, and serves as the headquarters of the Vernaccia di San Gimignano Wine Museumand the Consorzio della Denominazione San Gimignano. The latter is headed by Letizia Cesani, whose family produces their eponymous wine nearby.

Cesani is an organically-farmed estate run by Letizia and her sister, Marialuisa (taking over from their father, Vincenzo). Cesani’s Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG 2015 is made of grapes from 35 year old vines. Half of the fermented juice is aged for 6 months in French Oak. White flowers greet the nose, and the wine is fresh and crisp, with green apple and pear notes, plus a full, almond finish. It is a delicious example of young Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was an archaeologist, explorer, and political advisor and administrator who founded Iraq’s Baghdad Antiquities Museum (now theNational Museum of Iraq) and developed that country’s first antiquities laws, the principles of which continue to influence concepts of cultural patrimony.

There were numerous British women who explored the Middle East prior to-or contemporary with- Gertrude’s experience (e.g. Lady Hester Stanhope,Lady Anne Blunt), and many more who followed those paths later. But Bell’s decidedly non-Orientalist (in the sense of Edward Said) approach to the Arab world and her comfortable existence within its norms led to her acceptance by the tribal groups with whom she was fascinated.

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Bell educated herself out of marriage-ability in England with a “first” degree in Modern History from Oxford. To sate her curiosity and adventurousness, she turned to travel in the Middle East. She spoke Arabic (and Persian, French, and German) and immersed herself in understanding the role of tribes in socio-cultural life. Her interest in- and understanding of- the Middle East in global politics was cemented during WWI with stints as a spy in the Arab bureau (out of Cairo, along with T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia, among others). Her facility with Arab language and society, her knowledge of the geography and terrain (she created much-used maps), and her rapport and lasting relationships with tribal groups garnered her the role of Arab liaison (“Oriental Secretary”) between British Major-General Percy Cox and the forthcoming Iraqi government.

Her interest in archaeology led to the foundation of the Baghdad Antiquities Museum, which she populated with artifacts from excavations. Bell, herself, wrote the new nation’s antiquities laws, which specified that artifacts were to be shared equally by Iraq and by the foreign expeditions. Sir Leonard Woolley directed excavations at Ur jointly for the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and London’s British Museum. Woolley’s excavations were wildly successful (read more here), and he recovered spectacular objects in electrum, gold, silver, and bronze, and all manner of semi-precious stones. Today, these objects remain divided between Baghdad, London, and Philadelphia — as per the original antiquities laws under which they were excavated.

Prior to settling in Baghdad, Bell excavated and traveled in other parts of the Middle East, including modern Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley is a premier location for grape growing and wine making.

Domaine Wardy

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The Bekaa Valley has long been Lebanon’s breadbasket, both for itself and others. Not only grains, but grapes and wine have been associated with the Bekaa since at least the 2nd millennium BC. While the area has a long, historical relationship to wine, the modern industry is heavily influenced by French oenology. Many Lebanese winemakers received education and/or training in France. Diana Salameh Khalil, for instance, trained in Dijon. Back in Lebanon, she became the Bekaa’s first female-winemaker, performing the role at Domaine Wardy.

The estate has been around since 1891, though Khalil only joined the team in 2002. The Les Terroirs 2011 is made with a blend of Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot that grow between 900–1400 meters elevation. The juice is held in stainless and concrete. The resulting wine is bold and flavorful. Ripe (but not over-ripe) red and dark cherries are joined by some licorice and crushed herbs. The medium body is finished with smooth tannins.

Sandra Day O’Connor

Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). It took 192 years for the first female appointment, but 3 more have followed in the 35 years since President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of O’Connor was approved.

O’Connor’s early trajectory to the Court was a bit unorthodox; she was born in El Paso, Texas, and raised on a ranch in southeastern Arizona. Her schooling, however, was less iconoclastic. She attended Stanford Law School with another Court luminary, William Rehnquist. Following graduation, while Rehnquist immediately went to work as a law clerk for SCOTUS, O’Connor was rejected for even an interview by ca. 40 law firms — and was told they did not hire women. Her first “job” was as a volunteer deputy county attorney in San Mateo, CA. Eventually she settled with her family in Arizona, where she worked her way to the Arizona State Court of Appeals.

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Her nomination to SCOTUS by Reagan did rankle some “pro-family” groups and members of Congress, but she was unanimously approved for office. O’Connor beat her old schoolmate, Rehnquist, to the Court, but his nomination 5 years later was for the Chief Justice position.

San Mateo is in Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay area, both of which purport to be progressive (though Silicon Valley’s dubious hiring record doesn’t exactly qualify). It also seems funny to proclaim San Mateo, where O’Connor was allowed to work for free and share an office with a secretary, as progressive. But, in the 1950’s that likely *did* qualify as liberal. Not far from San Mateo — in Santa Cruz — is the Bonny Doon Vineyards, which *is* progressive.


Bonny Doon Vineyards

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Bonny Doon is not owned or operated by a woman, but by iconoclast, male winemaker, Randall Grahm. We have Mr. Grahm to thank for being a major proponent of the screwcap (thank you!!!!!), endorsing ingredient labeling on wine, and popularizing Rhône varietals in California (more here). In addition, his team of assistant and associate winemakers includes many women, as well as those who have gone on to other projects and other estates (for instance Nicole Walsh of Ser Wine Company). In essence, this Santa Cruz winery was to many of those winemakers as nearby San Mateo was to Sandra Day O’Connor 🙂

Bonny Doon “Le Pousseur” Syrah 2012 is made with 100% Syrah grapes sourced from cooler-weather vineyards of the Central Coast. The nose is undeniably “Syrah”, in all its smokey, leathery glory. The dark, red fruits are very ripe, and the Syrah comes through again with its black pepper.

Susana Balbo

Susana Balbo is a winemaker. She has worked with many producers in her native Argentina, and currently makes wine there under her own name. She was the first woman in Argentina to receive an enology degree, and the first to consult for producers outside of the country. She continues to assist other wineries, and creates award-winning wines of her own. She was named “Woman of the Year” in 2015 by The Drinks Business Magazine. Her wines are consistently ranked among the best by Wine Spectator and other, industry journals.

Prior to opening her own winery, Balbo worked for several other Argentinian wineries. She worked for Michel Torino in Salta province, creating a modern, floral-style Torrontes that earned accolades and was selected for use on British Airways flights. She also worked for Bodegas Martins and the iconic Bodega Catena Zapata, whose production facilities she designed.

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Balbo started making her own wines under the names “Susana Balbo” and “BenMarco” before she opened her Dominio del Plata Winery in 2001. She still makes those lines, and has added the labels Crios and Nosotros to the list.

The word “crios” means “child” or “offspring” in Spanish, and that is just what her Crios line is — an offspring of her “Susana Balbo” label that produces fresh wines meant to be enjoyed young. Crios Limited Edition Tannat 2013 is made with 90% Tannat and 10% Syrah hand-harvested from vineyards at an elevation of ca 1700 meters in Cafayate. After fermentation, the wine spent 8 months in French Oak. This wine is more sleek than muscular, with well-balanced fruits and round tannins. The ripe, red fruits play nicely with the savory herbs, tobacco, and licorice that also feature on the palate.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is a high-ranking US politician. She became a household name as First Lady (to President Bill Clinton) before successfully running for US Senator for the State of New York. In so doing, she became the first female Senator for that state, as well as the first “First Lady” to be elected to political office. She was selected by Barack Obama as his first-term Secretary of State, and has become the Democrat presidential nominee. She is the first woman to become the presidential nominee of one of the two, major parties.

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Clinton’s political life has not all been successful, of course. She championed an ill-received health care plan during her husband’s first term in the White House, and weathered several political scandals with him. Of course, like most iconoclasts, she presents an easy target for criticism. Sometimes this just involves standing out from the crowd — as when she donned lime green for an, apparently, all-white photo at a G 20 Summit in Mexico. Other foibles are far more serious, and come to light via the intense scrutiny that individuals in her position face. Thus the revelation that Clinton inappropriately used a private e-mail server for government business came about as a result of a photograph. Then-Secretary Clinton was photographed in 2011 using her Blackberry while preparing to fly to Libya, which spurred questions about her government e-mail account. This explains our German wine selection for Hillary Clinton’s “firsts”.


German Connection

BlackBerry mobile devices were developed by Research in Motion (RIM — now BlackBerry Limited), a multi-national company is based in Canada. At the time of the photo, German Thorsten Heins was RIM’s COO and would become CEO a few months later. Angela Merkl is currently Germany’s “CEO” (officially, “Chancellor), and the first woman to hold that position and run the country. Dr H. Thanisch is a German winery of long standing (since 1895) in the Middle Mosel, that has been run by women for nearly its entire existence.

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The estate has since been divided in two, with the Thanisch heirs (erben Thanisch) owning one part and the Müller heirs (erben Müller-Berggraf) owning the other. The latter is currently in the hands of Barbara Rundquist-Müller and her husband Erik. We tasted their classic Kabinett: Dr. H. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett 2012. The wine has 56 grams/liter of residual sugar and a low ABV of 9%. Like Ms. Clinton, Kabinett-style Riesling garners strong opinions. Some love its delicate balance of sweet and tart, while others find the sugar to be a distraction. This wine is no exception. Its sugars are very well balanced by the level of acid, and strong minerality. Fruit flavors of pineapple, banana, and some candied lime provide a nice counterpoint to the stone and citrus.


Woman, wine… and not a witch in sight! Cheers.


  1. Illuminated Manuscript featuring Matilde di Cannosa, Henry IV, and Hugh of Cluny. Public Domain.
  2. Matilde’s funerary monument, By Bede735 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
  3. Cesani Vernacchia
  4. Letizia Cesani, Consorzio della Denominazione San Gimignano
  5. Bell, Churchill, and Lawrence: The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
  6. Gold helmet from Ur
  7. Domaine Wardy Les Terroirs
  8. Diana Salameh Khalil: Domaine Wardy
  9. O’Connor, Sotomayor, Ginsberg, and Kagan photo; By English: Steve Petteway, photographer for the Supreme Court of the United States. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  10. Photoof Sandra Day O’Connor Being Sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger; By The U.S. National Archives [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
  11. Randall Grahm: Bonny Doon Vineyards
  12. Bonny Doon Vineyards Les Pousseur
  13. Crios Tannat
  14. Susana Balbo: Domaine del Plata Winery
  15. Photo of Secretary Clinton on her BlackBerry: Kevin Lamarque | AP
  16. Photo of Secretary Clinton at the G20 in Mexico: Reuters | Pool
  17. Thanisch Riesling
  18. Photo of Katarina Thanisch: www.thanisch.com