November 12, 2016 by Joe Kukura

While Lake County is known for award-winning wines, the people behind that success are also incredible. But many may not realize how significant a role women have played in the success of Lake County’s wine industry ever since the early days in the 1880s.

The up-and-coming northern region of California wine country, Lake County is located about 100 miles north of San Francisco and its high-elevation wines have recently been the toast of top wine competitions.

Now Lake County is raising a glass while also raising the profile of women in the wine industry, and its pioneering position of women winegrowers and vintners has deep and longstanding roots.

The first lady of Lake County wine production, literally, was globally renowned actress Lillie Langtry, who purchased Middletown’s Langtry Estate and Vineyards in 1888, which still bears her name today. According to Gaye Allen’s Lake County Wine Guide, she bought the 4,200-acre winery sight unseen, on a whim.

“The property had existing vineyards and a stone winery that was built 10 years before by Thomas Musick,” said Terry Dereniuk, the woman who serves as executive director of the Lake County Winery Association. “In 1891 she produced 50 tons of grapes from the Langtry property. She bottled her wine with a label bearing her portrait and declared it ‘the best Claret in America.’ She sold Guenoc [the estate’s initial name] in 1906 just before the San Francisco earthquake.”

The famed 19th century actress may have gotten out of the Lake County wine business, but a large cast of women are raising Lake County’s wine country stature today.

Cheryl Lucido serves as winemaker at Laujor Estate, a winery with breathtaking overnight accommodations which she owns with her husband, David. Amy Thorn also serves as winemaker at Thorn Hill Vineyards, a gorgeous Mediterranean-inspired tasting room in Lower Lake, which she owns with her husband, Jack. Lake County’s largest wine producer is the Shannon Ridge Family of Wines, where Joy Merrilees is the director of winemaking and production and Molly Wingo serves as associate winemaker. 

Winemaker Joy Merrilees

Joy Merrilees

The region’s professional winegrowing trade organization is also a powerhouse of executive female leadership. The Lake County Winegrape Commission represents more than 140 vineyards and winegrape producers in Lake County, and Debra Sommerfield serves as its president. Many of the female winegrowers have top leadership roles in the organization, and its original president, Shannon Gunier, occupied that position for nearly 20 years before moving on to co-found North Coast Winegrape Brokers.

And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Lake County Wine Studio in Upper Lake, a popular female-owned meetup spot for winemakers, artists and lovers of fine wine and art. Owner Susan Feiler carries more than 100 wines from Lake County wine producers at the studio. But it’s the jam-packed calendar of art and wine receptions, wine food pairing events, and wine and art classes (with a complimentary glass of wine included!) that make it a popular destination on the Lake County wine trail. The studio also has a gallery of works by local artists, and you can check the website for details on upcoming events, current wine selections and featured artists in the gift shop and gallery areas.

Women have historically played a very prominent role in the Lake County wine industry—even before Prohibition, and even before women had the right to have a bank account or vote in an election. If you elect to explore Lake County’s distinguished array of award-winning wines, you’ll get a firsthand taste of how women are blazing a new trail in the wine industry and changing the face of executive leadership.

Pop over to Lake County and pop a bottle of these distinctive wines, and get to know wine country’s greatest grapes and the women who grew them.