Wonder Women of Wine: A Handful of Indian Americans are Gate-Crashing Mostly Male Vintners Club in California
- Whether they own vineyards or work in a winery they are following their passion and producing award-winning wines, blending their culture and traditions with their passion.
For decades the wine-making industry has been a male-dominated field. Of the 4,200 bonded wineries in California, just 14 percent reported having a woman as their lead winemaker in 2020, according to a study conducted by Santa Clara University. Several such studies, conducted from 2012 to 2021, by SCU professors emeriti and wine lovers Lucia Albino Gilbert and John C. Gilbert showed a gradual increase in female representation and ownership in the industry.
A study conducted in 2021 revealed that female ownership or co-ownership represents at least 38 percent of California wineries, It noted that the percentage of women winemakers for the eight regions in the state ranged from 4.7 percent to 12.4 percent, with Southern California and North Central Coast having the lowest percentages and Sonoma/Marin and Napa having the highest percentages.
As more and more women enter the industry, they are beginning to occupy a central role as owners and co-owners of wineries in California. They are blazing the trail and slowly changing the landscape of the industry. Joining these path breakers are a handful of Indian American women who are carving out a niche in a traditionalistic industry. Whether they own vineyards or work in a winery, these women are following their passion and are producing award-winning wines. Along the way, they are blending their culture and traditions with their passion to make top-shelf wine. While most of these women — Priyanka Dhar French, Anisya Fritz, Neeta Mittal and Raghni Naidu — grew up in India and now call America their home, Anita Kothari and Janu Golez were born and raised in the U.S.
Here’s a look at the Indian American women winemakers who are rising in the world of wine.
Priyanka Dhar French, winemaker, Signorello Estate, Napa, California
As a first-year student in college in Mumbai, Priyanka Dhar French was captivated by winemaking during a field trip to Sula Vineyards in Nasik. The harvesting of grapes and romance of wine at sunset appealed to her. And despite not knowing the industry, she has been able to channel her initial fascination with winemaking into a successful career.
After graduating with a degree in Food Science and Technology, she came to the University of California, Davis, for a Master’s program in Viticulture and Enology in 2009. She was the first Indian to graduate from the program. While at Davis, she was a harvest intern with Louis M. Martini branch of E. & J. Gallo Winery, and after graduation, completed three additional internships. She followed these with a stint with Tonnellerie Demptos and then went to New Zealand to work with vintage winemakers at Framingham Wines for the harvest of 2013. During that trip, she met her husband Alex French.
She returned to California in Fall, 2013, assuming a 10-month internship position at Stags Leap Winery in Napa. In October of 2014, she joined Dalla Valle Vineyards as cellarmaster/enologist, where she remained until 2019, before assuming her current position as winemaker for Signorello Estate.
She told Wine Enthusiast that her Indian heritage has been a huge part of her profession. “We were brought up with sweat equity.” French said her parents emphasized the importance of discipline and education,” she said. “My parents were very clear, keep your goals in mind. That has been a cornerstone for me.”
Despite being a minority, she has been fortunate to “always work at wineries and with people where being a woman was a non-issue,” she told the magazine. “I’ve always been treated like an equal, and for that, I am thankful to all my colleagues, past and present.”
The young winemaker’s goal is to take her knowledge back to India’s burgeoning wine region. But right now, she’s staying put in Napa, rebuilding Signorello.
Anita Sahi, owner, and general manager, Copia Vineyards, Paso Robles, California
When Anita Sahi nee Kothari and her husband Varinder Sahi were on an educational tour to California’s Paso Robles wine country in 2015, their lives were forever changed. Fueled by curiosity and love of wine, they began to search for a site that could be home to a vineyard that would produce Rhone-style wine.
To realize that dream, the Sahis worked the 2016 harvest at Paso’s Booker Vineyards. In the fall of 2017, they found a small vineyard and home among the scenic hills on the westside of Paso Robles where two acres of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre were planted by the original owners. That place was Copia Vineyards, named for the Roman goddess of abundance. Currently, Copia produces around 450 cases of Rhone-style blends using premium fruit both from the estate and from neighbors, according to Anita Sahi’s LinkedIn page.
Before going on the wine trail, Anita Sahi was in the restaurant industry. She grew up in a suburb of Chicago and later moved to New York City where she worked in high-end restaurants, and eventually owned her place in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.
When she and Varinder met, “it was kismet,” she says on her website. They spent their first date talking about food and wine for 12 hours. “Wine was a shared language for us,” she told the California Wine Club.
Anisya Fritz, proprietor, and director of consumer experience at Lynmar Estate, Sebastopol, California
Anisya Fritz’s career has spanned academia, disaster relief, and overseeing the customer experience at a winery in California’s Sonoma County. Coming from India for college at age 17, she earned her BA, MA, and Ph.D. in business strategy and was a business school professor at 25.
With a background in international business, Anisya met her husband Lynn Fritz in 1996 when the two founded the Fritz Institute in San Francisco, a humanitarian non-profit organization with a global outreach including India. Along the way, they got married and pursued their professions.
In 2008, when Fritz was on hiatus from a demanding international career, her husband arrived home with an interesting proposition. He was managing Lynmar Estate directly for the first time,, she recalls on the website, “and he realized the direct to consumer portion of the business was going to be crucial to the winery’s success.” That’s how she got inducted into wine-making.
Discovering the industry was a revelation. “At first, I knew very little about the wine business, but that gave me the incentive to take a deep dive into the components for success – and the objectivity to see what we needed to do,” she says on the winery’s website. “Her decision helped the couple “arrive at Lynmar’s singular business proposition, to make a limited production of finest quality wine, and provide a meaningful direct-to-consumer experience that forms a genuine, long-standing relationship.”
At the winery, Fritz develops and leads the customer-facing team that is responsible for 95 percent of all sales. Working hand in hand with the culinary and garden teams, she continues to expand and evolve the food and wine experiences, responding to the new flavors and textures each season and vintage brings. In addition, she teaches entrepreneurship in the wine industry at Sonoma State University.
Neeta Mittal, founder, LXV Wine, Paso Robles, California
Growing up in India, Neeta Mittal remembers her mother’s visits to the local spice market to purchase fragrant herbs and spices. Her winery LXV is her connection to India. “Robles has a deep relationship with the earth, with each other,” she says on the winery’s website. “There is an intimacy in the ecosystem in Paso. And that expresses itself in the grapes, in the winemaking and, ultimately, in the wines.”
It is these familiar flavors that Mittal and her husband Kunal bring to the table at their winery in Paso Robles. Combined with that is her experience as a filmmaker in Los Angeles. “Having honed the craft of storytelling in Hollywood, through various projects, I understand the magic of the experience,” she says.
Jain has a master’s degree in filmmaking and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment. Her first gig was that of a production coordinator for a full-length feature “American Blend.” She has also produced two short films — “Yours Affectionately” and “Wings of Legacy.”
Armed with a unique cultural background and experience, she has carved a niche for herself in a competitive field. “Being an Indian woman in a largely white-male dominated arena could have been a hurdle,” she says, adding that the way the couple positioned LXV, with the spice pairings, there was no room for comparison. “Our unlikeliness in the wine industry became our biggest asset.”
“Being one of the first Indian women to own a winery in the U.S., that was named in the Top- 10 tasting experiences in America by USA Today, comes with a lot of responsibility,” she says on her website. “I have to answer more questions on culture than vintages, on food than wine, on inspirations than medals.” Her ultimate goal is “to create a movement that inspires and heightens moments, and that transcends the personal, business and community.”
Janu Goelz, owner, and winemaker, Alara Cellars, Morgan Hill, California
The Bay Area native already had a varied career before stepping into the wine industry. Originally from Morgan Hill, Janu Goelz nee Arasu studied business at the University of San Francisco, acted in an Indian romantic comedy “Miss California,” and started Ri Couture, an eco-friendly clothing line.
Ri Couture took recycled Indian saris and turned them into whimsical colorful cocktail dresses. An artist neighbor at their studio invited her for an interview at the local news station KRON where was offered a job as a weather forecaster.
In 2012, she met her now-husband Jason Goelz, a local vintner and owner of Jason-Stephens winery, for her father’s birthday. She eventually began visiting him and tasting wines, and later began accompanying him on sales trips. As her interest in wine-making began to grow, she started working in the tasting room at Jason-Stephens. When she worked the harvest in 2014 she learned to make wine and loved it. That’s when she decided that she wanted to try it on her own.
She began making wine in 2015 and opened Alara Cellars in October 2017. Alara means the “ruler of all” in German, and in Turkish, it means “she who brings color and power to your soul.”
And true to the name, Golez has channeled her background in fashion in designing her wine bottles. Each winery has a fashion-themed label inspired by the aromas and flavors of the wine, and the image of the dress changes with each vintage.
Raghni Naidu, founder and owner, Naidu Wines, Sebastopol, California
Born and raised in Punjab, Raghni Naidu did something pretty astonishing last year —she launched Naidu Wines, her boutique wine brand and, despite the obstacles of the pandemic, managed to make a profit. Today her label is on the wine list at Michelin-starred Single Thread restaurant, and Naidu Wines produces pinot noir, rosé, viognier and other varieties.
On the winery website, the young mother of two traces her journey from Punjab to the U.S. by way of Australia. She moved to Melbourne at the age of 18 in “a quest for independence, adventure and learning.” She also met and fell in love with her husband Kaushick Naidu, her “biggest supporter.” The couple longed for the American Dream and immigrated to the States making San Francisco “our forever home,” with their children Sameera, Saveer and their “cuddly” Boston Terrier Aussie.
Her road to winemaking began in 2018 when she couldn’t resist buying a 9-acre property in Sebastopol with a 4-acre pinot noir vineyard and a guesthouse. “I felt a calling to share my passion for creating memorable experiences for others, as I feel wine has a unique way of doing so, unlike anything else,” she says on the website. “Naidu Wines was fueled by that very passion and is inspired by the farm-to-table lifestyle I experienced during my travels over the years.”
She prides herself on offering a fully immersive wine experience from creating small, boutique wine offerings, to staying at the property itself, to experiencing the beauty of the vineyards and terroir. Her dream is to create a wine that is “always limited production, high quality, with a focus on terroir; while working with artists that share the same vision that I do,” she says. “My family name — Naidu, bears the label to convey the essence of my family and its belief in the freedom to create one’s path by following your dreams and passions with a tremendous amount of hard work, perseverance and grit; while remembering to always pay it forward.”