The First Lady of Napa Cab: Cathy Corison
It’s hard to talk about women winemakers without talking about Cathy Corison. A fixture in Napa Valley for almost forty years, Cathy has broken barriers and busted through ceilings her whole winemaking carrier. With singular focus, determination, grit and confidence, she is unapologetically herself and it comes through in everything she does. Her wines, like her career, are about the pursuit of that passion, displaying a distinctive style that has never wavered based on other people’s opinions or thoughts. It’s taken four decades, but people are starting to take notice. She has been called the “First lady of Napa Cab” by Decanter, a “national treasure” by Hugh Johnson, Winemaker of the Year by SF Chronicle in 2011, and she just got her second nomination for James Beard’s Outstanding Spirits or Beer Professional Award. Her wines, which have always had a cult following of loyal enthusiasts, are now in high demand and hard to get. When I asked her for her secret, she replied, “Confidence, and not taking ‘no’ for an answer.”
That determination and attitude started young. Cathy grew up in Los Angeles the oldest of four daughters and admits to being “treated functionally as my dad’s only son.” Even from a young age, she was encouraged to participate in math, science and athletics, despite these pursuits not being popular for girls at the time. When she got to Pomona College for her undergraduate degree, the university didn’t have a women’s diving team. She loved the sport, so rather than quit, she competed for the men’s team.
In college, Cathy randomly took a wine appreciation class, which ignited her lifelong love affair and shifted her keen, laser focus completely toward wine. Two days after getting her undergraduate degree, she was in Napa Valley knocking on doors of tasting rooms. The valley was quiet back then, but she managed to get herself some odd jobs that would keep her around wine. From there, Cathy began commuting to U.C. Davis, where she ultimately got her master’s degree in enology.
While attending U.C. Davis, her passion to make wine began to take form, and although women were mostly destined for lab work, she quietly determined to get into the winery. “I knew that I would need to know how to run a cellar if I wanted to make world-class wine,” she remembers. But she would battle stereotypes from the beginning. In her second year, her professor told her that she would never be able to work in the Napa Valley. She didn’t listen. Instead, she says, “I bit my tongue, and I said to myself, ‘watch me.’”
Her determination would be challenged in a real way when she tried to get an internship at Freemark Abbey. It was 1978 and Napa Valley had never had a woman in the cellar before. Although Winemaker Larry Langbehn was supportive of Cathy joining the team, the owners took one look at her 5’2”, 90-pound frame and figured she couldn’t do the heavy lifting. But they would be sorely mistaken. When finally given the job the second time around, she proved herself in spades. “I had always been athletic and it turned out that there was nothing I couldn’t do in the cellar,” she recalls. “I think small people know more about leverage than big people will ever learn.”
In 1983, she landed the Head Winemaker position at Chappellet. Her timing was good. Napa Valley was just starting to get world recognition and, according to Corison, “ladders were short and there were wonderful opportunities for all of us getting out of school, regardless of gender.” It didn’t hurt that she stopped by late one afternoon during harvest when a pump had broken. “With one pump down, they were going to be there all night - but it just needed a new fuse,” she laughs. She was able to fix their pump, and consequently, secure herself a new job.
While working at Chappellet, she started making her own wines on the side. Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley was just coming into focus and Cathy had a vision for what she wanted to make. “In my 20s and 30s, I was buying barrels and grapes instead of houses and cars,” she jokes. Although she was making Chappellet wines from the stunning Pritchard Hill, she had her eye on valley fruit for her own wines. “Rutherford and St. Helena soils have the perfect amount of moisture to encourage ripeness without letting the sugars get too high,” Cathy says. “You achieve beautiful acidity alongside rich, dark fruit flavors.”
In 1989, she left Chappellet and began focusing on her own wines. When she asked her husband (a.k.a. business partner) to find a vineyard on the benchland between Rutherford and St. Helena, he delivered. They purchased Kronos Vineyard in 1995. Five years following, they built their winery on the property. More recently, they acquired the “Sunbasket” vineyard which they had been sourcing from for the past 25 years with Shafer. Throughout all this time, her wines have stayed consistent in style, delivering incredible power balanced with restraint and elegance. Often called “sommelier wines,” these are beautiful wines that show dramatic style and pair well with food.
When I asked Cathy about women in winemaking today, she admits that Napa Valley is different in many ways. Back when there were only thirty wineries, there was the rigidness of tradition, but more opportunities move up quickly as the industry grew. Now, with over 600 wineries, there is a certain fluidity and modern thinking, but making it to the top is much more competitive. “It’s definitely harder for women to make their way,” she admits. “And biases are shockingly still in place.” However, if we can take anything from Cathy’s legacy, it would be to stay true to your passions, believe in yourself “and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”